Long Covid – When the game of ultra becomes real life

Last updated: 06-Jul-21


By George Brill

I caught the infamous virus right at the beginning. End of March 2020, on my final flight into London following a rather stressful escape from a remote Indonesian island. I barely felt it—a slight constriction on my breathing, a little tiredness, but that passed within a couple of weeks. I readjusted my training plan eager to get back at it—I had a 50 miler in the diary. Except I couldn’t.

Days turned to weeks and weeks to months. Irritation turned to disappointment as I still couldn’t run; desperation to despair as every other form of exercise and physical capacity was dragged away; numbness to terror as I realised that most of what I lived for and all that I identified as was gradually becoming impossible. 

Right now, over a year later, I’m lucky if I get more than a few hours of focused thinking or walking around the house between the headaches, fatigue, adrenaline rushes and all rest: my past of running ultras, living with rainforest tribes, freediving, rock climbing and the like is but a distant memory – some other life from another time.

So whilst I could wax on for hours about what I once was, the fragility of health and ambition, and my grief at the loss of all three, instead I think it’s perhaps more interesting for you, and certainly more productive for me, to consider the rules of this new and unwelcome game.

I present to you a brief overview of the strategies and discipline that I must now attack with all the old enthusiasm of ultra-training in the ongoing hope of one day returning to that world. For there are many similarities: much I learnt from ultra is applicable, and there is much an ultrarunner may learn from the all-encompassing struggle of chronic illness recovery*.

1.  Discipline, discipline, discipline.

Long-Covid is a cruel mistress. If I overdo it by an inch—don’t get to sleep early, eat something sugary, walk a few minutes over my allowance, allow myself to dwell on the negatives—then I’m in for it. One small slip-up—any weakness, complacency or error of judgement—can undo weeks or even months of focused work.

Consistency is number one in ultra too (and indeed most things). Even if the odd slip in diet or missed training session may not hurl you back to step one, the cumulative sum of every time you do something right, minus the sum of all those times you were complacent or weak-willed: that is the equation that dictates progress.

The thing is, motivation never lasts. That’s where discipline comes in. Stick to the plan: mentally and physically. You made it for a reason.

‘Life is a matter of choices, and every choice you make makes you.’
– John C. Maxwell –

2.  Listen first

If discipline is the horse, then paying attention to your mind and body are the horseshoes. The balance is key. That doesn’t mean there’s an excuse to slack off, but if you don’t listen to the signals your body gives you, you’ll soon run yourself into the ground.

For me it has become a balancing game as fine as one could imagine—a minute more than I can handle and I regress fast, too much rest and I don’t move forward. With multi-system dysfunction, my body has become a whole new beast to learn—and you pay dearly for interpretive mistakes.

As I’m fast realising, sometimes the greatest challenge of discipline is to know when to stop, when to adjust your schedule accordingly. Flagging motivation for no apparent reason may well be a sign of overtraining. Not all muscle soreness is good. Or as I’m learning, there are many types of tiredness.

Some are based in the nervous system dysfunction and need gentle activity, some are emotional, others are just psychological and need a stern talking to, and some are simply telling you that you need to stop and repair. Temper discipline and progress with consolidation, introspection and self-awareness.

‘If you listen to your body when it whispers, you won’t have to hear it scream.’
–  Anonymous –


3.  Focus only on the steps you can make

There’s a whole lot you can’t control in ultra. The same is true for Long-Covid. For all my efforts, the illness likes to inject a bit of randomness—a couple of weeks of downhill or some new unwelcome symptom despite doing everything right. Just to be sure I know I’m not winning. Ultra is like this too – the weather, the odd unfortunate stumble, weird idiosyncrasies of the body and mind.

The only option is to dismiss what can’t be controlled. Focus on the steps that can be actively taken: pacing, mental control and the next step or hour—solid focuses in both ultra and Long-Covid. Sometimes just the illusion of being in control can be immensely powerful.

‘When something doesn’t go how you want it to go, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude. Do not complain!’
– Maya Angelou –

4.  Pain and discomfort are relative

This is something I learned on an expedition in New Zealand**. I had enjoyed a sixteen-hour day of neck-deep river crossings, fallen-tree hopping and belly-crawling through thick brush and bog, and had some nasty blisters for my efforts. They were extremely painful, but the thing was, when the following day, after a couple of miles of wading along a lake where the brush was too thick to go by land, I experienced the worst chafing I’ve had to date, and the blister pain seemed to miraculously disappear as I became preoccupied with my new companion.

It’s the same in Long-Covid: headaches give way to muscle-aches, to sinusitis, to heart-rate issues, to breathing problems to fatigue. And each stage worse makes the previous seem like I was flying! And it’s not just the physical—emotional and mental problems stack in the same way.

Reverse the psychology and we can use this—pain is not absolute, it is a relative and psycho-emotional reaction to sensation. We’re fickle creatures—think how fast we forget discomfort when it goes. We even sign up to another race! Use this. Objectify your pain—you’re not too bad, there’s always something worse. And only make decisions in the good moments, when pain is forgotten as fast as it disappeared.

‘Beyond the very extremes of fatigue and distress, we may find amounts of ease and power we never dreamed ourselves to own; sources of strength never taxed at all because we never push through the obstruction.’
– William James –

5.  Your ‘why’ is your most valuable asset

In physical and mental challenge in the natural world, I’ve found what makes me come alive. In the flow of mind and body over trail, the exposure and pure focus of the rockface, the freefall of pressure and depth under ocean, I’ve come as close as I think I ever will to defining a meaning to life. As a result, I will sacrifice everything to get it back. I will put all life aside in my effort to recover. Nothing is more important—it is who I am, what I do, where I belong.

In the deepest darkness, your why is the most valuable thing you own. Almost all achievement is determined by how much you want it, how much you are willing to sacrifice to get there. Take the time to deeply dissect and comprehend your ‘why’.

‘When the will to win is stronger than that fear we have to lose. That’s when you can go out there and achieve.’
– Mike Horn –

6.  Remember your strength

At 25 I’ve pushed myself in ultramarathons to the point of collapse. I’ve spent months in the jungles of Fiji, Asia and South America; lived with tribes and been raided by wild elephants in the middle of the night. I’ve nearly died of a tropical disease and been painted with wild ginger in a tribal shaman’s attempt to fix me up again.

I’ve dived to almost fifty metres on a single breath and topped unclimbed lines on limestone buttresses in the rainforests of Malaysia. Right now, that is not me. I cannot do those things and I am many months if not years away from doing them again. But I did do them, and that resilience and strength is still there—dormant deep within.

Remember your past achievements. For in the moments of despair and darkness they can be harnessed to draw strength and drive. You’ve done it before, you can do it again. Challenges change, but inner strength remains the same.

‘Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.’
– Gandhi –


7.  Everything teaches

Whether you believe in some predetermined fate in which everything happens for a reason, or whether, like me, you simply believe that some opportunistic benefit or new direction can be found in every circumstance, it doesn’t really matter. The point is, that should you choose to listen, there is a valuable perspective and lesson in everything, especially the negative ones.

In ultra it is often the opportunity to push our minds and will-power just that little bit further, or to learn the intricacies of our body’s stress responses just that little bit better. For me right now I see this miserable time as the greatest training opportunity of my life: a masterclass in discipline, focus, emotional control and self-belief.

‘The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.’
– Marcus Aurelius –

8.  Mindset and perception is everything

Perception makes experience. This is all the more real in Long-Covid, where allowing myself to slip into despair or emotional distress causes direct knock-ons to my physical health and recovery trajectory. I am ultra-sensitive to any form of stress – and mental-emotional stress is perhaps the most damaging of them all. It is a constant war with myself to avoid that internal negativity – a relentless lesson in meditative thought and emotional control.

In ultra it is somewhat more direct—your emotional state can determine your will if you let it. And the body cannot operate without the desire to do so. Add in the subtler nuances of mind-body synergy—potentially even a Central Governor that dictates fatigue based on inputs of psychology as much as physical and environmental—and your mind can be a very potent ingredient in both success and failure.

Negativity causes quitting and resistance in ultra. In Long-Covid it causes relapses. Either way, a situation is as good or as bad as you make it, and the mind is as important to train as the body.

‘Reality is created by the mind. We can change our reality by changing our mind.’
– Plato –

9.  The darkness before the light

It can’t always get worse. Sometimes you just have to endure for the light to come again. Trust the process, trust the previous you that made the plan you’re now on—even in a dearth of affirming evidence or surety that might now present itself. But you can be sure of one thing. Time will continue to pass. And as long as you believe in yourself and your plan, then the rest—finishing that ultra, recovering your old capacity—will happen on its own.

As each new step forward to health brings new symptoms and steps backward of often equal measure, I am once again realising that there is something about pure intention and belief that is unfathomably powerful. It has served me well in previous unknowns—in tribal jungle camps, deep in the pain cave of ultra, in studying, in grief, and elsewhere. Perhaps it is the effect that mindset has on resilience and capacity. Perhaps it is a more direct psychosomatic link. Who knows? But trust and belief will get you a long way, and besides, sometimes, like for me right now, it is all you have, so use it.

‘True success is not the absence of failure. It is the refusal to surrender.’
– Lazarus Lake –

10.  Remember how lucky you are

I am extremely fortunate with my illness. I have a family to support me, medical attention on the NHS, the ability to rest and pace myself. The doctors, family and friends believe me, that it’s a real, physical condition, which is more than many chronic fatigue patients have received over the years. So far I also appear to have no permanent organ damage. I’m alive for that matter.

This is relevant on many levels: health, privilege, education, nationality. It was something I became aware of while running a multistage ultra across Fiji, where after the race I found and lived with an indigenous group in the heart of the island. The privilege of ultra is astounding. We have the spare time for hours upon hours of training; the money and support to not be working hand-to-mouth for a living; the excess of energy to expend many thousands of precious calories and physical degradation on nonsensical pilgrimages to the alter of ultra.

For all the admirable hard-work and impressive qualities that we embody in our dedication, never forget the privilege that is required just to lace up the running shoes in the first place.

‘To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.’
– Steve Prefontaine –


Final Thoughts

The Lepto-Covid Perspective

Three years ago, I lay on a hospital bed in rural Malaysia. Drifting in and out of consciousness I was informed I had contracted leptospirosis—a water-borne disease that gradually shuts down the kidneys and liver until you died of acute dehydration. It was only just in time—three days more and I would have been dead they later told me. In that moment, as clichéd as you like, I quite literally made peace with the idea that I might die. And since that day I have been acutely aware of the fragility of life.

Long-Covid has taught me a different lesson—one altogether more sinister: the vulnerability of health, resilience and capacity; the vulnerability of our freedom to experience our world in full. And so, I present to you the Lepto-Covid Perspective:

You’re never too young to die; you’re never too strong to be invulnerable.

If that isn’t enough to get you off your backside and out living more alive, then nothing is. If you want something, take it, and take it now. Use this perspective. If suddenly you lost it all, how would you feel about the times you just didn’t bother.

It isn’t over till it’s over.

I’m not alone. There are many of us. Ultrarunners, triathletes, climbers, marathon swimmers, Olympic rowers, and many more. All struggling in ways we never expected: having to abort twenty minute walks when before we might have run twenty miles before breakfast.

Remember us.

Because when we do return—and we will—it will be with a fire fiercer than ever. With a drive and discipline that will be unstoppable. For inspiration is born of suffering, and only in loss can we truly understand the gift we once held. Despair turns to anger turns to impetus, and the fire deep within burns hotter than ever before. One day, in a month, in a year, in five years, it will be our day.


George Brill is an anthropologist at the University of Cambridge. His research studies the human evolutionary capacity for locomotor performance across land, water and the vertical—a search that has led him to spend time with numerous indigenous and hunter-gatherer cultures, alongside a range of ultramarathons, expeditions and similar self-experimentation around the world. You can follow his adventures on his website and on Instagram. All photos courtesy of George Brill.

*Chronic illness recovery article

**New Zealand article

"If you want something, take it, and take it now. Use this perspective. If suddenly you lost it all, how would you feel about the times you just didn’t bother"

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