Training for the Boston Marathon and diagnosed with COVID-19

An athlete's experience with the coronavirus.

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The Boston Athletic Association decided to postpone the 124th annual Boston Marathon on March 13, three days after Governor Charlie Baker had declared a state of emergency due to the threat of COVID-19.

At this point, my friend had experienced almost 10 days of symptoms, but the discomfort had not been sufficient to curtail her rigorous training program.

The day after the announcement from the BAA, in an effort to complete her training as planned, my friend had planned a 20 mile run with 10 miles “at marathon pace.” A few days later she went out again. She didn’t finish that run. 

Part of the reason I wanted to interview my friend about her illness (relatively mild as it was) was to get a sense of her experience as an athlete, and as the healthiest person I know. The last time I saw her, she was running every day and warning us she’d have to leave early, after one beer, to get to bed.  

I knew she would have some wise words to share with otherwise young and healthy people about the importance of social distancing, resting when ill, and taking care of yourself and your community in the midst of a global pandemic. Read on for my interview with my dear friend, who will be —hopefully—running the 124th Boston Marathon this summer.

Tell me about the first moment you noticed something might not be right.

I consider myself to be a relatively healthy person. I try not to eat (or drink) too many carbs or sweets, exercise often, and avoid almost all vices. In fact, when I first realized I might have some kind of flu or sickness, I was arguably in the best shape of my life.

In 2015 I joined a local running club, the HFC Striders, and since then have been suckered into running marathons. I qualified for my first Boston in 2017 and ran the 123rd Boston marathon last year. 

So, I was back to training for the 124th iteration with a vengeance, looking for a little retribution. This meant more miles. Like, way more miles. And no days off. My body was responding very well to this new type of training with the guidance of my teams’ coaches. 

I had hit some peak mileage weeks at the end of February into early March. Being the running nerd that I am, a few of my close friends and I planned to travel to Atlanta to watch the Olympic Marathon Trials and run the Atlanta half marathon on March 1, 2020. We had a great time and flew back home, landing at Logan around midnight the next day. I had to work which meant a long day that Monday but it was worth it…right? 

Fast forward to March 5 and I had some unusual GI distress while out for an evening run. Actually, quite comically, about four miles stood between me and the end of my run and I did not think I was going to make it. Thankfully, I spotted a glorious porta potty, shining like a beacon in the dark. Unfortunately it was on a construction site enclosed by a fence. So, I did what any upstanding citizen would do and hopped the fence. A little trespassing saved me. I don’t typically have those types of GI problems but most runners do so I chalked it up to some runners’ gut and didn’t think anything of it. 

On March 7 I had a tough workout and was more tired than usual but again, blamed it exclusively on the mileage. Later, a few nights that week I had what I would call “night sweats”. I’ve had these before, especially with the change of seasons, so I ignored them mostly. I was having some regular diarrhea at this point but figured it could be a little bug or I ate something off—maybe too many greens? 

March 14 I had a 20 mile run planned with a 10 mile up-tempo portion in the middle at marathon pace. At this point we had learned the marathon was postponed until September so this was a way to maintain some normalcy while all the pandemic stuff was going on. I ran the tempo and felt good. I made sure to hydrate, as I had had the GI problems the night before but didn’t feel other symptoms. This run was probably what did me in…

The next several days I had body aches and was fatigued. But it wasn’t the normal running fatigue I had felt and the body aches were not muscle soreness from running, more in my lower back and in between my shoulders. My quads were a little sore but that was a familiar pain. 

I thought I had a little stomach flu or bug, until I went out for a run and noticed a slight tightness in my chest. I wasn’t sure if I was imagining it so I decided to see how it would feel the next day. I went for another run on March 16 in one of my favorite local parks and was feeling pretty good. Fresh air, evening sun setting.  A woman and her family even called out, “You are amazing!” as I ran by. 

I was a little more tired than usual on the run, but was also running a little faster than normal with the lighter weekly mileage. Then, approximately 600 meters from my car, I knew I wasn’t going to finish that run without stopping. I have never had to go that bad that I couldn’t wait. But, disaster struck. I am so glad I was at a park where I could shit in the woods because I would’ve had to throw out my shorts and sell my house if I was in a neighborhood. 

In that instance, I should have known—this was not a little stomach flu.  I went into work on the March 17 now very fatigued, still having GI issues and starting to have a pretty constant dull headache that I equated to dehydration. I was still functioning, and had no cough and no fever. Still, knowing something wasn’t quite right I decided to schedule an appointment with my PCP and get tested for flu B and possibly COVID-19. 

I stayed home from work on March 18 (I ran 8.5 miles that day…) and the next day went into the office to get my stuff to work from home. On March 20 I went to my PCP and officially began quarantine as if I had COVID. The results came back on March 24…positive. In the meantime, I continued to go for “easier” runs. In retrospect, this was not the best way to deal with the virus.

What were your symptoms in general? Did they change over time? 

My symptoms were a combination of everything and they were very variable. It started with GI issues, diarrhea and a few pains in my stomach area. At that time I had night sweats, but no fever. I developed some tightness in my chest when exerting extra effort (aka running) but never had a cough or trouble breathing. I didn’t even have much of a sore throat. I had some bad body aches in between my shoulder blades as well as my lower back. Once those dissipated, I developed a headache. 

The worst part by far were the later days when I developed  what can only be described as a really bad head cold. I was sneezing constantly and had what felt like congestion, but it was not present while sleeping. My nose was running but it was clear, and again no cough and nothing to cough up. At this time I also developed a severe migraine for a few days.

However, after only about three days of the head cold symptoms, they went away. Dayquil was a lifesaver. After that passed, I felt instantly better. I have had no fever throughout this and the only prolonged, long-lasting symptom so far is a dulling of my taste buds and sense of smell.  I didn’t notice this until I ate something spicy and realized I could taste it. I will say the sense of smell has been helpful when bathing my dogs. It’s now the end of the month, and that is the only lingering symptom. Considering this may have started as early as March 5 but definitely kicked in on March 14, I would say this has been the longest amount of time that I have been sick and with a nice combination of everything you can think of. 

Once I realized I was quite sick, I decided to make a concerted effort to really sleep and drink water. I probably slept for 12 hours at least multiple nights. I even took naps, which is something I never do. But, I wanted to beat it and sleep was going to be the only way to really let my body fight the virus.     

What was your experience getting a test?

I was fortunate to get a test through my primary care physician. She has been my doctor for about 10 years so she knows my medical history and that I am not sick often, if ever. I think my concerns about the chest tightness while running and the fact that I had traveled (albeit to Atlanta) were enough to have her accept my request to get a test. 

The test is…unpleasant. It’s like you have to sneeze but can’t and also you are crying. It takes 20 seconds but feels like several minutes. My doctor projected it would take five to six days to get the results back, but in four days (including a weekend) my results were back… positive for COVID-19.  She scheduled a follow-up on the March 27 and to stay tuned for a call with more directives.  

How has your illness affected your marathon training?

As I mentioned, I was running right along until I got the test results back. I actually purposely ran early that day in case I got a call telling me I was positive and to stop. That 20 mile run on the 14th likely was the nail in the coffin for my body. I couldn’t continue to fight the virus and I succumbed to the symptoms.  

While I do not know for sure, it is likely I picked the virus up at the airport when traveling to Atlanta or some other public place.. As far as I’m aware, none of my friends, family, coworkers or contacts are sick.

I was asked, “was it worth it” to go to Atlanta and watch the trials and I 100% said yes. If anyone wants to chat offline about the Olympics and particularly the trials race and/or top three American women, I am all ears! I do feel for the pros for whom running and the Olympics is their livelihood. I hope the 2021 version can happen but public safety and saving lives comes first. That being said, I’ll run Boston whenever it is and just shift the training accordingly.  

What was your experience telling close contacts that you were ill and they would need to quarantine? How did that conversation go down the workplace?

Being a public employee and official, I knew the protocol for the local health departments. I was a bit embarrassed to tell people, I think because I was in disbelief it was positive and the feeling of shame at having been around people while I was sick.  All of the media outlets were warning of a cough and fever and I had neither of those things, but I still felt guilty for not heeding the other signs and symptoms. 

I first texted my friends and family. Then I called my boss and we had a laugh over it (since I am supposed to be the “healthy” one in the office) and then we got to work identifying employees I came into contact with. Unfortunately, I attend a lot of meetings, meet with many department heads, and my office is a “cut-through”, so suffice to say it was a lengthy list and I effectively quarantined the entire town staff. But, everyone was on a limited shift schedule/working from home and went into quarantine without a hitch. To date, I have heard of no one having symptoms which made me feel better and hopeful that I did not give them COVID-19. 

After I got my positive notification, I called my town’s health department and sent all the required info to the Director so she could begin her work of making phone calls, mailing information to direct contacts, and doing subsequent follow-up and check ins with all of my direct contacts.

Usually DPH notifies the Town and then they make the initial call with the person who tested positive, but I knew the procedure and wanted to expedite it for their benefit. I must applaud the local public health folks because I can’t imagine how many calls and emails need to be sent and the paperwork behind all of this. In fact, the Director called to check in on me on this past Sunday just to check on me. She and others have been working basically 24/7 (not on overtime!) to deal with this and I can’t thank them enough. 

When people ask “how are you?”, the last thing you want to say is that you have coronavirus. Plus, my case was relatively mild and I was very fortunate to not have the worst symptoms and I could continue to function as a work-from-home employee, just in quarantine. I certainly was sick (although I hate to admit it) but I was able to work, had food and supplies, and had people checking in on me. I feel very lucky to have had this experience when others have been in much worse positions.

Any advice for younger folks/athletes/generally health people regarding COVID-19? 

For younger folks, please listen to the social distancing. The worst part about being positive was the thought that I got loved ones, friends, and co-workers sick. I felt embarrassed and slightly ashamed to tell them but that’s because of the fear that you can potentially get someone very vulnerable sick. The best way to avoid that is to actually practice the social distancing and sanitize/cleanse surfaces and your hands after you complete the social activity you absolutely can’t avoid doing (like grocery shopping, getting gas, etc). It’s challenging to not spend time with friends or family, but it will be worth it. 

For athletes or runners ,use this time to take it easy. Races are cancelled until further notice, so take this time to run some miles and get fresh air but don’t do anything to totally deplete your immune system. I believe that 20-mile run with a tempo workout was the catalyst for my body to say “nope!” and the reason I probably got sick. That also means I had the virus and was likely sharing it in places I didn’t even think about. So also practice social distancing when exercising. Get some fresh air but be smart about it. 

For those Boston marathoners who can’t compete in April, your fitness is not lost and you will come back to race again. I was feeling totally unmotivated, and quite frankly defeated, because of the postponement of Boston in the midst of my first days of symptoms. Then I was forced to take some time off. The forced time off has re-invigorated me to want to get out and run. So, if you’re feeling down or unmotivated, try some time off. It may help cure the blues and bring the drive back.  

So you’re feeling better. What is your day-to-day like now? What are you looking forward to?

Day to day is a combo of continuing to work from home and keeping my social distancing up. Outside of that, I am looking forward to going grocery shopping on my own at some point. But mostly, I am looking forward to running and biking again. I live in an area where I can go outside and encounter no other humans.

Running is the perfect de-stressor for me so it will help break up the working from home and I can get some fresh air in the process. I’ll probably re-visit the trail, hopefully with a better outcome 600 meters from the car. With a September Boston Marathon, I won’t have to start marathon training until June so I can just enjoy the easier miles and try to stay healthy. I feel I have some immunity now but I know I need to be vigilant with my hand washing and continue to do my part in this whole thing.

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I created PunkMed to write about my passions—health, sustainability, and the outdoors.


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