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The Long Haul 'Living a Nightmare'

Written By Jason Auslander | Photos Courtesy Of Clay Shiflet

Digital Production By Rose Anna Laudicina

Like many who live in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley, Clay Shiflet considered himself an endurance athlete.

He skinned up mountains and telemarked down them in winter, while he mountain biked and ran up and down them in summer.

“I used to run up Tiehack,” the 46-year-old Aspen Middle School teacher said. “I used to bike up Tiehack. If I had, say, a lunch break, I could get up and back in less than an hour instead of eating lunch.”

Clay Shiflet with his wife, Sarah Murrah, and twin sons, Jesse and Si, before he contracted COVID-19 and began suffering from "long-hauler" effects of the virus.

But all that changed in early March 2020, when he got COVID-19. Though he didn’t know it at the time, Shiflet joined an unfortunate and growing group of people in the valley, throughout the country and across the world known as “long-haulers” who continue to suffer from symptoms of the virus months after the initial infection.

The Aspen Times first spoke with Shiflet, 46, in September, about six months after he became ill, then checked back in with him in early March 2021 on what turned out to be the year anniversary of his initial illness.

“Well, it feels like I’m living a nightmare,” he said in September. “Like, it’s hard to wrap your head around feeling like you have something that’s become chronic essentially. I mean … it’s been 192 days, so over six months of crazy symptoms with something that nobody has answers for why or how to fix it.”

When he was first infected, Shiflet said he had a low-grade fever, felt weak and had pressure in his chest. Then he started to lose his sense of smell, though he wasn’t clear how serious that was until one particular incident in March 2020.

“I get a call from my wife saying, ‘Hey, the dogs just got sprayed by a skunk … and you gotta come down and deal with this,’” he said. “I got down there … and I can smell there was a skunk but a friend pulled up and was like, ‘What are you doing? This is crazy. I’m smelling this halfway down your neighborhood.’ And I was like, ‘Really?’”

A few days later, he began feeling tightness in his chest and breathlessness to the point that he felt he couldn’t breathe. Then came extreme fatigue brought on by a simple walk around the block and mysterious internal pain he thought might be a hernia. Shiflet visited the emergency room, but they found nothing other than glass in his lungs, he said. Then the heart palpitations began.

Six months later, in September, not a lot had changed.

“Well it feels like I’m living a nightmare," Shiflet said. "Like, it’s hard to wrap your head around feeling like you have something that’s become chronic essentially.”

“Still (I’m feeling) fatigue, headache, sleeplessness,” Shiflet said. “I’ve got tinnitus in my ears now. My arms are all blown up as far as like pain … (and) just swelling in my forearms. Breathlessness when I go and exercise. Breathlessness at night when I sleep.”

But the scariest part was the pain in his chest and heart, he said.

“It starts to feel like a heart attack,” Shiflet said. “It feels like I’m having pain radiating in my arm … throbbing numbness pain down your arm. And that like as well as chest pain that comes on like an explosive, stabbing pain.”

That sent him to the ER again, though doctors couldn’t pinpoint anything wrong with him, he said.

In March of this year, when The Aspen Times spoke with Shiflet on the year anniversary of his illness, he said his prognosis was marginally better. He’d begun riding a stationary bike in his garage, first for 10 minutes and finally working up to 30 minutes at a time. That seemed to treat him all right, so he said he decided to try skinning up the mountain.

Clay and Sarah on Aspen Highlands in pre-pandemic times.

“It was weird, you know, I was definitely having some shortness of breath and feeling some weird pulsing in my heart, but I made it and just took it easy and went slow,” Shiflet said. “Then I tried that a few more times over the last couple weeks and last week — you know my nature is to start pushing and I just pushed it — and I’ve been punished ever since. I really overdid it and my system is shocked from that.”

Overall, while he said he feels better a year later than he did after six months, Shiflet is far from back to his normal self.

“I’m still experiencing the weird chest pains, like heart pains, breathlessness, sleeplessness, cramping, fatigue,” he said. “All of that weighs on me mentally and physically. I’m definitely not myself. I don’t wrestle around with my kids like I used to. That’s all tough.”

Clay Shiflet with his wife, Sarah Murrah, and twin sons, Jesse and Si, before he contracted COVID-19 and began suffering from "long-hauler" effects of the virus.

Skinning up the mountain and making it to the top gave him a glimpse into his previous life, but then the long-haul symptoms kicked back in and reminded him that COVID-19 remains a part of his daily life.

“Yeah, I don’t feel like the same person most of the time,” he said. “So, yeah, it’s a weird rollercoaster, mind game for sure.”