I picked up running for all the wrong reasons. My boss and his wife ran the New York marathon to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. I figured if they could do it then it would be a breeze for a young man like me. I hastily declared at out office Christmas party that I was also running the following year. I won the lottery early in early 2016. Race day was a different story, my overconfidence of youth was completely dismantled when I hit the “wall” around mile 22. An intense crossfitter grabbed my hand and tried to psyche me up with some aggressive pep talk, but she cut her losses after about half a mile and I “run-walked” the remainder of the race up 59th Street and into Central Park. Fast forward to April 2020, running saved my life in an intense six-week battle with the Coronavirus. Now that I am fully recovered, I wanted to elaborate on why running played a critical role in my recovery.
- Psyche – All runners know that every run is hard. I have inquired and even the pros hear that little voice in the head persuading them to stop. And, while one could run alongside other people one is always alone. Runners who persist develop a stick-to-itiveness and build all sorts of coping tools for endurance. After visiting the local hospital, I decided to self-isolate in my tiny apartment in New York. The hospital didn’t have enough beds and testing kits and the staff determined that I was young enough to slug it out at home. As soon as I arrived back home, I realized I didn’t have groceries. That was just the beginning. Over the course of a few days, the symptoms got worse and I couldn’t sleep. I resorted to my phone to distract from the pain. I was unprepared for the psychological anguish when I opened my SmartNews app to check the news. SmartNews has a banner at the top with what looks like a scrolling count of Covid infections and deaths. A friend sent me a link to a website that carried updates for new infections and deaths by zip code in New York. Another friend sent me a text that read, “be careful… don’t be a statistic”. Everything went south after I read an article pointing out how young people in metropolitan areas were getting infected and dying at a rate much higher than previously thought. I searched everywhere for positive news to hold on to, but most of it was about how other countries, far away in Europe and with better healthcare systems, were faring much better. I received some bromide messages from family members praising my resilience and all, but I suspect that was more for their own coping. In long distance running, it is easier to build psychological tolerance e.g., by putting self through grueling terrain or limiting water intake etc. On the other hand, pain management is difficult because injury cannot be simulated. Covid was the opposite. I totally forgot about the physical pain and struggled mightily to arrest the avalanche of negativity brewing in my head. I remember at some point being certain that I was finally going to die, and then being totally upset that my “death folder” (bank account logins, insurance and mortgage information etc.) wasn’t up to snuff and then wondering who would delete my social media accounts and what embarrassing stuff they would see. Somehow, over a 72-hour period, I assembled whatever it is I had learned when pushing through the wall in my races and found a breakthrough. I vividly remember the moment because I stopped scrambling with my death folder, placed it back in the drawer, and resolved that I was going to power through.
- Gas in the tank – Since running my first marathon, I have generally maintained a healthy routine of exercise so that I can save on training time when preparing for new races. When I fell ill in April, I had a VO2 Max of 55. VO2 Max is a measurement that establishes the aerobic endurance of an athlete prior to or during training. An average sedentary male’s VO2 Max is between 35 and 40. 55 is superior, certainly for my age group. And because I was in good shape when I got sick, my lungs were ready for the fight. While I struggled to breathe and suspended all running, I walked around my apartment while performing vigorous breathing exercises. Corona certainly took me on a road trip across the country, but I had enough gas in the tank to finish the trip alive! I have spent some time pondering on how interconnected life events seem to be. While my motivation to pick up running was maybe [vain?], five years and many marathons later, this decision and the subsequent habit prepared me for an important event in my life. When reflecting on this, my mind kept coming back to two points (i) how tiny turns in the decision tree of life can have major implications downstream and (ii) how potentially true it is that all output problems are really problems of input – relating to the role preventive healthcare in medical outcomes, and the overall state of the public systems in our country that continuously produce poor output.
- Big data!! – Most amateur athletes are obsessed with equipment, nutrition and statistics! Everyone is seeking an edge and the competition is sometimes baffling for “hobbyists”. Stats especially present an opportunity to geek out and gloat because everyone loves KPIs… When I started running, a friend and former colleague introduced me to the stats world by giving me his old Garmin watch. We spent a full afternoon at the office absorbed in the jargon of pace, heart rate, intervals etc. and I took it from there with extreme gusto. Today, I measure everything from respiration, oxygen, stress level, and something fascinating called Body Battery. Body Battery basically treats your body like a phone and tracks how much charge you have and suggests when to recharge (rest) or deplete (exercise). I get cross when my Garmin runs out of battery before bed because that is one more evening of lost data! Knowledge of stats and nutrition helped me to understand my symptoms. When I woke up with increased breathing difficulty and noticed that my oxygen levels were in the low 80%s, I knew something was off and that I had to escalate. I also knew about nutrition e.g., the importance of turmeric and ginger (inflammation), fish oil (thinning), vitamin c and zinc (immunity), electrolytes (hydration) etc. etc. This knowledge proved particularly helpful in my many Teledoc consultations; I certainly wasn’t a passive participant in the matter. My closest friend has suggested that maybe I contribute to science and humanity by donating my personal health data. I am seriously considering it.
Some define luck as the intersection of preparation and opportunity. I would certainly not characterize catching Coronavirus as an opportunity but running prepared me to deal with this adversity both mentally and from a clinical perspective. While I won’t address the deeper philosophical epiphanies that often accompany battling a killer disease in isolation, I can confidently say through observation and interaction, that there is a silver lining from this pandemic. I have observed more blithe spirits on the streets, more relaxed demeanors, more than an occasional nod with eye contact, increased willingness to help and interact at a slower pace as New Yorkers finally take in the beauty of this city and of their lives. I have also observed a seemingly contradictory sense of urgency, an increased value of the NOW, more skepticism of and a much higher discount rate applied to the promise of the glorious future. Personally, I have realized that video conferencing – seeing someone’s face – is so much better than quick phone calls and abrupt texts. The reason I never used video was procrastination, the complacency of “I can always visit them when I want if I want and I can see their face then” and that trip never happened and might never happen! Done NOW is better than perfectly done contemplated!