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Aly Dixon on McColgan, Purdue and Flanagan’s autumn achievements

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Former 50km world record-holder, Olympian and two-time British marathon champion on recent distance running developments

Whether it’s Charlotte Purdue’s 2:23 marathon, Eilish McColgan’s 1:07 half marathon debut or Shalane Flanagan’s six marathons in just 42 days, distance running on the road has caught alight recently.

Since the track and field season ended in September, five out of the six major marathons – excluding Tokyo as it was cancelled completely due to the Covid-19 pandemic – and the Great North, South and Manchester Runs, have all taken place in just three months.

With the unique nature of so many high-quality distance races taking place on the roads during a short period of time, it’s no surprise to see records smashed and landmark times laid down.

Aly Dixon – former 50km world record holder, Olympian and two-time British marathon champion – chats exclusively to AW and reflects on the achievements of Purdue, McColgan and Flanagan, outlining her own mindset for longer distance races having just retired as a six star marathon finisher.

Purdue’s London landmark 

Charlotte Purdue’s 2021 started with disappointment but ended with an emphatic point to prove. The 30-year-old was controversially left out of the Great Britain team for the Olympics – despite having the then fastest personal best of 2:25:38 – and was expected to get one of the two discretionary places to go to Tokyo after getting a medical exemption from the trials.

Back in April, she told the BBC that she had been “thrown under the bus” and set the goal of breaking Mara Yamauchi’s 2:23:12 to make a point to selectors in future championships.

This year’s London Marathon provided that opportunity. With the masses returning to the traditional course around the capital, Purdue soaked up the atmosphere and clocked a stunning personal best of 2:23:26, just 14 seconds off Yamauchi’s time, to go third on the UK all-time list in the marathon.

Charlotte Purdue at the London Marathon (Getty)

For Dixon, who is 19th on that list and has a personal best in London of 2:29:06, it was a message from Purdue that the selectors had made the wrong choice: “I always thought Charlotte [Purdue] would run a good marathon and when I saw her time I knew she’d smashed it out the park.

“Although she said she wasn’t really going out to prove a point, she had that fire in her belly. It was a faster time that I ever imagined her doing but she’s shown over the half marathon, and her attitude towards training and racing, that she’s more than capable of these times.”

On whether Purdue and the likes of Steph Twell and Steph Davis can go sub-2:20 in the future, Dixon is cautiously optimistic: “For the some of the athletes it’s possible. Sara [Hall] and Molly [Seidel] over in the US have shown you can do it and we’ve got to stick with what we’re doing. With a good course, conditions and pacemaking I do believe they can be up there and challenging.

“I think she [Purdue] can definitely go faster, especially in a mixed race such as Berlin or Valencia. It doesn’t how much of a personal best you set, as a runner you’re always aiming to go faster so I’m sure she’s got that set.”

McColgan’s dream debut 

Look back at 2021 and you’ll spending quite a bit of time listing the records set by Eilish McColgan.

In June, McColgan broke Paula Radcliffe’s 17-year-old 5000m track record by an astonishing 16 seconds with 14:28.55 in Monaco. A few months earlier in February it’s also worth noting that she clocked 30:58.94 to go fifth on the UK all-time 10,000m list.

After a disappointing Olympic Games in Tokyo – where McColgan failed to get out of her 5000m heat and finished ninth in the 10,000m final – her road performances propelled the 31-year-old Scot to new heights in the autumn.

McColgan competed in the Great North, South and Manchester Runs and created history in all three events.

In Newcastle at the Great North Run she finished second to two-time world champion and double Olympic silver 5000m medallist Hellen Obiri in a fast race and ran 1:07:48 on her half marathon debut, going second on the UK all-time list.

McColgan then proved too good for the rest of the field at the Great Manchester Run with a personal best of 30:52 to go third on the UK-all time list.

Finally, at the Great South Run, the Scot once again broke one of Paula Radcliffe’s records, this time by 28 seconds over 10 miles, with 50:43 in winning the Great South Run.

Eilish McColgan (Great Run)

With McColgan proving her worth on the roads and impressing so heavily at half marathon, the question everyone is now asking is what time could she run in a marathon?

Dixon, who knows McColgan and her mum Liz extremely well, thinks that Eilish has the potential to run 2:17 but warns about getting ahead too quickly, as she explains: “I do think she’s going to run really fast but one thing we need to remember as well is a fast half marathon that she’s run doesn’t guarantee marathon success. Just for Eilish’s own security, we shouldn’t really be heaping the pressure on her. I definitely think she has the potential though.

“The great thing about Eilish, and I know her well enough to be able to say this, is that she’s quite naive about her talents and how good she is. I remember after the Great North Run when I spoke to her I asked her what her time was and she replied ‘I think it’s a good time!’ She’s obviously very clued up in athletics but I think she is quite naive in how good she actually is and what her potential can be.

“In a private environment with her and Michael [Rimmer, her partner] they might be a bit more confident and ambitious with these times, but she likes to keep herself to herself. I think she has the potential to go low 2:20 and to go sub-2:20 would be great. I would prefer to chat to her privately about this but there are a few little things she could tweak to get down to 2:17 let’s say but I’m sure she, Michael and her mum have all sat down about this already.”

Flanagan’s six in six 

For the first time in history, due to the pandemic, all of the major marathons took place over 42 days and it provided 2008 10,000m Olympic silver medallist Shalane Flanagan a chance to do something no human had ever done.

Although Tokyo had to be run virtually in her home town of Portland, Oregon, Flanagan set the goal of running all six of these marathons – a total 0f 157.2 miles – in just over a month.

Nicknamed ‘Project Eclipse’, due to the once in a lifetime nature of the goal, the 40-year-old American set about clocking sub- three-hour times at all of marathons.

Incredibly, she did it.

Starting off in Berlin on September 26, Flanagan clocked 2:38:32 before running 2:35:04 in London a week later.

The remaining four marathons all took place in the US and perhaps the toughest leg, or legs, of the journey was that Chicago and then Boston occurred over consecutive days. Flanagan set times of 2:46:39 and 2:40:34 at the pair respectively.

Her virtual Tokyo marathon followed, in which the American clocked 2:35:14 before she finished off in New York – in which she won in 2017 – with her fastest time out of the six, 2:33:32, in the Big Apple.

Dixon raced alongside Flanagan at this year’s Chicago Marathon and is in awe of the 40-year-old’s achievements: “We knew she wasn’t going to jog round in 2:55 or 2:59s and while she wasn’t flat out, she’s two years retired, is over 40 and has two newly reconstructed knees as well as a small child. She’s done the six over a six-week period and she still beats my average! 

“It’s phenomenal. At Chicago, she passed me at 22 miles and although I’d slowed a lot she made me look like I was standing still. Chicago was her slowest but conditions in Chicago were tough and you just have to look at the times across the board to see that everyone was lower that day. I think she was lucky that it was Chicago and then Boston given the hills at Boston can take the legs out of you. 

“It opens up new challenges for retired professional athletes at the end of the careers. It’s great that she’s done something like that and she’s brought it into the limelight, emphasised by the fact she was on a massive billboard in Times Square. It’s not very often athletics gets stuff like that.”

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