To hell and back (AKA – what the f*ck has been going on?)

I’ve been meaning to write something like this for a while, but it’s been extremely hard to put my feelings into words. It’s only now that (spoiler alert) things are nearly back to normal, that it seems easier to process what has happened in the last few months.

Rewind back to December – I felt like I was flying. I’d just run at new 10km PB at Eton Dorney (34:58), and after the slight disaster that was 2021, with an ongoing hamstring issue and then a run in with a car on my cycle commute to work, it seemed as if things were starting to turn a corner and 2022 was going to be a good one.

The nightmare started just after Christmas. I ran the Gutbuster on the 28th of December, and just didn’t feel right at all. I took 3 days of complete rest after that, but was foolishly determined to take part in the Knacker Cracker (a savagely hilly 10km) on New Years Day, wanting to kick start the year in the right fashion, and not miss out on the ‘fun’. Despite coming 4th, narrowly beaten off the podium, I knew things weren’t right and I felt utterly horrendous.

Normal people at this point would read the signs and just scale back. Unfortunately I’m an utterly hopeless addict, and tried to plough on. I’d do some training, then have a couple of days off, thinking that would sort me out and help whatever was wrong with me, go away.

I decided I wouldn’t focus on improving myself (pretending that if I wasn’t training absolutely flat out, that would sort me out, no worries), but instead channeled my energy into helping Katie where I could. I thoroughly enjoyed running with her as she won the Tadworth 10 by a narrow margin, before running amazing PB’s in the half marathon (1:21) and 5km (18:22).

The day after that 5km, thinking I was slowly on the mend and that things were improving, I ran 20 miles with Ed on the trails around Dorking, with thoughts that whilst the Seville marathon in February wasn’t going to be ideal, our trip to Boston in April (USA) was very much on and I could still hope to have a decent run there. Then my world came crashing down.

It was the 31st of January, and despite feeling pretty rubbish, I’d cobbled my way through the entire month operating at 40%, thinking I’d just tick over until I was better. WRONG. I’d suddenly been hit by a train. My health deteriorated rapidly from that point, and everything I used to do as part of a normal life was no longer an option.

I had these absolutely savage headaches, all of the time. I was in a constant state of ‘brain fog’ – for entire days on end it felt like I’d been knocked unconscious and just come around, never clearing, and feeling absolutely inescapable. I had feverish symptoms and could barely sleep. Some nights I’d wake at 2AM and not be able to sleep anymore, so I’d just go downstairs and sit there, staring into space for hours on end.

At first there was some positive attitude. ‘I can do something about this – someone will be able to help.’ I went to the doctors. I used my health work insurance to seek second and third opinions. I had an MRI on my brain. I had a heart echocardiogram. I spoke to some more doctors. The weeks passed and doctors became more puzzled, and as I result I felt more and more lost.

The longer the physical symptoms persisted (and they never, ever went away – it was hell), the more my mental health deteriorated. It was a spiral effect, and I was tumbling further and further downwards. Despite amazing support from my family, friends and most of all, Katie, I still felt completely and utterly alone.

It got to a point where I couldn’t even look at myself in a mirror, and if I did I barely recognised the face starting back at me – it was like I’d turned in to a completely new person and the old me didn’t exist anymore. When the physical symptoms were at their worse, I could barely get off the sofa and leave the house, and if I went for a short walk, it felt like an out of body experience and I ended up very dazed and confused.

At times like this you let your thoughts run away from you, and I was now convinced that I may never, ever be the same person again. This was an utterly terrifying prospect, and I can’t count the number of times I broke down into bouts of hysterical sobbing. The hardest thing was the lack of any kind of improvement. Every single day, I’d wake up at the symptoms would be identical – no improvement whatsoever and no indication things would get better. Sometimes I’d just lie in bed for prolonged periods of time, not seeing any point in moving.

I ended up being signed off from work for over a month, as I could barely leave the house, let alone try and function as a Finance Manager. My employer (The Gym Group) were amazing throughout, and gave me all the space and support I needed/asked for – something I’m hugely grateful for. The rock through all of this was Katie, as she tried to navigate us through this seemingly never-ending nightmare.

My morale was absolutely crushed, but she did whatever she could to try and help and keep me from slipping further into the dark. I’m not sure I’d have made it out the other side without her and Stan looking after me. The pressure this put on her was immense, and I’ll forever regret putting her through all of that.

One shred of comfort that I did get was from watching her running going from strength to strength. Seville was quite clearly off the cards for me, but she had been training like a demon, and ended up smashing under the 3-hour barrier, running a 2:55 – at no point did it ever look in doubt. I just about survived the trip out there, and rented myself a little electric scooter so I could move around various parts of the course to support. I was over the moon for her and just wish I could’ve been a better state to be able to celebrate what was an utterly incredible achievement.

After this we made the decision to cancel our big trip to Boston to run the marathon, as it was clear that I may not even be able to travel, let alone do the race. We were cancelling all social plans we had, as I just didn’t have the energy or health to be able to do anything apart from sitting on the sofa. There was a point when it looked like we may have to call off our wedding this summer, which was absolutely heartbreaking.

There was no magic wand, or sudden improvement in condition. I can’t pinpoint the exact day when the tide started to turn, because the improvement was so frustratingly slow, but I started to not feel like I was about to die. I had a tiny bit more about me, and had more energy to message friends and move around the house without feeling like I was going to collapse.

With exercise off the cards, I volunteered at parkrun and other local running events every week, and just about still had the energy to organise our clubs annual race – Thames Riverside 20, although the day itself absolutely wiped me out for days on end afterwards.

Cancelling absolutely every event I had planned in 2022 helped, as it took all pressure off the recovery timeline – there was nothing to come back for, I just needed to concentrate on getting myself back to some kind of health. By the time the end of March rolled around, I started trying to do a couple of easy bikes and little runs.

More often than not, the runs ended in disaster and I was absolutely knackered for 2 days afterwards. I’d been given good advice by friends with similar issues that I need to find my baseline and not exceed that, even on a ‘good’ day. I still felt like I was forcing the issue exercise wise, but I just needed to try and get out and do something, anything.

Most of April was taken up with false starts and a little hope being crushed when I realised how wiped out I was getting from even a small bit of training. I was managing to go to parkrun again now, which was a huge mental boost. I finally ticked off my 250th parkrun, after being stuck on 249 since the start of the illness.

It wasn’t until May that the switch finally flipped, and I felt like I was getting more and more normal bits of my life back. I had so missed just the simple pleasure of going to the pub with mates, or going out for a nice meal with family. I’ve promised myself to never, ever take things like that for granted again. Trying to be sensible, I didn’t dive back into loads of running and cycling, instead channeling my energy into shifting the ~ 5kg I’d put on whilst I’d been sick, and working on my core strength with daily routines at home.

I can’t put into words the joy I’ve experienced when I’ve had the small realisation moments that things are getting back to normal. You don’t appreciate how great life is until you have it taken away from you for a short amount of time. Come the middle of May, I was back into action (albeit a bit rusty), as I had my first race in 5 months at the Wimbledon Trail Series (5 miles), which I ran around with a massive grin on my face.

It seemed as if that things had been timed perfectly for me to be able to play a part in the Green Belt Relay weekend, something I organise every year as part of the Clapham Chasers, and one of my favourite events of the year. I really surprised myself, coming a close 3rd after two other guys out-kicked me in a sprint finish on the Saturday leg (10.5 miles) – I definitely wasn’t expecting to be so far forward.

Strava activity

The Sunday was even better, as I was fortunate enough to take the win on the short stage 20 (6 miles) – unleashing a large amount of emotion at the finish. I didn’t feel like I was ‘back’, but I knew things were 100 times more normal than they were a couple of months ago. I didn’t stop smiling for days after that.

Strava activity

We never did get to the bottom of what was actually so wrong with me, although there are plenty of opinions. Long COVID is one, but more likely is another kind of post-viral fatigue (which is essentially what long COVID is), or some sort of chronic fatigue disorder/over-training syndrome. I think the most important thing is that I come out the other side having learned from experience to not make the same mistakes again.

I’ll be better at identifying the warning signs, and scale back training when my body is crying out for some rest. I’ve also been very guilty of ‘training to eat’, blindly believing that the only way to keep the weight off and stay fit is to hammer yourself into the ground with as much training as possible. I’ve worked on developing a more healthy relationship with food, and realised I can look after my body and stay super fit without the need to exercise twice a day, every single day.

As mentioned above, I couldn’t have got through this without the people closest to me, especially my loving, caring, but often straight talking fiancée. I’m so happy it looks like we’ll have a wedding to look forward to this summer after all.

The future is looking bright and my motivation levels are through the roof. I’m building back into training now, but this year I’m just determined to do some fun races and make the most of life – enjoy it and be grateful for all the experiences that sport gives to me. I probably won’t do any triathlon this year now. We’re already in June and I haven’t been in the pool since January, and with a wedding, honeymoon and various other events going on, it’s unlikely that the timing will work.

I’ll concentrate on my running and see how much I can progress that. I shocked myself, running 17:12 at Milan parkrun last Saturday, just 15 seconds off my all-time PB. I have absolutely no idea where that came from, as I have no right to be in that kind of shape giving the lack of training I’ve done in the past few months – I haven’t done a ‘session’ this year! So let’s see where a bit of training can get me to.

Thank you to everyone that has put up with my struggles over the past few months, and stuck with me and tried to help in any way they could – I appreciate how hard it is to be in that situation where you’re really not sure what to say or how you can help. Everything crossed that things are on the up from here – AVANTI!

9 thoughts on “To hell and back (AKA – what the f*ck has been going on?)

    1. Dear Joe have just read your post… through it you have just described the classic symptoms of depression. Total exhaustion, feelings of impending death, lethargy, just going outside takes a mountain to climb in itself and turning into a sobbing mess and that dreadful feeling of being alone even though when surrounded by a loving partner, family and friends. I know because I went through the same experience in my late twenties. I too had every medical test under the sun. So forget long covid…. Viral infection… over training. The positive thing is you will now be able to recognise the early symptoms should it start again and know that you CAN control and eradicate them. I was clinically depressed for two years before the slow road to recovery began and it’s never returned since. Am happy to share my experience with you if you feel that would be helpful. Keep on truckin’ . And glad you’re on the way up. Your old cricketing pal, Kelvin.

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  1. Just read the above and am lost for words! We all felt helpless when you were so ill and now unbelievably happy that you are recovering so well. Please look after yourself and don’t push yourself too hard. Nan

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  2. Wow what an ordeal. Glad you’re feeling better and have your motivation back! Appreciated you taking the time to respond to my Estonia IM message via Strava too. Thank you!

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    1. I’m really sorry to hear you’ve been through that. Great news you’re feeling better and are even somehow managing to bang out some times I’m never going to manage!

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  3. Thanks for sharing this. Been going through something similar since Christmas and getting pretty despondent so it’s good to hear you’ve come through the other side. I can definitely relate to a LOT of what you described. Enjoy the training
    PS. Come the the same conclusion re:lack of magic wand but any recovery tips gratefully received 🙂

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