Coronavirus Hits a Colorado Trail-Running Family

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March 15, 2020, the second Sunday of the month, I wake early in a hotel room in Boulder to run in Chautauqua Park. Pink light illuminates the massive rock formations of the Flatirons, but I barely notice the view. I am so wound up with worry that I see only mental images that flip like flashcards, each involving a family member, every thought layered with news of the pandemic.

I picture my son’s dorm room that we need to pack up this morning so we can move him back home. At least he’s with us now, but my daughter needs to get back from Rhode Island. She is struggling to vacate her apartment and catch a flight. Her senior year in college is ending abruptly—how can this be? She’s prone to recurrent infections that need medicine. What if she catches this virus?

Client work for my husband’s business abruptly dried up. He has enough in the bank to make today’s payroll, but how will he pay the staff in the coming weeks? It scares me to see his face so grim as he toggles his screen between QuickBooks and CNN. The market surely will tank when it opens tomorrow. The ski resort closed yesterday. So many friends out of work.

As I run, I feel yesterday’s embrace of Mom. We stopped to see her on the way to Boulder, and I had to talk my way in, because it was the first day they tried to enforce visitor restrictions. I stroked her shoulders as she sat on her bed in the memory-care unit of the assisted-living home. I inhaled her smell and studied her body in case I never get that close again. Her caregivers eyed me suspiciously, as if I might bring in germs no matter how much I scrub my hands and cover my face. “I just hope we stay healthy to take care of them,” one said in a low voice to me.

On a flat stretch, I do a set of strides while repeating the mantra, I am healthy, I am strong. I read somewhere that to cope with anxiety, it helps to repeat positive affirmations, so I say those phrases and try not to think, I can’t get sick, we can’t afford this.

The fact that my races are getting canceled barely registers, except I feel some relief. March through May, I was supposed to travel to Moab, then Sonoma, then Boston, then Hawaii for ultras and the marathon. Now training is one less thing to worry about. I need to run for health, not sport.

On a flat stretch, I do a set of strides while repeating the mantra, I am healthy, I am strong. I read somewhere that to cope with anxiety, it helps to repeat positive affirmations, so I say those phrases and try not to think, I can’t get sick, we can’t afford this.

If so much can change in a mere two weeks—from when our routines were normal and the economy hummed along, to social distancing and shuttered restaurants—then how unrecognizable would the world be in 14 more days? Our little corner of southwest Colorado will be OK, right?

I can’t imagine as I run that exactly two weeks from now, my 53-year-old husband, Morgan—my best friend since high school, my everything—would be lying in a hospital room, the eighth person in our county to test positive for COVID-19.

Morgan would see his oxygen saturation level dip dangerously as viral pneumonia attacks his lungs, and he’d wonder if he was about to enter critical care for a ventilator. He would ask himself, “Is this where it ends?”

And I would be at home with my kids, weeping when I catch sight of his jacket and hat on the coat rack. I would wonder if he’ll live to come back and wear them again.

Adapting to Quarantine

On the drive home from Boulder, our son, Kyle, keeps asking to turn on the air conditioner. “It’s so hot in here,” he says, except it isn’t. I’m wearing winter clothes, and the temperature feels fine to me.

Sarah Lavender Smith with her son, Kyle, and husband, Morgan.

The next day, Kyle mostly stays in bed sleeping, coughing and developing congestion. Part of me worries it could be the virus. A few people have tested positive in Boulder, including a worker in their cafeteria. But I tend to believe him when he says, “It’s just a cold. I’m fine.”

I drive to the airport to fetch our daughter, Colly, who is exhausted from packing and traveling. A day later, her long-term boyfriend, J.J., moves in with us from California for an indefinite period. Welcoming him feels like the right thing to do, because he makes our daughter happier and he’s almost like family. But we keep his presence secret, because soon after he arrives, the county decrees that all visitors have to return home.

We collectively commit to quarantine. I go from empty-nester to cook-and-housecleaner-in-chief for three young adults, relishing the sense of purpose and distraction from the news.

Kyle feels good again after a few days, and this unexpectedly pleasant week feels like a stay-cation. The boys play chess while my daughter makes funny TikTok videos. I run on remote dirt roads. Morgan channels the stress from his business into building a chicken coop, and we all play with the baby chickens that we keep in a box inside the house.

Then, about five days after the trip to Boulder, Morgan starts coughing. That weekend, Colly and I develop a dry cough, too. Thank goodness, J.J. never shows any sign of illness.

I meet someone to run on the third Sunday of the month. We park far apart from each other, and I shout through the car window, “I might be getting sick, and my son’s been sick, so keep your distance!”

We run a double-wide path through mud and slushy snow, always at least six feet apart, but it doesn’t feel right, as much as I enjoy her company. I decide to run alone from now on, because what if I’m contagious? Plus, I don’t want to feel pressure to keep up with anyone. I’m so tired, I mostly want to hike.

I feel a little hot and light-headed when I return home, so I take my temperature. In the high altitude where we live, 97.6 is normal. I’m a little over 99. A sense of dread returns to my stomach.

Colly wanders downstairs looking extra pale and sweaty. “Not great,” she answers when I ask how she’s feeling. Her temperature is around 99. I wipe the thermometer with alcohol and get Morgan to take his temperature. He has a low fever too.

“Well, this could be the best thing ever!” he says, and it’s hard to tell if he’s serious or joking. “We’ll all have a mild case and then be immune.” We don’t bother going to the local medical center, because hardly any coronavirus tests are available, and they’re reserved for serious cases.

I allow myself a rest day and run five miles the next, hiking every uphill because my muscles feel extra weak. But I can breathe deeply, and I’m confident my lungs are strong.

I don’t get sick, I tell myself. Movement is medicine.

By Wednesday afternoon, my daughter and I feel close to normal again, but Morgan is worsening. I find him outside on a stepladder, trying to hammer the roof on the almost-finished chicken coop before the next storm hits. His eyes look sunken and his skin is flushed. He admits he needs a nap.

He’s been taking three-hour naps recently. Not only is he profoundly tired and mildly feverish, but he also has severe muscle aches around his trunk. His skin feels sensitive to the touch. He says he feels like he has a combination of mononucleosis and shingles.

He gets in daily contact with the Telluride Medical Center, a small facility with only a handful of doctors and nurses. The doctor over the phone concludes Morgan is not in respiratory distress. He can breathe well and hold his breath for 10-plus seconds without coughing. Self-care at home is the best and only option.

I’ve been up since 2:30 a.m. with anxiety—I literally have wondered if he’s starting the process of dying because he can’t get out of bed and feels so bad, but then I remind myself he’s breathing fine and his temp is only about a degree above normal.

For the next three days, Morgan stays in bed while drifting in and out of sleep. During this time, I email a running friend, “I’ve been up since 2:30 a.m. with anxiety—I literally have wondered if he’s starting the process of dying because he can’t get out of bed and feels so bad, but then I remind myself he’s breathing fine and his temp is only about a degree above normal.”

From Bad to Worse

On Saturday at bedtime, I lay down next to Morgan. I refuse to leave his side to distance myself from his germs because I want to count his breaths per minute and monitor his cough.

Almost every one of his exhalations has become a mini-cough. His breathing is rapid, 38 to 40 breaths a minute, double normal. When I turn on the bedside light, his skin looks grayish.

“Talk to me,” I say.

“OK. Need shower.” Driven by a desire to reduce the aches and cool off, he stumbles into the bathroom and manages a quick shower. I help him back to bed and take his temperature.

His fever has spiked to 103. “We need to go to the hospital now,” I say calmly.

“Tomorrow,” he mumbles. But I know we can’t wait.

I call the after-hours doctor at the med center and tell him my husband needs a chest scan and is having trouble breathing. He and a nurse prepare for our arrival.

Somehow, around 1 a.m., I get Morgan into the car—he moves in slow motion, he looks as if he has aged 20 years—and I drive the six miles to town, at one point swerving to avoid an elk. Morgan doesn’t notice the elk herd lining the road because he’s barely conscious.

Town is dark and feels deserted. The lone doctor and nurse meet us in the ER’s doorway wearing haz-mat suits. We put a mask on Morgan and guide him inside by his elbows.

The nurse immediately puts an oxygen-saturation monitor on his finger and sees a reading of 74 percent, indicating severe hypoxia. She puts a cannula in his nostrils so supplemental oxygen can flow to his system. Within minutes, his level rises above 90, out of the danger zone, and the nurse looks relieved. Morgan opens his eyes and says, “Oh my God, that feels so much better.”

The nurse gives him a regular flu test, which is negative, then administers the COVID swab test. It will take five days to get the result back confirming he’s positive.

The doctor calls a radiologist to come in around 2 a.m. for a chest CT scan. They waste no time sharing the news: “We see bilateral viral pneumonia with the patchy pattern characteristic of COVID.”

Morgan looks brave, so I try to look brave too. But we both know there’s no treatment, only management, of this horribly stealthy virus. He had bacterial pneumonia five years ago, with wheezy fluid-filled lungs and chest pressure, but this type of pneumonia did not present any of those telltale signs.

Morgan will need round-the-clock care and potentially a ventilator, so I prepare to drive him an hour and twenty minutes to the nearest hospital in Montrose. We stop by our house on the way to pack some things and tell the kids.

I enter their bedrooms around 3:30 a.m. and say, “Get dressed and come down, your dad needs to talk.” They instantly sense the seriousness and hurry down.

Sitting on the bench in our entranceway, a portable oxygen tank attached to his nose with thin tubes, Morgan rallies to explain his diagnosis to the kids in a reassuring voice. “The good news is,” he says—because he always tries to stay positive—“the hospital is not crowded, and if I need a ventilator, they’ve got one.”

I know this may be the last time they see their father for days—forever?—so there is no way I’m going to tell them to refrain from hugging because of his contagion, but I do remind them to wash their hands.

Colly and Kyle stand blinking in the light, telling him he’ll be OK and promising to take care of the animals. They take turns hugging him and saying they love him.

I know this may be the last time they see their father for days—forever?—so there is no way I’m going to tell them to refrain from hugging because of his contagion, but I do remind them to wash their hands.

I pack a small bag for myself, intending to stay at the hospital. Only when we arrive at the parking lot does it hit me that I have to drop Morgan off and leave. A security guard is apologizing but insisting that I can’t enter if I might be contagious.

I get in the back seat where Morgan sits with the oxygen tank. I’m all business—“you got your phone, your charger? I put a book in your bag that I think you’ll like”—and then I feel my face crumple and can’t even say goodbye. I hold his shoulders to pull him closer, and he hugs me back.

“Call me, text me, promise,” I say.

“I will.” He gets out with the help of a nurse in protective gear.

I pull myself together to drive home. The route skirts the snow-covered 14’er Sneffels, and as I look at that craggy peak glowing at sunrise, I imagine how my grandpa’s brother, Dwight Lavender, must have looked when he did so much mountaineering on those slopes as a young man in the early 1930s. He was a famous climber until he caught the polio virus and died in less than 72 hours at age 23. If it happened to him, it can happen to Morgan. No matter how strong we are, we are vulnerable without vaccines and other medicine.

My mind spins into scenarios of life without my husband. I want to celebrate our 30th anniversary this June, I want him at our kids’ weddings if they get married.

Being an ultrarunner doesn’t exactly prepare me for a moment like this, except that the phrase I repeated during the most fatiguing moments my last self-supported stage race comes back to me: Get through it.Quitting is not an option.

When I get home, I’m relieved Morgan answers my call and can talk. He says the doctor put him on two types of antibiotics and told him, “We’ll know soon enough if these are any help.” Either he’ll stabilize, or he’ll enter critical care. (Antibiotics don’t fight the virus itself, but many doctors prescribe them for the coronavirus to fight any secondary infection and to try to reduce lung inflammation.)

I try to catch up on sleep, but I can’t. So I get dressed and go for a run, but I can’t. My legs feel like they might give out. I hike to the half-mile point up the road and turn back, walking slowly and using this time to cry out of sight of others.

I have trouble sleeping that night and long for the sound of Morgan’s breathing. When I call the hospital in the morning, a nurse informs me she had to increase his oxygen to get his saturation level back up. I interpret the chilling news as a sign his lungs are giving out.

When I get through to talk to Morgan, he says, “I thought that was it, that I’m going down” when he couldn’t get enough oxygen, “so I really tried to think through what was going on.” He realized his nose felt extra stuffy, so he asked a nurse to flush out his nostrils with saline drops, and then he could breathe better.

“I’m hoping my problem is just boogers,” he says, and we both laugh a little.

“You know,” I say, “if you have to go to the ICU, then you’ll need to decide whether you want to stay there. Because you’ll be alone at the end and sedated, but I could come get you and bring you home.” My voice breaks. “I think it would be better to have you here with us if you’re not getting better, so you need to talk to your doctor about this while you can.”

“I know,” he says, “I thought of that.”

Coming Home to a New Reality

Morgan doesn’t need intensive care. After about 36 hours, I get a call telling me he can recover at home.

I’m slightly disbelieving. It feels like we won a coin toss: Morgan gets to come home, others stay in the hospital and die alone. But I’m flooded with relief as I speed through the long drive back to get him.

He’ll need to be hooked up to oxygen for many days, maybe weeks. He’ll get drenched with night sweats and suffer more headaches. His diminished sense of smell and taste will be slow to return. Time will tell if he’ll get well enough to enjoy high-altitude hikes this summer. But we are together, and each day he seems a little more like himself.

I wait five days to try running again, and when I do, I’m nervous. Running might make me feel sick and weak. I’ve lost faith in repeating, “I am healthy, I am strong.” I still fear the virus in us.

I commit to go slowly and limit myself to three miles. My legs feel better from all the rest. I notice how much the snow has melted in just a week, because we’re into April. A virus can’t stop the seasons.­

I suddenly need to hear the passage from Ecclesiastes, for the reminder that humans always get through dark times, so I play The Byrds’ Turn, Turn on my phone as I run.

A time to kill, a time to heal. A time to laugh, a time to weep.

I have to walk for a bit as the music continues so that I can process one last cleansing cry, and as I do, I mentally add these phrases to the song: A time to rest, a time to run.

Sarah Lavender Smith lives and runs near Telluride, Colorado. She’s a coach and the author of The Trail Runner’s Companion.

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