Two years ago, Ken Billings’ life looked very different. He took 10 pills every day for his diabetes, cholesterol and blood pressure. He was also nearly 140 pounds heavier.

In 2017, one of Ken’s friends asked if he’d like to join a Spartan (obstacle course) race. Ken agreed to participate and started doing a little training. When he finally made it onto the course, Ken sprained his ankle on the first obstacle, and—as you’ll soon learn about his dedication—he finished the race.

On Monday morning, Ken went to the doctor to have his ankle examined. While his foot was going to be fine, he heard some very hard news: “With your family’s health history, and yours…you’re going to be dead in four and a half or five years.”

That wake-up call changed Ken’s life.

Losing the Weight

Ken started trying diets and different exercises, but he wasn’t losing more than 15 pounds. He went back to his doctor, who recommended surgery. “I ended up getting the sleeve,” Ken says. “They didn’t re-route anything; my stomach is just a lot smaller than it used to be.”

In addition, Ken began taking his exercise routine seriously. He started running—a lot. “After the surgery I had a goal of running two events, two races, every month on two different weekends. So, 24 races last year. And, somehow, it morphed into Spartan races.”

Tackling the Obstacles

Those Spartan races are no small feat, Ken says. He’s now doing them so frequently that he’s built an obstacle course in his backyard to practice. “Their big thing is mud. We gotta have mud. They dig three holes in a row, and you have to go down into the mud, chest-deep.”

Ken Billings runs his first Spartan Race
Ken Billings, front left, jumps a fire in his first Spartan Race.

He also describes swinging across gymnast rings, carrying a five-gallon bucket full of stones up a hill, army-crawling under barbed wire, scaling a wall and jumping through fire.

In the "Trifecta" weekends, Ken completes three races and incredible distances (not to mention overcoming these grueling obstacles). “I didn’t think I’d be capable of doing a 5K,” Ken says, “let alone 85 miles in one weekend.”

Racing with the YMCA

Towards the end of the year, Ken realized that he needed to find a few races for December. That’s how he heard about the Sumner County Family YMCA’s Frostbite 5K/10K. It ended up being event number 37 for him—13 races more than the 24 he had originally planned.

One of the things he remembers best about the Frostbite? Beating his personal record—and the chill. “I got here and it was so cold. We took off, came back around, and I saw the finish line. I thought: ‘Holy smokes. This is going to be another personal best for me.’”

Ken Billings at the Frostbite 5K/10K
Ken Billings, pictured at his first Frostbite 5K, encourages others who wish to make a positive lifestyle choice to find their 'why'—a personal motivator.

When Ken ran his first 5K, his time was just shy of an hour. At the Frostbite, he finished in under 26 minutes. “I really enjoyed it,” he says. “I’m doing it again this year. There were a couple hills, and we ran through some nice neighborhoods. It was a great way to end the year and get ready for the new year.”

Ken recommends the Frostbite for running newbies. “If you’re thinking about running a 5K, it’s a good one to start on,” he says. “Get started now. And, dress warmly.”

Inspiring Others

He isn’t quick to admit that he “may, sometimes, kinda” inspire people, but all signs point to Ken spreading his motivation, willpower and overall optimism to everyone around him.

He invited two friends to join him for a Spartan race (both are now on their way to better health), and he encourages new friends during the races that they can, indeed, get over that wall that looks way too high.

Ken's before and after photo
Before and after Ken's health transformation

“When you make the decision to change your life,” Ken says, “it has to be a personal decision. I don’t want to go anytime soon. I’ve got family: nieces, nephews, my brother and sister, my mom and dad, my wife—they’re the reason that I made the change because I want to be around for them.”

When he feels himself slipping into old habits, Ken goes into the gym and carries around a couple of 70-pound dumbbells—a little over the amount of weight he’s lost—to remind himself that it’s not worth going back. When asked about his diabetes, Ken had a stunning response: “I used to take [10 pills] a day. Now, I take a daily vitamin—that’s it.”

Finding Your Why

Ken is dedicated to becoming the best version of himself and wants the same for others. He encourages those trying to make a lifestyle change to find their personal “why.”

"Make sure you have a ‘why’ so that when you get to the point of, ‘Is this really worth it?’ you can look back and say, ‘This is the reason I’m doing it,’” he says. “If I can do it, anybody can. I’m nobody special. It’s hard work, dedication, and your ‘why.’”

Get Moving

Join Ken and the Hendersonville community at the Frostbite 5K/10K race on Jan. 2 at the Sumner County Family YMCA. Learn more about the race