Mind Over Matter
After suffering a stroke at age 32, Siobhan Fox came back better than before.
It’s a particularly muddy Saturday in March. I’m shivering beneath an old-growth cedar on North Vancouver’s Seymour Mountain waiting for Siobhan Fox to rip past me on the 30-kilometre Dirty Duo race course. This is her first cross -country race and neither of us have a clue what time to expect her at this spot on Ned’s Atomic Dustbin. If she’s having an exceptionally good race, I’ve already missed her. If she’s suffering at all, god knows how much longer it will be before I can try to grab a picture of her. I snap a few dozen shots of random riders before Siobhan comes barrelling down the trail. She is in her zone; chunky, old-school North Shore gnar. This is where she can make up the most time. She unceremoniously whips past me and I grab a few mediocre shots before heading to the finish line to meet her. Completing this race is nothing short of a miracle after what her body has been through; it’s been less than nine months since she had death breathing down her neck and into her spine.
The Stroke: April 5th, 2013. One week following an intense massage, Siobhan woke up with a killer headache and incredible pain in her neck. Before dinner that night she would be in an ambulance, racing between hospitals, having just suffered a stroke at 32-years-old. Before the stroke, Siobhan was by all accounts an average mountain biker. She learned to ride on the notably technical North Shore Mountains on a cross-country bike with four inches of travel. She, like many mountain bikers, graduated to a freeride bike and focused on her downhill skills. Siobhan didn’t measure her heart rate or concern herself with cadence. On any given day she could count the number of kilometres ridden on one hand. She certainly didn’t consider Spandex appropriate riding attire. She had sustained a strange, but seemingly minor, neck injury three seasons prior at the Whistler Bike Park. A few acupuncture sessions in - her neck good as new - she was back on the bike. She thought nothing of the injury until spring of 2013, while training at Marx Conditioning, a gym in North Vancouver. Gym owner, Monica Marx, noticed mobility issues in Siobhan’s shoulder and suggested she see a massage therapist.
“The first thing he noticed is that it was more in my neck area . . . he hadn’t seen that kind of lack of mobility,” said Siobhan of her massage therapist. She attended two or three sessions with him, but during the last visit became nauseous and had to lie down on the table. “What was really weird was that after, for about a week, I had heartburn on and off which was not something that I had ever experienced. I was also having dizzy spells,” said Siobhan. The day of the stroke, despite severe pain, Siobhan went to work. As an English as a Second Language teacher, she didn’t want to let her students down so she popped an ibuprofen. The pain continued throughout the day, she took a second painkiller during her lunch break. Finishing work in the early afternoon, Siobhan drove herself over the bridge to her North Vancouver home. “When I walked in the house, I lost all vision in my right eye and the whole right side of my body went all numb and tingly,” recalled Siobhan. “I kind of felt like I was in a scene from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or something, the whole room was tilting.” Still convinced that it wasn’t anything serious, she called her boyfriend Max, who was working at a nearby bike shop. “As soon as he answered the phone, I started crying,” said Siobhan. Max told her not to move, raced his bike home, and drove her to Lions Gate Hospital. The doctor had her go through a series of tests: touching her nose, squeezing his finger, following the flashlight with her eyes; typical stroke tests. “He actually said, ‘I can tell you for sure you haven’t had a stroke,’” she recalled. Apparently, still somewhat concerned, the young doctor ordered a CT scan, finished his shift, and was replaced by an older doctor. The second doctor presented Siobhan with the results of the scan, which revealed she had suffered a Vertebral Artery Dissection (VAD). “The other doctor probably saved your life,” he told her, “I would never have ordered the scan.” He put her in an ambulance to Vancouver General Hospital. “They shut down the whole middle lane of the Lions Gate Bridge . . . so I felt pretty special,” she laughed. Siobhan’s dad, Bernie Fox, was in Vietnam working as a dive guide when he got the call that she was in the ambulance. “I’m a long way away from home at this point, and very worried,” said Bernie. “I asked her if she wanted me to come back and she said no.” Over the next five days, Siobhan was in a hospital bed receiving Heparin infusions; blood thinners to prevent further clots. The doctors told Siobhan she would have to abstain from mountain biking for at least three months. “I started crying,” she said. “It was this weird thing where I didn’t really understand how serious it was and I was just focusing on [not mountain biking].” While in the hospital, an MRI reconfirmed that she had a mini-stroke. A blood clot had travelled up her damaged artery to the part of her brain that controlled vision. Siobhan had decided in the ambulance that she would quit her master’s degree at Simon Fraser University and instead put that money into the BC Bike Race (BCBR). “It just seemed really important to live my life as I wanted to live it,” she explained to me one afternoon over coffee. “I think she knows how precious time on the mountain is, time in the saddle is, time with her friends is, time with her dad is,” said her dad, Bernie “I think the stroke really brought to life what was important to her.” Vertebral Artery Dissections typically occur in patients between 18 and 45 years old. They are usually the result of blunt force trauma to the head or neck, though spontaneous VAD’s have been reported. Vertigo, dizziness, headache, and neck pain were the most commonly reported symptoms of VAD according to a 2012 study. In Siobhan’s case, there was a small tear on the wall of her vertebral artery and a resulting blood clot causing a cerebral ischemic event; in other words, a stroke. As is common with this type of stroke, Siobhan was no longer presenting symptoms when she arrived at the hospital — only the scan revealed the severity of the situation.
Siobhan suspects her stroke was the result of an over-zealous massage therapist. She emailed her Registered Massage Therapist after the stroke to tell him what happened, he never responded. “I wasn’t going to sue or anything, I just wanted him to know what happened so it didn’t happen to someone else,” said Siobhan. She spent the next three months on blood thinners with constant hospital visits until the dosages stabilized. After three months, she had a third scan. The blood clot had dissolved and the tear in her artery had healed; the best possible outcome. Siobhan got back on the bike immediately, starting with easy trails and working her way back to full strength slowly. “Sometimes I would feel weird tingling . . . I would try to brush it off because I had a CT that said I was healed,” she said. “I was constantly battling fear of whether or not something bad would happen again.” After a few weeks back on the bike, she crashed and was winded pretty badly. “It scared me so bad. I was by myself and I wasn’t strong yet,” she said. To get strong Siobhan would start training once again, this time with the focused intent to spend seven days on her bike at the BCBR. When I first met with Siobhan in February of 2013, she had been training with Marx Conditioning for five months. Her rigorous schedule called for six days a week of weights, kettle bells, intervals, road riding, and endurance mountain biking. Marx become Siobhan’s de facto coach. She was with her every step of the way providing nutrition advice, constant testing, and encouragement. “She kind of felt like she was starting all over I think . . . once she got comfortable and got her confidence back, her strength came back very quickly,” said Marx. “I think her perception of what strong was, before stroke and after, changed.” Siobhan’s resolve never softened throughout the training, even in the dead of winter on the coldest, darkest West Coast nights. “I’m doing
this because I want to reach a goal, and I’m doing this as my choice but that doesn’t mean that sometimes it’s not hard, it doesn’t suck, I wouldn’t rather just go and ride my bike for fun. I just know that at the end, to reach that goal means more to me than to just have a pay-off right now,” she said. Ten gruelling months of training quickly gave way to race preparation as the BCBR loomed nearer. The week before the race, tapering her training regimen, Siobhan ran from bike shop to work to home, back to bike shop, gambling with what to pack for the seven-day mountain bike race. Sleep was elusive and a cold was creeping through her body, threatening to take her down before the big day. This year the BCBR started on the North Shore, travelling over 35 kilometres and 1380 metres of elevation, including an enduro-style timed downhill. Siobhan had preridden the course, but was still hung up on a feature on Expresso. “A stump
over a root, on the rock, and on the wood,” she described. “I’m not even worried about losing time on that feature because I am so adept at jumping off my bike and running it,” (which she did, as deftly as one can some 30 kilometres into a race). It’s day six of the race, 6 a.m. I’m speeding up the Sea to Sky highway on the only day I can make it to both cheer and photograph Siobhan during the race. A familiar anxiety is turning in my stomach. How will I know where to photograph her? How fast is she going to be, how will I know if I’ve missed her? I decide to chance it and get some start line photos first, then I’ll drive up to Alice Lake and grab some shots of her on the big climb up 50 Shades of Green, I’m thinking she’ll be going slow enough uphill that I can get a clear shot this time. The Squamish start line is breathtaking. The monolithic slab of granite known as “The Chief,” looms over hundreds of buzzing spandex-clad riders. It’s guest day, so the region’s best and brightest (dressed) riders are
joining the racers with fresh, enthusiastic legs for the 52 kilometres and 1830 metres of elevation gain. I’m scanning through the crowd of riders looking for Siobhan’s distinctive tattooed arms and purple Team Danger Pony jersey. In less than a year, Siobhan transitioned from a near-death experience to this. The stroke served as a catalyst, inspiring her to push harder than ever before. She wasn’t just mountain-bike-fit anymore, she was an athlete. “I just remember when 10 kilometres felt like a big ride,” said Siobhan “now it doesn’t feel like anything.” After a long day, Siobhan speeds across the Squamish finish line with a time of 5:42:27 to see her dad and Team Danger Pony teammate Veronica Voracek cheering her across. By the end of the seven days, Siobhan spent over 32 hours in the saddle, rode 304 kilometres and climbed 9,165 metres. Just like that, the journey from her Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas moment in the living room, through to seven days of epic B.C. singletrack was over. “There were definitely some tears,” said Siobhan. Now with three big cross-country races under her belt, Siobhan is hooked; in particular she is looking forward to besting herself in Pemberton’s infamous Nimby 50 race next year. “When we were doing all the training she would often say that after BCBR she was never getting on a trainer again. As soon as she finished BCBR the first thing she said was ‘I’m gonna crush Nimby next year.’ recalled Marx. “It was interesting to see how she transformed.” Siobhan says anyone can follow their athletic dreams. “It is partially about fitness,” she said “but it’s also about getting comfortable with discomfort, knowing how much you’re willing to suffer.”
SIOBHAN FOX WEIGHT TRAINING AT MARX CONDITIONING IN NORTH VANCOUVER, MARCH 2014.
SIOBHAN (LEFT) ALL SMILES AS SHE ROLLS THROUGH THE START GATE ON DAY SIX OF THE BCBR.
TEAM DANGER PONY TEAMMATES ISABELLE DEGUISE (LEFT) AND CHERYL MOORE (RIGHT) CAME EQUIPPED WITH CARDBOARD SIGNS DESPITE THE DOWNPOUR.
THERE WAS NO SHORTAGE OF SUPPORT IN SIO’S HOMETOWN OF NORTH VANCOUVER ON DAY ONE OF THE BCBR.