Copy of blog post 19

Dying to Run, Episode 2: “Barkley and Me”

Matt Fitzgerald has been a runner for almost his entire life, but his running days ended abruptly in 2020 when he developed long COVID, a post-viral chronic illness that makes it almost impossible to exercise. “Dying to Run” chronicles Matt’s quest for closure in the form of one last finish line.

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Barkley and Me

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Charles Barkley, the former basketball star. Charles was thirty-six years old and playing out his final professional season when he hurt his knee during a game between the Houston Rockets (to whom he’d been traded by the Philadelphia 76ers earlier that year) and his former team. Fans at Philadelphia’s First Union Center knew the injury was serious when teammates carried the two hundred fifty-two-pound power forward (affectionally known as the “Round Mound of Rebound”) off the court.

In the locker room, Charles learned he’d ruptured his left quadriceps tendon—a nightmare injury for an aging hoopster. He cried for a while and then called his wife. “It’s over,” he said.

At a postgame press conference, Charles sounded philosophical. “It’s unfortunate,” he told reporters, “but I guess the big fella in the sky said he wanted me to finish where I started.”

A part of him was okay with the anticlimax. After all, he’d already made the decision to retire. But a bigger part of him was not okay with it. And so, six months later, on the final day of the 1999-2000 season, Charles overruled his trainer, Tim Groves, tore off the medical brace he was still wearing on the injured leg, and demanded that coach Rudy Tomjanovich allow him to participate in a meaningless matchup (the Rockets had long since been eliminated from playoff contention) against the Vancouver Grizzlies. He entered the game during the second quarter, scoring two points in six minutes. He didn’t play well, but he played, and that’s all that mattered.

“I can’t explain what tonight meant,” Charles said afterward. “I did it for me. I’ve won and lost a lot of games, but the last memory I had was being carried off the court. I couldn’t get over the mental block of being carried off the court. It was important psychologically to walk off the court on my own.”

I don’t have much in common with Charles Barkley, but I understand exactly how much that final bow meant to him, and why. My own personal analog to Charles’s being carried off the court was a DNF (Did Not Finish) at the 2020 Black Canyon 100K, an event organized by the same outfit—Aravaipa Running—that hosts the Javelina Hundred. The race started well enough, I must say (but don’t they all?). The first twenty miles felt like a warm-up, and in the next eleven miles I subjected twenty-four fast-starting hares to the tortoise treatment, crossing the halfway point in forty-first place out of eight hundred and fifty participants.

Then everything went to shit. At thirty-four miles I rolled my right ankle, simultaneously jamming my left big toe against a rock and smashing my right knee against another rock for good measure upon landing. Nothing broke, but my mind never recovered. That’s because my mind was back home in California, where I’d left my mother in the care of Nataki and a day nurse specially trained in handling patients with advanced dementia. I’d felt conflicted about jetting off for the weekend to indulge in a masochistic pastime while my wife “babysat,” and let me tell you, if your goal is to run one hundred kilometers as fast as you can, you need to be all there and all in.

Anyway, next thing I know, I’m on the ground again, my unhappy ruminations brutally interrupted by jagged pain in the right shoulder. This second tumble, for better or worse, occurred less than eight hundred yards from a checkpoint at thirty-eight miles, and when I hobbled in, having managed to move up to thirty-fourth place despite my inability to stay upright, I went straight to the medical tent and informed the staff (in so many words) that I wanted to go home to my mommy.

Three hours later I was blind drunk, alone in my hotel room, hating myself for quitting. Yeah, my toe hurt, and my knee, and my shoulder, but I could have finished, and I’d let myself down in choosing not to. My only comfort (besides alcohol) was the knowledge that there would be other chances.

Or so I thought. But fate has the final say in such matters. I caught COVID-19 while running the Atlanta Marathon two weeks after my failure at Black Canyon. Never before had I been so sick. Yet within five weeks I was running again, greedily reclaiming all the fitness I’d lost. While other runners kvetched about cancelled races, I had a fucking field day, blowing off steam with attempts to run my first sub-five-minute mile since high school and to beat the fastest 10K time ever recorded by a forty-nine-year-old woman, among other random challenges.

Little did I know I was a ticking time bomb, the virus still lurking inside me, awaiting an opportunity. That opportunity came about six months after I recovered from the acute phase of my illness, when exposure to wildfire smoke caused me to start feeling a little off, and then more than a little off, and now here I am, three-plus years later, still feeling way off.

Like Charles Barkley, I received my initial diagnosis with resignation. It’s over. But this feeling didn’t last long for Sir Charles, and it has eroded in me, too. It’s one thing to accept that in sport and life there are no do-overs, another thing to accept the unchangeableness of how things ended. Here’s the truth: I yearn for closure that is almost literal—to finish now what I failed to finish before.

In the early weeks and months of the chronic phase of my illness, I dreamed of a major comeback. I would beat long covid, get fitter than ever, and have my revenge on the Black Canyon 100K. But as my health deteriorated, such grandiose fantasies gave way to more modest wishes, like getting through an entire week without feeling like a cancer patient.

Some months ago, a friend of mine who works in the healthcare space encouraged me to try running again, laying out an ultra-cautious strategy for easing back into the sport that was less likely to end as badly as my prior attempts.

 “Thanks, but no thanks,” I told her. “I mean, what’s the point? I want to train, not just exercise.”

 I’m sure people asked Charles Barkley what point there was in removing his medical boot and hobbling up and down the court for a few minutes in his final game. Had Disney written the script, Barkley would have returned from injury to lead his team to an NBA championship, but instead he missed two of three shots and grabbed a single rebound, a ghost of the player he once was. Nevertheless, Charles got what he wanted from the experience, which was a happier ending to the story of his athletic career.

 Athletes are natural storytellers. To be an athlete is to be the author of story that seeks a happy ending, whether it’s winning a championship, being named Most Valuable Player, or achieving some other ambition. So it doesn’t sit well with athletes when the ending is written for them, and it’s not a happy one. That’s why Charles Barkley’s brief return to basketball meant so much to him. When he walked off the court that night, grinning in that boyish way of his as he slapped hands and hugged his teammates and coaches, being carried off the court four months earlier became the second-to-last chapter of his story.

 If my own athletic story were a Disney movie, I would defeat long COVID with the help of a Miyagi-like mentor, return to Black Canyon, and run the race of my life. For a long time I assumed there was no point in my racing again unless my health was restored and I could return to my prior level. Only when it really sunk in that my health would never be restored did I begin to see the quiet appeal of simple closure, finishing my athletic career with something I do rather than something that is done to me.

And if I end up having to be carried off the Javelina Jundred racecourse somewhere short of the finish line, well, that’s a kind of closure too.

8 Comments

  1. walt chadwick on March 16, 2024 at 1:42 pm

    Best to you Matt. And to all you care for.

  2. John Pick on March 16, 2024 at 3:19 pm

    Don’t give up, Matt. One of the things I’ve learned after 48 years of running, is that the journey is much more important than the destination. You may never be as competitive as your were previously, but the joy of going for a run and inspiring others. Good luck with your journey and that of your families and those close to you.

  3. Lynn on March 18, 2024 at 7:54 am

    Matt – Do you fully understand that by doing this, you are likely to earn yourself a new, much lower baseline than what you have now, and the current mobility and freedoms you do currently have might disappear forever? Is it worth it to be possibly bedbound for the rest of your life? Lots of us athletes with Long Covid are really concerned about you. Feels a bit like a suicide mission.

  4. ABM on March 19, 2024 at 10:07 am

    I understand how you feel: I was running last Friday, technical trail, downhill, fast. Feeling so good. I woke up this Sunday to the room spinning. I have severe vertigo and cannot even walk to the restroom by myself. I saw this email come through on Saturday and didn’t read it. Now that I’ve read it, I understand how terrifying having your love for something disrupted in a way that we can’t understand. Keeping perspective helps. I lost my mom to cancer less than a year ago. Sometimes there are bigger things we runners don’t address because we run to escape it. Eventually, those underline feelings come out in our health. We are forced to stop and reflect. I hope your mojo finds it way back to you. I know this sounds ridiculous but it reminded me of Disney’s Moana, and Mauis magical fishhook.

  5. ABM on March 19, 2024 at 10:07 am

    I understand how you feel: I was running last Friday, technical trail, downhill, fast. Feeling so good. I woke up this Sunday to the room spinning. I have severe vertigo and cannot even walk to the restroom by myself. I saw this email come through on Saturday and didn’t read it. Now that I’ve read it, I understand how terrifying having your love for something disrupted in a way that we can’t understand. Keeping perspective helps. I lost my mom to cancer less than a year ago. Sometimes there are bigger things we runners don’t address because we run to escape it. Eventually, those underline feelings come out in our health. We are forced to stop and reflect. I hope your mojo finds it way back to you. I know this sounds ridiculous but it reminded me of Disney’s Moana, and Mauis magical fishhook.

  6. Josh on March 22, 2024 at 10:44 pm

    This resonates so much with me. I used one of your 80/20 programs to qualify for Boston (ironically for 2020 Boston…). In 2021, I hired a coach to get me down to 3 hours. I ended up postponing this to train for the 2022 France Nice Ironman, my dream race. With only five weeks to go, I came down with Covid (May 22, 2022). I thought I’d bounce back a few days later, complete the training, and do the race. But here I am nearly two years later and I still haven’t recovered from Covid. Every time I try to get back into doing anything (swim, run, bike, etc.), I relapse with burning headaches, severe fatigue/weakness and palpitations (the latter two of which I feel daily). I still can’t believe it happened to me. I had never had a single health issue in 48 years of life, but now I have “long covid”. If I ever recover, I will immediately quit my job and everything else, focus on training, and do that one final race.

    • AM on March 24, 2024 at 10:52 pm

      Sending recovery vibes your way! I hope you get to race again.

  7. Matt Fitzgerald on March 23, 2024 at 7:57 am

    Thanks for the comments, everyone. Keep ’em coming! New episode launches soon.

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