Cross Country Junior Overcomes Injury and Family Illness

Dillan Spector’s running career has been characterized by his work ethic, which has driven his success through many challenges.

Dillan Spector is a CAS junior on NYU's cross country team. (Via Twitter)

In this year’s Rowan Inter-Regional Border Battle, CAS junior Dillan Spector recorded his best 8K race time. The 25 minute and 9 second time was the second best of NYU’s runners and was his best 8K by over half a minute. But for Spector, it meant more than the average personal record. His career seems to be taking off this year, but this success has come on the heels of an especially challenging stretch in his life.

Dealing with his mom’s cancer, a lower back injury and his grandma’s death, Spector experienced a series of life-altering events in a one-year period. But he bounced back, returning to full health this year and putting in some of his best-ever performances.

This perseverance has roots in Spector’s childhood. While at a camp for overweight children, his very first experience in the sport came in the form of running laps for Silly Bandz. In middle school, he realized he wanted to start running competitively after he managed to survive a 4K race at summer camp.

“I was able to complete the whole thing so I thought, ‘Oh, maybe I should do distance running because I can get through that,’” Spector said. “I was a really big kid when I was little, so I do like running in the sense that it keeps me in shape, and it also feels good to feel fast and run fast.”

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Spector then joined his middle school’s cross country team and continued running into high school. From there, he progressed in the way most cross country runners do: trying to break the five-minute-per-mile barrier in various distances, starting from the mile, all the way up to the 5K.

His family played a big role in his athletic development. His mom and dad, a runner and former college rower, respectively, would often attend his meets along with his brother, a current NYU senior.

“My mom would tell me that he was almost certainly going to come in last, but that I had to cheer for him as if he just won the whole race,” Tisch senior Brennan Spector said. “Maybe it’s because he knows what it’s like to start from the very bottom and go to the top, but he never ever settles, and he always puts everyone else before himself.”

Their mom’s running career and unwavering support has always inspired Dillan, both on and off the track. The summer after his freshman year, she was diagnosed with a neuroendocrine tumor — a rare form of cancer affecting the cells that release hormones into the blood in response to nervous system signals and that can occur anywhere in the body. But she kept on running.

“When she got cancer, she couldn’t do all the things she used to do, and then right afterwards she got back into running,” Dillan said. “While she’s still going through the treatment she’s running, and she’s telling me that if she’s able to do it then I’m able to do it, so that was helpful.”

His mom’s words of encouragement helped him through last season and he was able to return the favor. Last year’s Atlantic Regional meet fell on Neuroendocrine Tumor Awareness Day, so the entire NYU cross country team wore wristbands in support of her.

The team’s solidarity helped drive both Dillan in his winter training and his mom in her treatment. However, what seemed like a harmless fall on a normal training run that winter led to more problems for Dillan. Though this didn’t seem like much at the time, it led to the day when he experienced his latest two setbacks.   

“It was a really funny fall. I just slipped on some ice and fell on my butt,” Dillan said. “At first I thought I strained my leg, so I was still running on it for a few weeks, and that only made it worse.”

Spector was diagnosed with a stress fracture in his sacrum, a part of the lower back, which shut down his spring season and made coming back in the fall even more challenging.

“Facing an injury and working your way back is tough to do, especially when guys that you should be running with are far ahead,” men’s cross country Head Coach Erison Hurtault said. “He went about it the smart way, and he’s coming around and improving at the perfect time in the season. He’s one of the toughest competitors out there. He’s always giving great effort no matter what he’s doing, so that’s kind of where we rely upon him.”

The day that Dillan was diagnosed with a stress fracture, he received a phone call from his mom relaying the news of the death of his grandma.

In the spring — while his teammates earned All-America honors and competed at the NCAA Championships — Spector worked on his recovery, cross training and working his way through the hardships of injury and loss at the same time.

A summer study abroad session in Berlin helped him reset fully and come into this year ready to perform.

“Running in Germany was awesome,” Dillan said. “Every day, I would bike this same loop while I was doing cross training and I was like ‘Damn, I really want to run here.’ Being able to be in a new place was good. That was a nice fresh start for getting back into the running career.”

Even after the months-long recovery process, it took Dillan a few meets to get back to the form that he once had. He completed his first race back in 27:57.5 — his worst 8K time in college. But the season turned around for him as he continued competing and grew in confidence. All of his times after that first race back from injury have topped the numbers he put up last year before his injury.

Dillan’s improvement and strong performances from the team’s underclassmen have put the team in a good spot for its remaining races and beyond. Dillan is looking to continue this success with a strong performance at regionals and a goal of finishing a 5K in under 15 minutes next year.

“Once I stopped running, I realized how much I like running and how much I miss running,” Dillan said. “It was a pretty rough past year, but it does really feel great being back in it now and being able to run fast, and then hopefully I run fast at regionals.”

A version of this article appears in the Monday, Nov. 4, 2019, print edition. Email Benjamin Michael Davis at [email protected]

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