Abbott Spotlight On Health

Northern soul

Aly Dixon might be a name in running that you are familiar with. At the age of 43, she rounded off her professional running career by collecting her Six Star Finisher's Medal at the Bank of America Chicago Marathon last October.

AbbottWMM caught up with the runner from Sunderland in the north east of England to reflect on her career – and the bigger impact that running has had on her life so far.

When did you start running and why did you get into the sport?
“I have been running since a young age as my Dad was a marathon runner, and I would do the fun runs that took place before his races that I would go and watch. I then joined my local Athletics Club (Sunderland Harriers) when I was 12 so I could go on a trip to a theme park!”

When did you, or others, realize that you had talent and where did it go from there?
“I’ve never really seen myself as being a naturally talented runner – I’ve had to work VERY hard for everything I have achieved. I didn’t win my first race until I was 18 and even then, it wasn’t a case of people telling me I could make it to the top.

"As the years went by and I started to train harder, my performances improved and I started to rise up the rankings. I didn’t gain my first England vest until I was 29 years old and my first Great Britain (GB) vest two years later.  Even then I still didn’t think that something like the Olympics could be possible for me. But I did start to think that I could be competitive in the marathon – though [I] didn’t truly believe it until I made my first World Championship team in 2011.”

What have been the hardest hurdles of your running career to overcome?
“The toughest challenges were probably just injuries. I have been lucky not to suffer too many in my career – mainly down to sensible training – but the couple that I have had were quite bad. At my first World Championship marathon I injured my foot leading into the race. I still ran as at that point I didn’t know if I would ever make another GB team, never-mind another World Championships and I didn’t want to miss out.

"When we scanned my foot the day after, three broken bones showed up. I didn’t run a step for the next three months and spent eight weeks in a moon boot.  I cross-trained really hard using aqua running twice a day, and I came out of those three months as fit as I had ever been to that point in time.”

Do you have any regrets in your running career?
“I don’t think I do. I have been very fortunate to have been offered some amazing opportunities and I have grabbed each of them with both hands. Perhaps the only slight regret is taking too much beetroot juice before the Berlin Marathon in 2015 which caused some stomach issues and resulted me in slipping away from the 2.27 pace I was running until the last 5km!”

What is your biggest achievement been in your running career?
“I think my overall biggest achievement is making the GB Olympic team for the Rio 2016 Games. It is something that lots of youngsters dream about but only a very small amount actually make it. It took me 25 years of hard work to eventually make the team.

“The 50km World Championships and world record were also really special as I never thought I would be able to call myself a world champion or world record holder.”  

Aly competed in the Rio 2016 Olympic Marathon

Who are the people in your life that helped support you through your career?

“Definitely my parents! They have been there every step of the way. They have never pushed me but have always supported me in everything I have done. They have been to pretty much all of my big races, and have given me unconditional support throughout. My mom’s first question to me is always – ‘are you happy with it?'

"I’ve had a few other people who have helped me along the way – my previous coaches Ken Jefferson and Lindsay Dunn provided valuable lessons in training – many of which I still utilize now.

"Paula Radcliffe was not only a massive inspiration to me as a youngster with her own performances, but she became a good friend who helped me with my training. Back in early 2015, she believed in me when I was starting to lose belief in myself. Without her help and support I would not have gone on to make the Olympic team in 2016.”

What are some of your best memories from the AbbottWMM races?
“Lots of great memories! I think out of them all, the only one that wasn’t enjoyable was London in 2010 which was my very first marathon. I ran it very naively and went off far too fast and suffered for it!  New York City in 2010 was the one where I fell in love with the event; I ran much more sensibly and the crowds were amazing.

"Berlin 2015 was where I ran my Olympic qualifying time so that is special. London 2016 was also very memorable as that was the race where I cemented my Olympic selection. The following year in London was where I set my personal best and won my second British Championship.

"Boston 2019 made me remember why I love the marathon – the crowds were brilliant. Tokyo 2020 was tough, but I’d been given the chance to run when the field had been cancelled due to the start of the pandemic, so I felt I had to finish it.

"Then there was Chicago in 2021 – my last one. I was underprepared after picking up an injury four weeks before, but I knew I just had to finish to get my Six Star medal and then I could retire happy having achieved everything I ever wanted to in the sport. I was monitored by a physiotherapist following the injury and by the time I got to the actual race I had been pain free for two weeks and had successfully completed a 22-mile run, so we knew it was OK to race."

Journey's end: Aly earned her Six Star Medal at Chicago in 2021

How has marathon running changed in the time you’ve been in the sport?

“I think the biggest change has been in the shoe technology. It has really altered the times that races are won in and makes what used to be seen as fast times look quite pedestrian now.  

"There’s also been a big change in the number of people running marathons. When I started out, running a marathon was a big thing and not that many people did it, but now it seems to be that every other person runs them. Trying to get into races through the ballots is also becoming harder and harder due to the volume of people entering – which can only be a good thing for the growth of the sport.”

How has it changed specifically for women?
“I think the women’s side of marathon running is improving at a great rate. On the elite level the races are getting faster and times are coming down. Here in the UK we are getting more female finishers under that 2:30 barrier and we have a great group who are just over and it won’t be long before they break it. Strength in depth is definitely increasing.

"On the mass side the numbers of women are getting closer to the men and I don’t think it will be long until we see most fields with a 50:50 split.”

What is next for you and running?
"I’ll continue to run, just not at a high level. I plan to still do some local races but more for the pure love of the sport than chasing times or podiums. I am currently doing some coaching and a looking forward to progressing that some more. Running is a big part of my life, and we are so lucky to have a great running community here in the North East of England.  

"I am really excited to get involved in it more and connect with people who are just enjoying themselves and loving running.  If I can help others to improve their performances along the way with coaching, then even better.

"I’m also due to start a job with the Sunderland Foundation of Light which is a brilliant charity which helps the local community to increase their overall wellbeing using sport and physical activity as a tool.

"I have loved every second of all my marathons and all of the other events and races that I have been lucky enough to do, but I am ready to step away now, I’ve had my time. I’m extremely proud of everything that I have achieved in my career and couldn’t really ask for much more.”

  • Always consult a physician and get a full health evaluation prior to marathon training. Even if athletes appear healthy after treatment or surgery, or to have a disorder under control, underlying medical conditions could exist.
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