Kathy Dixon-Wallace starts work at 6:30 am to teach middle school science in Milo and likes to run half marathons and hike long distances during the summers.
A participant since 2017 in the Acadia to Katahdin Virtual Race, she logged over 1,000 straight days of exercise, averaging more than 5 miles a day, almost always running.
She said she liked to think she was unstoppable – until she was struck by COVID-19 last month.
“COVID kind of knocked me on my butt,” Dixon-Wallace, a teacher for 14 years at the Penquis Valley Middle School in Milo, said in a phone interview. “It is scary and it is an unknown.”
Known by her Acadia to Katahdin virtual race name of @KDW, Dixon-Wallace has helped raise funds for Friends of Acadia, Millinocket Memorial Library, and other charities through her participation in the virtual race, and has run the real-life Mount Desert Island Half Marathon once, and the real-life Millinocket Half Marathon three times.
But perhaps the toughest challenge of all has been her recovery from COVID-19.
Recovery from COVID-19 a struggle for Maine teacher, virtual racer
For three weeks, Dixon-Wallace said in an interview, she was confined to bed in December before she began a recovery from COVID-19. She said her frightening encounter could be an example of how the virus can sometimes seriously affect people like herself who are in top physical condition.
Despite having some lingering effects from the virus, Dixon-Wallace returned to full-time teaching last week. After obtaining permission from the school superintendent, she discussed her battle with coronavirus with her students, taking questions to help kids learn.
She said the students “were great,” in discussing her illness.
“There were lots of questions, some personal, some scientific, but it all led to great conversations. I told them they were free to ask anytime, that this was not just a one and done. Many were in disbelief, and stated things like: ‘You are the strictest person we know about masks, social distancing and hand washing. How could you get it?'”
She said the disease started with a severe headache. Her temperature reached 102 degrees before she began recovery from COVID-19. She said she suffered from “the whole gamut,” including trouble breathing, coughing, fever and chills, aches and diarrhea.
Many days, she would sleep for a few hours and then wake, sometimes sopping wet, forcing the changing of sheets and clothes. “All I wanted to do was sleep. I don’t think it was super restful but I spent most of my day in bed. I could not do much of anything else.”
In hindsight, she said, she probably should have been hospitalized from the virus, but she said she could drink and stay hydrated and that helped her avoid the hospital and slowly improve while at home in Milo with her youngest of two grown sons.
She said she is hoping she does not have any long-term effects from the virus. She said she still gets headaches and sometimes needs to catch her breath among other lingering issues, but she is walking up to about 2 miles now, compared to 500 steps a day, if that, for three weeks prior.
She said she was stunned when she tested positive on Dec. 1. Each day, she said, she had taken all the important precautions against the virus including wearing a mask, social distancing, washing her hands and avoiding stores.
Schools face difficult challenges during the pandemic
In addition to her personal struggle with the virus, Dixon-Wallace said she and other teachers and school staff are facing new hurdles and unprecedented conditions amid the pandemic.
“It has been a very difficult year to try to teach for everyone in every subject matter,” said Dixon-Wallace, who teaches 6th grade earth science and 7th grade life science. “Every week we are trying to change things and figure out the best way to do it.”
In the spring of last year at Maine schools, remote teaching began on March 16. She said there was no warning and no time for preparation and little access to the school building to pick up materials and other resources for their jobs.
She said the isolation was very hard on students in Milo, a small town located about 40 miles south of Millinocket and just east of the Appalachian Trail’s 100-Mile Wilderness.
In the fall of last year, staff returned in person. Students and parents were given the option each quarter for in person or remote learning.
Even if they opt for in person, students may not see all their friends, she said.
In the past in the middle school, students would change classes and see different kids.
To help prevent the possible spread of the virus, students are now confined to cohorts and they interact only with others in their pod, she said.
Students wear masks except during breakfast and lunch, which is served in the classroom, and teachers also wear masks.
Students and teachers need to be 6 feet apart when they are eating. In class, they can be 4 feet apart while wearing masks, but students need to face in the same direction, she said. She said also can’t share tables or supplies for science instruction
Small steps forward each day during recovery from COVID-19
Dixon-Wallace said she is making a little bit of progress each day and hopes to return to running and hiking long distances. “A little more every day!” she recently wrote in the Acadia to Katahdin Virtual Race, powered by Racery.com.
A member of Crow Athletics on Mount Desert Island, she started distance running about eight years ago after a longtime friend died of a heart attack at 45 and friends in Hanover, Mass., started a race to raise money for his family.
She has since run 11 half marathon races, including three in Millinocket and one in less than two hours.
She grew up in Quincy, Mass., and became passionate about hiking and the outdoors when she was 12 and took part in a wilderness challenge while attending Camp Bernadette for Girls in Wolfeboro, NH.
The experience helped launch a career in teaching. She chose to obtain her bachelor’s degree in outdoor recreation from Unity College in Maine and then a master’s in environmental science from Montclair State University. She later taught at Unity, including rock climbing at Acadia National Park.
Fellow virtual racers give moral support in recovery from COVID-19
During summers, she became a prodigious long-distance backpacker. With the Appalachian Trail practically in her own backyard in Milo, she’s backpacked the 270 miles of the AT in Maine maybe a half dozen times. Just a few summers ago, she hiked 600 miles by herself through wilderness and over mountains in Colorado. She has also backpacked all of the Long Trail in Vermont, the 210-mile John Muir Trail in California, the Wonderland Trail in Mount Rainier National Park in Washington and nearly all of the Appalachian Trail in sections.
“I like to go for long walks,” she said. “Let me go in the woods for a month or two and I am happy.”
She said the Acadia to Katahdin Virtual Race, which was first started in 2016, is a motivator and is helping in her recovery from COVID-19.
In the race, built on the Racery platform, people can exercise anywhere in the world and choose a nickname. Participants record their miles online to move their icon along a virtual map that includes Acadia National Park, Baxter State Park and the coast of Maine.
In addition to benefiting charity, the race also gives away gift certificates and other prizes to help local businesses.
People can still join the new race, which provides pop-up Google Street views of some of the 26 peaks in Acadia. The new edition of the race, which runs through July 1, also takes virtual racers to Denali, Gettysburg, Zion. Virtual racers can backdate miles to Jan. 1.
“I enjoy the community of people and I think that is why I keep joining,” she said. “I feel like I have a support system with the people there.”
Judging by her daily progress in the virtual race, even a devastating bout with COVID-19 won’t stop Dixon-Wallace.