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An ultra runner’s long recovery from coronavirus

Tina Vaziri never thought she would get coronavirus.

Even though her city, Chicago, was among the first U.S. cities hit, even though her animal hospital implemented precautions immediately, even though she committed to safe practices before the term social distancing was commonplace.

Still, Vaziri contracted COVID and continues working her back to the fitness level she had as an ultra runner.

I learned about Vaziri’s journey when she posted in great detail about her experience on Facebook. As a veterinarian, she followed a routine to protect herself and others.

“I would get dressed, walk out of my building to my car,” she wrote. “Sanitize my hands when I get in the car. Park and walk to the vestibule at the hospital. Change into scrubs and different shoes and leave my street clothes in a grocery bag at the front door. Then wash my hands, don a mask, clean my phone, and computer and proceed to see patients. Reverse at the end of the day. Street clothes into the washer, me straight to the shower, while my keys and backpack were cleaned with alcohol or hospital grade cleaner.”

A scary start to the year

While battling the coronavirus has posed her most significant challenge of 2020, it was not the first event that compromised her training, running and racing.

Vaziri says she had a really cool year planned out, including her first 100K. In early January she was tapering for Frozen Gnome. On Jan. 3 — a “nice day” of 30 degrees for Chicago at that time of year – she headed out for a 20- to 30-mile bike ride along Lakeshore Drive.

“Somebody ran a red light while I was biking from one part of the bike lane to the next and hit my hip and back tire,” she explains. “I ended up with a concussion and a lot of bruising. I got extremely lucky that I wasn't pushed out in traffic or that she wasn't going as fast as she could have been.”

Due to the concussion, doctors barred Vaziri from any physical activity, including the race, for two weeks. Afterward, she started back with light cardio, slight cycling and lightweight lifting.

“It took a month and a half to get back to any sort of running at all,” she says. “My first run after that, I remember I was like, ‘Oh, I'll go four miles.’ I was in Arizona with my buddy so we just had to take it really easy and do a little hill running in the Arizona mountains. But after that, once I was back on my feet, things really needed to progress quickly if I was going to get trained for my upcoming races.”

She jumped back into training and was making progress. By mid-March, she was ready for a 50K night run, the Big Sur Marathon and the Kettle Moraine 100K. “I was in good shape — I was a lean mean running, cycling, weight lifting machine.”

Then COVID started wreaking havoc.

Contracting COVID

At the time, there was a lot of misinformation — “Like a miracle, it will disappear” – and uncertainty about how best to avoid the virus. Now, there is science that shows how best to protect oneself and others from exposure.

“We now know that if both parties wear a mask, we protect each other,” Vaziri says. "If somebody who is sick with COVID has it and is wearing a mask, then I only have a 1 percent chance of getting it. If they're not wearing a mask, I have a 70 percent chance of contracting it from them even if I'm wearing a mask.”

She explains why she didn’t think she would get the virus. "I'm 30. I'm healthy. I'm an athlete. I'm not coming into contact with human COVID patients. I'm doing my best with PPE. I'm social distancing. I was wrong and that's OK. It sucks to be wrong.”

Vaziri believes she picked up the coronavirus at work from one of two ways.

The first is from a cat that she was attending too. It had a respiratory illness and discharges but at the time its owners did not report being sick.

The other possibility is when two police officers visited the vet clinic, seeking information about a case. They refused to wear masks. The two officers also returned the following morning.

“The fact is they didn't social distance,” Vaziri says. “They didn't wear masks. Even though we cleaned up after them, because they were here twice for a significant amount of time, they contacted the whole staff. Maybe that was the source of infection. But there will be no way of knowing.”

The virus spread throughout the vet clinic, infecting almost all the 25 to 30 employees.

Dealing with the virus

Vaziri recalls being congested for three days, which didn’t seem abnormal due to seasonal allergies. On a Saturday, May 2, she woke up achy, but it was the first day of her menstrual cycle, so she took it easy. That night she had a fever and she knew.

“All the pieces of the puzzle came together and a wave of anxiety washed over me,” she says. “Because at that point it was too late for my husband or anyone else who I worked with.”

At 3 a.m., she awoke with a fever of 103.2. She felt lethargic and anorexic the following day. “I was urinating more, my respiration rate was increased, and my oxygen saturation had dropped to 89-92. If I sat up, walked to the bathroom, or to went get water I would get dizzy and light headed.”

Vaziri received the positive test result on Tuesday and that night her husband was symptomatic. But because he was not a health-care worker he was unable to be tested.

“So there we were, in our 700-square-foot apartment, trying to drink fluids, not move, and bare the sweaty dizzy dream ridden fevers,” she says, noting this went on for two days.

At 2 a.m. Thursday, a loud bang woke up Vaziri.

Her husband had stumbled out of the bathroom, and collapsed in the hallway. “When he wasn't in bed next to me, it's like a shockwave through your system. It's like when your blood runs cold. I've never understood that phrase, but it's real. Your whole body just goes numb and frozen. When he stumbled out of the bathroom and fell, I thought it was over.”

‘He could be dead. He could be in a coma.’

She immediately called 911, fearing he had a stroke.

“He has little memory of the next four hours. But I remember it all. I remember calling 911, and trying to rouse him with little success, and him leaving in the ambulance alone because I was quarantined.”

The waiting was stressful and scary for Vaziri.

“I didn't hear anything from them for a few hours,” she says. “He could be dead. He could be in a coma. He could be on a respirator and they're not going to call me until something bad happens or until they get five minutes where he's stable."

Finally, she received a call from him. It wasn’t a stroke. Her husband had a fever and was extremely dehydrated, which caused him to pass out. “They had to cool him down and give him fluids. They didn't want to keep him at the hospital because he wasn't having respiratory symptoms, so they just sent him home and told him to socially distance from family and quarantine.”

They are both doing better now.

“It took a long time to feel OK,” she says. “We still don’t feel normal. Three weeks after my diagnosis I still experienced dizziness. And even now my lungs feel as though I’ve been out running in negative temperatures. You know that crisp ache that you get on a cold day? It’s like that, but always, even though I never had respiratory signs.

“If there is a takeaway point it is this: We are lucky. We are runners. We have strong lungs, strong hearts, we eat good, we drink a lot of water. Our bodies are primed to fight a disease.”

The aftereffects of the virus are still with the Vaziris. They experience reduced lung capacity and waves of dizziness.

“It’s nothing that you can't get through just by sitting down for a moment, but it's just there's so much unknown,” she explains. “That's really the scariest part is even though physically we feel better and better every day, there's a lot of mental challenges that we're seeing and discussing and facing. That's really the scary part is, we don't know how our bodies are going to be in five years, 10 years.”

Back to training, slowly

Vaziri, who I met at the Ultra Race of Champions in 2019, is back to run-walking for her training.

“It's been a huge step back,” she admits. “When I first started training with my coach at Marathon Training Academy, Athena Farias, and even with my first marathons, I was in shape enough that I could just go for a three-mile run, go for a five-mile run and that was because I had at least a little bit of a base.”

Now, Vaziri focuses on running for 30 seconds, or a minute at a time. It’s a progression, like when she first started running. “Nobody talks about how hard that is. It's really challenging because you see all these people go by you and they're just running so hard and they're so free. And I need to run for 30 seconds and then walk for two minutes."

But she counts herself as fortunate and is determined to work back into ultra running shape.

“There's no shame in it at all. In fact, it's the bravest thing you can do. But it's been really hard to have to take my body back to that step. I understand why I'm doing it and I understand why it's important. But I remember the first run, I got a little dizzy just running for 30 seconds or a minute at an 11:30 pace because I just didn't have the lung capacity anymore. It's been really mentally hard.”

The pandemic has largely erased races from the 2020 calendar. Even so, Vaziri won’t be ready for any ultras any time soon.

“I'm just trying to be patient and follow what my coach says and if I need to take a step back, take a step back,” she says. “I'm somebody who pushes really hard and I can't do that right now. I just need to be patient because you don't know how this is going to affect and change our bodies long term.

Her advice

While there are a lot of “experts” touting their beliefs on social media, Vaziri has earned the right to share her opinions on the ongoing debates around the pandemic, masks and social distancing.

“I was angry for a long time, but now I'm just sad,” she admits. “Something that I want to say to the people who don't want to wear masks. When I was in school, before we even got a whiff of an operating room, our surgery professor handed everybody a mask and he said, ‘You need to learn to adjust to wearing a mask. I want you to wear this when you're cooking, when you take your dog for a walk, when you're studying. It will make you feel like you can't take a big deep breath, but after a while you'll get used to it.’”

Vaziri went to Auburn University but other colleges implement the same strategy.

“When I was 22, they just taught us how to wear a mask and get used to it. But most people didn't get that educational moment. So now people are being asked to wear a mask walking around the grocery store. Everybody in my gym wears masks all the time. So mentally, I know that there is a little bit of a block because you feel like you can't take a big deep breath because you haven't learned how to yet. But it doesn't hurt your ability to use oxygen.”

Vaziri points out that people can go about their daily lives with masks, running, walking and more.

“You especially need them in public places like grocery stores, cafes, anywhere you go,” she says. “I just wish that somebody had said to the American public on the news, ‘Hey, this can be a little bit of an adjustment. Why don't you wear this mask while you're sitting here watching TV, just so that you get to know what it feels like.’ Then people won't have panic attacks when they wear it the first time out and feel like they can't get a big, deep breath. Their oxygen levels are fine. They're 98, 99. But I wish that there had been that teaching moment so that they didn't have the anxiety surrounding a piece of cloth.”

Even more alarming are the COVID parties or videos of people congregating at beaches or other avenues, flouting social-distancing guidelines and common sense. As an example, Vaziri suggests it would be safe to have a barbecue with coworkers because she sees them every day, but not if their grandparents were there.

“You're putting each other at risk,” she says. “I want to see my friends and I want to see my family, too, and it's not a wise thing right now. It sucks and it's not fair. Think about the health of others, too. If you want to have a little bubble and those are the only people you hang out with, I don't think that's wrong. But please don't go and hang out with people that you haven't seen in four months, because they could have gotten it (COVID) at the grocery store and not be symptomatic. I don't know when we're going to be able to do that again. It sucks that we don't have those answers yet, but we have to love each other enough to be patient.”

The unknown

Vaziri ended her post on Facebook, by expressing her appreciation for her recovery and her concern about the future.

“I should appreciate how lucky I am to even be walking, and feeling the wind in my hair (even if I can’t smell the flowers, or anything else for that matter),” she wrote. “It feels selfish to wonder if I will physically be able to run the Machu Pichu marathon next year, or the Everest Ultra the year after.

Will my lungs have the capacity for that altitude? I don’t care so much about the races, or the medals — that’s just my ego. It was the adventure, and the running, and the being able to trust my body to do incredible things just for fun. And now a lot of that is gone. I don’t know if that will come back.

“And that’s the hardest part, the unknown.”

I asked her to dive a little deeper on that. Is it the unknown for her personally, how it pertains to the whole world and society around us, or both?

It’s both, Vaziri says.

“This is going to be normal for a long time,” she explains. “People aren't going to be able to travel. Or if they do, they're going to need to quarantine before and after traveling. You also need to understand that masks and social distance, that's the new normal. All the people who've gotten this disease, we don't know how that's going to affect them. You don't know how this virus is going to mutate and evolve. There's so much unknown. We don't know what this will be like in five years. We don't know what it will be like in five months.

“Then for me personally, I don't know what it'll do long term to my internal organs and if I can do those goals that I wanted to do. I hope that I can. But I really don't know, and that's scary. Because it's hard to adjust for all of us to this new world and the rules aren't the same anymore. We can't go and hang out with our friends. We shouldn't. I can't go and see my family. I don't want to bring our bug to them. Those are all things that people have to think about forever now.”

Speed drill

Name: Tina Vaziri

Hometown: Crestwood, Ky.

Number of years running: 3

How many miles a week do you typically run: 20 to 50 miles

Point of pride: I have not yet lost a toe nail.

Favorite race distance: 50K or marathon – just long enough to take a good nap afterwards, and then wake up and go back at it with your friends.

Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Lime Nuun mixed with any other flavor, baby food (fruit flavored), Idlis (Indian rice cakes)

Favorite piece of gear: Garmin Forerunner 945

Favorite or inspirational song to run to: Queendom (Aurora), Ramble On (Led Zeppelin), Babylon (Lady Gaga)

Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: Just let it be hard.

Where can other runners connect or follow you:

• Instagram: the_adventure_vet

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