THE UK 800 metres rankings have an unfamiliar look.
They are headed by a Scot, Guy Learmonth, who on Tuesday in Vienna made the European Indoor Championship qualifying standard with 1min 47.94sec – the only UK athlete to register the required time this year.
It is 18 years since a Scot topped Britain's end-of-season rankings, when Tom McKean was UK No.1 indoors and compatriot David Strang did so outdoors.
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Learmonth's nearest challenger is almost two seconds adrift, and he hopes for a first senior British vest at the European Indoor Championships in Gothenburg. He must finish in the first two at next weekend's trials to achieve that ambition.
The third-year Loughborough sports management student, whose home is in Berwick, is just 20. McKean, whose cv included World and European indoor titles, clocked a modest 1.48.72 when he last headed the UK indoor rankings. And, at 20, McKean's fastest time – either indoors or out – was 1:49.48.
Learmonth's first love was rugby but he abandoned the sport after leaving school. There was a Damascene moment in the garage of his home. "I ran 1.56 for 800 metres, on a treadmill," he says. "Dad thought I might be some use at running and mum phoned Henry Gray, who trained a lot of athletes on the Border and Highland games circuit. Henry took me on. I won a few handicaps and the next year I broke the Scottish junior 800m record."
Learmonth is not just closing in on McKean's senior indoor Scottish best (1:46.22) but also on Sebastian Coe's British under-23 one (1:46.33), which he has two more years to achieve. "I think I can get very close this season. It would be a real honour to break them," he says. "But the first thing is to do the job at the trials.
"I don't want to get too carried away but to take their records would be very encouraging – absolutely fantastic. I try to keep things bottled up, but nudging towards their times at 20 gives me great encouragement and confidence."
He and George Gandy, who guides Learmonth's programme along with Gray in the Borders, think a time of 1:46 is possible this winter given the right race. "If I can run 1:46 this winter, then 1:44 is possible outdoors this summer," he says Learmonth.
There is a major cloud on the horizon, however; Gandy ceased to be employed by UK Athletics on Wednesday. He was Britain's head of endurance but, like Jessica Ennis's coach, Tony Minichiello, is a victim of the regime change at UKA. As he remains in discussion with them, Gandy does not wish to comment on the situation, though it is understood that his job is over.
He remains one of Britain's most respected coaches – he helped launch the career of future Olympic champion Seb Coe at Loughborough – and winner of the prestigious Mussabini Medal, which marks outstanding coaching achievement. It is named after the mentor of 1924 Olympic 100m champion Harold Abraham. Sometimes it seems his art is little more valued now than 90 years ago. Because he was a paid coach, Mussaabini was an outcast.
Gandy was formerly head of endurance at Loughborough University and a Who's Who of his elite athletes includes Scots Graham Williamson, Alastair Currie, Ally Donaldson and Laura Kenney. He has coached three athletes in the first four at three of the last four Olympics – a record no current UK middle distance coach can match.
"I don't know what is going to happen," he says. "My current commitment is to the athletes I coach, like Guy. That will continue meantime, because I am financially covered – I'm paid through March and April. Hopefully I can put something in place. I certainly have the appetite for it and I am certainly not a worse coach now than when I was working with Seb and Jack Buckner [European 5000m champion]."
Learmonth's main 2013 goal is the European under-23 Championships in Finland in July. "I think I can start making these dreams a reality," he says.
He has shed five kilos since last year, restructured his training and his diet under the guidance of Ruth McKean at the Scottish Institute of Sport. Training is now more endurance focused. "Sometimes I think I may have been a bit lazy in the past [nine Scottish junior records suggest otherwise] so it's two sessions a day now, and sometimes three."
But it is easy on the weights. "Guy has only to look in the weights room door, and he would put on muscle – so we are pretty careful what he does," says Gandy.
Finishing as one of the first two at the trials will not be easy. Olympic finalist Andrew Osagie ran an excellent 600m in Glasgow last weekend, and fellow Olympian Mike Rimmer (GB No.2 last year) runs a 600m tomorrow. "I am not too fussed who races the trials," says Learmonth. "I am going in to this in a better position than I have ever been before. I feel I have served my apprenticeship, and I am ready."
His father, a dentist who won Scottish junior and British universities 100 and 200m titles, trained with former Olympic 100m champion Allan Wells under Charlie Affleck.
Today though, it is back to the rugby. "At 17 it was my whole life, but there were too many injuries," he says. "The family is steeped in the game [his brother, Max, plays for Heriots and Scotland's Club International squad], so I will be watching the Calcutta Cup match with my English flat mates at Loughborough, wrapped in a Saltire."