I’d been lucky during the Covid pandemic. Broken Riders sales increased, my suppliers were still in business, and living on the edge of the South downs here in Brighton meant I was able continue riding two or three times per week during lockdown. The sun shone during endlessly during 2020, and although the weather wasn’t quite as good this year, all in all life was pretty good.
Lockdown eased and my family and I decided to take a short break. It felt like we deserved a treat as we’d just cancelled our summer holiday to France for the second time. So back in May we drove to Devon for a few days of camping and surfing with a few other families. The weather was sunny, and we had a great time surfing, cooking, eating, drinking and enjoying life in the outdoors.
A few days after we got back, one of the families we’d been with informed us their kids had tested positive for Covid. We went to get tested at the local PCR testing centre. My daughters all tested positive, but myself and my wife were negative. The girls got a little bit sick, complaining of feeling lethargic and having headaches. About three days later, my wife and I began to show symptoms.
Fortunately, my daughters and my wife’s symptoms were short-lived, and they made a quick recovery. However, my symptoms worsened. I’m 52 and had already had a single dose of vaccine at this point. I thought I should be OK - surely?
Over the next 48 hours the symptoms got progressively worse. I went from running 8-10 miles per week and riding 20-30 miles per week to not being able to make it up the stairs to the first floor of my house without stopping for breath. I had banging headaches and shooting pains in my joints to add to the difficulty I was having breathing. A good friend of mine had caught Covid earlier in the year and been hospitalised. I remember him saying that he’d tried to sit it out until it got so bad, he had to call for an ambulance. Was this going to be my experience - leaving the house by ambulance?
I lost the next couple of days, not really knowing or caring what was happening as I was so sick. But then the symptoms stopped escalating - maybe this was the vaccine holding the virus at bay? Slowly but surely began to get a little better.
The symptoms were still there, but they gradually eased a little so that at least I could now get up the stairs without almost passing out due to lack of oxygen. Although I kept getting breathless and began to get weird heart palpitations for no reason. I’d be sitting at my computer or laying in bed at night trying to get to sleep and my heart would just start banging away for no reason. I felt lethargic most of the time, unable to motivate myself to do anything but the essentials of eating, working and sleeping.
It’s now mid August, and the shortness of breath and heart palpitations had almost gone, though they appeared on random days for no apparent reason. I was going for steady walks around the local park and felt OK. But lethargy was still an issue, and it began to mess with my head. At one point I seriously contemplated selling Broken Riders, as I just couldn’t be bothered with it and the prospect of spending even more of my time working seemed like the last thing I needed.
I had my bike serviced at Rhythm & Bikes in Brighton; my local bike shop. I was feeling OK and longing to get back on a bike, so I decided to ride home. It’s about three miles away from my house. It was so good to be back on the bike!
I took it relatively easy, and all was going well until I got to the bottom of the first of three steep hills from the bottom of the valley to my house. At around a hundred metres up the first hill, I began to get breathless. My head was pounding, and I began to feel dizzy. I stopped, almost falling off the bike, stumbled and threw up in the gutter. I sat on the pavement for what seemed an age, trying to get it together to be able to get home. There was no way I could ride, so I pushed my bike slowly up the hills to my house. I put the bike in the shed and went to bed and slept for a couple of hours.
This was a new low, and it was obvious I hadn’t recovered fully. I felt terrible - both physically and mentally. What if I never shook this virus off? What was life going to be like? I was really down for a few days after this. A new low.
But gradually over time, the breathlessness episodes subsided, though I was now getting joint pain in my knees – just from walking. I had the second vaccine and didn’t feel much in the way of side effects. Not being able to exercise was tough, but I knew I just had to (literally) sit it out until I was well enough.
Around five weeks ago, I tried exercising again. Just a short, gentle run at a slow pace around my local park. Less than a mile. I felt relatively OK – five kilos heavier and massively out of shape, but no shortness of breath or heart palpitations. Slowly, I increased the distance and pace. It was tough. Almost all my stamina had gone, but I was determined to get healthy again. After exercising, the next day would feel like I’d done a 40-mile ride on my bike. Despite doing lots of warming up and warming down stretches every joint felt like it was bruised, and I felt very, very old. But it felt like some progress was being made.
A mate messaged me to see if I was ready to ride again. I hadn’t ridden a bike since May, and the bike had been in the shed since that horrendous day when it came back from the bike shop. Cautiously, I agreed to go for a ride with him and another mate in Stanmer Park near Brighton on the next Sunday.
Sunday morning came and I was nervous. What if I had a repeat of the episode of a few months back? I hadn’t experienced the breathlessness or heart palpitations for a few weeks now. I reminded myself I’d been running for a while now without any severe side effects.
I used to ride the 4 miles from my house to Stanmer Park, and then ride back after spending time on the trails there. So, every ride I was riding 8 miles more than everyone else. However, I decided to play it safe and drive to my friend’s house as he lives near the park. “Not quite ready for a big ride yet”, I told myself.
We hit the first hill at an easy pace, but my fitness was almost non-existent, and I was quickly gasping for breath. But I kept turning the pedals and we eventually reached the top. Sweat was pouring down my face but it was still a fantastic feeling to be riding again. We chose an easy single-track trail and headed downhill. Within minutes I was popping the bike over the jumps and drops. I’d missed this so much!
A few trails later I could feel I was beginning to get tired and a bit breathless, so we decided to head back to his house, stopping off en route to have a few goes on a jump at the top of the park. It was all downhill back to my friend’s house, and I followed him down a twisty piece of single track, flicking up autumn leaves in the beautiful park. We'd only ridden around 7 miles, and I felt knackered but with a big smile on my face.
I drove home, put the bike away, showered and then promptly dozed off on the sofa: I was exhausted. We’d ridden about eight miles, but I’d made it and I was back to being able to be where I’m happiest - on a bike.
My recovery has been a long, gruelling slog. The day after my ride I felt like I’d spent all day riding – my muscles ached, my joints were sore, and my head felt so incredibly 'foggy'. I’ve still got some Covid symptoms, and I guess it’ll be a little while before it’s completely gone. But I’m getting better, that’s certain. And it feels great.
Before Covid I was relatively physically fit for my age. I don’t drink much, and I don’t smoke. Yet I was powerless to fight the virus and the aftereffects. This isn’t flu. It takes time to recover – much more than I thought it would. I’m still getting joint pain and very occasionally feel slightly breathless (I had an episode just yesterday), but the symptoms aren’t anywhere near as bad as they were.
There are many others who’re still suffering, and with much worse symptoms than me. Many have ended up in hospital and many have died. I’ve been incredibly lucky. I honestly think that even having a single dose of vaccine stopped me from having to be hospitalised. It chills me to the bone to think about what could’ve happened then…
So, if you’re suffering from symptoms of long Covid, all I can say is take your time. It’s hard to sit and do nothing, especially when you see yourself getting out of shape and exercise is your way of dealing with some of the stresses of life. But starting exercise too early can set back your recovery quite dramatically, so don’t punish yourself mentally or physically. Sleep lots, eat well and try to find other ways of filling your spare time. I began to read every day as a way of trying to improve my focus after the Covid-induced mind fog. It’s exercise for the mind, I guess. Which is something.
Just remember to take it easy on yourself. You’ll get there eventually.
All the best,
Founder, Broken Riders