One Dirty Magazine

Coronavirus Hits a Colorado Trail-Running Family

Sarah Lavender Smith April 8th, 2020

Coronavirus Hits a Colorado Trail-Running Family

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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Shawn Bearden
Guest

Sarah, this is gut wrenching to read, and so beautifully written. Thank you for sharing your story so openly. May you and yours be well.

Sarah Lavender Smith
Guest

thanks for reading and for your feedback!

Peter Brewer
Guest
Peter Brewer

what an incredible heart touching story, I am so glad to have read it and know yes you all are getting through this. We can too. stay strong, knowing you have never been weak even in your weakest moments,
and speaking from experience crying while running is very, very OK!
thanks for the heart touching story as it gives us all hope and strength.

Sarah Lavender Smith
Guest

Thank you so much, Peter, for reading it and for your kind words.

Jenelle Potvin
Guest
Jenelle

Stay strong, Sarah, thank you for sharing this beautifully written account. Wishing you all the healing in the coming weeks.

Sarah Lavender Smith
Guest

thanks for reading — I really appreciate that!

Kasey Skinner
Guest
Kasey Skinner

Sarah, thank you for your beautiful, raw writing and for sharing your family’s story with us. This was an important story to tell. Love, light, and healing to you all.

Sarah Lavender Smith
Guest

Thank you so much.

Brian
Guest

Touching story and I’m so happy to hear that your husband is on the mend. Take care of yourselves and this will pass, hopefully soon!

Dennis Wales
Guest
Dennis Wales

Thank you for sharing this, Sarah. As a doc in Colorado I appreciate the perspective in ways I cannot express. Godspeed his recovery.

Sarah Lavender Smith
Guest

Thank you for the work you do and for your feedback!

Nancy Jensen
Guest
Nancy Jensen

Wow! Thanks for sharing this heartfelt story. Wishing you and your family many more miles on the trails.

Firefly
Guest
Firefly

So well-written and your description of all your fears is something that many of us have in the back of our minds. I am just glad that you all survived it and that you are all together again. Thank you for sharing this.

Robin Walters
Guest
Robin Walters

Sarah, I am so sorry for what your family had to endure. I can tell from your writing, that you are a resilient, loving family! You have each other, nothing else matters. Morgan, seems to be a strong man, I’m glad he was able to come thru this awful virus. Stay strong. Virtual hugs to you, Morgan and your children.

Michael
Guest
Michael

Beautifully written, touching and inspirational. Your journey is one we can all imagine ourselves on and I for one am very happy for it to have a positive ending. Wishing you and family increasing health and many days of long runs ahead.

Michael Porter
Guest
Michael Porter

Sarah, Thank you for sharing. I have run marathons in the past. Nothing like you, but I was touched by your kindness for your daughter’s friend, your unfailing love to your husband and family and not giving up in the face of diversity and going to the Bibler to get strength. I live in Texas and have not been affected by the COVID-19, but have been praying for those who are and for those selfless people who are helping out in any way they can. This song is one I found that reminds me that without the faith and hope… Read more »

Sarah Lavender Smith
Guest

wow, thank you so much for sharing that!

Alison Bramall
Guest

I don’t know anyone who’s been ill and I’ve been very dubious about the virus doing any harm to people who are fit and healthy, so I’m very grateful for you writing this. Not only is it beautifully written and honest, it has the right ending. With love, Ali (England)

Gina
Guest
Gina

What an honest portrayal of your family’s ordeal with COVID. I’m so so happy that Morgan is recovering and everyone else is safe. I admire your admission of vulnerability as well as your positivity. Please take care.

Arnold
Guest
Arnold

Sarah, I’ve been doing some studying of disease and the immune system response to it. I’ve learned that medications such as aspirin and ibuprofen reduce fever by effectively suppressing the immune system. I’m curious to know if your husband took any medication to reduce fever before he went to the medical center.

Thank you for the well written account and I wish you and your family members improving or continued good health.

Sarah Lavender Smith
Guest

hi Arnold, thank you for reading and for your comments. Yes, I know that pain meds for coronavirus are controversial. Morgan started taking Tylenol to help manage the fever and manage the pain from the muscle aches. It would only help for about an hour, then wear off. When he started consulting with the med center, they advised alternating Tylenol with Ibuprofen. I was worried about this, because I am not a fan of anti-inflammatories and rarely use them myself; I believe inflammation is part of the healing process. However, with pneumonia, reducing lung inflammation is essential so we thought,… Read more »

Ann Heaslett
Guest
Ann Heaslett

Sarah, I am so sorry to hear of all your family has gone through. I am so relieved that your husband is on a path towards healing. With best wishes to you and your family from Wisconsin.

John McRoberts
Guest
John McRoberts

Unbelievably well written. I will be 53 on Saturday. We all think we are invincible and immune. Thank you for sharing this and continued health to you and yours.

caitlin carey
Guest
caitlin carey

Thank you for sharing. Thank you for being transparent and real. As a wife and a parent and a runner, what you are walking through is something I have contemplated repeatedly. I am thankful your husband is on the mend and your family sounds to be healthy and finding whatever normal is now. Caitlin, New Castle, Colorado

Carla T.
Guest
Carla T.

Thank you for sharing your story, Sarah. This had me in tears and cries of joy to hear Morgan is home now. Wishing your family healing and many more trail runs.

Ron
Guest
Ron

Well told! Thank you for sharing your story! Yes, it’s amazing how things can turn positive or challenging in the blink of an eye. Hope your husband is continuing to grow stronger and healthier each day! We are getting through this. See you all at the next ultra!!! Stay safe and well…Ron

Mike S.
Guest
Mike S.

A beautifully told, heart-wrenching story that offers something we desperately need right now—a happy ending. And may it only get happier from here. Thank you for sharing Sarah, and all the best to you, Morgan and your entire family. We’ll all “Get through it” together!

Sil
Guest
Sil

Stay home stay safe stay healthy. Bless you and your family 🙏🏻

Kelly
Guest
Kelly

Thank you Sarah for sharing. How scary. Stay well.

Desiree Wyatt
Guest

Thank you for sharing. I pray that this passes by all of you. Stay well. Stay safe.

Chris
Guest
Chris

How frightening! I’m so glad he is recovering. Stay well!
Your “neighbor” in Montrose

Sarah Lavender Smith
Guest

thank you! Is this Chris Price who made that comment?

Melissa Wong
Guest
Melissa Wong

Thank you for sharing your story! I am glad to hear that your husband is recovering well! Take care!!

KJD
Guest
KJD

Wow, what a moving story. Thank you for sharing with such truth and raw emotion. I am sharing this with my 69 year old dad who thinks because he’s in amazing shape, he’s invincible. Your story may save his life!

AJ Viens
Guest
AJ Viens

Thanks, Sarah. I am a teacher and runner from NH. I read this story today to my kids at the end of our Zoom meeting. We all shared a piece of writing that we had done this week or a found piece of runner that moved us. Your heart-warming story was perfect. I left them with the thought of how thousands of stories like yours happened and are happening to ordinary people all over the world.

Sarah Lavender Smith
Guest

Wow, thank you — that is really touching to think that a whole class heard it!

Charles Savage
Guest
Charles Savage

Sarah, what a frightening experience and one we all dread will strike us too. So glad that you, Morgan, Kyle, Colly and JJ are OK now. We will get through this

John Munday
Guest
John Munday

Sarah – thank you for a moving story. And thank you for details about treatment — so much is still uncertain, but yours confirm what I have seen elsewhere. My son-in-law is a medical doctor in VA, facing a heavier and more dangerous workload owing to Covid19.

Amber L Young
Guest
Amber L Young

I might have cried some for you ❤

Corson
Guest
Corson

Ms. Smith – did MDs offer your husband Morgan hydroxychloroquine and zinc with the antibioltics? It has shown efficacy in French and Chinese studies (releated around 3 weeks ago)?

Sarah Lavender Smith
Guest

no they didn’t

Kristine Hilbert
Guest
Kristine Hilbert

That was beautiful, raw and tender. I felt your deep love and pain. You are amazing and so strong; it was as much a love story as it was a tale of the illness in your family. I am so happy things turned out how they did and pray for the continued health of you and your family.

Michael
Guest
Michael

What a fantastic piece! Thank you so much for sharing this heart wrenching story. I hope that more people read it, especially all of those that think being in shape somehow means they can’t get this virus.

Rob Wilke
Guest
Rob Wilke

I read this back in early April and was very moved by your story. I’ve thought of you and your family a lot since then and wonder how the recovery is going. Some positive updates, I hope?

 
 

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