This is a test.

Dying to Run, Episode 5: “This Is a Test”

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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Growing up, my brother Sean often accused me of exaggerating my cough. Every time I got sick, my scrawny little body produced a wolfish bark that kept the whole house awake at night, and around midnight Sean would yell at me from across the hall to stop faking. But I wasn’t! Nor did I outgrow the noisome quirk. When I got COVID, my childhood cough returned with a vengeance. Oddly, though, it bothered me only twice a day: when I got out of bed in the morning and when I lay down again at night, at which times it bothered me plenty. Half-hour fits of expiratory violence began the moment I lifted my head off the pillow and the again sixteen hours later when I reversed the motion. And that’s no exaggeration.

If only Sean had been present for these episodes. I coughed up phlegm, bile, blood, and—on two occasions—my dinner. My entire body seized with the force of each convulsion, blowing out a concussive roar so ghastly that Nataki fled the room, unable to bear the sound of me, much less the sight. Picture a demon-possessed pajama-wearer in the throes of a doomed exorcism.

One night I coughed so hard I broke a rib. My brother, Josh, who works as a nurse practitioner, says it’s impossible to break a rib by coughing, and it’s more likely I tore some cartilage. Maybe so, but I’m confident an actual broken rib wouldn’t have hurt any more. Imagine being stabbed in the lung with a letter opener, not once but twenty times per minute for thirty minutes at a time, twice a day for eleven days. And the noise I made now was even more ghastly than before, a satanic blend of plosive hack and shrill involuntary scream. I sounded like a transgender medieval war prisoner being flayed alive.

The anticipation alone was excruciating. I braced myself mentally for each new round of torture, knowing exactly what was coming. But there came a night when, braced again to be flayed alive, I coughed with less violence than I had in the morning, and for less than thirty minutes. Realizing I’d been spared the expected exorcism, I was visited by an emotion so bizarrely inappropriate I couldn’t immediately identify it: disappointment.

Disappointment! Why? My best guess is that, on some level, I regarded my coughing fits as tests. COVID-19 wanted to break my spirit, and I wanted to prove it couldn’t. The decades I’d spent cultivating the ability to dominate athletic suffering had bent my mind in such a way that I welcomed my painful coughing fits as opportunities to score some kind of moral victory. Which is pretty fucked up. But am I really any more fucked up than a person dying from acute drug withdrawal? If there’s one thing I’ve learned in fifty-three years on Earth, it’s that our bodies and minds can and will adapt to just about anything.

Of course, I was very glad when my coughing fits petered out. But before then, a part of me accepted the torment as a personal challenge. And I’m doing it again today. I’d like nothing more than to recover from long COVID. In the meantime, though, I greet it as another chance to prove my mettle, not to other people but to the disease. Like, Is that all you got?

I sometimes imagine I’m in a cosmic competition with ninety-nine other people who are suffering in precisely the same ways I am, and the contestant who copes most effectively wins a prize. Don’t ask me how one measures coping or what the prize ought to be. It just helps me to think this way. I no longer an athlete’s body, but I still have an athlete’s mind, evidently.

At dinner yesterday I said something to Nataki and Lauren and Ruby and John (a Dream Runner from Winnipeg) that I realized was true only after the words left my mouth. Lauren had asked about my goal for the Javelina Jundred, and I answered, “In a word: catharsis. That’s what I’m really after. I want this race to be the hardest and most painful thing I’ve ever volunteered for, to go to the darkest dark places my soul has ever gone and not crumble. If it’s easy—and of course it won’t be—I’ll feel cheated.”

The reason COVID-19 didn’t break me, and long COVID hasn’t yet broken me, is that I’m good at suffering. And I’m good at suffering because I made suffering my hobby. And did I make suffering my hobby because I somehow understood that in order to be good at life I needed to be good at suffering? I think so.

In my early twenties I fell in love with Friedrich Nietzsche, philosophy’s great proponent of suffering, who wrote, “The discipline of suffering, of great suffering—know ye not that it is only this discipline that has produced all the elevations of humanity hitherto?” Nietzsche himself suffered immensely throughout his life. Paralyzing migraines plagued his youth, and things got worse from there. Fainting spells, gastric spasms, seizures, and progressive blindness forced him to retire from a professorship at the University of Basel when he was just thirty-five, and at forty-five he suffered an aneurysm that left him in a vegetative state for the last eleven years of his life. Despite it all, however, he wrote, “Yes, at the bottom of my soul I feel grateful to all my misery and bouts of sickness and everything that is imperfect.”

I’d suffered very little in my own life when, as a recent college graduate, I devoured Nietzsche’s complete works. Yet something about his perspective on suffering touched the bottom of my soul. “To those human beings who are of any concern to me,” he writes in The Will to Power, “I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities . . . because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not—that one endures.” Little did I know when I read these words how fulsomely my future would fulfill Nietzsche’s wishes: the desolation I underwent as the husband of a woman with severe mental illness; the suffering I experienced as frequently injured endurance athlete; and now the sickness and indignities I face as a COVID long-hauler. That’s a bad hand of cards, but no worse, I suppose, than anyone else’s. As the Buddha said, “Life is suffering.” And because life is suffering, we cannot hope to attain happiness by avoiding suffering. True happiness comes from becoming good at suffering, which is to say, from growing stronger through suffering, and enduring.

Suffering has made me stronger. Would I really want to have suffered less and be weaker? I would not.

Suffering has taught me many things about myself that I would never have learned otherwise. Would I really want to have suffered less and know myself less? No again.

Suffering his given me a vision of the man I want to be and moved me closer to becoming this man. Would I really want to have suffered less and be a lesser version of myself? Hell, no!

Only one conclusion can be drawn from these truths, which is that suffering is good, albeit unpleasant.

A former Dream Runner once said to me, “You sure talk a lot about suffering.” What he meant, of course, was this: “I wish you wouldn’t talk so much about suffering.” Normal people don’t think suffering is good. They would rather suffer less and be weaker, suffer less and know themselves less, suffer less and be lesser versions of themselves. They think I’m weird.

Perhaps I am, but at least I’m not alone. Dostoevsky wrote, “There is only one thing I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” While normal people hope the test gets cancelled, or at least gets easier, weirdos like us just want to pass the test. And that is why the only relief I seek from the involuntary suffering of chronic illness is the voluntary suffering of running as fast as I can for as long as I can—with a chronic illness.

3 Comments

  1. Andy on April 14, 2024 at 7:10 pm

    I remember seeing Ned Overend being interviewed. When asked about what it takes to win, he said that the winner was the one who decided that they were going to suffer the most. Enjoying your blog and feeling your pain on a much smaller scale. I’ve had 3 bouts of post viral fatigue in my life, the first of which was the worst. My then girlfriend and I got Eppstein Barr in ’99, it lasted for 9 years. At the time, I was an aspiring roadie with a small amateur team lined up in Spain. I all but totally quit cycling. Again 7 years ago, I got a viral infection that gave me all sorts of fatigue, brain fog, weird twitching and leg pain and cramps. More recently, following a successful race, I felt drained for weeks. I then caught a nasty case of Covid which floored me for 3 months. Extreme dizziness, palpitations, fatigue, anxiety through the roof and the darn painful, cramping legs! Your experience expressed in your blog had been helpful for me at my lowest, “misery loves company.” I’ve slowly recovered, building fitness since January. Although I mostly was riding for my own sanity. To my surprise, I have had success in 2 races, one in March and the other last weekend. I could ramble on, but I won’t. I wish you

  2. Andy on April 14, 2024 at 7:15 pm

    the best in your challenge!

  3. walt chadwick on April 18, 2024 at 1:58 pm

    Thank you

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