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RUNNING

COVID-19: Heart of the matter for Flagstaff elite marathoner Matt Llano

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Runners know their bodies.

They listen closely to, and are in constant communication with, their corporeal selves. Every niggling strain is noted, every Doppler-like heartbeat fluctuation analyzed, every labored inhalation assessed and fretted over.

So imagine the shock and disbelief elite marathoner Matt Llano — who will compete March 20 at the USATF 15K championships in Florida — must have felt one day in September on a routine run on A1 Mountain Road, that smooth, pine-studded dirt path he’s traversed without incident so many times in his nine years in Flagstaff.

Llano, granted, wasn’t feeling great before setting off. He had some neck and shoulder stiffness, some achiness. No great concern, he thought. But 5 miles into the run, nearing a cattle guard, his body essentially started screaming at him, sending him clear signals that something was not right.

In short, he could barely breathe.

“I was running easy and was almost hyperventilating,” Llano said. “I thought, ‘This is so unusual.’ It was a feeling of heaviness. It was hard to keep going.”

He had to stop. Unthinkable. Llano never likes to stop on a run, ever, even to go to the bathroom. So this was worrisome.

He walked, then lightly jogged back to his car, his mind a swirling feedback loop of anxious thoughts. No, it couldn’t be COVID-19, could it? He’d been so careful all these months, so vigilant, but he and his partner had just returned from a three-day socially distanced trip to Telluride, Colorado.

So …

“Still,” he said, “in my mind, I was thinking I must just have a little cold.”

Because he makes his living pushing his body to extremes, and because he was frankly a little freaked out, Llano immediately went to Fort Tuthill for a COVID-19 test — just in case. Twenty-four hours later, he got a text that his results were in.

Positive.

And Llano was positively floored.

There, of course, is never a good time to get the coronavirus, but at least it wasn’t in the middle of a marathon build-up, the pandemic having essentially shut down nearly all races.

But Llano, 32, was entering a crucial phase in his career, attempting to bounce back from a disappointing 2:17 finish at the 2020 Olympic Trials, some six minutes slower than his personal best run in 2019 in Berlin. He also was in final talks to join the Under Armour-sponsored Dark Sky Distance pro training group, following nearly a year unsponsored and self-coached after leaving Flagstaff-based NAZ Elite.

Now, this.

Llano went through the standard COVID-positive protocol, quarantining for two weeks, dealing with flu-like symptoms and loss of the sense of smell, but it was mild comparatively. But the diagnosis shook him, made him imagine all sorts of worst-case scenarios.

“That’s immediately where my mind went — to my heart and my lungs,” he said. “I went down the rabbit hole of reading (COVID) stories. I went on the Google machine, and I was reading stories of athletes dying of myocarditis (inflammation of the heart wall) and otherwise perfectly healthy young athletes feeling fine and then had some type of cardiac event and weren’t able to pull through it.

“Immediately, I was terrified,” he added.

It was bad enough that Llano was missing out on training at a time when he should’ve been ramping up to join his new team. But now, there was the specter of long-term damage to his heart, and perhaps his lungs, too — organs so vital to a marathoner.

At the time, Llano was the only person in his social circle — basically, other professional runners who call Flagstaff home — afflicted with COVID, though shortly thereafter, NAZ Elite’s Nick Hauger would blog about his own case of COVID. He had figured that, being in Flagstaff and running alone on rural trails and roads would shield him from contagion. But COVID found him.

“I think it was a pretty common thought, maybe amongst the younger generation, that we’d be protected being in Flagstaff, being in the National Forest surrounded by dirt roads and away from big cities,” he said. “We had this false idea we were safe.”

And now, Llano was fretting what damage might be wrought on his body.

“I was thinking, ‘Will I be hospitalized?’” he said. “I have a friend, 26 years old, the epitome of health, and he was hospitalized and unconscious for about a week. So I had that in my mind. There were very real stories I was basing this information on. But I had to take my mind out of that spiral and focus on what I could control.”

A recent small study of effects of COVID on the heart and other organs of pro athletes, published in JAMA Cardiology, showed that only 4% had abnormal results of heart tests and 1% significant inflammation. But Dr. Richard Kovacs, co-founder of the American College of Cardiology’s Sports and Exercise Council, told the Associated Press that whether COVID can lead to lasting heart damage remains “the million-dollar question” and “part of the puzzle” of the disease.

Even the remote possibility of damaging his heart concerned Llano. He contacted a local cardiologist and went through a battery of heart tests, including an EKG. Tests showed normal heart function, and his lungs were back to normal, so the specialist cleared Llano to resume “vigorous” training.

But it was a long road back. He did, indeed, sign with Under Armour’s Dark Sky Distance crew, but coaches Stephen Haas and Shayla Houlihan took a cautious approach, early on. Those 130-mile weeks that Llano used to reel off during heavy training? That was a long way off. Try a set of 20- to 30-second strides and call it good. Then, progress to easy long runs. Then, eventually, workouts and training with Irishman Stephen Scullion, the other marathoner in Dark Sky’s group.

Llano said his new coaches were vigilant in bringing him back slowly. Llano himself had mental hurdles, as well as physical ones, to clear before he felt comfortable pushing his body to extremes, as marathoners must.

It helped, Llano said, that he has experienced career-threatening injuries in the past and fought back. In 2016, after finishing sixth in the Olympic Trials, Llano severely injured his hip and had a series of surgeries, then re-injured it and had another operation. The mental toughness he developed rehabbing from that scare helped him deal with coming back from COVID, he said.

“I’m pretty big on self-help, and right now doing a Tony Robbins intensive course on mental training,” he said. “I’m a big believer in the power of our minds and thoughts. I had to make that mind-shift. Am I going to let this take over my life? Will it completely derail the rest of my running career? Or, am I going to figure out a way to cope with it and do what I can, even though I know it’s not what I’m ultimately capable of?”

Ready to go the distance

This is a key period in Llano’s career. At 32, he is by no means aging as a marathoner — the three U.S. Olympic qualifiers are Galen Rupp, 34, Jake Riley, 32, and Adbi Abdirahman, 44 — but Llano realizes he might not have too many years of prime running left.

He initially thrived after leaving NAZ Elite, running his PR of 2:11:14 in 2019. Self-coached and unsponsored, he continued to train alone in Flagstaff for last March’s Olympic Marathon Trials in Atlanta. But not having the support of a team took its toll, and Llano admits he was not in a proper mental frame for the race, and it showed: 2:17.

The poor performance sent him reeling. He took more than a month off from running, unthinkable to him before. He mulled whether he should hang it up. He said the time off, in which he ran for the joy of it on singletrack trails, often with his dogs “and no concern about time or distance,” rekindled his resolve.

Dark Sky Running’s Haas, who is also Llano’s agent, started negotiating to bring him aboard. But then, COVID struck. Only by mid-December, Llano said, did he feel well enough to ramp up training.

“It was the process of making incremental gains, week-by-week testing it just a little more, turning the screw just a little bit tighter and seeing whether I could handle it or back off,” he said.

His first test of fitness came Jan. 23 at the Las Vegas Gold Half Marathon. He dropped out after 10 miles, things feeling “not quite right.” But his training progressed after that, to the point that he felt fit enough to try again last weekend at the Atlanta Half Marathon — held, coincidentally, exactly one year after his Olympic Trials debacle in the same city.

This time, Llano felt strong, stayed with the two leaders until dropping back a little in the final 5K. He finished third at 1:04:19 in poor conditions (extreme humidity, fog). That’s far off Llano’s PR at the distance, and he admits he’s not yet at peak fitness, but he was encouraged.

The doubts about whether pushing the limits in racing might tax his post-COVID heart now have mostly eased.

“My goal in Atlanta was to finish feeling strong and confident, to compete and try to get the win,” he said.

He accomplished that. Now, he’s moving forward, leaving COVID concerns in his wake.

Part of Llano still wonders, though, where and under what circumstance he contracted COVID. Was it on that brief vacation in Telluride? Was it in Flagstaff before he left? He will never know.

“It’s on my mind,” he said, smiling, “and I need to just push it out, because there’s never going to be a way to fully 100% get an answer.”

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Feature Writer, Community/Calendar Editor

Sam McManis is an Arizona Daily Sun features writer and the author of two books: “Running to Glory: An Unlikely Team, A Challenging Season and Chasing the American Dream" and “Crossing California: A Cultural Topography of a State of Wonder and Weirdness.”

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