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Life as a Long-Hauler: American Ninja Warrior Calls COVID-19 Hardest Obstacle

David Smith American Ninja Warrior

David Smith

Long-term COVID-19 is proving to be a systemic, often debilitating result of a SARS-CoV-2 infection that lingers long after a person's system has cleared the virus. There is no data regarding who is most susceptible to becoming a "long hauler," as members of this group call themselves. The symptoms are as varied as the people who experience them.

This is David Smith's story.

You can see David Smith's stories in his scars. Snapshots of a life spent scaling hills and crawling beneath barbed wire—a life built around the barriers of obstacle courses. The indent on his left eyebrow is a memory of the branch that struck him as he sprang from tree to tree. His crooked left pinky marks the time his hand hit the steel of a monkey bar at the wrong angle. Sixteen broken bones in total. Forty-six stitches. And not once did he ever quit the race. 

“Those scars will all eventually heal,” he tells Verywell.

But doctors aren’t sure if the new ones in his lungs will. 

Smith is a 45-year-old athlete, father, construction worker, and, as of recently, COVID-19 long-hauler. When he tested positive for the SARS-CoV-2 virus on August 17, he says he wasn’t worried. He was strong and fit, fully focused on training for season 12 of American Ninja Warrior, the Spartan Ultra race in Vermont, and the 2020 Obstacle Course Racing (OCR) World Championships. He thought COVID-19 had a type: the ailing, the old, the indisposed. He knew that wasn’t him. 

And in the beginning, at least, he had no reason to worry. Smith’s infection manifested mildly. For the first two and a half weeks, he says he only experienced a few fevers and a handful of headaches. On day 20, his symptoms grew more aggressive: joint pain, fatigue, and cold sweats. But this is a man who once popped a broken bone back into place in the middle of a race and made a makeshift cast out of grit tape. He could handle a few body aches.

The subsequent negative test arrived a few days later. But something was wrong, Smith recalls. Despite his system clearing the virus, his body still carried its weight. Smith returned to the construction site but restrained from his usual labor-inducing jobs. About a week into work, he was tasked with cleaning gravel from a pipe—no heavy lifting, no strenuous effort—just the simple act of bending down and wiping. And that’s when it happened. 

“I started breathing really heavily, I started sweating, and I don't know why, but I just put my hand on my chest, and I’ve never felt my heart beat like that before,” Smith says. “It was like I could feel my heart going out of my chest and through my hand.” 

At the ER later that day, he was told he had a heart attack.

That’s when his journey with COVID-19 really began. 

Trapped in a Body That’s Not Your Own

Before COVID-19, Smith says he measured his life in timed increments: how long it would take to mount a wall, how fast he could swim through a frozen lake. Now he measures his life in breaths and steps: how many steps he can take without losing his breath, how many breaths he can take without losing his footing.

“This is worse than prison for me because I’m so used to being active,” the Cincinnati, Ohio, resident says. 

His obstacle course now includes the bedroom, bathroom, and backyard, if he's lucky. His breath falters when he walks as a result of the damage to his lungs. He suffers from severe fatigue and irregular heartbeats that spike for no apparent reason. His sentences are punctured by coughs. “I’m okay,” he’ll say, his positive attitude piercing through the words, despite the effort it takes to say them. “I’m okay,” he asserts. He says he is learning to be strong in a completely new way now. 

David Smith, COVID-19 Long-Hauler

This is worse than prison for me because I’m so used to being active.

— David Smith, COVID-19 Long-Hauler

Smith has been confined to his house since August. He says he is lucky to have a boss who understands his condition and keeps him on the payroll. Still, he says that losing his routine has been like losing a piece of himself, as his entire life revolved around athleticism.

“I’ve always stayed in shape. I worked a physical job. I would either run five miles a day, bike 12 miles, or jog with a 60-pound backpack,” he says. “On the weekends I’d have my kids, and we were always out swimming or doing something active. We would never sit still.” 

Smith didn’t learn about the phrase “long-hauler” until he became one. He didn’t know that COVID-19 could make people this sick. He says he doesn’t want people to live in fear, but he wants to warn others that this can happen to anyone, and it's not "just the flu." He wants people to know that even if you have a mild case of the virus like he did, it can still go on to silently wreak havoc on your organs; wreaking havoc on your life as a result.

For Smith, the scariest part about his condition is the unknown. What is the virus doing behind the scenes? How did he get so sick despite being in such great shape? And most importantly: What happens next?

“The virus has no respect for mental strength, or your athletic or competition resume,” he says. “This is a completely different type of obstacle I have to overcome.”

An Athlete’s Dilemma 

The former American Ninja Warrior contestant is of the belief that you can always mentally push yourself despite any physical limitations. When he has a goal, he achieves it. He completed 200 races in total. He ran 2016 miles in 2016 and 2018 miles in 2018. He broke his ankle during a race and crawled to the finish line.

But with COVID-19, he can’t do that. 

Like many other long-haulers, whenever Smith exerts too much physical effort, his body regresses, experiencing severe symptoms. There is a poorly-understood ebb and flow pattern to the condition, one that forces him to practice self-restraint.

“With my body before, I could always push myself," he says. "I could mentally push through everything, but I can't do that with this."

His doctors are concerned that if he exerts too much physical effort, he could end up having a more severe heart attack. Many studies have demonstrated a link between COVID-19 and heart damage, showing how previously healthy people end up with serious heart issues even months after their diagnosis. 

This concerns Smith and his doctors. They’ve seen what can happen to other athletes who exercise after COVID-19: 20-year-old Jamain Stephens, the defensive lineman for California University of Pennsylvania, died from a blood clot in his heart, and 27-year-old Michael Ojo, a basketball player for Florida State University, died after a having heart attack during practice. The two had contracted COVID-19 before their deaths. 

“My brother keeps warning me about this research, so I know I can’t muscle through this as I've muscled through my life," Smith says. "I’ll have to learn to cut back and pace myself, and resist the pattern to push through."

A Path Onwards

Two main things keep Smith going: his daughter Alex, 12, and his son, Peyton, 2. 

“They light up my world. They are also very adventurous, athletic, outdoorsy people like me,” he says. “What I'm going through kills me a little inside because I can't be active with them right now, but this experience also makes me proud because even though I'm physically weak, my daughter has stepped up tremendously, showing me how mentally and physically strong and caring she is.”

Together, they make plans for the races they will run in the future. Alex has already won first place in the Women's Open Division at the U.S. OCR Nationals, even though she was not technically old enough to participate. 

David Smith and his daughter, Alex
David Smith 

He says he knows that his current ailment will delay his plans, but he says he won’t let it derail them.

Within the next two years, Smith plans on competing in another season of American Ninja Warrior, a Death Race, and another Spartan Ultra Race.

Smith says he will do what he's done at every obstacle: keep moving forward.

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  1. Puntmann VO, Carerj ML, Wieters I, et al. Outcomes of cardiovascular magnetic resonance imaging in patients recently recovered from coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)JAMA Cardiol. Published online July 27, 2020. doi:10.1001/jamacardio.2020.3557