Mutiny of the Body

Dying to Run, Episode 7: “Mutiny of the Body”

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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Before there was long covid there were injuries. Lots of them. Shin splints, muscle tears, bone reactions, tendon strains, nerve impingements, fasciitis, bursitis, all the itises, one after another. Add ‘em up and I lost more than eight years to breakdowns of one kind or another. While other athletes worried about making it to the finish line, I worried about reaching the start line, and I often didn’t. Of the six Ironman triathlons I signed up for, I missed four. That’s a lot of wasted hours in the pool! A biopic of my athletic journey would be titled Mutiny of the Body. Except there won’t be a biopic because I accomplished nothing cinema-worthy as an athlete . . . because I was hurt too often.

One thing I can say for long covid is that it kept me out of the physical therapy clinic. In the three-plus years I didn’t run I suffered zero injuries, unless you count the time I missed a step and landed hard on my kneecap (and yes, loss of balance is a documented symptom of long covid). Come to think of it, long covid itself is a kind of injury—a whole-body overreaction to the stress of viral infection that strongly parallels my musculoskeletal fragility. I don’t have an Achilles heel—I have an Achilles body. At times I wonder if I’m cursed. Like, for real. I mean, how many runners who participated in the 2020 Atlanta Marathon got COVID-19? And how many of those runners got so sick they broke a rib coughing? And how many of those runners got even sicker later? Just me.

Having shattered the world record for most running injuries suffered in a single lifetime, I can say with authority that injuries never strike when things are already going badly. No, no, no. They get you when you least expect them, landing broadside as you dance atop some great pinnacle of success.

Like the time my adductor magnus tendon blew up a quarter-mile from the finish of what had until then been the single greatest workout of my entire life, on Lake Mary Road, seven years ago, with the pros. Here again my long covid experience parallels my injury experience, the virus smiting me as I conquered the hills of Atlanta in pink Nikes, feeling on top of my game.

You might think you can outfox injury by expecting it, but you can’t. I learned this on Saturday, at the ten-mile mark of a planned fourteen-miler, when I let my guard down for about a second and a half, which was all the time my body needed to turn on me again, stopping dead with a zap of blinding pain in the left calf coupled with a sickening sense of something giving out.

Mind you, I’m not a complete idiot. Aware of my history, I’ve been braced for pain lately as my running has increased, but what I didn’t expect was how good I would feel during those first ten miles, seven of which I ran uphill against a forty-mile-per-hour headwind on unpaved Crimson Road, my heart rate hovering at the same low level it had in my last long run, done in far more favorable conditions at a far slower pace. Never in all my years of running had I gained so much fitness in a single week. It seemed impossible, in the best possible wat. Miraculous. My heart swelled with gratitude as I cruised along in relative comfort despite the hail of wind-driven sand pelting my face, mouthing spontaneous words in rhythm with my breath: thank you, thank you, thank you! That’s when my calf gave out.

If you’ve been injured as often as I have, you don’t need a doctor to tell you what’s wrong when you get injured again. First degree soleus tear. No running for two weeks. A master pain reader can know these things without the help of magnetic resonance imaging, and I take no pride in saying I am a master pain reader.

How the fuck am I going to get back to the Dream Machine?

This, I’ll admit, was my first thought. I’d left the Mazda on Lake Mary road, four miles from my present location, locked and inaccessible to the Dream Runners I’d dropped off ninety-two minutes before promising to be back way sooner than I was now going to be. Even walking hurt. A lot. My mind’s eye saw raw sinew shredding with each hitching step. Sensing danger, my inner Marcus Aurelius now intruded, ready as ever to choke off self-pity.

Pssst! Hey! Stay positive. You hear me? Look at me: Don’t lose perspective. The only reason you hurt yourself is that, for the first time in four years, you’re actually able to train hard enough to hurt yourself! You’re way ahead of expectations despite this little contretemps.

Marcus was right, I knew. But man, what a comedown! Imagine spending four years in prison, dreaming of release, only to be arrested for some ticky-tack parole violation after twenty-four hours of freedom. That’s how it felt to lose running—again—at the exact moment I remembered what it felt like to be a runner. Not that long ago, I was running once a week, and the wait between runs seemed interminable, like watching the clock while holding your breath. Last week I ran thrice, and still I had a hard time falling asleep before Saturday’s ill-fated run, so eager was I. Despite knowing that if I played it smart I’d be running again in two weeks tops, I felt childishly chagrined during the long limp back to the Dream Machine, like a preschooler staring at a pile of cold brussels sprouts, trying to earn his ice cream.

One benefit of getting injured a lot is that you learn how to cope with injury, and in my experience there’s no better way to cope with injury than to cross-train like a maniac. The next morning I was on my ElliptiGO bike, chasing the psychic sedative of endorphin release. The last time I’d ridden an ElliptiGO in Flagstaff I was weeks away from running my fastest marathon. My muscles somehow remembered that ride, and without thinking I launched out of the garage at a speed that left me gasping before I’d left the neighborhood. And the neighborhood’s flat. The first hill caused my quadriceps to judder like a pair of losing arm-wrestlers. With a rush of elation I realized I was going to get a lot fitter during the week or two I couldn’t run.

When I rolled back into the garage, I found Lauren on the floor doing core work.

“How was it?” she asked, pursuing her lips as she does when suppressing laughter.

“I just got my ass handed to me!” I said, my tone that of a person announcing they’d just found a thousand dollars.

An unhinged giggle burst out of my elder fake daughter.

“I love you!” she said.

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