Health Over Ego: The Billy Dix Story
Am I just injury prone? I'd argue no.
To answer this question fully, it’s important to understand how things got so bad in the first place and the lessons that I have learned. This will walk you through the troubles an average runner faces while trying to become great, the misconceptions of training, the mental dilemmas runners face and much more. Before we get there, though, I think it is important to rewind a little bit and start from my high school days.
I went to Monarch High School in Louisville, Colorado. It's located about 10 minutes outside of Boulder — yeah, you wish you were from there.
I was lucky enough to be part of a state championship-winning cross country team and win the 4x800 twice. Needless to say, my team was fairly stacked. I, however, was a fairly average high school runner until I had my ‘breakout’ junior year track season and senior year cross country season — and even then I still wasn't anything to write home about.
When it was all said and done I walked away with a 15:37 best in the 5k at sea level, a 4:22 1600 meter best (4:17 after altitude conversion) and 1:55 800 meter best (1:54 altitude conversion).
This was good enough for a 9th place finish at the Colorado State Cross Country Championships, along with respective 10th place finishes in the 1600 meter and 800 meter runs during my track season.
While I was not elite, I was good enough to get me talking to the likes of Duke, Air Force, Gonzaga, Santa Clara, University of Texas and a few others. Come October of my senior year I chose to go to Duke for a wide variety of reasons. I thought would be the best fit for me, and to this day I'll still tell you that's true.
Looking back, I started to put a little too much pressure on myself right after I committed.
This was in part due to the fact that I had the slowest times out of my recruiting class, and in part just because I wanted to prove my self-worth as even my high school teammates were still better than me. Isaac Green had run a 4:05 mile, Charlie Perry was a 9:06 2 mile guy, so how am I supposed to walk onto a collegiate team when they know I'm not even the best from my high school?
I remember starting to HAMMER all my workouts into oblivion and take my easy runs religiously at 6:45-6:50 pace, goodness forbid if it was over 7:00.
Was I fit? Yes! Was I too tired to show it, YES!
Despite all the hard work I was putting in during my senior track season, I showed very little improvement. By the end of it, I was just ready to move on to bigger and better things at Duke.
However, this is where things get start to get messy. In the matter of a month of returning from a short break after my senior track season, I made a courageous jump from about averaging 35 miles per week in high school to 65 miles per week in preparation for Duke's training.
I'm sure you can imagine how beat up my knees and legs became.
I remember getting out of bed some mornings wondering if I'd be able to generate enough power to take those first couple steps of a run, let alone if my knees would support me. If I could look you in the eyes right now, you'd know how dead serious I am. I'll spare you the details of how I raced because it was what some might call sub-optimal. However, by the grace of God I somehow made it to the end of the summer unscathed by injury, aside from a little hit to my ego.
All jokes aside though, after two final underwhelming seasons I figured that everyone was still just outworking me.
The answer had to be that I needed to push training a little farther.
For about two months, training was going just about the same as the previous two seasons. I'd walk up to every workout prepared for battle, and refuse to drop off of anyone in the top group on easy runs.
All to no avail, because there I was still tanking workouts. But hey, persistence is key — just not in this case. Before our indoor track season even came, I felt one of the worst things you can feel while running. Not the physical pain, but rather the sheer dread of knowing that you have a stress reaction in your femur.
This marks my first significant injury.
After a year of overtraining, I finally broke. It sucked, I won't lie to you. Mentally I felt pretty awful for a couple of weeks. Before long I swung around and got back in the right mindset, saying to myself:
"It's just freshman year, a perfect excuse to come back and have a fifth year."
Needless to say all bad things come to an end, and 13 weeks later I found myself back on my feet and running again. By mid-summer I was back in action, running really well enjoying the summer back home. I was fortunate enough to be able to train with my high school teammates who now run at Colorado, Stanford, Washington, Gonzaga, Santa Clara, Grand Canyon and more.
This gave me some serious confidence going into the season, knowing that I had been training with some of the NCAA's best.
And yet, without fail, the moment I got back to campus I was back in the same mindset of being cocky as hell and ripping workouts. That was until one week after our season opener 6k in which I knew... I knew I had another stress reaction in not one but both of my femurs.
This was a hard pill to swallow.
It was different this time. One time is unfortunate, but to have it happen twice in a year is devastating. I felt like I was missing out. This was valuable training time that's now just being wasted.
How are you supposed to get better if you can't run?
Writing this now I realize how sad that statement and question is, because running is much more than just a time on a piece of paper. And yet, I focused on getting back to it. My solution you might ask? Go all in on the bike. Instead of taking a couple of weeks completely off as a rational person might do, a mere four days later I hopped back on the stationary bike and just took off.
I was biking at least 2 hours a day, sometimes even hopping in the pool at night.
Was it stupid? I know it was. But being injured again just destroyed me.
I took on the stereotypical go hard or go home mentality.
I didn't care how much it sucked. I was going to do it. For about a month I was putting up 250-325 miles per week on the bike and every minute of it sucked. That's a lot of time spent staring at the same wall, in the same room, day in and day out. However, looking back, it was not just my sheer will that got me through as much as I'd like to say it was.
I owe a huge thanks to a teammate Dalton Randall, who is probably one of the most optimistic, nicest and thoughtful guys you will ever meet. If it weren't for him I wouldn't put it past myself to have just given up. I mean, after a year and a half of terrible results, who doesn't have some serious self-doubt? When you're sitting there alone on a bike for two hours, some pretty dark thoughts run through your head.
Thankfully I had Dalton and the rest of the team to fall back on and keep me going. Soon enough that moment of misery came to an end and I found myself in decent enough running shape from day one. To my benefit, by spending that much time on the bike I kept my aerobic capacity intact. But all good things come with a downside.
While my aerobics were functioning, taking eight weeks off of running takes a toll on your tendons' and joints' capability of handling the impact that is not present on a bike. I found myself in another tough situation. I felt fit enough to rip workouts, but my body didn't want to.
Needless to say, I went for it anyway.
As you might have predicted, by winter break I was out again with a swollen painful achilles injury. I spent another month on the bike doing nothing but prolonging my injury in a last-ditch effort to maintain the "fitness" that I thought I had accumulated in those two months of running.
The solution in my mind was always to work harder. However, at this point, something needed to change. And let me tell you, things did change. Perhaps this was a blessing in disguise for my running career when the world shut down because of COVID-19.
This afforded me the option to go home and reset my training cycle. One of my teammates, Sam Rivera, and I drove back to my house in Colorado and made it our priority to stay healthy — he was coming off an injury as well.
No fancy workouts, low mileage, core and hips every day, plenty of sleep, you name it. We were doing what we could do to stay healthy. I'll spare you the training log, but we started at 25-30 miles for the first couple weeks and it wasn't until the first week of September that I hit my peak mileage.
Talk about a slow build-up.
Another new thing for me was that I had zero shame getting dropped by someone. Summer miles are meant to be easy. At the end of the day I know I can run all my miles at 6:30 pace, but I also know my body responds VERY poorly to that.
Plus, you're not gonna look me in the eye and tell me someone got super fit from just running easy days faster.
No... easy days are easy so you can improve your workouts.
With that being said, I did not feel as fit arriving at the campus this year, but that's because my summer miles weren't workouts. Was I worried? Sure, a little bit, but I think over these past two months I've proved to myself otherwise about my fitness. I've been able to do much longer and faster tempos and workouts than I was doing in the past two years. Why?
Well, probably because I show up to workouts without my legs already hurting. Fitness is not gained by seeing how far you can push your legs, but rather an accumulation of all the miles and workouts you can get through comfortably.
What I've come to learn is that running is an incredibly simple sport.
Sure there are plenty of ideologies of what workouts to do, when to do them, how many miles to run and much more. But at the end of the day the formula is simple, the more miles and workouts you can get in while still being able to recover from workout to workout, race to race, the better you will be.
Easy running is just as important as hard running. Take advantage of it. For the purebred hard mentality types, it’s okay to slow down sometimes. There are thousands of people who can run 6:50 miles for a long long time, it doesn't make you special.
For my boys, drop your ego and go run with the girls every once in a while... that's probably closer to your easy pace anyway.
For my girls, don't let the guys push the pace... take control.
I'm still not the star I was trying to become. However, I am healthy and I am grateful for that.
There is truly much more to running than just proving you are faster than everyone else. That does not mean I'm not trying to get better still, but rather I have just switched my approach from becoming fast today or tomorrow or even this season to looking forward to the following seasons to come.
If there is one thing I have taken away from my experience up until now, is that it is easy to overestimate yourself in the short term and get down on yourself. However, what I'm now trying to figure out is perhaps if we underestimate our long-term selves by taking too rapid of an approach.
If you want to follow my training, along with the Duke Cross Country team's training and season, it will all be posted to @ Billy Dix on YouTube.
Currently, I'm a junior at Duke University and I just had my first race in nearly two years. Up until this point my collegiate running career has been on me rough, to say the least. Six total seasons, only one I have competed in. Three femoral stress reactions and 1 bad achilles.
Am I just injury prone? I'd argue not anymore.