Sydney Studer: Diary of a COVID long-hauler, Chapter 3 (Column)

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Note: The Lawrence Times is running this series written by a community member who caught COVID-19 around the beginning of the pandemic in spring of 2020. Sydney Studer is reflecting, documenting and sharing her experience with what has come to be known as “long COVID.”

Get caught up:

March 31, 2021: Chapter 1: The ‘Tiger King’ era
March 31, 2021: Chapter 2: Tinkerbell the greyhound

3: Running for — and from — a cure

In my quest for healing, I found harm and I found pain.

At first, I was unable to find the pattern in my good and bad days. Some days were great. On the better days, I could do laundry, dishes, and vacuum all on the same day. On the others, I couldn’t stand long enough to take a shower.

I never knew which day I was going to get until it was happening. It was too much to take it day by day. I was taking things hour by hour.

I get emotional when I think about how I didn’t know any better. I didn’t know better than to stop trying to do more.

I would have a good day and go for a longer walk with Tink (read: 10 minutes instead of five), only to be exhausted at the end. I would have a good day and clean my house, only to be exhausted at the end. I would have a good day and try to go for a run, only to be … you guessed it, exhausted at the end.

I have been working hard to give myself grace. I thought I would heal as I ran more, as long as I took it slow. I thought my body would slowly transform back into the running machine it had been, as long as I took it slow.

I thought I would be who I used to be, as long as I took it slow. 

It didn’t make sense to me, not improving. I wasn’t familiar with long COVID as the sickness we have come to know.

Recently, the National Institute of Health gave long COVID an official name: Post-Acute Sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 infection, or PASC.

Dr. Anthony Fauci has stated that there isn’t one single reason for why long COVID happens. In an interview with the Harvard Health Letter, Fauci said long COVID is very similar to myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome. ME/CFS is an under-researched autoimmune condition that affects many parts of the body, including the brain, the immune system and energy metabolism.

The similarity has led to a lot of discourse between ME/CFS patients and long COVID patients on the topic of research funding. Many ME/CFS patients who have felt frustration and pain in seeing a disease that is eerily similar to theirs grab the attention and money they’ve long wanted to be focused on their condition. To people with ME/CFS: I see you, I hear you and I am rooting for you. I hope the research into long COVID benefits every single one of you, and I’m sorry it took this pandemic for more people to notice ME/CFS.

I am not a medical expert, so I won’t go into too much detail. But many people with ME/CFS have a difficult time exercising, due to the energy metabolism issues that come with it. Many COVID long-haulers experience similar symptoms of exercise intolerance, myself included. 

That should have been my signal to stop.

Instead, I pushed.

I pushed too hard for too many months. I ended up finding a pattern to the madness: for about two weeks, I would feel good. Then the next two weeks, I was in a lot of pain, fatigued, sleeping 14-plus hours per day. I had headaches, nausea, and I struggled with brain fog. 

I went so far as to contemplate permanently altering my training schedule: two weeks of higher intensity, two weeks of lower intensity or rest.

All along, the answer was so simple. It was right in front of me, but I was too proud to see it. I wish I hadn’t been. 

I made my recovery from long COVID complicated because I could not let go of the one thing I’ve counted on for so long: running.

I count on running for stress relief. I count on running to feel happy. I count on running to feel powerful, capable and satisfied.

After contracting COVID, I could not let go of my daily run, even when it meant spending more than half of the day too tired to stand up.

I could not let it go even when it meant I could not eat because of the COVID nausea.

I could not let it go even when it meant setting myself back.

I thought, “I’d rather be able to do something rather than nothing. I should be thankful.” Without running and movement, I felt empty, alone and lost.

Looking back, I don’t know if I was in denial about what was happening, or if it really wasn’t clear what recovery was supposed to look like in COVID patients like me: never hospitalized, never had a scary-high fever, with no preexisting conditions. I was 26 years old, for crying out loud.

I’d like to think it was a little bit of both, but the denial outweighs it all.

In late September, I made the decision to stop exercising until the end of the year. I made myself promise I would not lift weights or run until Jan. 1, 2021.

I allowed for walks, starting with five minutes at a time. I worked my way up from there, but slowly. More slowly than I thought was necessary.

The key was to do less than I actually could. You can always do a little more the next day or the next week, but you cannot do less. If you step over the line, you cannot go back. As soon as you feel that pain in your chest or those deep breaths in the middle of sentences, you’ve gone too far. 

I have never been one for walks. I didn’t like them because they bored me.

In mid-October, we adopted a second dog. His name is Walter and he is a 4-year-old black greyhound. He loves going for walks. He is good on a leash and he looks so cute prancing around the streets of our neighborhood. I started walking with him, and it became our thing. Eventually, Walter and I worked our way up to an hourlong walk.

I was learning that if I was ever going to run again, I first had to walk again.

— Sydney Studer (she/her) lives in the Kansas City metro with her two rescue greyhounds and fiancé. She is a runner who loves game nights with her friends and sitting by the fire pit on a cool night. Long COVID derailed her running, but she is getting back to it, one day at a time.

Sydney Studer Walter

Sydney Studer Walter

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