Seasoned international marathon runner Aly Dixon may have had to withdraw from her European Championship marathon debut but she remains upbeat as we chatted to the popular North Eastern athlete from her Font Romeu training base.
“Font is amazing, I’ve been coming up here since 2002 and I instantly fell in love with the place back then – there’s nowhere I’d rather spend my summers” Dixon enthuses as she reflects on her magnificent surroundings in the French Pyrenees.
There might be one place the 2:29:06 athlete would rather be in just under three weeks’ time, however, when her five GB team mates will toe the start line at the European Championships marathon in Berlin.
The 39 year-old explains the reasons behind her withdrawal: “I’ve been fighting a race against time to try and get fit enough to do myself and the vest justice out in Berlin.
After having a small op on my ankle back in May to fix an inflammed bursa which had been troubling me since this time last year, it was always going to be hard.
Although I was pleased with my run at the recent Bridges of the Tyne race – it was quicker than I expected (Aly ran 27:43 for the 5 mile race earlier this month to take her fourth victory at the Northumberland event) – it also showed me that I’m not where I need or want to be.”
While it’s clear the Sunderland Stroller is understandably disappointed about missing out on the 2018 championships, she is positive about how her training has been progressing since returning to the mountain tracks just over a month ago.
“Although I’m not championship marathon fit, training is going well,” she reflects. “I wasn’t allowed to run for a week after the op and then had to gradually build back up over the next five weeks, but I’m now 10 weeks post-op and been back in more or less full training for five weeks.
“Each session is better than the last and I’m finally feeling like I’m getting some speed returning. Unfortunately it’s just not enough to be able to run a decent marathon in three weeks’ time. I know I can go out there and get round in 2:35 plus, but I don’t want that. I ran the Commonwealths underprepared because of interruptions caused by the bursa, I don’t want to do that again.
“If I’m going to run a marathon I want to go into it knowing I’m in sub 2:30 shape, otherwise, at my age, it’s just wasted. I don’t have many left!”
Still supporting the team
While the self-coached athlete is sitting out the champs, she will be joining the rest of us watching the event on the TV to cheer on the remaining GB team taking on the marathon on August 12, namely Charlotte Purdue, Lily Partridge, Caryl Jones, Sonia Samuels and Tracy Barlow.
“I think the team has a great chance of team medals,” she says with a smile. “It’s three to count, and there’s at least two or three girls capable of going sub 2:30. If they can do that, they’ll take some beating!”
Dixon’s withdrawal may have represented one of the hardest decisions she’s had to make in an international career that has spanned nearly a decade so far, but it was also a wise one considering past experiences.
Learning from experience
In 2011 she ran a sub-par 2:50:51 marathon at the World Athletics Championships in Daegu, but found out afterwards she had run with three broken bones in her foot.
While the then 32 year-old had known all wasn’t as it should have been going into the race, the younger Dixon refused offers of scans on her foot for fear of missing out on what she thought might be her only chance to represent GB at a major championships.
She explains her thinking at the time, an attitude which has clearly changed significantly in the intervening years: “I had been experiencing a weird burning sensation in my foot for a number of months but because it was so intermittent I managed to ignore it. I was based in Font in the run up to the champs with the GB squad. I picked up a bit of high hamstring tenfonopathy which then made my foot worse.
“The doctors wanted to scan and Paula (Radcliffe) set up an appointment down in Perpignan, but I said I didn’t want a scan as I was scared that if anything showed up they wouldn’t let me run. Back then I was convinced that this was the highlight of my career and I was never going to get the chance again so I ran. It was painful but I managed to change my gait to compensate. The only problem was this caused my leg to cramp a lot, so I had to stop seven times to stretch out over the final 10 miles!
“After the race we finally scanned and three fractures showed up – two stress fractures of the sesamoid (ball of the foot) and one complete fracture of the big toe. I didn’t run a step for three months after that.”
We’ll be sharing a more in-depth article featuring Dixon’s training, racing highlights and nutrition insights later this week – including more on the importance she places on the support and friendship she’s received from Paula Radcliffe – but here we delve deeper into more lessons she has learnt from bad decisions, and how she’s bounced back faster as a result, starting with some key performances in 2015.
2015 started off ‘badly’, in her own words
She explains: “I had received a late and very unexpected call up for the Great Edinburgh Cross International, which I should have turned down as I’d been ill over Christmas and not trained.
“But I knew I was never ever going to get another chance at a GB vest on the country and this would complete my road, track and cross trio. Embarrassingly I ended up finishing dead last. I was due to fly out to Kenya a few weeks later and I remember telling Paula after the race that I was going to pull out of the camp as I wasn’t in the shape to go and train as I’d want to. She was also going to Kenya and she persuaded me to still go.
“I’d gotten to know her the year before on the same camp and we’d kept in touch over the year. She had given me a few pointers here and there, but out in Kenya she really helped me, not just with training but with building my confidence back up and getting me to believe in myself once again.
“She was training for her last London marathon and we did a lot of running together. You know you are getting in shape when Paula tells you that the pace of your long run is killing her! While over there she offered to help me out with my training with the aim of going to the Berlin marathon to get the qualifying time for the following year’s Rio Olympics. She did try to get me to run the London marathon that year as she saw what good shape I was in, but I decided to stick to my plans and focus on Berlin.
“It paid off. After spending six weeks training in Font over the summer I went home and ran 32:17 at the Middlesbrough 10k, then tempoed the GNR in 72:03 to finish fourth, before smashing my PB at Berlin with a 2:29:30 result, a qualifying time by 90 seconds. The Berlin run should have been a lot faster. I was on for 2:27 until the last 7km, when I suffered with massive stomach cramp, which I put down to too much beetroot juice!
“The one constant through all of this was Paula and her support. The summer of 2015 was a tough one for her, but even through all of that she was there on a bike, or running next to me, even jumping in on my reps, to help me out. I will always be forever grateful and thankful for her help but most importantly her friendship.”
Dixon went onto run 2:31:52 in London the following year to secure her place on the GB team at the Rio Olympics, where she finished 28th.
The memory of the 2016 London marathon remains emotionally strong
She explains: “Although it was just about finishing in the top two Brits as I already had the qualifying time, (along with Sonia Samuels) the other girls still needed to run the time and I knew that anything could happen over 26.2 miles.
“However, by 20 miles it was just me and Sonia in contention. Nothing separated us until the last 800m when I put a final surge in and Sonia didn’t respond. Turning the corner at Buckingham Palace onto The Mall was the first time that I let myself believe I was going to make it. I knew at this point that I could pretty much crawl the last 180m and would still qualify.
“I managed to spot my dad and nephew in the grandstand, give them a smile and a fist bump and then crossed the line with my arms aloft and a feeling of delight, relief and disbelief all rolled into one! The next 15 minutes were manic with cameras in my face and getting ushered here and there for photos, but I finally got the chance to sit on a curb and take my shoes off and cry!”
Dream trip to Rio
As if that wasn’t enough of a dream come true, Rio was on another level for the down to earth international.
“It’s hard to describe it, but from checking in for the flight at Heathrow behind Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas to standing next to Andy Murray waiting to board the same flight as Princess Margaret was crazy,” she enthuses.
“The best part was having my mam and dad by the side of the road cheering me on. They weren’t going to go but a few weeks before Proctor and Gamble gave them a five night package in a hotel right on the seafront, so all they needed was flights.
“At the end of my last lap, still with 10k back to the stadium to go, my mam shouted to me that she was so proud, I could hear her voice going and it made me teary too – not what you really need at 20 miles in a marathon, but appreciated all the same!”
Dixon went onto run her current marathon PB of 2:29:06 at the 2017 London marathon before famously leading out the World Championships later that year in the same city streets.
Can she go faster still?
She is typically upbeat in her answer: “I do think I can still go faster. Paula was convinced that I was in 2:26-2:27 shape at both my marathons last year.
“I think I could have run a good minute faster at the London marathon, but I was completely solo from 10k through to the finish. Had I had some company I would have been faster.”
It was a similar story at the World Championships, where she admits her tactics divided opinion.
“I’ll admit, it was never in my plan to lead the race, but I wanted to run a certain pace and I did that,” she states. “Actually, I ran slightly slower! I wasn’t running fast – around 2:30 pace, but the others, for whatever reason, wanted to run slower!
“My biggest mistake on that day wasn’t leading for so long, but pushing too hard when they caught me. They caught me just before 20 miles and instead of sitting in the bunch and seeing what might happen, I pushed back to the front and ended up running a 5.17 20th mile – that’s what killed me! And that’s the only thing I would change from the race.
“I had a great time out there though. It’s not every day you get to lead the World champs, especially in your home country, so I lapped it up, encouraged the crowd to be louder and just enjoyed every step. I’m 40 in September, I may not get to do another World champs, so I’ll enjoy it while I can!”
Few would bet against the determined Sunderland Stroller from making her second Olympics in Tokyo in 2020.
She has clearly learned important lessons from her many major marathon experiences so far, and while she’ll be sitting out the European Championships this time around, we haven’t seen the last of Dixon just yet.