Runner with Long Covid Creates Flagstaff Dream Running Camp

Runner with Long Covid Creates Flagstaff Dream Running Camp

Never one to waste a free moment, Matt Fitzgerald climbed into the second row of his Mazda CX-90 on a recent weekday morning and opened his MacBook so he could work on another book.

Mr. Fitzgerald, 52, is many things — writer, speaker, coach — but most of all he is prolific. He wrote or co-wrote 34 pounds, most on running, endurance sports and nutrition. He writes early. He writes often. He writes a lot.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m doing a B-plus job on a dozen things instead of an A-plus job on three or four,” he said. “But I am who I am. There are always certain things where I try to give my best at any given moment, and I guess that’s enough.

Mr. Fitzgerald has a lean, athletic build that hints at another part of his identity: the long-distance runner. He was also prolific in this field, completing 50 marathons – his fastest in 2 hours 39 minutes 30 seconds. And, once upon a time, he would have been jogging down the quiet, snowy road in Flagstaff, Arizona, where he parked his sport utility vehicle.

Instead, Mr. Fitzgerald waited for John Gietzel, a 48-year-old business consultant from Winnipeg, Manitoba, to finish relaxing so he could close his laptop and lead him in a series of hill sprints. As for Mr. Fitzgerald, he has hardly exercised for three years.

“I probably wouldn’t be doing this if I hadn’t gotten sick,” Mr. Fitzgerald said. “But I found it surprisingly rewarding.”

Mr. Fitzgerald’s fight against long Covid has, in important ways, forced him to reshape who he is and what he does. In doing so, he found vicarious joy in starting a company called Dream Running Camp from his home in Flagstaff, where he lives with his wife, Nataki, and a rotating group of recreational runners who pay between $45 and $115 a day to stay in one of four guest houses and be coached by him.

“I’m trying to create an event,” said Mr. Fitzgerald, who shared his long-term vision: “A few years later, everyone in the world heard about Dream Run Camp, and there’s this mystical about it and it’s just good vibes.

He organizes group runs every morning. He has “coach office hours” every afternoon when he emerges from his writer’s den to deliver PowerPoint presentations on topics like “Disrupting Complacency” and “Hard Fun.” Mr. Fitzgerald’s campers, whom he calls “dream runners,” can stay as long as they want, up to 12 weeks.

Mr. Gietzel, who has a job that allows him to work remotely, is staying about a month so he can train for the job. Mesa Marathon on February 10. Mr. Fitzgerald plans to be at the finish line.

“There’s a kind of magic here,” Mr. Gietzel said. “I already feel it.”

Mr Fitzgerald had no way of knowing it at the time, but he now believes the US Olympic marathon trials in February 2020 changed his life. He had traveled to Atlanta to make a few promotional appearances before the event, then competed in the Publix Atlanta Marathon the day after the trials. “This weekend was a lot of fun,” he said.

Returning home, Mr. Fitzgerald fell ill. His wife also soon fell ill. They both believe they contracted Covid, even though all of this happened before at-home testing was available and before widespread government shutdowns.

“We both stayed home and recovered, because the hospitals were crowded,” Nataki Fitzgerald said.

Mr Fitzgerald felt very unwell for about a month – “It was by far the sickest I have ever been,” he said – before slowly returning to his old lifestyle. In fact, he ran and exercised without issue throughout the summer of 2020.

“And then everything started to unfold in mysterious ways,” he said. “My neurological symptoms have become spectacular. I could not do anything. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t create a training plan. I didn’t want to interact with people.

Much remains unknown about long Covid. While there is no test to determine whether symptoms like fatigue, brain fog, and persistent headaches are the result of the virus, long Covid can persist for weeks, months, or even years , according to Centers for Disaster Control and Prevention.

Although Mr Fitzgerald said his neurological problems have improved in recent months, he still suffers from chronic fatigue and “post-exertional malaise”, meaning anything that involves physical exertion leaves him feeling horrible.

“Exactly the disease you’re looking for if you’re an endurance athlete,” he said.

Early last year, he felt well enough to try to get back into running. After six weeks of gradually increasing his workload, he was able to jog for 30 minutes.

“And then the bottom fell out,” said Mr. Fitzgerald, who has not run beyond short distances since.

It was disorienting for someone whose entire life was centered around sports. He recalled one of his greatest experiences as a runner, when he spent 13 weeks training for the 2017 Chicago Marathon describing himself as a “fake professional runner” with HOKA NAZ Elite, a team of world-class distance runners based in Flagstaff. Mr. Fitzgerald concluded his time with the team by running a personal best for the marathon at age 46 and writing a book about it called “Run the dream.”

As Mr. Fitzgerald struggled with the effects of a long stretch of Covid, he reflected on that experience in Flagstaff. He knew he couldn’t run again – at least, not anytime soon – but he could imagine a way to stay involved, using his expertise to coach others.

After convincing his wife that they should uproot their lives in California and move to Flagstaff, which is a mecca for high-altitude runners, Mr. Fitzgerald welcomed his first campers — sorry, dream runners — last May. It has welcomed around thirty so far.

“I know him as someone who implements his ideas,” said Ben Rosario, executive director of HOKA NAZ Elite.

Running camps aren’t exactly a new concept. Steph Bruce, an elite distance runner, and her husband, Ben, have a one week camp for runners in Flagstaff every summer. There are countless others across the country.

The difference with Dream Run Camp is that Mr. Fitzgerald’s dream runners live in his house.

The walls are adorned with artwork from top runners. There is a common recovery area with a hyperbaric chamber and a contraption called a vibroacoustic therapy bed. Its garage is equipped with high-end fitness equipment. The courtyard has a sauna and a small swimming pool for sports swimming. Mr. Fitzgerald and his wife live in an adjoining guest house.

“It’s a difficult thing to promote,” he said. “Come to Dream Camp and be a little bored!” This will be great for your race! »

“But there is some truth to it. I see people who come here who are a little held back by their normal life, and after a few days here, they are liquid.

Although Mr. Fitzgerald seems to have made peace with some of his limitations, he cannot accept being a bystander forever.

Just after midnight on New Year’s Day, he strode down to his computer to register for the Javeline Jundred, a 100-kilometer ultramarathon in Fountain Hills, Arizona, in late October. Mr. Fitzgerald recognized how incongruous this seemed.

“I literally can’t take a step right now,” he said.

By way of explanation, Mr. Fitzgerald cited Charles Barkley’s final season in the NBA. After Mr. Barkley ruptured his quadriceps tendon in an early-season game, he vowed he would come back.

Sure enough, about four months after suffering his injury, Mr. Barkley returned to play in one final game, scoring a field goal on a backhander. He left the field to a standing ovation.

In his own way, Mr. Fitzgerald said, he wants to do the same. He even has a working title for a book he wants to write: “Dying to Run: A Struggling Athlete’s Quest for One Last Finish Line.”

“I’m not doing this because I’m in recovery,” he said. “I do this because I am not recovering. »

Mr. Fitzgerald doesn’t expect to run per se. He just wants to finish within the 29-hour time limit set for the event, even if that means covering the course on foot.

“I can just survive,” he said.

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Eric D. Eilerman

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