When an Ironman met Coronavirus…

While my recent (presumed) encounter with COVID19 may not be particularly unusual or dramatic (thankfully), I thought my experiences and thoughts may be of some use to fellow athletes. I would also say it fully reinforces what most coaches have been advising through this crisis.

I fully understand the endurance community being so concerned with training restrictions, when we’ll be racing again and whether we’ll get a refund. It’s a huge part of our lives and who we are. But as I’m sure you will relate to, when it comes to health and indeed life of our loved ones, sport certainly takes a back seat. Lying in bed wondering whether your children will grow up without a father certainly focusses the mind on what’s important!

Chris after Ironman Switzerland (10:06) with his 3 children

As soon as the seriousness of this coronavirus pandemic became evident, our fit yet ‘asthmatic’ family were very much on the side of taking the most cautious approach. I was lucky enough to be able to work from home from a fairly early stage and we avoided going out other than for exercise. I subconsciously, despite being asthmatic, thought as a fit and heathly sub-10 Ironman in my forties, that I would avoid or brush the virus aside without a ‘scratch’. We have a very healthy diet and generally take care of ourselves – I’ve not missed work or training due to illness for many years. I did however take on board the advice of backing training off in terms of duration and sustained intensity, although not to the 1 hour a day level advised by some. As a coach I also understand the difficult balance with training to a level that maintains fitness and desires for any future events, and staying healthy.

I’m really not sure where I contracted the virus or exactly when it started. With high pollen levels in the UK in April, I put a lot of potential early symptoms down to hay fever. I developed an annoying cough for around 2 weeks, but didn’t really have any serious thoughts that this was COVID19 related. On the Thursday before things developed further, I trained reasonably hard on the Wattbike – a 1 hour Zwift interval session. I hit the usual power targets, but felt pretty tired and had a slight headache, so decided to take a rest day on Friday. I still felt tired and a bit dazed the next day – which I put down to work being pretty full on for the last few weeks with all the COVID business continuity activities. Saturday morning was my ‘last training day’ – a 12 mile steady run with Michelle. She noted my breathing seemed faster than normal. My heart rate also seemed elevated – around 5bpm higher. I also felt sluggish and my quads seemed weak (strange after a rest day).

During Saturday, I gradually went ‘downhill’. I felt really tired and had to rest regularly after doing some chores around the house. Then the fever started! My body temperature was regularly shifting between shivering cold and feeling boiling hot. My cough started to become more regular and forceful. From now on I went into isolation from the family (which was pretty difficult and depressing).

For the next 4 days I became dependant on paracetamol, in what seemed a wonder drug! As soon as 4 hours after the last dose approached, the fever and coughing symptoms really came back stronger than ever. Breathing was my biggest concern – and especially as an asthmatic. My chest felt tighter than ever experienced. The air I was breathing seemed to hit my lungs like it was a direct feed from a furnace! And worst still, fluid was building in my lungs, only cleared by chest-wrenching coughs. Other than paracetamol, I found lying on my front really helped to clear the fluid. Monday night was probably the worst – lying there on my own wondering which way this was going to go: was my ‘Iron-immune’ system going to win through– or will I be off to hospital where odds of survival start to make you think….

The NHS provided excellent support both via 111 and locally via the GP surgery. Luckily my breathing quite quickly improved and I was prescribed antibiotics as a precaution in case of secondary infection. I write this seven days after the fever started, now feeling much better. I am conscious that others have had second ‘waves’ or complications such as blood clots in the lungs. So I’ll be very cautious listening to my body and very slowly coming back to training when ready.   

I still wonder where this came from given we were so careful. This is some evidence the virus can remain on materials (e.g. packaging from home deliveries or footpath gates), and aerosols from others as you pass them (e.g. during exercise). But the scientific evidence is very limited and risk would seem to be very low.

So with the source of my infection a mystery, I’ll leave you with my thoughts/reminders:-

It’s a pretty/very nasty virus and being a fit triathlete does not make you immune! Keep taking sensible precautions to limit the spread – for those most vulnerable, and for your own health.

Go along with the guidance to not smash yourself in training during this time, you’ll need your immune system at full strength if this virus does take hold! Eat well, and think about other pressures in your life too, which all take their toll on your body.

Listen to your body: Back to my previous point, even though I’ve been doing endurance sport for 37 years and coaching for 14 years, it’s still so difficult to take heed of those warning signs, and back off from planned training. Use your ‘metrics’ such as heart rate (HRV if you use it) and feelings – during the day and when exercising. Taking a rest day could save taking weeks off with illness later!

Stay safe all!