Years of competitive mountain running gave Shannon Penway the physical and mental strength to recover from a catastrophic bike crash. What are the chances that her rescuer was also a veteran trail runner?
On Sept. 23, 2017, Antonio (Tony) Robinson, an ultrarunner and off-duty firefighter from Monroe, Wash., was driving along Washington State Route 542 toward the majestic Mount Baker. He was with his wife, Cheryl, and their teenage sons, Gabe and Jon. Following them in a second car were Cheryl’s sister, Sarah, and her husband, Mike, their two young daughters, and Cheryl and Sarah’s father, Eric. Among the dense forest and glacier-fed rivers, Tony and his family shared pleasant memories of Cheryl’s mother, Susan, whose ashes they planned to scatter along her favourite hiking trail.
Tony was a runner. Starting in junior high, he ran cross country and the decathlon in college, moving up to the marathon in the early 1990s, ultimately getting his best time down to 3:08. He started running ultras in his late 20s, including the inaugural Diez Vista 50k in Port Moody, B.C., in 1997. Like any aspiring ultrarunner, Tony’s goal was to run Western States – the oldest and most prestigious 100-mile race in North America. After
running qualifying times two years in a row but not having his name drawn in the lottery, Tony finally got the chance to run Western States in 1997. The race has a 30-hour cutoff, and Tony finished in 28:57:21. He still enjoyed shorter races, too. From 2012 to 2017, Tony held the Guinness World Record for the fastest mile in a firefighter’s uniform (8:05.54). “I love the freedom and simplicity of running,” he says, “and how it keeps me fit and mentally in a good place, with all the negative things I see at work.” He has been an emt since 2006 and a paid firefighter since 2009. His bucket-list race is the Badwater 135 – the 135-mile race through California’s Death Valley, where temperatures routinely soar into the 40s Celsius.
With its sweeping straightaways, the road to Mount Baker is a popular choice among cyclists in the area. About halfway up the mountain, Tony and Cheryl encountered a group of four (a woman and three men) whose bikes were loaded with water bottles and whose jerseys’ back pockets were stuffed with snacks. Clearly, this group was in it for the long haul.
Just before mile 42, after waiting for a clear straightaway, Tony passed the cyclists and accelerated, to give them plenty of space. Once clear, he checked his rearview mirror for the second car in their group, when he saw the lead cyclist pull off onto the gravel shoulder. When he re-checked his mirror, he was shocked to see the female cyclist’s back tire in the air, quickly followed by her legs and then her entire body, her hands still on the handlebars. She was crashing.
He quickly turned the car around and drove back to where Mike and Sarah were already out of their car, stopping traffic. Tony and Cheryl saw the female cyclist curled into a fetal position, bleeding from her mouth. Walking through the strewn-about bikes and shocked cyclists, Tony asked for the cyclist’s name. “Shannon,” they said – me.
Tony began his assessment. I was unconscious,
When he re-checked his mirror, he was shocked to see the female cyclist’s back tire in the air, her hands still on the handlebars. She was crashing
unresponsive and posturing – a term used to describe holding an abnormal body position, often attributed to a severe brain injury, and a red f lag as to the severity of my injuries. I was breathing in loud snoring respirations, which they quickly identified as agonal breathing – abnormal respirations by a brainstem ref lex often linked to current or impending cardiac arrest (a second red f lag).
The good news was that I had a pulse. Tony and the others performed a careful log roll to protect my spine. Then he checked my pupils and found my eyes rolled back, my pupils dramatically unequal and unresponsive to light – a third red f lag.
These were not good signs. Worst case, it would be a traumatic brain injury leading to death or severe deficits. He realized I likely had brain swelling, possibly with a bleed, and with possible associated neck and spine trauma. All this at mile marker 42 on a remote stretch of Highway 542, without a glimpse of cellular reception to call for medical help.
Tony’s family worked quickly to secure the scene. While Mike and Sarah continued to direct traffic and reassure the other cyclists, Gabe and John opened their roadside emergency kit and lit road f lares. Many cars had stopped, offering to help, and one man volunteered to drive to his cabin to call 911. While Tony and Cheryl continued to support me and treat my shivering body for shock, I stopped breathing.
Tony prepared to start cpr and Cheryl checked for a carotid pulse. After a few tense seconds, she found one. Within a few more seconds, I resumed breathing, slowly and shallowly. While Tony switched positions to be ready to assist with rescue breathing if needed, my breathing became more regular, and I started to become responsive. Things were starting to go in the right direction.
My companions were my (now ex-) husband and two friends. When Tony questioned them for personal information about me, he discovered something that gave him tremendous hope. After covering the basics, such as my age (28), allergies and medical history, he learned that, like him, I was an ultra-endurance athlete. In 2012 and 2013, I had raced the World Mountain Running Championships as part of Team Canada and had competed in trail ultramarathons in central America and Europe. Just two weeks earlier, I had raced the Pyrenees Stage Run, a seven-day stage race in Spain and Andorra, and won. “These are my people,” Tony recalls thinking. “Not only is she an endurance runner, but she had just returned from winning a multi-day stage race. This girl was a super-fit, badass trail runner.” Tony and Cheryl knew that my youth, health and strength, along with the relentless determination and pure grit it takes to be an endurance runner, were already helping me win the fight.
My breathing continued to normalize, becoming deeper and stronger, and gradually, my eyes returned to normal. Within a few minutes, I could talk, and I became aware of my situation. After about 35 minutes, volunteer firefighter crews arrived and placed me in a full-body vacuum splint – a piece of equipment used by EMTs and search-and-rescue teams that immobilizes the whole body (useful for a suspected spinal injury or leg fracture). A second firefighter crew arrived to transport me to Bellingham, Wash., where an ambulance rushed me to hospital. Miraculously, several tests and a CT scan revealed no brain bleed and no fractures, and I was released, with a diagnosis of a serious concussion and instructions to rest.
Arriving at home, I took up a comfy spot on the couch, which would become a regular place for me over the next several months. I learned about Tony and his family’s heroic part in my rescue. I was so grateful for their help, and was thrilled to get their friend requests on social media, since I had no memory of meeting them. In fact, I had no memory of the crash or the aftermath, other than a moment from the ambulance ride to the hospital: I was looking up at the ambulance’s ceiling when a paramedic came into my field of view and asked me what hurt the most. “My ego,” I replied.
Other than the severe concussion and whiplash, I suffered remarkably few injuries: a micro-fracture of a molar, a strained jaw and some minor abrasions. My helmet, which broke, undoubtedly saved my life, and luckily I was wearing clear riding glasses, which saved my eye. My bike was not damaged. I learned that about three and a half hours into our trip, the lead cyclist in our group had had a blowout and pulled off the road. I must have squeezed both brake levers as hard as possible to avoid slamming into the cyclist in front of me, locking my brakes and causing me to crash.
Being an athlete, I was used to recovering fast. I could usually shave a few weeks off any injury prognosis, and I went into this one thinking it would be like the rest. This also wasn’t my first concussion – I’d once fallen off a tree swing when I was 10 and had a headache for a few days. But this turned out to be different.
At the time, I was working as an outreach co-ordinator for mec in North Vancouver, organizing races, classes and community events. A few days off work stretched into two weeks as my symptoms continued. I could barely open my mouth to chew food; I had a relentless headache that burned with a sharp pain that no pain meds could touch. I felt constant pressure in my head. Standing for more than 30 minutes caused deep, aching back pain that could only be alleviated by lying down. My neck was seized up, preventing me from looking to the side without turning my whole body. I had double vision when
He realized I likely had brain swelling, possibly with a bleed. All this on a remote stretch of Highway 542, without a glimpse of cellular reception
I looked down or to the right, which made a simple walk to the end of the block extremely challenging. Basic tasks like grocery shopping were impossible, since the aisles of food overwhelmed my visual system. I appreciated and needed the visits from my family and friends, but they always made my headache worse. I slept for most of each day, which was surprising for someone who had never been able to nap.
I was shocked when a medical practitioner with expertise in concussion told me I would be off work for four weeks. It was a tough pill to swallow for someone who, in five years, had never missed a day to illness. Then four weeks turned into eight weeks. While most of the people in my life were extremely supportive, some questioned my symptoms and discouraged me from seeking other opinions. I had to learn to listen only to my loving family and friends, the practitioners I trusted and myself.
Throughout this time, Tony checked in on me regularly and encouraged me in my recovery. At one point, he shared with me his journal entry from the crash, which helped me understand what had happened to me. It rocked me, since I hadn’t realized how bad my situation was. I had held a current first aid certificate for more than 15 years, and I understood the severity of the terms he used. I couldn’t stop thinking about how much I could have missed.
That November, I went down to Washington to meet Tony and his family. It was surreal to meet these people I was so closely tied to, yet not to remember the traumatic experience that brought us together. We were all curious to see if our visit would trigger any memories, or if I would recognize Cheryl’s voice, who had held my hand and comforted me while we waited for emergency services. But my amnesia prevailed. For me, it was as if I was meeting everyone for the first time. For them, it was meeting the person I actually was, rather than an accident victim.
Despite my symptoms, which seemed to be triggered mostly by mental stimulation, I was able to stay active, training in the gym almost every day, doing weights, balance exercises, cycling and rowing. Hiking and running outside remained out of reach, as the intake of visual stimuli was too much for my brain, often causing tunnel vision and double vision. I began to try to run on the treadmill in December. This was often hit or miss, as the fitness centre is full of mirrors, TVs and other sources of visual disturbances. But I was determined to run again, and it felt good. And I totally wore that little safety line on the treadmill that no one ever attaches to their shirt.
Three months in, I was still off work, and decided to seek further help from physiotherapists and massage therapists I knew and trusted from my running career, and a sports optometrist who came recommended. I had chiropractic adjustments twice a week, physiotherapy and massage therapy once a week, visual therapy once a month and regular appointments with my doctor and occupational therapist, not to mention doing exercises for my balance and vision three times a day. Gradually my neck regained mobility, my endurance improved and my double vision started to subside.
In February 2018 I was able to run outside. My sports medicine doctor knew that running
I was looking up at the ambulance’s ceiling when a paramedic came into my field of view and asked me what hurt the most.
“My ego,” I replied
wasn’t just exercise for me – it was a big part of my life, and she recognized the importance of normalcy and joy in her patients’ lives. I still remember jogging an easy 6-km loop with my dog, Cash, on my birthday, and being thrilled that I could see relatively clearly.
My first real trail run was in March 2018 – with my rescuer, Tony. We did a fun 15-km loop on some of his local trails in Washington, and it felt like freedom. Breathing in the fresh forest air, the soft soil beneath my feet and the exhilaration of doing what I love – it was remarkable. I had missed trail running so much! To be able to come full circle with the person who helped me get there was incredible. I didn’t get back on my bike until August 2018, almost a year after the crash, but when I did, it was fine – it didn’t trigger any f lashbacks or fear.
This recovery taught me the importance of relentless optimism when recovering from an injury. According to one of my doctors, the most important part of healing from a concussion was to believe that I would. Some days you will face setbacks. Other days, you will hit new milestones and feel accomplished. I liken this to running long distances – it’s one foot in front of the other, always. Some days you set PBs, some days you dnf. All that matters is that you don’t give up. Any step forward is positive.
My post-concussion symptoms would eventually keep me off work for eight months and on a modified work program for a year after that. Even once back at work, I was not symptom-free. To this day, I still experience intermittent headaches and double vision, but they are no longer daily struggles, just more of a sporadic nuisance.
I believe that ultrarunning prepared me for my accident better than just about anything else could have. As every endurance athlete knows, physical fitness is only one part of what it takes to compete in long-distance events. Mental and emotional strength are also tightly linked to an athlete’s success. Throughout my recovery, I drew on these strengths and built them further, while learning to set boundaries, to be my own advocate and to build and value my support network. While this is my story, I wouldn’t be telling it without the kindness, care and support of my family, friends and medical team.
Nine months after my accident, in mid-2018, Tony saved another athlete’s life – and, remarkably, also on a day when his late mother-in-law, Susan, was being honoured – this time for her contribution to the local masters rowing program. On that day, Charles Hamlin, 71, an Olympian from 1968, was training on Washington’s Lake Whatcom before a ceremony to dedicate a new rowing shell in Susan’s memory when, without prior warning or any history of heart problems, he went into cardiac arrest. Tony performed chest compressions for 17 minutes until emergency services arrived to transport Hamlin to hospital. (Hamlin died earlier this year.)
Tony and I remain good friends. In 2019, I joined him and his family in Chelan, Wash., to run my first postcrash ultra, the Echo Valley 50k. We lined up at the start together and enjoyed the entire race – and even the bottle of wine that I won as the second woman finisher. He was set to crew me in the Bigfoot 73 Mile race in 2020, but it was postponed, due to the pandemic. Hopefully, we’ll be able to make it up at Bigfoot 73 in 2022. Either way, I know that we’ll be there rooting for each other in all aspects of life.
Shannon Penway lives in North Vancouver with her loving partner, Luke, and her four-legged run buddy, Cash.
She is an ambassador for Brooks Canada as part of their Run Happy Team.
That November, I went down to Washington to meet Tony and his family. It was surreal to meet these people, yet not to remember the traumatic experience that brought us together