IMAGINE the scene. Ten miles into the Commonwealth Games marathon, and you’re leading the way. You’ve spent more than a decade dreaming of running for your country in a major championship, and now not only is it happening, but you’re producing the performance of your life and beginning to wonder if a medal might be possible.
Then you feel it. A little niggle at first, running down your Achilles tendon. Don’t worry, it’s probably just a little bit of stiffness. Focus on your stride pattern, and you’ll run it off.
Then it gets worse. It’s a constant, searing pain now, preventing you from planting your foot on the ground properly and forcing you to change your running action completely.
The race is gone. You can’t keep pace with the leaders and you’re dropping out of the top ten. You’re screaming in agony as you pass the finish line at the halfway stage of the race. Thirteen miles gone, thirteen miles still in front of you. And all the while, a voice inside your head is telling you, ‘Whatever you do – don’t give up on this now’.
“Everything was going great, and I was absolutely loving it,” said Sunderland’s Alyson Dixon, whose marathon experience turned into a very personal form of torment on Sunday morning. “The crowd was amazing, and I was just soaking it all up.
“I was feeling really good, and then the Achilles just started to hurt a little bit. Then, when the pace picked up a bit and you had to go up onto your toes, it just couldn’t take that pressure anymore and something just kind of gave up on me.
“I battled on to just past the halfway line, but had to stop and stretch. It did ease, but then literally within three paces it just gave again. In the end, I was fighting with myself.
“I wanted to finish because I was representing England, my country, but it was just too much and I had to stop. I went down, and was inconsolable for a few minutes.”
To those of us who can’t even comprehend what it must be like to run for more than 26 miles at the very limit of your body’s capabilities, it seems utterly ridiculous that you would even consider tackling 13 miles when you can barely plant your foot on the ground.
It’s a little bit facile to compare one set of sportspeople’s motivations with another, but the contrast between Dixon’s desperation not to let her country down and the allegations that certain Tottenham footballers weren’t even interested in reporting for international duty under Harry Redknapp is nevertheless a jarring one.
The vast majority of athletes, even at the highest level, push themselves through punishing training sessions day in day out, often for very little financial reward, just to be able to pull on an international vest and run for their country. For that reason, walking away is regarded as the ultimate failure.
“I really wanted to carry on,” said Dixon. “There was one part of me saying, ‘You can do this – it’s only 13 miles’. But then another part of me was saying, ‘It’s 13 miles and you could do yourself some really bad damage’.
“In the end, it was just too much. I’ve run a marathon with a broken foot before and managed to get through that, but this was even worse. I literally couldn’t even put my foot down at the end. Even when people were just gently touching my foot, I was in absolute agony.”
Dixon left the marathon course in a wheelchair, but subsequent scans have revealed damage to the paratenon, a layer of tissue that surrounds the Achilles, rather than the tendon itself. That was good news, and the 35-year-old has also been able to draw solace from the messages of support that have flooded in since she left Glasgow Green in tears.
“You feel like you’re letting everybody down,” she said. “That was certainly my reaction at the time. Friends and family had come up to support me, and there were people with banners cheering me on at the side of the road.
“I was thinking, ‘I’ve let you all down’, but my team-mates have been brilliant and I’ve had so many messages on my phone and social media and that’s really helped me out. They’ve helped me realise I haven’t let anybody down and that I did everything I could to try to get through.”