Tatiana Rojas woke up at 2 a.m. feeling like somebody had set her lungs on fire.
She gasped for air, but her nostrils were blocked and no amount of wheezing brought in enough oxygen.
She decided to walk to the kitchen for a steam inhalation. She hoped that would clear out her trachea, even if briefly.
Rojas, 59, had run several marathons, but walking to her kitchen from her bedroom that night felt almost impossible. She paused after every other step, holding on to the walls for support, still gulping for the air that seemed to be everywhere around her but nowhere within her.
"I am going to die here," she remembered thinking to herself.
Somehow, in a trance, she made it to the kitchen, focusing on nothing but the next step. She boiled water, and just when she thought she was going to pass out, she inhaled, the warm vapors releasing the clog in her nose long enough for her to take a decent breath. She sat on the kitchen floor for a long time, hugging the bowl of water for dear life.
Rojas felt like that for three weeks, and during that time, she probably got five hours of sleep each night, if lucky. This was in the middle of May, one month since her positive COVID-19 test, and during those unending days, it was easy to believe she would never beat it.
But, on June 23, she got her first negative test. And five months after this life-altering experience, she ran the NYC Marathon -- virtually -- after beating COVID-19.
As the world came to a standstill in mid-March, Rojas, an office coordinator on the case management team at Elmhurst Hospital in New York City, kept going to the hospital in scrubs and a mask. Before a team meeting on March 23, she'd heard that the virus had reached a member of the hospital but didn't know who it was. She felt exhausted as she walked to the meeting but figured she was either having a psychosomatic reaction to the news or that it was general fatigue. By the end of the day, she had a full-blown headache and sore throat.
She called her doctor, got an amoxicillin prescription -- she didn't have a fever -- and decided she was going to beat this. She cooked and ran a few miles every day as she had for much of her life. If she could run even a little bit, that meant she was in control, that she was OK, she thought.
Her husband, Juan Carlos Nattes, showed similar symptoms and sometimes had a fever, but nothing was out of control.
Then, two weeks in, she woke up early one morning with a sharp pain in her lungs. She tried to take a breath and felt like she was falling deeper into water.
On April 16, after the urgent care she went to wouldn't give her a COVID-19 test, she found a free testing center two hours away -- in Far Rockaway -- and drove there. Two days later, her test came back positive, her husband's negative.
"I've already spent a month suffering; what kind of a disease is this and what is going to happen now?" she remembered thinking to herself fearfully. And then a smaller voice in the back of her head: "I can't not run. But I can't even breathe. What do I do now?"
While her husband got better, her condition worsened. He cooked for her, made sure she had enough pillows to prop up her head so she could breathe easier, and made minimal grocery runs to keep the house going.
"I was so scared to see her like that -- I was there to help her, but we all felt helpless. This disease, we didn't know what it was doing to her," Rojas' husband said.
This was when, in mid-May, she found herself on the kitchen floor, thinking about death.
She wouldn't wish those three weeks on her worst enemy. Her body would shake every time she tried to walk.
But even though it felt impossible, she thought of running. Before the coronavirus, she had used her lunch break every day to run a 5K around Elmhurst Hospital. Three times a week, she'd change after work and run the 5 miles from the hospital to her home. Now thinking about running gave her a fresh boost of energy. Something to hope for. Something to look forward to when all of this was over.
Working as a gym teacher in Bolivia, Rojas spent hours in her school stadium, either training middle and high school children or doing intense aerobics herself. When she wasn't in the stadium, she was out running. Even back then, one of Rojas' biggest dreams was to run the New York City Marathon. She read about the everyday people who ran the marathon, the people who had to be carried to the finish line, the people who crawled to the finish line, and she thought, "Wow, what a profoundly human experience. I want to be a part of it."
Then she immigrated to the U.S., had three children and life got in the way. After she had her third child and knew that would be the last time she'd go through pregnancy, she applied for her first NYC Marathon. She'd already started running half-marathons and going on longer runs to get back in shape after childbirth.
But the marathon lottery results came back and she didn't get picked.
For several years after, she applied and got the same response: rejection. Right before the 2010 NYC Marathon, she said to herself, "I am turning 50 next year. This is the last time I will try, and if I don't get in, I will quit."
A few weeks later, she got an email. "Congratulations, you're running the 2010 NYC Marathon."
"It was like a miracle," she said. And it changed her life.
She trained on her own, digging into her gym teacher knowledge, running 5Ks every day in preparation for a longer run over the weekend. She ran her first marathon one week before she turned 50, finishing it in seven hours and 37 minutes. The last two hours were hard, her brain constantly convincing her that it was too hard, that her legs couldn't take another step. But she kept pushing, and when she crossed the finish line, even though there was no ribbon, she felt an invisible energy pushing her across the line. She received her medal afterward, sobbing uncontrollably as she felt the medal in her hands.
She'd imagined finishing the New York Marathon so many times, but she wasn't prepared for the floodgates of emotions, the intense feeling of gratitude she had for her body and her mind. It was like she was sharing her deepest part of her being with every runner who has run the marathon before her -- the energy was that palpable.
"It was more beautiful than I could have ever imagined in my mind," she said.
Since then, she has run both the 2017 and 2019 New York City Marathons and eight half-marathons. She ran her fastest marathon last year at 6:21:55.
When COVID-19 hit her like a truck, she visualized the feeling of climbing up the final hill during her first New York Marathon. She remembered turning around during the last mile to see a swarm of people at the finish line. She remembered the feeling of the brisk November New York City air guiding her through the tough parts.
Even before her test came back negative, she'd made up her mind. She was going to run another NYC Marathon. Due to COVID-19, the marathon would be virtual this year, and the window to run it was Oct. 17-Nov. 1.
A few days after her negative test in June, she realized her body had stopped shaking when she walked. So she decided she'd step outside for the first time. She did a one-and-a-half-mile loop, walking to her bank and back, her step slowing down considerably toward the end. When she returned home, she stumbled onto her couch. She stayed in bed for three days recuperating from the walk. But she tried again three days later.
"Getting my shoes on for that second walk was harder than most things I've done in my life, but I said to myself: 'No. I won't let this virus win. I am free of it now, and I will work to get my body back.'"
By the end of July, five weeks after she tested negative, she ran her first 5K. It wasn't her fastest, not even close, but she nonetheless felt a huge sense of accomplishment at the end.
A few weeks ago, she ran 22 miles around Central Park, mirroring what this year's NYC virtual marathon would look like. She ran her first virtual marathon last year (also the NYC Marathon), and it required a lot more discipline and strength to run 26.2 miles around one neighborhood, with no guide maps or fans to support her through the ups and downs.
"You have to look deep inward when you start feeling like you can't do it," she said.
On Oct. 25, Rojas started her virtual race at 60th Street and 1st Avenue at 4:30 a.m. and, looping through Central Park, finished at Flushing Meadows Park in Queens. As she reached the 20th mile, her knees hurt, like they were on fire, and through tears that rolled down her eyes, she repeated over and over to herself, "God, I've been through so much, just please let me finish this race."
She walked the last 6 miles, slowly and deliberately, taking in the quietness of Manhattan, owing to the early-morning hour and the pandemic. When she slowly walked to the finish line, held up by her husband and her friend -- she finished at a time of 7:31 -- she raised her hands up in the sky, unable to believe her body allowed her to run 26.2 miles.
To her, running a marathon -- especially on the 10th anniversary of her first -- months after suffering from the disease that has killed more than 225,000 Americans is her way of standing up for all the people who couldn't.
"I want to run more now and not stop. I want to have the power and the energy that coronavirus took from me. That's why I am here."