Wearside’s wonder woman

October 2, 2019

Aly Dixon will be two months shy of her 42nd birthday when the Tokyo Olympic Games gets underway next summer. Simon Rushworth hears how the evergreen Wearsider is chasing one more tilt at the world’s most prestigious marathon

As Aly Dixon powered through the last mile of the 2019 Great North Run it was entirely fitting that she did so dressed as Wonder Woman. Raising thousands of pounds for a hospice close to her heart and claiming a second world record in as many weeks, the beaming Wearsider looked every inch the superhero.

A local favourite entering the final stretch of her 40th year, Aly loved every minute of her race for personal glory flanked by a partisan and wholly appreciative home crowd. “It was an absolutely amazing experience,” she admits. “No woman has ever run a half marathon faster, dressed as a superhero! Imagine that on my CV.”

But don’t be fooled – the fun running doesn’t mean Aly has called time on the serious stuff. No chance. Not yet.

A week before the charity champion stepped up to the mark in memory of much-missed family members, she smashed the women’s 50km world record and was crowned world champion at the end of her first ultra-marathon.

In a typically honest assessment of that stunning victory in Brasov, Romania, she concedes: “I had no idea what I was doing! The course was a 5km loop to start and then five 9km loops – which I miscounted.

“I wasn’t sure whether I’d done three loops or whether there were three to go and of course everything was in kilometres, when I’m used to miles. I couldn’t do the conversion in my head while I was racing and I didn’t really have an accurate idea of what pace I was running.

“But apart from all of that it was fine. On the day I just ran to an effort level that I felt I could sustain and after hitting the lead within the first 5k, I stayed out in front. I’d gone there hoping to break the British record and came home with the world record!”

Success for Aly in the 50k World Championships, where she knocked more than a minute off the previous best time, is yet another example of a storied career that continues to defy expectations and confound the critics. For more than a decade, the talented distance specialist chased an elusive England vest in vain after bursting onto the scene as one of Britain’s most exciting student athletes.

And even when Aly belatedly broke into the senior international set-up it seemed she was destined to fall short of a long-held Olympic dream – only to line up on the marathon start line at Rio in 2016 as one of the older members of the Great Britain squad.

“Four years earlier I’d failed to make London 2012 and I wondered whether I’d blown my chance,” she adds, reflecting on a watershed moment which would prove to be the end of the beginning, rather than the beginning of the end, for this legendary late developer.

“I’d broken my foot in the build-up to qualifying for the Olympics in London and did too much, too soon to try and get back to my best,” she recalls.

“Once I was fit to begin marathon training again I went over to Kenya and I just pushed it too much because I felt I was playing catch-up.

“I was running 125 and 130 miles per week, putting in stupidly big sessions. It was crazy and I stood on the start line at the London Marathon – the qualification race for the Olympics – absolutely shattered. I’d thrown away my chance by wanting it too much.

“I trudged around in a miserable mood and afterwards I just felt as if that was that. I was going on 35 and I said to myself that I’d given the Olympic dream a good go but it was just never going to happen. I parted company with my coach and even she said she thought I should focus on something else.”

And yet there she was in 2016. Sporting a GB vest under the beating Brazilian sun and proudly representing women in their late 30s the world over. Almost 20 years after claiming the first of her British Universities’ 10,000m titles, Aly was mixing it with the best in the business on the world’s biggest stage.

So how on earth had she triumphed so spectacularly in the face of adversity?

“I never lost my love of running and I’ve always found it so much fun,” explains Aly. “After the disappointment of missing out on London 2012 I just dipped in and out of races for six months before recording a personal best in the Brighton Marathon. I was working by myself, without a coach, and just using my situation as a kind of experiment.

“I started implementing lessons I’d learned at university and I went back to my dad and listened to him. He’d had so much success as an athlete and I thought that if it had worked for him then it should work for me.

“I took ownership of my performance and anything that went wrong was down to me. I started using races as training and telling myself ‘you’re not too old – let’s give this a chance’.”

At the 2016 Berlin Marathon an in-form Aly clocked the Rio qualification time and knew a top-two finish in London would secure her seat on the flight to Brazil. Four years after a painful trek across the capital, this was the perfect moment to lay her demons to rest and realise a dream.

“For the first time I enjoyed running the London Marathon,” she adds. “I crossed the line knowing it was next stop Rio.

“It finally sank in was when I was checking in with the rest of the GB team. I was behind Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas in the queue. Then I was about to board and I was stood next to Andy Murray. Even when I got there it was surreal. I was in the lift with Mark Cavendish in his full skin suit – I didn’t know where to look!

“I was lucky that my race was relatively early in the games. I had a week afterwards to soak up the atmosphere and support the team. I celebrated with the Brownlee brothers in British House – making the most of the free food and beer and partying the night away with BBC’s Claire Balding! But I didn’t do any of the touristy stuff. I just watched as much sport as I could – I can visit the Copacabana Beach any time but when am I going to be able to watch England’s women win hockey gold?”

Emboldened by her Olympic appearance, Aly set her sights on the 2017 World Championships and last spring’s Commonwealth Games in Australia. The latter would prove to be another sobering experience for an athlete all too used to suffering the lows, as well as celebrating the highs.

“In hindsight, I shouldn’t have competed on the Gold Coast,” she admits. “In the end I fought through the pain barrier because my family had booked their trips of a lifetime and I felt I had to be there. It was only after the Games that they assured me they would have had a great time anyway! I imagined that Australia would be the perfect place to retire from international athletics, surrounded by those closest to me and with a medal around my neck. In the end an Achilles injury spoiled that story!”

And so to 2019. A year of world records, wonderful memories and a renewed appetite for one last tilt at Olympic glory. “First and foremost, I wanted to raise money for St Benedicts Hospice in Sunderland by running the Great North Run,” she explains. “They looked after my cousin, Andrew, my grandad Tommy and my uncle Bill before they passed away. The hospice do a fantastic job and they asked me to be an ambassador, which I was delighted to accept. But I knew that simply running the Great North Run on their behalf wouldn’t cut the mustard. So I checked the world record half marathon time for a runner dressed as a superhero and let everyone know that’s what I was doing.

“Of course, I never imagined I’d be doing a half marathon dressed as Wonder Woman just a few days after completing my first ultra-marathon. And it was just my luck that the record was broken by another Wonder Woman earlier this year – making it even more of a challenge. You couldn’t make it up!”

Ultimately Wearside’s very own Wonder Woman set a new world best and raised close to £4000 for St Benedicts.

But surely only a true superhero could imagine a Tokyo 2020 swansong just a few weeks before her 42nd birthday? “Why not?” responds Aly. “I’m looking to run a marathon before the end of the year and then assess where I am after that. I’m in great shape and I still love what I do. I’ve made my mistakes and I’ve realised my dreams. There’s no pressure but there’s every incentive.

“All my running life it’s been something I’ve enjoyed. The training has never been a chore.” And athletics runs in the family. “My mam came out of retirement to run with me this year and my dad was a first reserve for England,” adds Aly. “They are the most supportive parents and always have been. I was doing a 30- mile training run before the 50k worlds and my dad was beside me every step of the way on his bike, passing me my water bottle and offering me words of encouragement. “He would have loved to have been there in Brasov but his pacemaker needed rewiring so he couldn’t travel. He was so disappointed.” If Aly, sponsored by Nike and based in her native Sunderland, relishes the competitive side of her career then running also represents a necessary escape.

“I love to go out and run by myself,” she adds. “If I’m in the Pyrenees I’ll run to the top of the mountain and by the time I’ve returned I’ll have solved world poverty and provided an answer to Brexit! It’s my time and I have nothing else to think about or worry about. Those runs are my happy place.

“And if there is anything that’s making my life stressful then I’ll always put on my running shoes and head off. When I heard that my grandad had passed away in 2015 it was around 3am. Half an hour later I was out running and trying to clear my head. It was my way of dealing with a very difficult situation.”

Aly Dixon

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