Evan Scully is something of a paradox.
The Irish sports massage therapist has cystic fibrosis, which puts him in the ‘at risk’ category in the coronavirus pandemic. Because of the reduced lung function caused by cystic fibrosis, any form of illness or infection poses an increased threat to people with the condition. And contracting COVID-19 – a virus that attacks the respiratory system – can have dire consequences.
But instead of living a life of fear, Scully is not unduly worried. If anything, his 33 years of adhering to strict guidelines has prepared him well for the restrictions that are currently in place.
“This pandemic has showed me how I actually live isn’t exactly normal,” says Scully, who has worked with dozens of Olympic medallists and world champions in recent years. “It has, however, made me realise how disciplined I am in life. The way we are told to currently live to prevent the spread – for example, washing hands, not coming into contact with someone who is sick – are things that people with CF already adhere to.
“The symptoms of COVID-19 sound very similar to cystic fibrosis. I know what it’s like to live with those symptoms on a daily basis, so I’ve been trying to educate people. Worrying does absolutely nothing. In fact, it causes stress, and stress lowers your immune system, so you may leave yourself open to catching viruses.
“My wife has pointed out that I am very positive, especially in the last two weeks. I try to see things rationally. You can’t always be positive as suffering is an inevitable part of the human existence, but being rational is a more balanced approach.”
Scully’s daily routine has adapted over time. As a child, he would need nebulisers and physiotherapy up to five or six times a day just to help clear his airways. “There was never a day that was missed,” he says, “not even Christmas day.”
These days, he uses running as a form of self-physiotherapy, the pounding of the ground helping to clear his lungs. His medication has also reduced. “Nowadays I take about 30-40 tablets a day, most of which are digestive enzymes,” he says. “I also take two inhalers each day for my exercised-induced asthma.”
While he hasn’t had to alter his medication during the pandemic, other parts of his life have changed. His clinic in County Meath has had to close, meaning he is currently out of work. He is able to continue coaching his group of athletes, doing so remotely, but is unable to join them for their weekly long runs. He still runs six times a week, though.
“Funnily enough, I have actually increased my training,” said Scully. “I’m up to between 60-70 miles a week. I run on country roads most of the time anyway, so I don't actually cross paths with many people. I also have loan of a treadmill, so I’m prepared for whatever happens.
“Nutrition is also important and we’ve continued to focus on good food and the right balance of nutrients. If you focus on micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), your macronutrients will look after themselves. Depending on the time of year or training load, I will take supplements like selenium, magnesium, iron and zinc. I also make my own kombucha to help with gut bacteria. The gut is one of the most important aspects of health; it has more nerve endings than your brain.”
Given his years of having to stick to strict guidelines, Scully is well placed to offer advice to the thousands of athletes who are now adapting to new ways of life in the current pandemic.
“For athletes whose race plans have changed, you now get to train twice for one race,” he says. “For anyone training for a marathon, whatever the level, these are the months where you can improve on your weaknesses and then target a PB in an autumn marathon.
“Tracks and other training facilities might be closed, but this isn’t the time to take the foot off the pedal and feel sorry for yourself. One thing I have learned from working with the best athletes in the world is that they can adapt to the situation. You can’t complain about having to train on grass or trails when Kenyan athletes flourish on these surfaces. Usain Bolt used to train on a grass track as well. Control the controllable and focus on effort rather than what your watch tells you.”
Running with training devices, such as heart-rate monitors, can be beneficial in other ways, though, Scully says.
“Your heart rate is a great indicator and precursor of health," he explains. "During a recent training trip in Kenya, my heart rate was 15 beats higher than normal. At first I thought it was a fault with my strap because I didn’t exactly feel bad, but a few days later my lung function dropped by 12% and I had a temperature. I had to go on two different antibiotics and a course of steroids.
“However, your heart rate can be slightly higher for a few different reasons, not just a virus or infection,” he adds. “Dehydration, a bad sleep, menstrual cycle, coffee, an inhaler, and of course not being fully recovered from the previous day’s session. Like everything, you need to look at the bigger picture.
“Your body is very clever and will tell you if it doesn’t like something. Tuning into what it’s telling you is hard because we have evolved to keep trucking on regardless of how you feel. But sometimes it’s worth taking a step back from everything to tune into how we are feeling.
“I make time to meditate on a daily basis. I read a quote by Russell Simmons: ‘if you don’t have enough time to meditate for 10 minutes, then you need to meditate for 20 minutes’. You don’t necessarily have to sit down and chant or hum for 10 minutes; running mindfully can be a form of meditation.
“And, like everyone else around the world, a good dose of your current favourite TV series before bedtime is a must!”
Once the pandemic is over, Scully is targeting a sub-three-hour marathon in a bid to reclaim the European best by someone with cystic fibrosis. Until then, though, he will continue to live his life in much the same way he has been doing for the past few decades, using running as his form of physical and mental therapy.
“I hope,” he says, “that my approach to cystic fibrosis and running is a positive influence on anyone that may be suffering.”
Jon Mulkeen for World Athletics