Laura Muir starts her road to Rio across the familiar mud and hills of Cumbernauld at the Scottish National XC Relays on Saturday.
It is an eagerly-awaited fixture on the athletics calendar in Scotland with this year’s entry featuring a remarkable 536 teams and athletes from U13 to V50 – a new record in the 23rd year of the event.
And, for British 1500m gold medallist and Beijing World Championship finalist Muir, it marks the start of a winter season she hopes will give her the ideal preparation for the Olympics in Brazil next summer.
Muir races for Glasgow University Hares and Hounds on these occasions and in the past few years has used Cumbernauld and the National 4K Champs at Bellahouston in Glasgow early November ahead of an indoor track campaign.
Once a Scottish U20 champion at cross country, Laura proved her class and her adaptability at the same event a couple of years ago when her second leg run lifted Glasgow Uni from 51st place to 13th in a Women’s race which features three team members.
Saturday will be her first race at any distance since the August 25 final in Beijing where she finished fifth and headed the last two World Champs gold medallists in a high-class race.
‘Laura has started off really well in her training programme following a break after the World Champs,’ said coach Andy Young, with Muir short-listed for the Scottish Athlete of the Year title (winner to be announced on October 31).
‘We like to do a bit of cross country at this time of year and the National XC Relays is a good event. I’m happy to let her decide whether she wants to run the opening leg for the Uni this time or pick up on second or third, where she can then work through the field. We will make that decision on Saturday at Cumbernauld.’
If Muir is favourite for the Women’s fastest lap, then Central AC and Edinburgh AC look likely to be locked in battle for the team golds.
Central AC are the holders and are looking for ‘Four-in-a-Row’ and it is the same story in the Men’s race where GB international Andrew Butchart hopes to lead Derek Easton’s squad to yet another success.
Shettleston Harriers, Inverclyde AC and a couple of other teams will seek to de-rail the Central AC men’s juggernaut but Morag MacLarty believes a strong bond of togetherness bolsters the title holders.
‘I think competition can only be good and I guess I can understand other clubs wanted to knock us off the top,’ said MacLarty.
‘When it comes to cross country relays, there’s never anything guaranteed and things can happen in a race.
‘Again, though, I come back to a good spirit in our squad. There’s no doubt when you train with good groups then you train better without even realising it. Going out on your own on dark nights in the winter can be really difficult, although we’ve all done it; but even just chatting before the reps you have that feeling of being in it together and all helping each other.
‘The Senior Men’s group we have at the moment has real depth, too, and that was obvious with the guys picking up bronze medals at the English Six-Stage Road Relays, which is rare for Scottish clubs.’
Athletes aged U13, U15 and U17 combine in the races for Young Females and Young Males and East champions Corstorphine AAC could make it a really special day for one family in the boys’ race – they are represented in the same team by brothers David, Stephen and Anthony Addison!
‘There is always a great buzz around the National XC Relays at Cumbernauld – both at clubs in the weeks prior to the races and on the day itself,’ said scottishathletics chairman, Ian Beattie.
‘I think it is a great day for the sport and it is definitely one of the main highlights of the cross country season in Scotland.
‘One of the big pleasing factors is the rise in numbers in the Women’s race. I think if you look back at the archives then there were around a dozen teams finished in 1993 whereas last year there were around 100 teams – 300 athletes – taking part.
‘To hear for 2015 that the number of teams involved is still rising for Young Females and for Senior Women I think is hugely encouraging for the development of the sport. I think that definitely reflects wider growth.
‘It has become a day which sums up grassroots athletics in Scotland. We have top athletes racing at the front end of the field like Butchart and Muir and we have U13s who are taking part in their first National competition after maybe only one cross country experience previously in the District XC Relays a couple of weeks before.’
North Lanarkshire Leisure Chief Executive, Blane Dodds, said: ‘We’re delighted to be hosting this event in Cumbernauld for the 15th time in partnership with local clubs Cumbernauld AAC and Kirkintilloch Olympians as well as scottishathletics.
‘It’s a brilliant spectacle that’s great for the town and I’m sure people will come out in numbers to support the athletes. My team and I can’t wait for the action to start!’
The event, which marks the start of a second year of sponsorship by legal firm Lindsays, is also part of the scottishathletics Short Course Team Challenge as clubs compete for prize-money across three races – with Saturday’s action followed by the 4K Champs at Bellahouston in Glasgow on Saturday 7 November.