From globe trotter to world runner

Simon Turnbull says training as he travelled has transformed Tom Mayo
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Tom Mayo cannot wait to get his Great Britain kitbag when he meets up with the rest of the European Cup squad in Bremen on Thursday. "I'm going to have to take my rucksack out there with me," he said, chuckling. "I haven't got another bag. It's quite ironic really."

It certainly is. The young man chosen to run the 1500m for Britain in the Weserstadion next Saturday afternoon gave up his office job, sold his possessions and set off on a back-packing tour of the globe after finishing last in his heat at the Olympic trials in Birmingham last summer. An engagingly effervescent soul, he had bet Brendan Foster he would make it to the Sydney Olympics, and indeed he did. He was a spectator in Stadium Australia when Noah Ngeny kicked past Hicham El Guerrouj to win the 1500m title. In Bremen, he could be running against Mehdi Baala, the French athlete who finished fourthin that final.

How the 6ft 3in Mayo has come to find himself on the international scene is a rather tall tale of the unexpected. Before leaving Loughborough with his pack on his back, he talked to Foster's old training partner and coaching adviser Lindsay Dunn, and made plans to train under his guidance, with the intention of having a serious crack at the sport when he returned to Britain. As much to maintain fitness as anything, though, he started following Dunn's schedules while on his travels. The results have been startling.

Mayo's personal bests have come tumbling down, and his impressive 1500m victory in the British Milers' Club meeting at Watford eight days ago ­ where he beat the Sydney semi-finalist Andy Graffin and broke 3min 40sec for the first time, clocking 3:39.27 ­ booked his place in the British team who will be defending the European Cup in Bremen.

"It's weird," he said, polishing off a lunchtime plate of pasta at a Northumberland pub. "I only got back in May and I'm still living out of my back- pack up here [as a guest of Pat and John Caine, the former international 10,000m runner, and their son Andrew, a talented young runner, who shared a house with Mayo during their student days]. I haven't put the thing down and I'm off to the European Cup with it."

It seems only right that the pack should be with Mayo on the final leg of his journey on to the international running stage, having accompanied him on his rather eventful global travels. He did a stint as a stand-up comedian in Auckland, ran through cobra-infested jungles in Singapore and ended up sleeping on the floor of a house that Hayley Tullett and her husband, Ian, were renting in Boulder, Colorado. Next weekend he will be a team-mate of Tullett, who runs in the women's 1500m on Sunday.

"Without realising it at first, I just got fitter and fitter and fitter," Mayo said. "I would ring Lindsay every two weeks or so. He would give me a schedule. And wherever I was I would run ­ down the back streets in Vegas, around the Grand Canyon. I always wanted to believe I'd be in the position I'm in now. I've always known I was good enough. But you never know if it's going to happen. I certainly didn't think it would happen this quickly."

Mayo's potential was obvious when he clocked 3min 43.4sec for 1500m as a 19-year-old in 1996. He competed in the world junior championships in Sydney that year, in a British team that included Dwain Chambers, Christian Malcolm and Dean Macey. He won a B international vest in 1999 but his progress has been hampered by injuries, including 12 stress fractures. At 24, though, the sports science graduate is finally starting to show his true pedigree ­ much to the delight of his uncle Adrian.

Uncle Adrian OBE, that is. Mayo's mother's brother, Adrian Metcalfe, was honoured earlier this year for his services to sport. Back in 1961, as a 19-year-old novice 400m runner, Metcalfe twice broke the British record. His running career thereafter was blighted by illness and injury, though in 1964 he ran a storming second leg en route to an Olympic silver medal as a member of the British 4 x 400m relay team that smashed the European record. "Adrian has been a big influence," Mayo said. "He's always been encouraging me. He's a fantastic motivator. He rang me this morning, actually. He might be going out to Bremen."

Mayo himself will be going out to Bremen unburdened by the pressure of public expectation. The golden age of British middle-distance running is such a distant memory now; you have to go back 10 years to find the last victory by a Briton in the men's 1500m at the European Cup, achieved by Peter Elliott in Frankfurt. Mayo stands 13th in the European rankings, though of the nations competing in Bremen only Spain, France and Greece have athletes who have run faster than him this summer.

"Sure, nobody's expecting anything of me," Mayo mused. "I'm just going to go out there and give it a crack." And no matter how many points he manages to pick up for Britain, the globe-trotting new boy deserves to return with a pat ­ rather than a pack ­ on the back.