Using Downhill Racing to Recover from Serious Health Problems

Feb 3, 2019
by Mike Stewart  
The minis and me at the 2018 BC Cup Stevie Smith Memorial longlivechainsaw Photo-Daniel Baker
The minis and me at the 2018 BC Cup Stevie Smith Memorial #longlivechainsaw Photo: Daniel Baker

I'm not much of an Instabooker or Face-o-grammer, but when I do happen to scroll through the social vortex I like reading about friends and like-minded individuals doing rad things, making positive changes in their lives and genuinely being healthy and happy. So, I decided to share some rad, positive, happy shit.

The not so rad, not so positive, not so happy start of the story:
In October of 2013, after several REALLY messy days at home in severe debilitating head pain, we (my wife and I) decided that a hospital might be a better place for me. I found myself laying in the Squamish emergency room, waiting for my head to erupt, not responding to any of the pain medication. The emerge doc decided that I needed to be transferred to Lions Gate Hospital for suspicion of meningitis*. Two ambulance attendants dressed in full hazmat suits wheeled me out of Squamish Hospital and delivered me to Lions Gate Hospital in North Vancouver. Upon my arrival, the halls were cleared, and the two attendants wheeled me into a quarantine room where I laid waiting for my head to split open. Only having a vague notion of what meningitis was at the time, I decided to consult Dr. Google. What a f*cking bad idea that was.
*Meningitis (from Wikipedia)
Meningitis is an acute inflammation of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord, known collectively as the meninges.[2] The most common symptoms are fever, headache, and neck stiffness.[1] Other symptoms include confusion or altered consciousness, vomiting, and an inability to tolerate light or loud noises.[1] Young children often exhibit only nonspecific symptoms, such as irritability, drowsiness, or poor feeding.[1] If a rash is present, it may indicate a particular cause of meningitis; for instance, meningitis caused by meningococcal bacteria may be accompanied by a characteristic rash.[2][3]The inflammation may be caused by infection with viruses, bacteria, or other microorganisms, and less commonly by certain drugs.[4] Meningitis can be life-threatening because of the inflammation's proximity to the brain and spinal cord; therefore, the condition is classified as a medical emergency.[2][8] A lumbar puncture - in which a needle is inserted into the spinal canal to collect a sample of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), can diagnose or exclude meningitis.[1][8]
A nurse wearing a full biohazard suit came in to give me a rundown of what was going to take place:
1) I was going to get a CT scan to have a look at my brain.
2) I was going to get a lumbar puncture to collect some spinal fluid. [Spinal tap #1 - if I had known then what I know now, I would have had them install a faucet]
3) I was going to have a shit ton of drugs pumped into my body

The next thing I know, my wife, six months pregnant with our son Cedric, walks into the room. Subconsciously I’m very glad to see her, but my common-sense brain is screaming “WHAT THE f*ck ARE YOU DOING IN HERE??” I don’t know who decided it was ok for my pregnant wife to be in there with me, but it must have been reasoned that exposure would have happened in the days leading up to that day if it was going to happen.

Fast forward a couple of hours – I’m alone in my room, my head has been scanned, spinal fluid tapped out of me like sap from a maple tree and in comes the attending neurologist with news that they noticed what might be a brain aneurysm on the CT scan. The neurologist tells me they need to do another scan to confirm, but at that moment I might have a brain aneurysm and/or bacterial meningitis. WTF! My body went numb and my mind started racing. “This can’t be how I go out! I haven’t even met my boy!”

Fast forward another couple hours - the second CT scan shows no brain aneurysm and the results for bacterial meningitis have come back negative. The most plausible diagnosis is viral meningitis. I am hooked up to an IV cocktail of antivirals and pain control medications for a week and do my time in the hospital bed. What a trip!

One of many cocktail parties. Photo probably me brain was skipping gears at the time
One of many cocktail parties. Photo-probably me, brain was skipping gears at the time

Two years, and a lot of headaches later, ‘IT’ happened again. Proceed to spinal tap #2 (maybe you’re now understanding that faucet reference?). I was ‘persuaded’ to try a bunch of different drugs to help with the chronic headaches but only found that daily physical activity really helped which, at the time, was something I had trouble maintaining with full-time work and two minis under the age of three.

In August of 2017 ‘IT’ happened for a third time. Spinal tap #3, f*ck. I had fallen off the fitness wagon, work was full pin and the air quality from the forest fires was horrible. Ten days and a lot of drugs later, I was released from the hospital. With a team of doctors including rheumatologists, neurologists, infectious disease specialists and headache specialists, we still haven't come up with a concrete diagnosis. I was, and kinda still am pissed that nobody has figured out what is going on in my head. In the last 5 years, there have been so many appointments, CT scans, MRIs, x-rays, referrals and drugs that it makes the fragile space between my ears hurt to think about. With the support of my wife, I decided to make fitness a priority in the hopes of making my head healthy. I’ve never been much of a gym rat, so if I was going to get the body healthy and strong, I needed to set goals. I was going to attempt to pick up something I dropped 14+ years ago - I wanted to race downhill again (and build a shuttle truck - kidding/not kidding).

Because suspension. Photo-definitely me this time

Training for the head:
MY well-being is MY responsibility. I had to let go of the notion or hope that someone was going to figure out the mysteries of my head, give me a magic pill, and fix me. Trying different drugs, physiotherapy and massage weren’t providing a quality of life that was acceptable. If I was going to kick the 'physical activity' into high gear then I might as well train for something I love doing - racing. I remember sitting on my porch on a sunny fall afternoon, still not back at work from round three of hospitalization, my head throbbing. With nothing to lose and a shit ton to gain, I cold called Todd Schumlick from PerformX racing. We talked for an hour, and it turned out to be one of the best phone calls I have ever made. Todd brought me into the PerformX program and training started that fall. It hurt. Spending 4-6 days a week in the gym and on the bike, plus a full-time job, plus two kids, plus two dogs along with the most supportive wife ever equated to feeling the best I've felt in many years. The day to day headaches subsided and I was feeling great. I knew getting ready for the season needed more than just gym time, so I reached out to Cory LeClerc with C4 Racing. I spent some preseason Saturdays with his team riding, doing drills, and getting used to big bikes again.

In the gym with PerfomX and on the bike with C4 Racing

Race Season 2018:
Both Todd and Cory wanted to know which races I was going to attend. I was having a hard time deciding mainly because I feared sucking. I was literally having pre-race shits just thinking about competition again. In retrospect, I’m a little pissed off at myself for that mindset. I should have been thinking “I’ve already attained my goal and getting into the starting gate is my reward”.

I picked a couple tracks on the BC Cup circuit that I remembered being fun, but as a pre-season warm up, I wanted to get out of town and give this new found PerformX horsepower a test drive. Again, with the support of my wife (this will be a common theme throughout the summer - she the BEST!), I headed off to Vancouver Island for an Island Cup DH.

Vancouver Island bound

The track was pretty chill (DCDH in Cumberland). I didn’t keep count of how many training runs I hiked for, but it was a lot. Hanging and riding with super rad kids, talking line choice, going fast and taking chances – I was in my happy place. Race day came, and I figured that like all other DH races it would have age categories unless you’re racing pro. This wasn't the case. The only categories were Expert and Intermediate, and since it had been 14 years, I signed up for Intermediate. There were forty-one riders, 1st place was 15 years old, 2nd place was 17, and 3rd place was 42. It might have been a bit of a sandbag, but I was pretty pumped to be standing up on the box with the kids.

The BC Cup race season started and so did the good times. I got to hang with Coach Cory and the C4 crew, travel all over BC (something I haven't done in over 14 years), ride bikes, go fast, meet rad new people and reconnect with folks I hadn't seen in years.

Big White BC Cup Photo - Ryan Kuhn

In July I hit the ground hard while out for a ride on the trail bike and tore my shoulder. Two weeks later I piled into some rocks training on the Silver Star track and messed up a bunch of connective tissue in my chest. Biking is fun! Although the gym workouts had to be ‘modified’, I was able to carry on riding. I'm pretty sure the combination of these two injuries would have been season enders if it hadn't been for the 8 months of training on Todd's program. Thanks again PerformX!

Silver Star BC Cup Photo - Sam Egan

Although there aren't many that sign up for the 40-49 category DH scene at the provincial or national level, it was still fun collecting hardware at every race. I only missed one of the BC cups this year and I managed to secure 2nd overall in the series. Everyone of those races are dedicated to my wife.

Medals, Boxes and Mud

Post Season - Keep er' pinned!
There were a couple of months that I refer to as the #yearenderbender, but as I write this and reflect on the season, I'm hungry for more bike. Training season is here and to get it started a crew of PerfomX athletes got together to slide around in the California sand. Chasing Richie Rude and Brian Lopes around the desert can motivate the hell out of you to get back into the gym preparing the body and mind to let off the brakes a little bit more next year.

Brian lopes showing us the goods in Laguna Beach Photo – Todd Schumlick

Biking has been part of my life now for 22 years. I have kicked some ass and have had my ass kicked. As I finish writing this, I’m now seeing some major irony unfolding: Mountain biking was the cause of my biggest health issues prior to 2013 and now mountain biking is what keeps ‘THE’ biggest health issue away.

The Team Photo-Mark Beaton

I will never be able to thank my rock star wife enough for the support while I was out searching for my ‘cure’. Thank you Julie. And if you ask our minis, Cedric and Tessa, what you do when you fall down, they’ll reply, “You get back up!”

9:00pm – kids are in bed, wife is asleep. I have to go push some watts at the gym and come up with enough courage to hit the send button. f*ck it, you only live once.


PerformX Racing
C4 Rider Training


  • 64 2
 Ahh man that’s a great read thanks for sharing it with us. I always without fail come back from a ride in a better place than when I left. You seem to have taken that to the next level! Well done for taking your life into your own hands and sorting your own shit out, too many people in your situation would just be on a pill program feeling sorry for themselves. Best of luck in the future- go smash it.
  • 6 0
 From harrowing to pretty damn heroic. Yet another reminder of why we do it.
  • 2 0
 ...and someone told me not to read the comments-f@ck that! Thanks to all who took the time to read. It's great to be part of this global community that rides bikes in the dirt!
  • 24 0
 Good on ya man. My wife has been through a year of cancer treatment hell and the things keeping us both going has been hitting the gym, riding bikes and now skiing. She's coming out of it strong and we're both looking at hitting 60 hard.
  • 13 0
 Rad story, thanks for sharing.
I admire and applaud your drive to generate your own good health and well being, but I sadens me that a physiotherapist was not the one to help you re-orient into generating your own health.
Take notes guys, what this man did is applicable to a vast array of scenarios and sets a prime example for me and my colleagues how health and self efficacy is generated in the "patient" not applied by a third party.
  • 11 0
 Couldn't have written this at a better time. A week ago i tore ligaments in my knee, ended up with a big blood clot that brlyoke up and has battered my lungs. Multiple pulmonary emboli. Its good to be reading a success story while hooked to oxygen unable to breath without. All i need is develop a plan to get back racing enduro with my two kids and wife. Thanks for telling your story
  • 7 0
 Your wife is amazing. What a team!
I think YOLO is a bit of a lie. Everyday is truly a new chance to become who we want (ed) to be. We live anew everyday if we wish.

I do believe in YODO (You Only Die Once) Very few get a chance to alter that.
  • 5 0
 I don't get how you was able to jump start your trainings with head still in pains. I can barely crawl with my 1.5y son in such a condition, avoiding stairways and anything that needs more blood flow. But yes, being outdoors and in motion has always helped me. Thank you for sharing your story. Best wishes to your family!
  • 5 0
 Inspiring to hear. I think Decline did a article on a racer that had the Big C. Since he upped his riding he was doing much better health wise. There is something to be said about getting out in the bush. live life to the fullest
  • 5 0
 last christmas i underwent one of the biggest operations of my life three years ago i was diagnosed with renal failure being a diabetic for 20 years i was given a lifeline the opportunity to under go a double transplant to eliminate diabetes and to save my self from further issues i was on dialysis 4 times a day and other medication i thought id never ride age but after the operation I'm back fighting strong and im now back riding down hill and back riding enduro and hitting all the bike parks in wales uk it keeps me fit and healthy and it give me the enjoyment of riding bikes agen witch i thought would never happen agen nothing is impossible
  • 4 0
 THE SAME THING HAPPENED TO ME! Was just having breakfast with my wife and bam! massive pain in base of my skull! Thought I was having a stroke. Three days and three ER visits later and I'm almost dead. Kept in ICU for 4 days in sealed room with teams of neurologists and infectious disease doctors AFTER 6 spinal taps!..cause they f*cked up the first 5! No food or drink for 4 days and near death. Never a 100% diagnosis but determined most likely viral meningitis. Worst pain I've ever felt. Never returned. God help anyone who doesn't have health insurance.
  • 3 0
 Anecdotally, years ago a friend of mine wound up in the ER with symptoms consistent with meningitis (acute migraines, headaches at the base of his skull, fatigue, etc.). Had the whole work up including lumbar puncture. They were unable to determine the cause of his ailments. He was a very active guy and not a complainer at all. Ultimately his doctor told him to try to resume his life as normally as he could and he found that the only relief he could find was through being physically active. Running was his thing at the time.

Having had multiple significant injuries myself, I concur with the notion that physical activity is the most effective means of dealing with pain. That's a common theme too with healthcare providers as well, though most patients don't optimally do what they should to recover.
  • 3 0
 Could be migraines as a side effect of undiagnosed ADD/ADHD ?
Ok, as someone with what is probably a moderate ADD condition, pretty much everything could be related to ADD/ADHD :p but still, that's cuz' it's hugely misunderstood (well in north America I don't know, but here in France totally).
ADD/ADHD should maybe not be seen as a disorder than as a different nature, "a different way to be to the world". People who need nature, outdoor, solitude sometimes, authenticity, and can't cope with the artificial and high frequence stimulations of today's society.
This is just speculation, but by starting MTB again, he may have embrace his true nature, burried way too deep under too much meaningless (maybe) work.
Quick search :
Also take note that while many people know about ADHD in kids, it doesn't disapears overtime, it just gets less visible, also ADD (without hyperactivity) isn't much known, but can be a real hindrance to live with.
And there are also people with ADD or ADHD who also show impulsive behaviour which can cuz' serious interpersonnal difficulties.
  • 5 0
 @Will-Narayan: Can cause interpersonal difficulties? You sir have a gift for understatement. You’re right in that the kids that have ADHD don’t ever outgrow it. Sadly it’s misdiagnosed in the US a lot of times because big stuff harms wants to sell drugs. Which makes it even worse for those of us who truly suffer from this. ADHD brains are physically wired differently than those of “neuro-typical” individuals. Since the entire world is built around one type of brain wiring we will always have difficulty. Unfortunately the condition is never understood by those who don’t have it. They simply are unable to wrap their head around it. People constantly make useless suggestions as to how to correct yourself, as if you haven’t been trying since you were a child. We’re viewed as an annoyance to the rest of the world because oftentimes ADHD behavior simply appears as selfish, and obtuse. However... mountainbiking is the one thing that I’ve ever found that truly silences all the distraction and static inside my brain. I’d live on my bike if I could. I’m always more productive, focused, and in a better mood the day after a big ride where I hit a lot of really technical gnar. It’s powerful stuff and should be researched.
  • 2 0
 @fattyheadshok: Haha, notice I said « serious interpersonnal difficulties », I’m not understating ;-) (it’s different for anyone)
As said I think I have a moderate condition of ADD, but I think my dad has a stronger condition of ADD with impulsivity (the H may have fade away overtime) and my mom could have a moderate condition of ADHD (without impulsivity), and at 37 I’m only starting to understand why the family got through all those difficulties, so I’m a bit of a hybrid observing neuro-typical and kinda able to understand neuro-atypical as well.
Same as you for my dad, well for him it’s not riding a bike but hicking.
Here in France psychoanalysis is still strong while it’s pretty much wrong on everything, so you don’t hear much about neuro-diversity at all (except ADHD in kids and a bit about autism) it’s only slowly starting to change, which is staggering when you read facts like about 25% of imprisoned people may have ADHD.
  • 3 0
 Your story sounds a bit like what a work colleague of mine went through with Cluster Headahces. He told me he'd had them years, when had the first he was rushed in to hospital as suspected meningitis. How debilitating they where that at times he just wanted to end it.... The guy was 6'2 brick SH! , they sounded horrible. No known cause or cure. The crazy thing He got regular at the same time annually! Almost to the day
  • 3 0
 Recovering from a long term injury myself atm and whilst I am unable to get out on the bike for a while yet, I fully understand the therapy received from riding the DH bike.
For the time being my drive and buzz is buying new parts for this years DH rig which I WILL be riding this season.
Stay strong man and big respect Smile
  • 3 0
 You rock Mike! Thanks for sharing the insight! The only thing I had a problem with was "Although there aren't many that sign up for the 40-49 category DH scene at the provincial or national level, it was still fun collecting hardware at every race. "

There's a lot of us! And you made it sound easy to grab the hardware! See you in the spring!
  • 4 0
 This is the real world. All of you pinkbikers are the real heroes for me. Gwinn snashing the conpetirion is nice to see but your stories bring so much quality to my reading time. Really inspiring. You are rad dudes!!!
  • 6 3
 So your wife, she single?

Glad you have the support and a way of minimising the disruption to you and your families lives, whatever the f*** it is that is causing it. Endorphins away.
  • 2 0
  • 3 1
 Keep the faith in relation to the diagnosis Mike. My daughter has a rare genetic disability and it took 5 years of tests for someone to work out what it was, but we got there in the end! The entire period was incredibly stressful and we kind of had to come to terms with the fact we might never find out, but once we accepted that and realised she was happy we were able to get on with enjoying life. Once we did find out there's nothing we can do about it anyway, so having that attitude to get on with life put us in a good position. I know the story is a little different but I saw a few parallels - you seem to have a very positive mindset and I just wanted to say well done for dealing with situation so well. Keep up with the tests but remember that whilst the quality of your life is good that's all you need. Best of luck for the future...
  • 2 0
 Been putting off going to the doctor for mystery headaches myself, thought I had meningitis for sure at some point due to the intensity plus fatigue/brain fog but the family convinced me to shrug it off. Good to hear riding has helped you with this, I have been out of shape lately and nervous to really get back out there with what’s going on. Cheers
  • 2 0
 side note: Go see that doctor mate.
  • 2 0
 Definitely @kusanagi72:
  • 2 0
 I am so glad you found a cure in biking. I had a similar experience. My foot snapped in half through the arch of my foot (metatarsal-tarsal joint) when I was 17 snowboarding. Heel strap broke when I hit a rock in the powder, toe strap didn't break....After surgeries, recovery took way to long. Nearly 3 years before I felt like I was fully recovered. Not long after that I started having complications with my ankle. Cross country style pedaling and yoga during the day and slinging drinks and food all night helped me control the pain and stay strong. When I was 24 I found some amazing new yoga teachers that helped me take my health to a higher level. The next year I got a DH bike and rode my local bike park literally every day that summer and the next. I was nearly completely pain free and so strong. Yoga first thing, DH all day, lift weights in the evening. When I was 27 I had a dumb fall off the bike and rolled up awkwardly with my wrist pinned against my chest. Something popped in my wrist. Xrays were negative. Never followed up with an MRI... I went back to school shortly after that and my activity level plummeted. My yoga practice declined as I couldn't weight my wrist properly in many poses. I still can't do push-ups and even cat-cow is difficult. My body and physical condition have pretty much fallen apart since then. I've been working really hard at strength training and stretching with small success for the past couple years. My biking has been limited during this time. 3-4 months ago my faithful cross-country stead was stolen. I loved that bike. We had 1000s of miles together over the last 11-12 years. I replaced it already with a cheap but good quality hard tail. I finish school this summer. Maybe I can finally get that MRI. Maybe I can finally ride my bike religiously again. Maybe I'll feel better again. Maybe not. I have pretty much learned to cope at this point. Been 5 years since my wrist injury. I'll never stop trying and never give up hope. But I've learned to find other things to love, and other ways to live. Good luck to you brother. I hope your headaches never come back and you pedal all of your days.

"Because things that you love. They can disappear."
  • 3 0
 Mike! We've met multiple times over the years but its been a long time. Great to hear your story(most of it). I've been considering returning to some racing, maybe I can join you in the 40 plus category!
  • 2 0
 my cousin had a procedure that put a tube from her head to her stomach to relieve extra fluid she was building up, quick google it was "Ventriculoperitoneal Shunt'' maybe a simple overlook, ive had a friend see nerve specialists and tried everything to fix sudden loss of motor function, after months of no results her gp figured out her issue, people can miss the mark sometimes. good luck!! great article!!!
  • 3 1
 Going through my own ups and downs (by no means to your levels) it's really encouraging/inspiring to read from people that have 'been there, done that' and really flourished.
  • 4 0
 Good story that he figured out his health problem. Most of health issues can be tracked back to diet and exercise.
  • 1 0
 This is amazing. I've been dealing with an undiagnosed condition for the past 3 years, and for me it's the same thing - exercise helps. I've been to 10 doctors, the ER 3x, had an MRI, a multitude of tests. Nothing is ever found. I have no problem with exercise, I'd love to ride my bike for 8 hours a day, but i need to keep a job and income to pay my student loans, rent, every other bill. It's been a struggle, and I'm very glad to read this. I'm going to get to work and keep my head up, thank you for the inspiration.
  • 2 1
 Good Read! You change your number? I've messaged you a couple of times with no reply. Get at me when you've got a break in your training/family schedule-would love to catch up!
  • 3 0
 Seems like you cured yourself, well done . Props to your wife, helpers go through Hell.
  • 2 0
 Really good read Mike very inspiring . You are right if you weight train I’m sure your body can take any crash impacts better , best luck for the future mate .
  • 3 0
 Scary health stuff for sure. Glad you are doing well, thanks for posting!

(My son has that same bike Smile )
  • 3 0
 Nice read, it makes my morning coffee cold. Continue ripping mountains dude.
  • 3 0
 Mad props to you, your wife and kids. Much Respect.
  • 2 0
 Well done. Much respect. Keep it up. 41 myself and always happy to be on the rig, be it Skatepark, Pumptrack or the trails.
  • 2 0
 Yeah, I can relate. You've figured out the value of what makes you happy and keeps you sane!
  • 2 0
 Good read, thanks for sharing. Pretty irrelevant, but I'm patiently waiting for the diagnosis!
  • 2 0
 Inspirational, thank you for sharing not only the struggles but the good times in-between and of course after. Keep riding!
  • 3 0
 Way to go man, Todd and crew are top notch. Happy for you and your family!
  • 3 0
 Well done Sir! Well done!.
  • 3 0
 Great read..thanks for sharing
  • 2 0
 That kids bike, large ring with skinny tires. Shit just got serious.
  • 2 0
 That is very inspiring. Thanks!
  • 2 0
 Thanks, you made me smile with a tear in my eye ????
  • 2 0
 Wrong sign(?)!!! I meant Smile
  • 2 0
 Massive Respect!! Very motivating and inspiring!
  • 2 0
 Nice work brother. Good on you for sharing. Let s ride bikes now
  • 2 0
 Very inspiring. Never stop!!!
  • 2 0
 Much love and respect my brother
  • 3 0
 what a full sender!!
  • 1 0
 Huge inspiration. Thanks for sharing and being real! Best health to you the wife and kids!
  • 1 0
 Great read. Thanks for sharing.
  • 2 0
 Beautiful! Well done!
  • 1 0
 great life story to start the week. I:m glad this worked out
  • 1 0
 Perfect form of therapy!
#dirtchurchTX, #shredlife and #enjoytheride

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