Since his superb 2012 season, Ross Murray has suffered a number of set-backs, but the talented miler proved he is on the comeback trail at a recent training camp in Kenya
It’s a red-hot afternoon in the Rift Valley of Kenya and one of Britain’s most talented middle-distance runners is taking an encouraging step forward in his comeback from injuries, illness and surgery by cruising through half a dozen 200m strides in 26-28 seconds.
It is hardly the fastest session he has ever done, but for the 24-year-old it is significant. “That’s the quickest I’ve run since July,” says Ross Murray, as he continues his steady return to the kind of form that saw him run 3:34 for 1500m during a breakthrough 2012 season.
At the British Athletics high altitude camp in Iten, the air is thin and the sun is fierce. Coach Craig Winrow is happy with Murray’s short workout on the brand new, pristine all-weather track which was part-funded by London Marathon money. “I feel good,” Murray smiles to Winrow as he starts his two-mile warm-down jog.
The previous day he had completed a steady seven-miler on the undulating trails of an area famous for unearthing talents such as David Rudisha. Starting at the back, he was immediately dropped by several hundred yards, but as Athletics Weekly rode alongside him on a mountain bike he said he was confident of catching most of his fellow British runners during the second, hillier part of the run. It looked unlikely – such was the gap he’d allowed to develop – but true to his word his long, loping stride soon began to make inroads as he gobbled up the deficit in style.
“Each time I’ve had a big setback I’ve learned a lot about myself and become a better athlete because of it” – Murray
In some ways that simple steady run – one of dozens he’d do out in Kenya – was a metaphor for his athletics career right now. After a catalogue of problems, he is not super-fit and still making tentative steps on the road to recovery. But he is doing it gradually and once he gets into his stride there are few British middle-distance men who can match him in full flight.
A talented youngster, he won English Schools titles and was sixth in the European junior 1500m. Yet his big breakthrough came in the London Olympics year when he smashed his 1500m PB by four seconds on a chilly night in Manchester with a largely solo 3:36.69.
A few days later he improved to 3:34.76 in Hengelo and then enjoyed a terrific run at the Diamond League at Crystal Palace when he finished a close second to Silas Kiplagat over a mile in 3:52.77. Kiplagat went on to run 3:27.64 for 1500m this year, while athletes behind Murray that day include Caleb Ndiku, the Kenyan who won world indoor, Commonwealth, Diamond League and Continental Cup titles this year over 3000m and 5000m, plus Bernard Lagat, Henrik Ingebrigtsen and others.
“All the guys I beat that day went and ran 3:30-31 for 1500m the following week,” remembers Murray. “I’m not saying I would have run that quick but it shows the great shape I was in.”
Not at his absolute best at the Olympics itself, he went out in the semi-finals. It was then, though, that the real problems began. First he had Achilles tendinopathy after the Games and was out for two months. He then suffered from septic tonsillitis for a month, but the illness had longer-term ill effects. In January 2013 he missed six weeks with a torn calf muscle. A brief return to form that saw him finish runner-up to Nick Willis in a road mile in Boston, which was then followed by another bout of septic tonsillitis.
Only 12 months after he had been in the form of his life, he then had to endure one of his worst races ever – a 4:16 mile at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene. “That was terrible, obviously,” he recalls. “It was weird as I was trying quite hard but going nowhere.”
Murray had a few weeks off. “But when I came back the more I ran the deeper the hole went,” he says. “That’s when I knew I was done and I had tests and found I had chronic fatigue.”
Compounding his problems, his left Achilles had started to hurt again and required surgery. “I ended missing from the end of May to the middle of September in 2013,” he says.
Over Christmas he then rolled his ankle on a stick while running in a park and suffered a grade two ligament strain on his right leg. “It was just a freak accident.”
After a spell altitude training in Falls Creek, Australia, he was third in a road mile in Ireland – another mildly encouraging performance. But then re-tore the scar on his left Achilles, took the risk of racing at a BMC meeting in Watford, where he clocked a decent 3:41.96, but was then forced to have six weeks off to let the Achilles recover with the help of Ostenil injections to loosen and lubricate the area.
This brought Murray into the middle of the 2014 season and he says: “I had lots of rehab and was really going for it because I’d had a reasonably full winter and thought that if I had only six weeks off then I could maybe still have a decent summer.
“So I came back and ran a 3:43 off very little training, which was good, but then I got a sportsman’s hernia and the season was over.”
Winrow adds: “A problem in the background was that Ross was running flat footed. He was doing sessions but it wasn’t sparkling. His energy was going through the floor and not forward.”
“My left foot was sinking basically,” Murray agrees. “So my whole running style was dodgy.”
As if all this wasn’t enough of a test, medics then discovered scar tissue under chest and ribs – a remnant from his tonsillitis. So, in Kenya, he found himself massaging the chest area to break down the scar tissue. It is just one of the things he has to do in order to get his body back in to 3:34 shape and hopefully beyond.
“I had my wild days at university where I had my fun, but I’ve settled down a lot now and I enjoy Kenya where we can just train and relax between sessions” – Murray
When asked how frustrating it has been, he explains: “It’s been like a kick in the balls, to put it in a blunt way. You have that great year and you think ‘right, my career’s starting’ and you’re ready to push on. It’s the cruelness of athletics.
“It’s like getting a taste of a piece of cake and then someone taking it away. You’ve got to work to get that cake back. It’s felt mentally like I’m running uphill and then get kicked back down the whole time. But each time I’ve had a big setback I’ve learned a lot about myself and become a better athlete because of it.”
Does he feel he’s become one of the sport’s forgotten athletes? “Yes, but I don’t mind that. It’s a ﬁckle world and that’s the way it is.”
At the British Athletics camp in Iten, Murray is one of the biggest characters. A likeable lad from Wallsend, he continually cracks jokes and enjoys the banter.
Standing just over 6ft tall and lean as a whippet, he has a tattoo of the Olympic rings above his heart and the words ‘faster, higher, stronger’ in Arabic down the right side of his torso. There are other similarly talented milers at the camp, such as his friend and housemate Charlie Grice, but while Grice is politely spoken and courteous, Murray is more of a maverick or a wild card.
Although he has, to be fair, calmed down considerably in the past couple of years. “I’m a lot more boring these days,” he says. “I had my wild days at university where I had my fun, but I’ve settled down a lot now and I enjoy Kenya where we can just train and relax between sessions.”
“When Ross was here at the camp in Iten in 2010, he hated it,” Winrow remembers. “It wasn’t right for him at the time, but now he’s back here and loves it.
“We’re in a really good place at the moment,” the coach adds. “He only had the hernia operation about seven weeks ago and three weeks ago was getting frustrated in sessions in Bushy Park but the turnaround in recent days is remarkable and he’s banging out the volume now.”
Fuelled by the desire to rediscover the 2012 form that he knows still lurks inside his body, Murray is determined to leave no stone unturned in his comeback mission. So much so that he doesn’t even know where the nearest nightclub is in Iten. “I have absolutely no idea!” he says. “Eldoret, maybe?”
» The British Athletics Endurance Programme is supported by London Marathon, English Institute of Sport, National Lottery, Nike and Polar. You can read more about the high altitude camp in Iten in a future edition of the magazine