“LIKE MY DAD SAYS, run like you’ve got dogs chasing you.” Solid advice from frontrunner Devin Dixon, who in ’19 took his NCAA competitors through the first half in 50-flat, only to lose on the final stretch to Bryce Hoppel of Kansas.
Dixon, who ran 1:44.84 in that race, just missed the PR of 1:44.76 that he had set in winning the SEC title a few weeks earlier.
Now a Texas A&M senior, Dixon says he wasn’t always a frontrunner: “I remember during my first two years in college, I was more in the middle. I was afraid to lead the pack because I wasn’t really confident in my abilities. But as I got older, the front has been a lot more efficient.
“It worked out for me and it has pushed me to be in uncomfortable positions and that way I can get better results. I really understand that I’m more than meets the eye and I need to be more confident in my abilities.”
Dixon, 23, boasts world-class 400 speed: a 45.22 PR from ’18, along with a blazing 44.24 relay leg indoors — the fastest ever recorded.
That speed wasn’t readily apparent when he started out in McDonough, Georgia, at Eagle’s Landing High. In fact, the only thing that he says was completely apparent was his lack of basketball skills. “I played basketball in high school. To say the least, I was trash. I was … not as good as the rest of the athletes. So the coach got me to think about track. I had been doing track since I was little, but I kind of fell away from it.
“My origins were in sprinting when I was a little kid, and then as I grew older and taller, it slowed me down a little bit because my legs were a little bit longer. I couldn’t really move as quickly as the other kids, so they moved me to distance.
“Since then, I’ve been doing cross country and miles and 1000s and whatnot.” He found a welcome home in the 2-lapper. In his first season, he won the Georgia 4A title in 1:55.66. “That’s when I knew that God was definitely trying to show me that, yeah, this is your sport.”
By the time he had graduated, he had run 46.91 and 1:49.52, adding the state 400 title to his three at 800.
At A&M, working with Pat Henry and assistant coach Milton Mallard, Dixon has flourished: 8 SEC crowns (3 in the 4×4) and 9 All-America finishes, including wins on the 4×4 indoors and out.
A year ago, he looked like he was ready to improve his résumé even more: indoors a PR 1:15.16 for 600 and a 1:47.88 prefaced a third-straight SEC 800 title. Then, a familiar refrain as his season stopped dead amid the pandemic and he was left wondering what to do. “I was gearing toward my best,” he says. “It’s been tough, but honestly, you have to adapt to different sceneries to get your training in. I was able to do that and still able to see my family, which I was okay with.”
He had felt that he was on track to do something at the ’20 Trials. “The training we’re doing is geared toward running beyond nationals and beyond that to pro territory.” But he adds that the delay will probably work in his favor.
“Sometimes you really have to be more of a glass half-full guy. You’ve got to look at the positives. It gave me extra time to get ready, to get to my peak condition mentally and physically and also spiritually. It ended up working out for me in the end.”
He has always felt at home in the 800, even though he has that 400 speed to make a go of the shorter event. He explains, “The 800 is more of a challenge, and you can only get better from things that challenge you and push you to the limit. And that race definitely does every time I run it, but it feels good to conquer it. It feels good to move past my limits and to really put myself in those uncomfortable positions; that way I can get used to it.”
That concept of being comfortable being uncomfortable is not just a catchy line; it’s something Dixon has worked on extensively with Mallard, himself a 44-point relay runner while at UTEP. When Dixon started trying to lead races, he says, “It was definitely frightening, but I try to look past that. I try to sit in the nervousness, and sit into hearing the audience cheering and all that. You’ve got to sit in it so you can be able to do it — like I said before — being comfortable in uncomfortable positions.
“Even though I might have been afraid, I still pushed through and still do what I do best. I’m not going to stop myself because I’m afraid.”
Dixon knows that to be in the mix for the Trials, fast race or slow, it will mean being in 1:42 shape. He has been working on strength, spending a lot of time on repeat 1000s, for instance: “It’s a challenge every day, an experience gained for my body and for my mind. I’m stretching my endurance out, if that makes sense.”
That’s how he will get his body ready. The rest is the mental game. He says, “One of my coaches told me to, when I get to the line, just think of static, like a TV when you hit that channel, it just makes that noise. Just think of nothing. Don’t think about what you have to do and who’s running in the race and all that stuff. Just focus on running. Just try to be the first one past the line at the end.
“That’s what I really try to do. Run at my own pace. Don’t worry about who’s shifting behind me and who’s trying to move around me — even though people might get a little rough with them elbows and whatnot.”
It’s not fear he feels anymore when he’s at the front of a race. “It’s more of — I don’t want to sound disrespectful — it’s more like I’m a wolf and I’m running and leading the pack behind me. I don’t know if that sounds weird, but that’s my philosophy.”