Mind Over Mat­ter

Af­ter suf­fer­ing a stroke at age 32, Siob­han Fox came back bet­ter than be­fore.

Mountain Bike for Her - - Contents - Words by Ash Kelly

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.”


Photo: Ash Kelly


Photo: Ash Kelly


Photo: Kelsie Lengert


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