The last time I tried to run it did not go well. It was May 2021, four months after I stopped running in the hope that doing so would heal me from long covid. Alas, my symptoms showed no improvement in that time, but neither did they worsen, so I decided to try to ease back into a light jogging routine for the sake of my mental health.
My first run was a single 10-minute mile on a fitness club treadmill. It went okay, giving me the confidence to jog another mile the next day, and the next. I was on my way!
Until I wasn’t. With long covid and other post-viral syndromes there are two barriers to exercise. The first is exercise intolerance. That’s when you feel like shit while you exercise. The other is post-exertional malaise. That’s when you feel like death after you exercise.
On day four of my return to running I discovered that I was unable to rise from bed. Words cannot begin to describe the agony I felt. Imagine your body is a burning building and your soul is trapped inside, desperate but unable to get out. I Iay in bed the entire day hyperventilating, curled into a tight little ball of misery, wishing for some quick and final means of ending my suffering.
When this is the price you pay for trying to run, you’re in no great hurry to try again. Hence, I waited an entire year to do so, and even then, it was more a matter of necessity than of choice. In May 2022 I got caught in a snow squall while walking toward a hotel I’d booked in Boulder, Colorado. By this point I was so fully detrained that I felt like an arthritic centenarian as I slogged some 300 meters to lobby door wearing street clothes. The price I paid for this two-minute shuffle was several weeks of exacerbated long covid symptoms, including exhaustion, shortness of breath, brain fog, and paresthesia.
Happily, by the time New Year’s Day 2023 rolled around, all of my symptoms were in abeyance, my only remaining complaint being a touch of general malaise (or as I like to call it, “chemotherapy feeling”) in the morning. I had recently moved to Flagstaff, a place where I had felt comparatively well during each of my prior post-covid visits, which is a major reason I choose to move here. Although movers were hired to do the grunt work, I wound up chipping in a fair amount of lifting and carrying, and I noticed that I felt okay in the days that followed. I’d been waiting on a gut intuition that it was safe to try to run again, and on January 1st, I got it.
On the advice of my friend and fellow coach Jessica Schnier, who was staying with my wife and me at the time, I structured the session as a run/walk: 30 seconds on, 30 seconds off—that’s it. I grant that a person has to be in a really bad way to find himself struggling in such a modest session, but I was actually pleasantly surprised by how decent I felt, considering that, long covid aside, I am a sedentary fifty-one-year old man. I suppose low expectations had something to do with it, but still.
The real test, though, was how I would feel the next day, and the next. The answer, it turned out, was fine. So, I ran again on the 3rd, progressing to six times 1 minute on, 1 minute off. Again I felt okay during the session, and as I write these words 48 hours hours after run number two, I feel fine, and am planning to do five times 90 seconds later today.
There’s no telling where this process will lead. Even in the best-case scenario, where my progress continues unimpeded, I doubt I will ever compete again. I say this in part because, four months into my battle with long covid, I was diagnosed with heart disease, which in my case was likely caused by decades of punishing my body in training and racing. But I say it also because my time away from the sport has given me a different appreciation for what running does for me.
I wasn’t speaking loosely when I said above that my abortive May 2020 comeback attempt was motivated by concerns for my mental health. When I was running, I was happy. I woke up each morning excited for what lay ahead, brimming with passion and confidence. Now my days are peppered with little internal pep talks I give myself in an effort to muster a minor-key enthusiasm for life. So, while I truly have no clue whether I will still be running one month from now, I am certain that if I am running, however slowly, I will be as happy as any man on earth.
Pray for me.