Photo by Jeff Sides
At the worst possible time, Dwayne Lillie noticed his heart pumping faster and faster. All the A.C. Reynolds junior at the time had done was run a short stride, yet his heartbeat just couldn't stop speeding up. And the start of one of the biggest races of the year was just seconds away. He was on the line at North Carolina A&T's Aggie Stadium about to race the opening leg of the 4x800m at the 2019 NCHSAA 3A outdoor state meet.
Almost in tears, he took a few moments to squat down and breathe out hard-maneuvers doctors had taught him to calm down his heart. Meet officials even seemed to delay firing the starting gun to allow Lillie to recover physically. Lillie told the anchor leg, Lucas Wiley, to switch legs with him to give him more time to prepare.
But once Lillie's heartbeat finally started to return to normal, he hopped back up, ready to race. He trotted over to the start line to switch back with Wiley, who gave Lillie a big embrace before running back off the blue track.
Lillie went on split a 1:58 to help the 4x800m squad to a state runner-up finish and a new school record time of 7:56.76.
Lillie on the far right
For Lillie, this hectic episode was nothing out of the norm, but rather just one example of the struggles he has faced living with two heart diseases: supraventricular tachycardia (SVT) and bicuspid aortic valve disease.
Diagnosed during his sophomore year, there has always been that worry of whether or not he would be able to continue running with his condition. Now a senior, Lillie has always stayed positive, owning a mindset that has led him to success despite the challenges he has faced.
"I knew that I could be sidelined forever and possibly have life long effects from this, but regardless I want to do what I love because you only get four years of high school running," Lillie said.
But for Lillie, running wasn't his first love-basketball was. He grew up shooting hoops nearly 24/7 and competing for his school teams. It wasn't until a punishment from his eighth grade basketball coach that he realized his running potential; the team had to sprint 70 suicides one day at practice, and Lillie finished his count while his teammates still had about 20 left to go.
Lillie would go on to run 4:54 for the 1600m and 2:11 for the 800m as a new member of the middle school track team that spring. Yet despite the obvious promise he had in the sport, he planned on focusing on basketball in high school until A.C. Reynolds cross country coach David Honea talked to Lillie prior to the start of school lobbying him to run cross country in the fall. Honea assured him that cross country would be perfect conditioning for taking the court.
Little did Lillie know that he would immediately make an impact out on the course for A.C. Reynolds, working together well with the class of teammates ahead of him that had propelled the team to the state meet the previous year for the first time in nearly 18 years. "He just sort of fit right in with them in terms of where he was coming in his first year," Honea said.
He blossomed into the top freshman cross country competitor in the state, running a season's best of 16:22.81 for 5k. His success translated over to track as well as he ran best times of 2:01.02 in the 800m and 4:35.34 for the 1600m. He even qualified for states in the 800m as a freshman.
Lillie even chose to stop playing basketball, realizing that his true potential most likely laid in racing. "I loved just running cross country and I had a great time doing it and I was good at it," said Lillie. "So I just quit playing basketball and committed to running after coming to the realization I'm not 6-3."
Yet after his successful high school running debut, Lillie began to first experience the signs of heart issues.
As a sophomore racing at the adidas XC Challenge in Cary, N.C., Lillie got off to an impressive start. He recalls feeling amazing and fresh, and felt strong as he approached the end of the 5k.
However with just a mile to go in the woods at the WakeMed cross country course, Lillie began to notice his heart beat accelerating exponentially. It was a physical abnormality unfamiliar to him, and he was clueless about what was happening to his body.
Somehow he managed to climb the final hill on the course and finish the race, and he was taken straight to the medical tent. Medical personnel quickly hooked him up to a monitor to measure his heart rate.
The reading was through the roof-360 beats per minute.
Lillie was immediately rushed to a nearby hospital and medics alerted his parents back in Asheville of the situation. He was hooked up to an EKG and given an IV, but after examination, doctors at the hospital couldn't really figure out what was wrong with Lillie.
When Lillie returned home from the meet, he visited a cardiologist, hoping to find definite answers. The answers he did receive were unfortunate-a cardiologist diagnosed him with supraventricular tachycardia (SVT) and bicuspid aortic valve disease, both forms of heart disease. SVT is an abnormally rapid heartbeat that comes about with disturbances to electrical impulses in the heart, while bicuspid aortic valve disease is a condition in which there are only two leaflets as opposed to three in the aortic valve to regulate blood flow from the heart to the aorta. Both can cause severe heart damage over time if not treated properly.
In the moment of the diagnosis, Lillie could only think about one thing: running. Questions swirled through his mind as to whether he would ever be able to run or compete in other sports again. Lillie remained adamant that he wouldn't let running slip away from him, even if doctors told him otherwise.
"I remember I looked over at my mom and was like '[If] they say I can't run, I'm still going to run. We'll figure something out,'" Lillie said.
Fortunately, the cardiologist informed him that the conditions weren't life threatening, so Lillie could still run. But what comes with the diseases is extreme pain that can significantly alter performances in races, as well as everyday life. As Lillie puts it, when his heartbeat starts soaring through the roof, it feels like there are a bunch of knives in his throat, a pain that is completely debilitating.
"Even if you're not racing or running or playing any sports for that matter, if you're just sitting around the house and your heart starts going 300 beats per minute, it's extremely, extremely uncomfortable," Lillie said.
Doctors did offer a surgical treatment for Lillie, but the recovery would have lasted for a month and a half. Lillie was determined to compete with the best runners in the state, he wanted to keep training, not sit on the couch. He decided to deal with the conditions knowing that they could affect him in this race or that, but also understanding that he would need to pay attention to his symptoms and take care of his body while continuing to compete.
"I was like, 'Okay, it's something I've got to deal with. It's annoying when it happens, but I'll make sure I take care of myself because that's the number one priority," Lillie said.
From there, Lillie attacked his training yet again as if nothing had happened, trying not to let his heart affect him. But it was admittedly a struggle, his heart forcing him to drop out of workouts and races, especially during outdoor track his sophomore year and into junior year.
His heart would often act up during important meets such as regionals or at states, and that frustrated Lillie to no end. He would find himself desperately asking himself, "Why now?"
"I live the life of running," Lillie said. "I'm constantly working hard. I'm constantly eating right, doing everything I can to get good, and then I just have this thing that's holding me back in every other race that I do. It's just like 'No, not now. Come on, let's see what I can do.'"
But on the days when Lillie was feeling good, he was fierce. Lillie can still recall the happiness he felt when he placed third at the 3A indoor state meet as a junior. "It was just a rush of good emotions," Lillie said. "I was like 'Wow, I've got this issue, but then again I handled it and I stayed positive about it and because of that, this is the result.'"
On the occasions when he would have to take a step back due to his conditions, Honea made sure to reiterate to him that it wasn't something he could control-it just happens.
"It's not a character flaw or anything like that," Honea said. "I think that was a big thing, just emphasizing this is a physical issue and you work with it to the extent that you can and you work around it when you have to."
Honea worked with Lillie with his training and racing to put as little stress on his body as possible. Sometimes Lillie would have to take breaks in between reps to slow down his heartbeat, especially during speed workouts. And in some races, like at the regional cross country meet junior year, if Lillie started to feel symptoms, Honea would tell him to shut it down-no race was worth hurting himself.
Normally when Lillie's heart does start to speed up, he can calm it back down with his routine in about five minutes. But this past fall during cross country season, that became more of an issue.
After competing at the Western NC Cross Country Carnival to kick off his senior season, Lillie's chest felt extremely sore for about a week. It even hurt to breathe normally, so he knew he needed to pay his cardiologist yet another visit.
As before, the doctor didn't prohibit Lillie from racing, but urgently cautioned him that if he continued to have these symptoms during and after races, he would put himself at risk of rupturing something in his heart or causing his bicuspid valve disease to worsen severely.
But the worsening heart conditions weren't affecting Lillie's training; in fact, he was in nearly the shape of his life.
"If it's an injury or an illness, it's almost always the case that the thing that's keeping you from racing or making you decide that you're not ready to race is also keeping you from being in shape to race well," Honea said. "But that wasn't the case at all. [Lillie] was doing workouts this fall that were just incredible."
Ultimately, Honea and Lillie decided it would be best for Lillie to limit his racing in the fall cross country season, hoping the limited stress would help him physically. But for someone who is as competitive as Lillie, it was challenging mentally-he still ended up racing on senior day and at the conference meet after having completed interval workouts beforehand, clocking 16:02 and 16:14.90 for 5k.
So when Lillie heard that there was a new procedure to treat the SVT, he jumped right on it. And the recovery time afterwards? Just a week and a half.
Lillie had a catheter procedure on Nov. 3, a surgery that lasted just two and a half hours-the fastest his doctors have ever performed the procedure on in individual. He couldn't eat or drink the entire day before the scheduled surgery in preparation. Doctors gave him three catheters in his right leg, two in the left, running them through his veins up to his heart. They then shocked his heart to get it to go into SVT, revealing the extra electrical pathways in his heart that cause the SVT. Using the catheters, the surgeons burned the pathways shut until they were all closed and Lillie's heart no longer went into SVT.
Lillie had to miss the regional and state cross country meets to go in for the surgery and recover, but he didn't let that bring him down. He instead set his sights on a new goal: racing at Dash for Doobie and the Foot Locker South Regional, just weeks after his heart surgery.
The anticipation of not having to worry about his heart in a race for the first time in a long time was killing Lillie. "I really just want[ed] to race," Lillie said. "I want[ed] to get back to what I want[ed] to be doing, and just the idea of not having to worry about something while racing and not having to worry about it beforehand, just the thought of it not going to happen was just really motivating to just go out there."
What Lillie didn't anticipate was how sore he was going to be after the surgery-he had to get used to walking again in the immediate hours after the surgery. Bruises and pain riddled his legs, and even though Lillie put in high mileage training heading into the surgery, Honea wasn't really sure what to expect him to do at Dash for Doobie and Foot Locker.
"I kind of had that vision of 'All right, he's going to have a week off, but he's in incredible shape and he might end up being rested from it, [which] is going to mean that it is going to be some incredible races,'" Honea said. "Then when I saw the amount of soreness that he had immediately after the procedure, I go, 'That was probably over optimistic there.'"
But Lillie entered Dash for Doobie on Nov. 23 with that usual positive attitude, over the moon about the opportunity to finally race without pain.
In the second fastest heat, Lillie dominated the race, pulling away over the final three laps at JDL Fast Track to win the section in a new personal record of 9:30.90. His time even placed him higher than five of the racers in the top section.
Lillie didn't stop with Doobie. A week later at Foot Locker South, he dipped under 16 minutes for the first time in two years to run 15:58 in the Championship Boys race. He was the second fastest North Carolina athlete in the race, only behind Foot Locker Nationals qualifier Avery Cannon of Watauga.
Lillie finally proved to others, and especially himself, that he was no longer hindered by uncontrollable physical problems-he was back, and better than ever.
"I just kept telling myself 'I'm able. I'm healthy. I'm back. It's time for me to get back to what I'm doing and show everyone the races and times beforehand are not a result of how I train things like that. I'm better than that,'" Lillie said.
Now going forward into his final track season as a high school runner, Lillie plans on being competitive as ever.
Sub 4:20 in the 1600m. Sub 9:20 in the 3200m. They're stellar goal times that Lillie believes he can attain.
And don't forget about an individual state championship-Lillie hopes to add one by the end of this year. As the top returner in the indoor 1600m for 3A, earning the win certainly seems like a possibility.
Lillie never sells himself short, something that Honea knows helps Lillie successfully compete toe-to-toe with the best distance runners from all over North Carolina. "He's always got the bar set pretty high," Honea said.
It's easy for someone to let a physical derailment such as heart disease to bring them down. But during his struggles over the past four years, Lillie has never let his conditions prohibit him from doing what he loves. Combine that with raw talent, and you've got the makings of a top distance runner.
"I think that he is somebody who is willing to work really hard and is blessed with good leg speed, which is a good thing to have," Honea said.
Lillie has faced more adversity than most kids his age have to deal with. But now that he's 100 percent healthy, he'll no longer have to worry about his heart going berserk before a state meet again, and Lillie can't wait to take advantage of that.
"Now that I've recovered from [the heart conditions], I don't have this thing holding me back," Lillie said. "So now it's my job to ensure that I do everything that I can to become the best runner that I can be."