My Unplanned Ultramarathon:
Living with Long COVID
A Year in the Life of a
Santa Barbara Runner and Patient
By Polly Sumner | December 15, 2022
Polly Sumner detailed the early months of her long COVID experience with us in February 2022. We checked in with her recently to see how she is doing, now a year into her journey.
On a spring Saturday, the boys tumbled into the house from a surf session, sandy and animated. While attempting to help with tar-bottomed feet and damp towels, I quickly became exhausted and went to lie down. My heart rate had done some real acrobatics lately, and I’d been wearing my sports watch to track irregularities.
As I tried to relax, my heart rate suddenly jolted, and I watched in shock as the numbers on the watch soared like a slot machine. I began to convulse and screamed for my husband to call 9-1-1. He and my 8-year-old son rushed into the bedroom. I thought I was having a heart attack, and this was it. I cried that I loved them and begged for my son to leave the room. He did not need this memory. A prompt EKG when the paramedics arrived did not indicate a heart attack, but I was advised I needed to go to the hospital. As I left on the gurney, my son stood to the side with my husband, bravely fighting tears. His expression pierced my heart.
While at the ER, my heart rate twice more catapulted from a resting rate of 70 to 160 within a minute. I was alone and terrified as the monitor began flashing red and an alarm sounded. Repeated tests showed no heart attack or structural issues. At discharge, the attending doctor suggested my long COVID symptoms (more than 30 of them) were all a manifestation of anxiety. It was inaccurate and maddening. Too broken to engage, I asked that he stop. He then conceded, “I don’t really know much about long COVID.” I went home to my bed to weather the storm inside my body, strength and sanity elusive for the next 12 days.
Welcome to a year in the life of long COVID.
I’ve been active since a young age. My favorite childhood book was Heidi, which elicited a hypnotic pull toward the mountains. As a Girl Scout, I camped frequently in the Los Padres National Forest and would fantasize about living simply in a hillside cave. In high school, I played tennis and joined the track team, but I was abysmally mediocre as a sprinter. I never considered cross-country. For the next 20 years, I ran only sporadically, focusing instead on dance. Brazilian and West African occupied my soul, and I performed many times in the local Summer Solstice parade.
In my thirties, I found a quirky filmmaker husband, a decathlete in college who, by the time we met, couldn’t think of a worse punishment than running. I, however, relished pushing boundaries and decided to try a half-marathon. It was an exciting, daunting goal, and I found my stride in the longer distance. Over the next several years, I began to do races, improving each time. Then, I herniated a disk. The doctor told me I’d never run again, and a month of debilitating sciatica was my first glimpse into chronic pain. Yet I was driven, and after two years of physical therapy and postural correction, I triumphed. But road running was hard on my back. I required softer terrain.
The mountains again sang their siren song, and my first race through Santa Barbara’s backcountry was the gateway to an intoxicating new world. It was a mix of unconventional and friendly people who enjoy the challenge of treacherous terrain. I had found my tribe. Over time, I did increasingly longer races, met trail friends, and became an “ultra-runner.” I had close encounters with a bear, bobcats, snakes, and angry hornets. Along the way, I stood on the podium a few times, and the trail was my therapist when I lost my dad. When COVID sent the globe into lockdown and so much tragedy and hurt pervaded the world, moving my body and mind in our mountain playground was a miracle.
Autumn 2021 found me physically at my peak. I’d just completed my first 100k (62 miles) at Mt. Hood, and seamlessly continued training for a technically more challenging race. While my body was firing on all cylinders and working with a coach made me a smarter athlete, I was starting to burn out and parts of my life were splintering. I expressed a desire to take a break from training after this next race.
Ask, and you shall receive. In spades.
Just days before the Nine Trails Endurance Run, I went to a concert at the Santa Barbara Bowl and came home with the Delta variant of COVID. In the acute phase of illness, my body was assaulted from every angle — even my hair follicles hurt. After two weeks, I rallied and optimistically tried a short run. It was awful.
Then new symptoms began plaguing me. Episodes of tachycardia left me sleepless. My sympathetic nervous system went into overdrive. Paralyzing weakness, numb extremities, sound sensitivity, dizziness, anxiety, brain fog, purple nails, and vacillating body temperature all kicked in.
I was an endurance athlete, accustomed to fighting through the pain. But I wasn’t winning. Admitting defeat, I visited the ER. A mass of tests revealed nothing amiss. “In fact, Polly, your heart and blood work look excellent.” The doctors, too, were stymied. And so I went home to face this war on my body on my own.
In the early months, even after I tested negative for COVID, others were still hesitant to be around me. I felt like a leper. My tenuous emotional state and lack of diagnosis left me hovering on brink. I began to dream about jumping to my death, watching my body hit the ground. Or dream that my heart was exploding. I was unraveling.
I’d grown utterly reliant on my family for the smallest things, and I despised my neediness. But I have no idea how I would have survived the days I could not stand for more than 30 seconds or when my nervous system would go so haywire I had to be held until the colossal panic subsided. My husband and I were not in a strong place when I became ill. Yet, he unflaggingly carried me through the lowest moments. I was served a doubleheader lesson in gratitude for my partner and simple abilities like brushing my teeth. In the moments I felt okay, I would choke with appreciation for what I did have.
A fellow long hauler suggested acupuncture. I also began guided meditation, sometimes five times a day. I felt the benefit of both practices immediately, and so shined the first rays of sunlight in my dark cell. I decided to collect myself and find happiness in the simplest terms. Lying on the earth beneath massive palm trees. Watching comedies. Listening to piano music. Looking at photos with the family of past vacations.
For months, I did not tell many people about my condition. I feared skepticism. Long COVID is confusing and often invisible to the onlooker, absurdly unpredictable in its daily blitz. I could be covered in ice packs, too feverish to move one morning, yet sit as scorekeeper for my son’s basketball game that afternoon. Or in the ER on a Sunday and attend Open House at school the following Tuesday. To most, it appeared I was living a normal life.
Over the past year, I have seen at least 20 doctors, and the range of interest to understand the bizarre reaches of long COVID has varied greatly. My concerns have been marginalized numerous times, and I have even been told by sympathetic providers that I’m a guinea pig as researchers work to identify treatment. In my new primary care doctor, however, I found a brilliant and caring cheerleader within a medical system that hasn’t been altogether supportive. I finally felt heard.
Slowly, with supplements, herbs, meditation, an acupuncturist, therapist, and doctor, I began to improve. I also went public with my struggles, both stunned and fortified by the magnitude of support I received. By month six, I had increased my walks from short shuffles to actual hikes. I just had to watch my heart rate. I savored my rebounding health as the spring flowers bloomed. It was poetic. I was back.
And then, I got a cold.
Within three days, I viciously relapsed. Within two weeks, I was back at the ER twice. First for a shockingly low heart rate, then the traumatic heart attack scare. For days following, I was gravely ill, my nervous system so unhinged each minute took work. I found out while in this fragile state that a friend had taken his life. The psychiatric ward was not out of the realm of possibility and I began sleeping with a stuffed animal. I sank down an even deeper hole.
Luckily, I had my wellness brigade in place and have spent the past several months in a slow rebuild. I became Reiki certified to self-heal, and even recently joined my son for his first ever trail race, a 5k that I walked as he ran. Then, ironically, on my one-year anniversary of COVID, I once again relapsed after fighting that rampant autumn cold. It was not nearly as ferocious as the takedown six months ago, but as I regroup, I constantly walk a tightrope. Each day I awake is an unknown, and often with nausea. My body is tired and updated tests reflect the toll. The endless non-diagnoses weigh emotionally.
My sister recently reminded me that the body, mind, and spirit are co-conspirators. With this, I’ve embraced the monumental importance of sleep, laughter, and leaning on others. I strive to celebrate the joys of now rather than borrow tomorrow’s fears. I no longer find myself obsessed with my lack of fitness, and revere the power of rest. I hope to one day hike to the top of our mountains again. What was once a routine morning jaunt is now a life goal. And that’s okay.
I’ve also been prodigiously fortunate, professionally. I’ve worked for nearly two decades for Easy Lift Transportation and the support I’ve received from the organization has been phenomenal. To work for a charity that specifically serves the physically and cognitively impaired community meant my ongoing struggles have been met with compassion, flexibility, and a sincere interest in my wellbeing. The financial burden of my illness has been massive and to be able to remain employed despite my unpredictable schedule has been an immense blessing.
Before I became sick, my next ambition was to do a 100-mile race, the crown distance for an ultra-runner. It turns out not all races are spent on your feet, and this past year has been an unplanned 100-miler often on my back. My coach says the secret to finishing a long race is nutrition. And so I work to nourish myself. Sometimes I need to be fed, like a toddler. Yet sharing my vulnerability has opened doors to deeper, unexpected bonds.
Several friends I was not necessarily close to reached out about their own chronic illness battles, and not just Long COVID. Lyme disease. Fibromyalgia. Chronic fatigue syndrome. I now have ongoing dialogues with numerous people as we navigate both the low points and the milestones in illnesses that are often invisible, isolating, and without direct treatment paths. This support network is a medicine of its own that like our illnesses, cannot be quantified, but is absolutely real. Compassion is a powerful connector, and never have I felt so loved. The darkest chapters yield the brightest light when dawn arrives.