I finished Ironman Arizona in November 2017 at the peak of my physical fitness. Four days later, I was the sickest I’ve ever been in my life.
I remember waking up in darkness with fire in my throat, and then restlessly counting down the hours until I could get dressed and drive to a clinic. At the clinic there was the obligatory strep test (which came back negative), and then finally the assurance that it was just a virus and that it would run its course in seven days. I loaded up on tea and cold meds and settled in for the long haul.
It was like nothing I’d ever felt before, but I accepted it as the consequences of the demands I had just so recently placed on my body. I had been in physical distress before the race even started, and an additional 15 hours of cardio no doubt made things worse. My immune system was not in any position to fight. The virus set to work and all I could do was wait.
Thanksgiving came and went (and with it my voice). Then Black Friday. The rest of November. The start of December, until finally, I woke to that golden day where the illness passes and life begins anew. As an athlete it was hard to get back on the horse and start training again, but I did it. I trotted my way through a few lackluster runs and awkward spins on my bike. I even managed to make it through a few low energy swim sets without too much difficulty (although with quite a bit of coughing). I kept at it, as I had been trained to do, and soon discovered that I was bouncing back. Recovery wasn’t as bad as I thought it might be, and within a couple weeks I was able to set a new PR in my first 5K race.
5 days later I was sick again.
At some point during the multi-plane journey to my mom’s house in Texas, I managed to pick up another virus, this one much more deadly. But I didn’t know it at the time.
Instead I did what I always do when I arrive in Texas for Christmas vacation—I set up my training routine. In spite of mounting fatigue (surely just jetlag, right?) and a drastic change in weather (there’s no winter in Texas, right?) I stuck to my training schedule. I swapped shorts for long tights and bundled up in a cap and long sleeves, and stayed just as committed as I had been in Los Angeles. I had big plans for the new year and wanted to get started early before any bad habits could creep in. The last strong run I could remember was a grueling 6-mile event, uphill, into a headwind, in sub 50 temperatures. Within an hour I had a headache, and within three hours I had a fever.
But worse than the illness was the denial. Of course I wasn’t sick AGAIN. I was coughing because the air was cold, or dry, or more full of allergens than I was used to. I had night sweats and fever dreams because the heating system was old and inefficient. I was sneezing because there was dust in the air. I wasn’t sick. Definitely not. No way.
Except I was.
The day after a Christmas spent with my head over a tissue box and tears in my eyes, my mother put her foot down and insisted that I go see a doctor. I grudgingly obeyed, hoping to be back in time to see Star Wars with my dad and sister. An hour passed in the ER. Then another. Then finally the test came back positive—I had the flu.
I could never remember having the flu in my life and was surprised to think that I had it then. I had put off seeing a doctor because I had insisted that my symptoms were no worse than the occasional allergies I would have as a kid. Even the doctor was impressed with my stamina, saying that I was handling it remarkably well, and that I must have been really tough. Yeah. Too tough.
This time they gave me the good stuff—steroids, decongestants, anti-virals, and cough syrup. Within 24 hours I felt as good as new (steroids are AMAZING), and within a couple days I didn’t even feel sick. But I knew that I was and this time I was more willing to take it easy.
Turns out I didn’t have much of a choice. Unlike the previous cold which had had me down but not out, the flu, for lack of a better phrase, completely kicked my ass. I couldn’t even pretend to want to train. My window of activity lasted about 8 hours a day, and was spent on work or other life errands. The remaining 16 were spent in bed or otherwise immobile, and 10 of them asleep. The virus had run its course, but I could feel the effects lingering. I had frequent headaches. Serious fatigue. Body aches. General ickiness.
I became much more fragile than I could ever remember being. If I missed a meal or was hungry for too long (as a busy schedule will occasionally do to a person), everything fell apart. I would get headaches and require 11 hours of sleep to reset everything. If my schedule became too packed or circumstances too stressful, everything fell apart. Training came back little by little, but only in the smallest ways. A 45 minute run was tolerable, but 46 minutes was out of the question. My heart rates were always 20 beats too high or 10 beats too low. My speed was gone. I had no endurance. I couldn’t push myself physically or mentally in any capacity.
But just like any other endurance event, all I could do was endure. So I waited, collecting the strength of each new day and preserving what I had managed to regain. By partway through January, things were starting to feel okay again, but the process was long and hard.
I’ve since learned that this year’s flu strain has been one of the deadliest in recent history. It’s been distressing to hear so frequently of others who’ve had the same illness and didn’t survive, especially knowing that I didn’t take my illness seriously when it first presented. Even now, I believe that as bad as I felt during my week with the flu, none of it approached what I felt during the marathon of Ironman Arizona. Had I not been at home with family, would I have known when it was time to go see a doctor?
In the midst of so much illness, I tried to take it all as a sign to calm down and add more balance to my life. Okay fine, maybe I didn’t need 2-3 hours of training a day. What did I used to do before training? I used to read, didn’t I? And write?
Things got better. I started training again. Got some speed back. Upped my endurance. Slowly but surely my heart rate found its rightful place. I even started to make some gains. But I didn’t just train—I made myself write more. I set goals for reading. I hung out with friends, I watched good movies. I started taking on more projects to improve my business. I had a birthday. I ate junk food. Things were going great so I did what I always do when things are going great—I did more things! I packed my schedule. I tried to be everywhere and do everything. I missed some sleep but it was okay, I was being productive. I missed some meals but I wasn’t hungry anyway.
We know how this story ends, don’t we?
As of today, I’m just now getting over my third illness in as many months. This time the cold came on abruptly and the denial was much shorter. I tried to go on the offensive—pushing myself through a couple of really tough workouts in an effort to persuade my immune system into action. I also went heavy on Vitamin C and immune meds at the first indication that something was off. I’ve mixed some rest days in with a few workout days (no longer training, just workouts) in an attempt to keep up my strength. I think my efforts have paid off but the illness has served as yet another reset and much needed course correction. As often happens in times of distress, I find myself, inexplicably, turning to poetry.
I can’t really explain it. When I was in school I liked poetry, but was forced to contend with it on a level that bred intense hatred during my years at Princeton. At Princeton there were exams and essays and tetrameter and pentameter and iambs and trochees and all I really wanted to do was sleep. There were Restoration comedies and revenge tragedies and so much old dusty stuff that I just did not care about.
But now it’s different. I find myself working to memorize T.S. Eliot, eager to recite Chaucer, and boldly boasting Tennyson whenever the situation calls for it (which is never, but I do it anyway). When I mentioned this newfound phenomenon to my mother, she helped me make sense of it, as mothers tend to do. She illuminated the fact that in the middle of so much discomfort, poetry must offer me some sort of comfort. It makes sense. There’s something reassuring about foundational English literature.
This most recent illness has been particularly tough on my respiratory system. My airways still aren’t responding the way they usually do, and due to severe lifelong allergies, they’ve always been a touch delicate. In this bout of sickness, my air, a thing natural and precious to me, had been taken. It only felt natural that I would seek comfort in reclaiming a thing just as personal and intimate—my language.
In those dark moments when I would wake stranded in the night and struggling to breathe in pits of congestion, I would turn on a light and crack open Beowulf. As I read, I would imagine the heady voices of Anglo-Saxon scops reciting lines in Old English, and lose myself in the rhythms of stresses and beats, letting a similar pattern return to my breathing, until finally, sleep would find me again.
At other times it was Paradise Lost, reading through Satan’s descent into Hell and the parliamentary arguments of how best to exact revenge against God for expulsion from Heaven. I would immerse myself in Milton’s wandering, Latinate verse, forcing my mind into the steady stillness of comprehension as I navigated mazes of adjective clauses to chase elusive subjects. Reading Milton while sick becomes a riddle that pushes the mind into sharper awareness while at the same time offering a dreamlike simplicity that keeps all other distraction at bay. In that simplicity and stillness, once again, I would find sleep.
As I recover, my new priority moving forward is to try to keep that stillness with me. I still run, but only to feel the gentle beat of pounding beneath my feet in concert with the rise and fall of my chest. I swam again recently, but only so that I could feel the rhythm of water and fill my lungs with warm, humid air. Considering that my bike is still propped up on a trainer in the middle of my room (with no plans to move it any time soon), I will likely still ride, but on my terms.
So am I still training? Yes and no. I’m still working out but have no race plans for the rest of the year. Typically the decision to move forward with or to abandon a season can be one of the toughest to make but I’ve found that my body has made it for me. Perhaps I got too comfortable with being uncomfortable, and convinced myself that I truly have no limits to the point where I can no longer feel my limits. I’m thankful for what I was able to do last year and for all the support I had, and I’ll allow it to my body to have this year to fully rest and recover. And in the meantime, I’ll give my mind to poetry.