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‘Long Covid’ | A crisis of identity

I am a runner.

I haven’t always been. I used to hate it—used to be unable to run half a mile without falling apart. I swam competitively when I was younger, but stopped around fourteen and pretty much gave up sport altogether, stumbling my way through school rugby matches in a desperate game of avoiding the ball without my ploy being noticed. I was never in bad shape, but didn’t have any desire for it all. It meant nothing to me.

Skip forward to 22 and I’m doubled over retching in the jungles of Fiji, halfway through a five-day ultramarathon. I’m filthy, exhausted, sick to my stomach and crippled by the steaming heat. And I’m loving every minute of it. A lot changed in those years in between.

At university I had some sort of early-life crisis. One day I decided I wanted to run—Born to Run, bit of dabbling in barefoot, the classic story of an inspired non-runner gone runner. I didn’t just want to run though; I wanted to run ultramarathons. I forced myself, never missing a day, until finally I could bumble through a mile without walking. And then it exploded. I found something I never knew I could have—the unrestrained joy of trail passing below my feet; of effortlessly fitness beyond the likes I’d ever known; flow beyond all pain of exertion. I learned to love that pain—in the rise of the trail on the mountain, the clawing metallic taste in screaming lungs. In the years that followed I found too the exquisite awareness and body control that came with breath-hold diving, and the pure focus of free-solo climbing. I began to swim again: open-water, in the lakes and the sea.

I am a runner. I’m a climber, a swimmer, a freediver.

Now at 24 I’ve spent months in the jungles of Fiji, Asia and South America; lived with tribes and been raided by wild elephants in the middle of the night. I’ve nearly died of a tropical disease and been painted with wild ginger in a tribal shaman’s attempt to fix me up again. I’ve dived to over forty metres on a single breath and topped unclimbed lines on limestone buttresses in the forests of Malaysia. I’ve explored the limits of my own body and I’ve only barely scratched the surface. I’ve found what makes me come alive—and I’ve barely yet opened the tap. In the flow of mind and body over trail, rock and in the sea I’ve come as close as I think I ever will to defining a meaning to life.

I am a runner. It’s more than what I do—it’s who I am.

But I never realised quite how much until now. I have aligned my entire life to the pursuit of human performance. I study it, research it and practise it. It is my religion, my ambition, my pleasure and my purpose. I have delivered talks on indigenous tree-climbing to Oxford and Cambridge, and spent countless hours plotting career paths and expedition plans. I have spent many months training and experimenting with the physiological responses to pressure at depth. And I have run—many, many hours. In the hills and woodlands close to home, and in jungles, snow-clad mountains and dust-blown desert-lands far away.

But what I realise only now is how complete that alignment has been, how much has shifted subconsciously. I realise now that my consciousness itself is tied up with these activities—they are my identity and my overarching purpose. Without realising it they have become my life—how I measure myself, judge myself and what I live for.

I am a runner. But I cannot run.

Five months ago, in the heat of pandemic I made my dash from Indonesia. On the last flight home I reached the UK, only then to discover that I had caught the virus en-route. I developed only minor symptoms: a slight tightness of chest and that was about it. No cough, no fever: I didn’t even get tested. I had an ultra to train for anyway, and I was one of the lucky ones it seemed. I took two weeks off and then got back to it. Except I couldn’t.

I am not bedridden. I am not having difficulty breathing. I am not ill it seems. But I cannot run. Five minutes and I am gasping for air. Lungs that could once carry me to the bottom of the ocean—nine litre lungs almost double the size of an average human—cannot now sustain me for even five minutes of cardiovascular exercise. I can climb. My strength remains but my recovery capacity is gone. One session on the rock or rings and I’m out for days, unable to train frequently enough to make any progress. I still don’t know for sure it’s Covid—but blood tests keep coming back clear. It’s definitely the likely suspect.

Each month I assume it will be the last. I’ve had this before with tropical disease—it took eight months to recover from the organ damage of Leptospirosis. But this one doesn’t seem to be improving: ‘long-Covid’ it’s now being coined. A sneaky one—often appearing in those that showed only minor initial symptoms: the young, the fit. And we know very little about it.

I assume I’ll be okay. I’m sure I will recover eventually. But I can’t pretend it’s not there—that niggling nightmare that it might be something permanent. That I’ll never again feel the freedom of flying untiring across mountain tops; of gliding free-fall down a rope into the familiar embrace of deep ocean

And in the meantime, what am I? Now that I cannot run.

Can you still be a runner if you can’t run?

I realise now that these things—running, climbing, diving and the like—are more than just sports to me; more even than my identity. It is only now I realise I have reconstructed my entire conscious being around the disciplines I train. My own self-worth is tied to those disciplines—it is through them and my progress within them that I measure and judge myself. But I cannot now try harder, wake up earlier, drive on through fatigue—to do so only pushes me backwards.

I can lose myself elsewhere: I enjoy carving and to write. For an hour, a day or even two I can escape. But always it returns, preying on me without warning in unexpected moments of nauseating dread. Or rather I return to it: that dreadful reality, like a dark cloud or that moment in waking from a dream that you realise the issues of yesterday still exist today. I cannot run away, and even more cruelly, I cannot work to resolve it. I can only wait and guess. Without that which you love, most all else becomes meaningless, and impetus wanes across the board.

It is pathetic I know, and I repeat again, I am one of the lucky ones. I am alive, and by many people’s standards I am healthy. I ridicule myself for such dramatism and self-pity. But in emotion and loss there is little reason, little relativity. Physical performance is a central foundation of my perception of life and self. And it has crumbled.

I found what makes me come alive and now I can’t have it. Does that then make me dead?

What am I now?

Am I a runner? I don’t know.


Training, expeditions, thoughts, articles, and miscellaneous misadventures...

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