Len Brin believed that 2020 would special.
A math professor at Southern Connecticut State University and an avid long distance runner, Brin, a Cheshire resident, would be turning 50 in March of 2020, and he expected that it would be a year of milestones. “I was thinking, ‘This is going to be my year,’” he recalls. “I was going to break all my personal records (for running).”
“And then, the lockdowns hit.”
A week before he turned 50, everything changed. The pandemic sent the world into isolation, with businesses closed, students sent home to learn remotely, and virtually every event scheduled for the year canceled. That included all of the races Brin had planned to take part in.
“That was such a huge disappointment,” he acknowledged. However, it was only the beginning for Brin.
In November of 2020, Brin tested positive for COVID. He had mild symptoms and was sick for a week, but eventually he emerged from the illness feeling better. “I thought, ‘Well, I’m one of the lucky ones,’” he recalls. But his luck was about to turn.
In the weeks following his illness, Brin returned to his usual running routine and was back to his old self, completing seven- to eight-mile runs during the week. But he could feel “hints,” he states, that something was a bit off. “It could feel that it was a little more strenuous than usual, but I was still able to complete my runs,” he said. Then, one day in early January 2021, Brin attempted one of his long 16-mile runs. He only got approximately six miles in.
“I just stopped,” he said. “I couldn’t finish. I just had to walk home.”
“That’s when it all started to fall apart,” he continued.
Brin was overtaken by fatigue. Unable to complete his basic running routine, he concluded that rest might be what was required and decided that he would take a break for approximately two months. It didn’t help. He simply didn’t have any energy.
Throughout this time, Brin was on a pre-planned sabbatical, meaning he could tailor his schedule to be as light as possible. He didn’t need to go to class. He wasn’t driving to many places. He could manage his symptoms. However, when he returned to work in the fall, the reality of his situation hit home.
“I went to a (six-hour meeting) for work. I was just sitting there paying attention, taking notes … and it was just far too stressful. I was wiped,” he said. “That’s when I started to worry, ‘What am I going to be like when I am in front of a class? … It turned out to be a complete disaster.”
Returning to his class, Brin was required to stand and teach for each period. He found that being on his feet was exhausting, so much so that he determined that he’d be unable to do so for the semester. “Just the drive in was exhausting for me,” he said.
Brin requested and was granted the opportunity to teach from home, allowing him to sit while delivering his lectures. Although it provided some relief, it didn’t cure his issue. “I was overwhelmed with the mental work,” he said. “Still, working from home, I was mentally and physically exhausted.”
When Brin’s symptoms first began, he didn’t associate them with his previous COVID-19 illness. “I’d never even heard of long COVID,” he admitted. However, months of feeling fatigued finally sent him to seek help at Yale New Haven Hospital, where he was diagnosed with symptoms pertaining to long-COVID. The diagnosis came in July. A new exercise program began in August, and while Brin didn’t know it at the time, it would end up being his bridge back to some semblance of normalcy.
“I think it came in phases,” he said. “The first phase was in that fall semester, where I felt terrible and I couldn’t do anything. Then, after winter break, I felt a bit better.”
The exercise program went in stages. First, Brin began on a rowing machine regimen. That led to biking, which has eventually led him to walking and, now, running. His successes were incremental. He’d be working for five or even six weeks seeing only moderate results, and then, “out of the thin blue, there would be this quantum leap,” he said. One of the first came when Brin was suddenly able to either exercise or work all day without being completely exhausted. The most recent, he said, came within the last two weeks, where he is now able to exercise and work without being “wiped.”
Back in April, Brin finally felt good enough to participate in a run. He signed up for the Cheshire 5K, part of the Cheshire Road Races. Before his bout with COVID, Brin would usually finish a 5K in approximately 20 minutes. This time, it took him 25 to 30.
“And I paid for it,” he said. “That was about as hard as I could push myself. It took me about a week to recover … and was a clear indication that I was far from being back to normal.”
But progress has continued and, on June 25, Brin plans to take another significant step towards normality. He is scheduled to participate in the Gaylord Gauntlet, a 3.3-mile obstacle course sponsored by Gaylord Specialty Healthcare. Brin has been a part of the Gaylord virtual support group and credits it with helping him in his battle against long-COVID. “You have to have hope, and the Gaylord support group is a big part of that for me,” said Brin. “Someone (in the group) said, ‘Hope is short for hearing other people’s experiences,’ and it’s true. You don’t get the same response from people who haven’t been through this, even the doctors.”
While the Gauntlet won’t be the farthest Brin has run since he began to experience symptoms of long-COVID, he does expect that it could be the most physically demanding because of the obstacles. With that in mind, he has one goal for run.
“If I could feel better, or even the same as I did after (the Cheshire 5K in April), then I’ll be very happy,” he said.
“Right now, I feel like, even if I didn’t improve any more, I’d be OK because I’m at a place where I can work and exercise,” he said. “That’s a big step forward for me.”