It may be strange to say, but a DNF at the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games, turned out to be one the best things to happen to Aly Dixon.
In the years that followed the marathoner achieved unenvisaged personal bests, fulfilled a lifelong dream by becoming an Olympian, as well as a second World Championships at London 2017.
Now almost four years on from Glasgow 2014, Dixon is ready to reopen the chapter titled ‘Commonwealth Games’ and write a happier, more fitting ending on Australia’s Gold Coast this April.
“Last year a lot of people were aiming for the World Championships in London and then retiring, but for me, I have this unfinished business with the Commonwealth Games,” Dixon tells Fast Running. “So I am not looking at retiring just yet. I want to get to Australia and put to bed the ghosts of Glasgow.”
The Sunderland Strollers athlete had billed Glasgow 2014 as her swan song with the marathon. A good performance in the English vest and Dixon would have happily walked away content with all she had achieved in her running career.
“I went into that race in really good shape on the back of really consistent training. I always felt that a medal was within my reach,” she says, looking back. “I was feeling great, but at 10 miles in I felt a twinge, that I thought it was my Achilles.”
By 14 miles, Dixon’s race was over. The pain too much to even take another step. It turned out to be a calf injury that halted her Commonwealth Games abruptly on the streets of Glasgow.
“The race ended with me curled up in a ball on the side of the road crying my eyes out. I felt like the world was tumbling down on me,” she recalls. “You are running for your country, you feel like you have let everyone down, including your family.
“However after a few days, I snapped out of that and realised it was not the end of the world, it was just the initial reaction to everything that was so hard.”
That moment, as painful as it was, turned out to be the career-defining moment for the now 39-year-old.
Blessing in disguise
“Looking back now, the experience of Glasgow 2014 was a blessing in disguise. If the race had gone well, I probably would have looked at as that’s the best I can do and called it a day,” she says. “But because of how bad it went, it’s an added incentive to come back and show everyone just what I am really capable of. I had that hunger again, and I wanted to prove that I was better than stopping at 14 miles.”
In 2014, Dixon’s personal best was a very respectable 2:31:08 – a time most would happily grab with both hands. However, with newfound hunger, the North East native would go on to break her PB, not once, but twice in the years that followed.
Firstly 2:29:30 at the 2015 Berlin Marathon and then again in 2017, running 2:29:06 at the London Marathon. That time in the UK capital saw her ending 2017 ranked as the UK’s number one marathoner.
As good as personal bests are though, there was also higher career achievements that may never have happened if Glasgow had ended with an elated Dixon.
In 2016, representing Great Britain, she competed in her first Olympic Games and finished 28th in Rio. The next year Dixon competed at a second World Championships, this time in London.
“Thankfully the years on from Glasgow have been absolutely amazing and I have achieved so much,” she says. “If I am to compare myself to four years ago, I’m definitely fitter, faster and stronger.
“Also I am not as hung up on putting myself into boxes, I no longer go into a race saying I want to run a certain time or certain splits. I don’t set limits for myself anymore. I am at the stage now where I go into every race not knowing if I will race again, so I just go for it.
“That’s what I was like at the World Championships in London. At one stage I had a massive lead, but I wasn’t thinking about a medal, I was just enjoying the moment knowing I would probably not get that opportunity again.”
In this period that included a first Olympic Games and a second World Championships, you would think that one of these two major championships would the most memorable race for an international athlete.
“The Olympic Games were really special, they are every athlete’s dream and it took me 25 years to do it,” she says. “Leading the race at the World Championships – that was a feeling money can’t buy.
“However the one that is really special to me, and a lot of people are surprised when I say this, is a local race called the Blaydon Race. As a 16-year-old, it was one of the very first road races that I ran and it’s got a lot of prestige in the North East.
“It took me 21 years and 17 attempts to eventually win it in 2016, that was really really special.”
There was also another race that meant a lot to Dixon, again at home – running in the Sunderland Half Marathon last year, alongside marathon great Paula Radcliffe. Dixon is pretty much self-coached and writes her own training, but Radcliffe and her husband Gary will review the sessions are always there willing to help.
“Just getting the chance to run around my hometown with Paula Radcliffe was something special,” she joyfully says. “It wasn’t a proper race but it was special. Paula’s helped me so much with my training over the last three years and I will never be able to repay her for everything she has done.”
Gold Coast 2018
Back to the task at hand, and Dixon is currently at the ‘home of champions’ in the lofty heights of Iten, Keyna. Firmly focused on her Commonwealth “unfinished business”, she is going through the familiar motions at altitude, before coming back to the UK to continue her preparations.
“I have the bad experience at the back of mind and when I get home I will use it to push me that bit more during the cold, dark and wet laps on the track,” she says determinately. “I need to put that to bed and do justice to the Commonwealth Games.”
The Big Half in March in London is the main race ahead of Gold Coast 2018. Depending on how that goes, a decision will then be made on the World Half Marathon Championships. Aside from those half marathons, racing will be limited to a two-mile relay Dixon always competes in with her local club.
“Come April I am going to be competitive and finish as high up as I can. I don’t want to be an ‘also ran’. It would be great if I could run fast and finish in the top three or five,” Dixon adds. “but I’ll judge the race and hopefully make my presence felt.
“I still think I can run faster and I have no plans on hanging up the racing flats just yet.” And as Dixon puts it so well herself: “marathon running: it’s not a hobby, it’s a lifestyle.”