David Samuel’s first hint that something was wrong came during a routine, two-hour bike ride one morning in late July.
“It was an easy ride,” he said. “But my heart rate was 132, and I really would have expected it to be under 120. I was saying, ‘Why is my heart rate so high? I’m not pushing 250 watts. What’s going on?'”
Samuel, 40, a Saskatoon attorney and father of two young children, was in full training mode for his seventh Ironman — despite the fact that Ironman Canada, the race he’d signed up for, had been cancelled early in the pandemic.
“When COVID came, the only thing that changed for me was the location of the start line and the amount I was going to have to spend on gas,” Samuel said. “I was still going to do it, come hell or high water.” So he made up an event for himself and posted it to Facebook.
“I called it ‘Aluminum Boy Saskatoon,'” he says, laughing. “A couple of people got on board and said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do that.'”
With his own physically distanced event just over a month away, Samuel was in peak form when he woke up with a dry cough on the morning of that easy ride. Ten days earlier, a client had come into his office who later tested positive for the coronavirus. Sask Health had called Samuel to let him know, but he figured the chances of his getting sick were slim: he had not been in physical contact with the infected man, and there were hardly any cases of COVID-19 in Saskatoon. But within 24 hours of developing that cough, Samuel woke up on his couch, racked by fever. By the time he got his positive test result, four days later, he was in the throes of the illness. He felt as if he’d been beaten up. His head ached, he had no appetite, and when he did manage to get food down, everything tasted like styrofoam.
“It’s like an intense feeling of impending doom,” he recalls. “You just lie there, suffering. I was in so much discomfort, I couldn’t even move my legs across the bed.” He was alone in his condo, as his children were with their mother visiting the Gulf Islands in B.C. He welcomed the isolation, staying in constant contact with family and friends on the phone. But at one point, those friends grew worried when he failed to pick up his calls.
“I was in bed so debilitated that I couldn’t even think of getting up to go to my phone. I just had to focus on breathing.”
Once again, it was Samuel’s Garmin that told him things were really not right, that he was getting sicker by the minute.
His device, equipped with a pulse oximeter, registered his oxygen saturation level at 90.
“So when I got the call to verify that I had COVID, I asked, ‘When do I have to come in for breathing assistance?'” he recalls. “The doctor said, ‘You are on your last percent.”
By the next day, Samuel’s oxygen saturation level had dipped to 89, and he felt like he was drowning. “You start to panic. You are almost trying to come up for air, but you’re not even under water.”
“This is a very bad development,” he remembers thinking, and then he began to bargain with himself — anything, not to have to go to the hospital, not to face the fact that he really should be hooked up to an oxygen tank.
“You start to do this mental gymnastics to accommodate your version of reality, of what you want to be true,” he says. “And then it did creep back up, and I’m like, ‘Oh, thank God.'”
That was the turning point, and slowly, Samuel’s breathing became easier and his strength came back. By Aug. 7, two weeks after he’d first showed symptoms, he was cleared to go outdoors once again. But within a day of that, he realized he had myocarditis. His resting heart rate, normally in the low 40s, was now 59. It was another 18 days before that heart inflammation abated on its own.
By September, Samuel was training again. It was slow-going at first, but oddly, within a short time, he was feeling fitter and faster than ever. Samuel makes sense of it this way: COVID forced him to rest just a week or two before he’d planned to taper for his Aug. 30 self-styled Aluminum Boy race.
“I think while I was sick, my legs still did their job of recovering from the training. So I still had this taper effect.”
Finding a positive spin
Talking to Samuel, it’s quickly clear that he is the kind of guy who finds a silver lining in everything, but what he tells me next takes me utterly by surprise.
“If someone had told me, here are two doors – Door No. 1 is no COVID. Door No. 2 is COVID. Which one is more beneficial to you? I would have avoided the COVID door, even though, looking back, the net effect is positive. It really did benefit me the most, because it brought me so much clarity and maturity.”
“I hated COVID, but it worked out, my life really changed for the better because of it.”
He sees it in small ways, like in his daily interactions with his children, Gwen, who is six, and Russell, four. When one of them spills their milk, he is not irritated in the slightest.
“I am now clearly aware that that doesn’t matter at all.”
Surviving COVID has given him perspective and what he calls “emotional fitness.”
In his triathlon training, Samuel says, he is now much more focused on performance, but not at all on the outcome.
“That means you develop a really good plan and execute it to the best of your ability. But at the end of the day, you have to acknowledge that you don’t actually have control over the outcome and you don’t even know what the best outcome is, anyway, because you don’t know how it will affect your life in the long run.”
“So COVID – assuming I survived, which I was fortunate to have done – really was one of the formative things in my life rather than this horrible tragedy. That’s how I look at it.”
Samuel did manage to get his “Ironman” race done this year – on Oct. 31, two months to the day after he’d originally planned to race Ironman Canada, he completed what he dubbed “Aluminum Boy,” proudly displaying a photo of his winning medal on his Facebook page.
Loreen Pindera is a writer and an avid triathlete based in Montreal.