This is part one of a two-part story about U.S. skier David Norris who was recently diagnosed with Covid-19. Part-one explores how Norris experienced the illness, whereas part-two will look into some of the medical literature around athletes and COVID and how Norris plans to build fitness post-illness.
There’s been drama this season on the World Cup. The opening act was the superb racing in Ruka – it was exactly the fist-bump we needed. The closing act from Finland, a knee-buckle winnowing of the World Cup field as Norway, Finland, and Sweden pulled back from racing World Cups.
For the U.S. Ski Team, Ruka served, as is typical with the now podium-pedigree women’s team, as a warm-up for some and an exclamation point for others. Rosie Brennan skied to fifth overall in the series and popped a third-best time of day in the final skate pursuit. For the men, Gus Schumacher and JC Schoonmaker arrived sprint-ready with Schumacher proving at 20, he’s capable of moving into the top-30 in any discipline. And Scott Patterson, rebounding after a down year in 2020, raced to a 23rd fastest time of day in the 15 k skate pursuit.
On the original list of starters for the U.S. was David Norris (30). The APU skier and best U.S. distance skier on the World Cup last season was scratched. In his moxy-filled performances last season, Norris appeared primed for a breakthrough.
Norris will be absent from the World Cup through at least December and most of January. He informed FasterSkier that he was confirmed positive for Covid-19 on November 13. Mask-wearing, social distancing, and handwashing were all part of his Covid-19 avoidance strategy.
Norris’s subtle symptoms began on November 7 with a low-grade stuffy nose.
“I had an interval scheduled for that day when I sensed something was up,” said Norris. “ I was up in Fairbanks training. It was subtle enough that each of those days I was stuffy, I contemplated doing intervals and I was like, ‘maybe I’m a little bit on edge.”
With his experience training through a virus and cratering, Norris now embraces caution. He pushed the intervals back a few days.
“This wasn’t even a COVID consideration,” he added. “Having a stuffy nose, I did not even think about COVID, I just thought I was training a lot. At the time I was simply living with my parents and going to Birch Hill to train and going back to the house. I just really didn’t think I had any exposures.”
On the morning of the 9th, Norris lost his sense of smell, something we know now is a hallmark symptom of a Covid infection.
“I woke up and ground coffee and didn’t smell it at all,” Norris said. “I’d heard from a friend of mine who contracted COVID that his red flag was that he could not smell his scented Chap-Stick as he applied it. Then I started running around sniffing everything in the kitchen. And so at that point, I knew I needed to go get tested. In my parent’s house, I began continually wearing a mask and keeping my distance from them.”
Norris ceased skiing mid-week on the 11th out of precaution. The confirmed positive came two days later, on Friday Novenber 13.
During those few days Norris continued skiing, he said those were the times he felt best. He skied easily, by sensation, during which he felt more himself. When not skiing, he endured headaches, mild fogginess, and occasional nausea.
He soon heard back from several doctors and academics affiliated with the APU program and was advised to cease all exercise. “They pretty much suggested that I should have stopped exercising the second I lost my sense of smell,” said Norris about the medical advice he received. “Once I received the positive I stopped exercising completely. My energy was OK. I think it was a good call. I felt better.”
According to medical literature, Covid-19 symptoms run the full gamut. Depending on the person and their underlying conditions, some experience no symptoms, while others suffer quick onset pneumonia and other devastating diagnoses. Norris was lucky.
“I never had an actual fever when I checked and I was able to sleep 10 or 11 hours and then still take a nap in the middle of the day and I wasn’t training at all,” he said. “And mostly I just had a bad headache for about a week straight. So, for me, I wasn’t concerned about prolonged risk or damage because it wasn’t the most severe cold, by far, that I have experienced compared to previous illnesses.”
What follows is an interview with Norris on December 3.
FasterSkier: After your positive, what did your doctors recommend in terms of rest and exercise?
David Norris: They said I had mild to moderate symptoms. And so there was a recommendation for zero exercise until 10 days from the last symptoms. It’s hard to identify what my last symptom was because I guess I’m feeling good, but then periodically throughout the day, my chest might hurt. Then I think, is that a symptom or am I just this kind of sore from the lingering virus?
So with my stuffy nose, I think I gave it 12 days before I started exercising again just to give it the extra wiggle room and it seemed like there was no rush to do anything. I could do more harm than good by getting back to training. And the training – the recommendation was to just do 45 minutes of L1, very easy, nothing remotely hard.
FasterSkier: L1 recovering from COVID, does that look like you’re simply walking up any hill?
DN: Yeah, I guess in terms of skiing everything is pushed or dialed back. So if the terrain is flat I might be V1-ing across, and on a hill that I normally just ski right up, I might do the coach’s skate. But it wasn’t like I was straining to ski easily. I did that for a whole week, just one session per day for roughly 45 minutes to an hour. Right now, the second week, I do a morning session for an hour. In the afternoon I’ll ski 45 minutes to an hour. Easy again.
FasterSkier: Let’s circle back to the chest pain, since Myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart, can be one symptom of the virus. That condition is also associated with shortness of breath, chest pain, a decreased ability to exercise. I’m sure you have read about it. So is that something you are mindful of?
DN: I received feedback from different doctors and academics in the APU program. Some were very pro-testing and scans while others said that process usually just leads to more tests. I ended up getting an EKG and then did some blood labs that are specific to cardiac damage. The cardiologists told me that the echocardiogram was fine. The biggest risk of dying post-COVID, evidently, is sudden death in an athlete. The specialist said something about not being able to detect that in an echo. But, one of the results or complications from myocarditis would be sudden death.
They also explained if I was at risk I would have a reduced EF, which stands for ejection fraction. The cardiologist said that he told me he’s never heard of an athletic person with sudden death. And then they checked my troponin levels, and they said that would normally be high if you have myocarditis.
(According to the Mayo Clinic, ejection fraction refers to “the percentage of blood that’s pumped out of a filled ventricle with each heartbeat.” Troponin is a protein found in heart muscle cells. Troponin usually is not found in the blood. When the heart muscle is damaged, Troponin is released and diffuses into the bloodstream where it can be detected.)
FasterSkier: It sounds like you are meeting all the benchmarks to be tentatively cleared?
DN: Yeah. And, any of the big red flag type concerns, none of my scans or pictures showed those. Without finding those red flags, we decided to just make a very controlled and conservative return to exercise. By doing a very gradual build-up, the thought is if there is something more to catch it, you’ll discover it during that gradual build-up versus just jumping back into intervals and time trials.
FasterSkier: How are your lungs or is that of concern to you? Maybe you have not had symptoms linked to lung function?
DN: I never had a cough. And I, I would say, I never felt anything like shortness of breath. And honestly, I haven’t secretly done three minutes hard to test myself. I haven’t done any formal tests to see what my lung volume is, so I don’t have any gauge, other than just when I have skied easy, nothing seems wrong.
FasterSkier: I’m sure you have been asked a million times – do you know how you might have contracted the virus?
DN: I don’t know of anyone COVID positive who I have been in contact with. It is possible I got it while traveling though. I flew from Anchorage to Fairbanks, and before I flew to Fairbanks I had a negative COVID test. But anytime I’ve been in public I’ve been careful with not touching stuff and keeping my distance from people.
FasterSkier: OK, some personal history that might relate to how conservative you say you are taking your recovery. Your senior year of college, in 2014, you trained through a lingering virus and were pretty much fried for about a year. If this is accurate, how are you informed by that experience?
DN: That’s pretty much accurate. I guess as a motivated athlete I could tend to ignore those chronic symptomatic things like a week or two of a stuffy nose or a sore throat. I would go for an entire month before I just said I need to bag it and get recovered. So my senior year of college, I ended up taking from about November 1 through February 1 off, and then by Spring Series, I raced to fourth place in the 15 k skate. And up to that point, that was my best 15 k skate result at the national level.
Having gone through that experience, it is nice to have that, because I know it gives me confidence that I can be patient and not stress about losing fitness. I just need to take care of my body and health and when everything seems to turn around, it doesn’t take that long to get back to race shape after so many years of training. I know that three months of low volume training doesn’t set you back that much.
FasterSkier: For a lot of people, not exercising can be a real stressor. And to take significant time to re-balance and heal is a non-starter for some, there’s the constant fear that you are de-tuning and will never be “fast” again. You know everyone has an athletics success window. But I can see how what you experienced in college can be valuable. That all said, I know you were given starts for at least Period I. What might the World Cup look like for you moving forward? But maybe I am getting ahead too much.
DN: I still have big goals for myself for individual World Cup performances and World Championships this season. That was the season goal, World Champs, but also to put me in a position to be on track for making the Olympics next year.
I mean getting good results would be great. That’s always great. But now my mind has shifted to just thinking about getting healthy, and building fitness this season, whether or not I race.
Erik Flora’s tentative plan, assuming I don’t have any negative side effects to training, has me building up to Christmas. After Christmas, I can build in high intensity and time trials. And if the World Cup selection committee decides to give me starts after the Tour de Ski, I would go to Lahti and Falun and hopefully, I would be selected for World Championships.
That being said, having contracted COVID and seeing that racing isn’t everything, it is just hard to know. Even by the end of January, maybe the right decision is to just stay home and try not to catch COVID for a second time.
I’m going to prepare and train to aim for those World Cups and World Championships. But then I’ll have to assess, assuming I get those opportunities and decide what is the best move.
FasterSkier: How were you feeling before all this? You are coming off a very solid year internationally.
DN: I felt good. I was confident. I had adjusted my training to try to come into Ruka a little hotter than in normal years with the plan to just come home for Christmas, and you know get through Period I with all the COVID stress and then come home and reassess.
I felt better than other falls, thinking that I wanted to be set for the first distance race in Ruka. I felt really good in early November, doing intervals and just all the training was really good. Through early October I intentionally trained through quite a bit of fatigue as I was carrying a lot of load. Fitness-wise, I was just coming around in early November where I was starting to get fresh and feel sharp. That was part of why I had the confidence to not do intervals on those days that I just had a stuffy nose because things were moving in the right direction. I know it’s not going to hurt me to do one less interval set in this 10-day block.
FasterSkier: What do you say to younger athletes who may get sick themselves? It sounds like you have a lot of patience but you also had an adverse experience when you were a senior in college.
DN: My junior coach in Fairbanks, he always said have the confidence to take a day off. I think that’s true. But at the same time, if you know that you’re training super hard when you’re healthy and you’re consistent with your training, as the fall approaches and you’re in the racing season, and knowing that I trained my ass off in the summer, all that gives me the confidence to take a day off and not stress about a small interval session.
My advice is that if you work hard when you’re healthy and when you’re supposed to train hard, then you should be confident that when you are sick, know you have the base to take a day off. When you feel like you might be catching a cold or even when you’re coming back from a cold and you feel ready to do an interval set, maybe, wait one extra day, and then do the interval set.
That was always the advice from the assistant coach, this Norwegian guy — he said in Norway when you showed up to practice and you told your coach you’re ready to do intervals after an illness, the coach would say, “Ok, you’ll do it in two days.”
FasterSkier: What type of medical follow-up might you do?
DN: I think I’ll do some more blood labs again, towards the end of December. Other than that, unless I get adverse effects from the increased training, I don’t think I would do extra scans.
Jason lives in Bend, Ore., and can often be seen chasing his two boys around town. He’s a self-proclaimed audio geek. That all started back in the early 1990s when he convinced a naive public radio editor he should report a story from Alaska’s, Ruth Gorge. Now, Jason’s common companion is his field-recording gear.