FOR the last two weeks, Alyson Dixon has been keeping a secret from her employers.
“I work at Sweatshop in the Metrocentre,” said the Sunderland-born marathon runner, whose performances over the last 12 months have established her as one of Britain’s leading endurance specialists. “It's a running centre and they're really good about time off and everything.
“I had to say to them, 'You've put me down for these shifts, but I might not be able to do them – I just can't tell you why...'”
Until Monday morning. When Team England announced their athletics squad for next month’s Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Dixon’s secret was out.
The 35-year-old will be one of three English runners competing in the women’s marathon, with her lifetime best performance in last year’s Brighton Marathon effectively having earned her a spot at her first major championships since she finished 42nd in the World Championships in Daegu in 2011.
She has shaved more than 15 minutes off her marathon PB since then, and will travel to Glasgow with realistic hopes of challenging for the first major medal of her career. For now though, simply being able to celebrate her call up is good enough.
“We were told on June 3, which was two weeks ago,” she explained. “Athletes were told that they had been nominated, but we had to keep it quiet, which has been very difficult.
“The team announcement got delayed by a week so I got to Monday, two weeks after I had been told, and I was about to burst.
“Thankfully, it came out on Twitter that the team had been announced and then I could shout it from the rooftops. Having kept quiet for two weeks, my world suddenly went a bit mental.
“The team came out at 11am, but I had to leave the house at quarter past to get into work for 12. I was there until 8pm, so I came home to hundreds of messages on Twitter, Facebook and loads of missed calls.”
The warmth of the congratulations reflects Dixon’s status as something of a torch bearer for club distance running in the North-East.
A proud member of Sunderland Strollers, she can regularly be seen competing in local events alongside club runners who can only dream of getting anywhere near her race pace.
Earlier this month, she was helping to organise a series of free five-kilometre events to help get people back into running. This evening, she will contest the Newburn River Run along with a host of North-East enthusiasts.
Come the weekend, however, and she will be in the Czech Republic competing in the rather more rarefied environment of an international half-marathon. What started as something of a hobby has snowballed into an increasingly successful professional sporting career.
“I’ve set a big 10k PB and a big half-marathon PB this year,” said Dixon. “In my last marathon I set a big PB, and this time last year, I was smashing all my PBs on the track. That shows I’m in good shape.
“I’m 35 now, but I’m still improving. You do get really tired when you’re running 110-120 miles a week, and there have been a few sessions where I’ve felt like I’ve been struggling. But then when you check your times compared to when I did my PB training, over a 600m rep session, I’m three seconds a rep faster.
“If I’m that on 600m, then convert that to a mile and another mile and it makes a big difference. I think I’m in really good shape.”
Good enough to compete for the podium in Glasgow? While the Commonwealth Games might be a slightly sub-standard event in a number of sports, some of the leading distance running nations in the world will be represented on the start line when the marathon is staged on July 27.
Kenya have already named a strong three-woman contingent, while the likes of Australia, New Zealand and Mozambique will also select powerful teams.
Throw in the unpredictability that goes hand-in-hand with more than 26 miles of marathon running, and it is little wonder that Dixon is reluctant to make too many predictions about what might happen next month.
“The field is going to be very strong,” she said. “There's three Kenyans in there and although the names are probably not names you'd recognise, you look them up and they're still 2:23 or 2:24 runners. So you think you'll just wave them goodbye at the start!
“But at the end of the day it's a Championship marathon and there's nothing to say they will run those times in Glasgow.
“People keep on asking me what time I’m going for and whether I’m aiming for a certain position, but you can’t go for a time in a race like that. You could win it in 2:40, but you could run it in 2:30 and only finish tenth.
“It’s how it plays out, and 26 miles is a long way. Anything can happen, and conditions come into play. There’s a couple of little hills on the course that could have an effect, and it could be a completely different race if it’s raining. And it will probably rain with this being Scotland!”
Prior to competing in Glasgow, Dixon’s main pre-Commonwealth warm up will come in the Bupa Great North 10k, which is staged in Gateshead on July 13.
Taking in landmarks like the Millennium Bridge, Sage Gateshead and the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, the race, which will feature more than 5,000 competitors, has developed into the North-East’s biggest 10k event.
“I did it last year and enjoyed the course,” said Dixon. “It's a tough little course, but it's a nice one. It's good to run a big run that's pretty close to home. It's not quite my home race, but it's pretty close and it fits in nicely with my training.
“This one will be a training run in a way. It won't be flat out, I'm not chasing a PB because it's not really a PB course, but I'll be trying to get out there as fast as I can. I've seen a few of the girls who are running and it's a competitive field.”