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Fast-track inspiration for a new generation

THE clock silently runs down, indicating that the Commonwealth Games are 167 days and change away from descending on Glasgow.

Action from the Scottish Schools' Athletic Association Indoor Track and Field Championships at the Emirates in Glasgow
Action from the Scottish Schools' Athletic Association Indoor Track and Field Championships at the Emirates in Glasgow

The noise in the Emirates Arena is that of athletics at any level. The report of the starting gun, the sonorous voice of the announcer, the cries of encouragement, the sudden crack of an overturned hurdle. The race, though, is already on to christen Hampden as an athletics arena ahead of the Games.

The girls and boys who competed in the Scottish Schools' Athletic Association Indoor Track and Field Championships at the £113m arena yesterday will now have the chance to race past the finish line at Hampden in June ahead of the likes of Usain Bolt. The outdoor version takes place at the stadium in June, with the Games to follow in July.

With their footsteps echoing inside the Emirates yesterday, more than 1000 competitors from more than 200 schools exercised their right to be considered as the warm-up to the greatest athletics show to be seen in Scotland for more than a generation.

They were divided into boys and girls and over-16 and under-16 but were united in their effort, their breathless bid to perform in front of a more than healthy gathering of coaches, teachers and family, with the car parks boasting "full" signs.

The schools ranged from Thurso in the north down to Galashiels and every point east and west. Each pupil has a story. Each volunteer has one, too. The opulent surroundings of the Emirates cannot disguise the truth that it is the unpaid work of the championship officials and others that sustains an event that would embrace a sponsor with a hearty hug.

The whisper is that the event runs at a loss with cash reserves funding what is not only a special day for pupils but a vital one for the sport. "There is one constant about all athletic greats," mutters one official. "They have all been at school." There have been minor changes since the event was first held in the Kelvin Hall in the late 1980s. The athletes are routinely garbed in the most aerodynamic of gear with aspiring triple jumpers wearing long socks and shoes of violent hues.

"They are a lot more skilled, less raw and there is a tendency to specialise," reflects Kay Cherrie, a past president of the SSSA. "Most of the [Scottish] athletes competing at the Commonwealth Games have come through this system."

Asked for a wish list, she replied: "More money for coaching and a sponsor for the championships."

The cadre of volunteers and professionals is led by Frances Fegan, a former teacher, now in charge of what could be described as the largest extra-curricula class in Scotland. As pupils clatter into the padding at the end of sprints or stretch and jump in nervous anticipation of the starting pistol for other events, Fegan marshals her resources with a commendable, sunny calm.

"It is the best day of the year indoors," she says, but points out pupils have a chance for another big occasion, hopefully a day in the sun, at Hampden. Now retired, Fegan endures the stress of the occasion with the aid of a realisation that this is a significant day for the athletes and the sport.

She introduces Sarah Henderson, a 17-year-old who has travelled from Caithness to compete in the 300 metres. Commendably fresh after a successful heat in the event, she talks of the championships as an adventure. An overnight stay in a hotel has been followed by rigorous heats in an arena that has the capacity to take away the breath of the mere observer.

"I have been in athletics since I was eight," she says. "My dad was a runner and I suppose I took it from there. I love it and would hope to see a future in it. I put my training first over my social life all the time. I train five times a week so although it is fun it is serious too."

Her inspiration is Jessica Ennis-Hill, the heptathlon winner in London. Henderson hopes that she, too, can have a home run, at Hampden. "Wouldn't it be tremendous to run where the Games will be held?" She does not wait for an answer. Her other ambitions include adding another three Highers to the four she has already attained and working in something "to do with sport".

Further along the journey is Freya Ross, the Scottish marathon runner, who is a veteran of the schools championships but who, at 30, has solid ambitions for Glasgow 2014 and beyond. Ross competed at both the Delhi Commonwealth Games and the London Olympics.

She says of the days of the more distant days when she ran as a schoolgirl at the Kelvin Hall. "It was exciting, a great experience in competitive sports."

"I may have won a 1500m," she adds of her record, somewhat modestly.

"This is spectacular, though," she says, taking in the Emirates. "It is great to see so many taking part and it will be a thrill for them because there was an international meet here only a few weeks ago and it helps youngsters to know they are running where the big names have competed.

"I hope most of them can continue to enjoy and take part in sport. It would be great, too, if a sponsor could come forward for the championships."

That is an unavoidable mention of money. But athletics has another more significant currency. It is one of personal fulfilment, perhaps gilded by gold. "Yeah, 167 days to go," Ross says looking at the clock ticking down at the far end of the stadium

The race was run for the pupils of Scotland yesterday. Ross awaits her test with some anticipation.

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