Athletics: Capital aces facing big weekend of action

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With two national championships in successive days in Falkirk and Glasgow, Scottish athletics faces a weekend which will be testing for both athletes and officials as the sport gears up for the challenge of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow 2014.

The Scottish National Cross Country Championships at Callendar Park tomorrow is more like a mass participation event again with the total entry of nearly 2000 in all categories. But there should be sufficient elite athletes to give some indication of the nation’s health in the endurance events including British internationalist Freya Murray (Edinburgh AC), who will defend her senior women’s title.

Just back from another spell of altitude training with her coach Steve Jones at Boulder, Colorado, Murray says she is “fit and raring to go” and should be more than capable of resisting any challengers, the most prominent of which are likely to be Rosie Smith (Hunter’s Bog Trotters) and possibly Elspeth Curran (Kilbarchan).

What a pity, however, that the relatively recent change of rules to include a separate under-20 category means that the most in-form distance runner in the country at present Emily Stewart (EAC) will not be able to challenge or attempt to stay with Murray.

Stewart, ironically advised by Murray’s former coach Ian Whyte, carved a huge 11 seconds off her personal best 3000 metres time, outdoors or indoor, in last weekend’s UK Indoor Championships at Sheffield, finishing fifth in 9:10.89, just a step behind the European Cross silver medallist Gemma Steel.

“I almost caught Steel on the last bend but she blocked me and I just missed out,” said 20-year-old Edinburgh University student Stewart who, under SCCU rules, is still “under 20”.

Stewart, who is now sixth on the season’s UK senior 3k rankings with that run, and first Under-23, in two outings has cut her best by over 20 seconds.

She will certainly be favourite for the under-20 title though her younger sister Louisa may have something to say about.

Louisa, however, will probably have her sights on GB junior rep Laura Muir (Dundee Hawkhill), whom she beat in the Great Edinburgh Cross race at Holyrood last month, and another EU runner Rhona Auckland, who broke ten minutes for 3k last weekend.

A possible challenger for Derek Hawkin’s senior men’s title might have been Mark Mitchell, the former EAC and Edinburgh University 800 metres runner, who amazed his supporters by taking the bronze medal in the UK 3000 at Sheffield and has been granted a place in the Birmingham Grand Prix tomorrow running against World champion Mo Farah and several world-class Africans as well as the two Brits who beat him last weekend.

Having gone under eight minutes for the first time, Mitchell, who will return to the Capital to study next winter, will be looking for a tow to another fast time. Mitchell may have little or no chance of being added to the British team for the World Indoors in Istanbul in two weeks time but Lasswade’s Guy Learmonth certainly still has in the 800 metres if he can run a canny race and not get overawed or sucked into a battle at the front against the “big boys”.

The 19-year-old Loughborough student still needs to find another half second to make the qualifying time of 1:48.0.

Meanwhile, 15-year-old Ben Robbins (EAC) goes in the 200 metres in the Scottish National Senior Indoor at the Kelvin Hall on Sunday.