On Aug. 3, Michael Shanahan hopped on his bike at 5:15 a.m. and started pedaling. He won’t stop until he’s biked than 500 miles over the next week through the hills, valleys and farms of northern Wisconsin, riding as a fundraiser to benefit the Chicago group home where his son Marty lives.
“Everyone who goes on this ride does it for their own reasons,” Shanahan said. “Some people do it just for the joy of riding a bike for a week, and some people do it as a family outing. I just wanted to do it as a vehicle to raise money for Marty and his buddies.”
Shanahan has competed in the Great Annual Bicycling Adventure Along the Wisconsin River race for at least 14 years. He joins some 300 other riders in a circular race that starts and ends in Stevens Point. The River Forest resident has raised more than $500,000 for PACTT by racing; those interested in donating should visit pactt.org.
This year represents Shanahan’s first time racing since he suffered a heart attack four years ago. He plans to reflect on the natural beauty and the cause in order to stay motivated — Shanahan credits the PACTT Learning Center group home with saving his marriage and providing his now 28-year-old son, who has severe autism, with a high quality of life.
“I feel lucky to have a child like Marty because he teaches me, he gives me balance, and what’s really important in this world,” Shanahan said.
“Our society is defined by how we treat those who can’t help themselves and are incapable of helping themselves,” Shanahan said. “If we stop doing that, then we start going downhill pretty quick.”
Growing up, Marty was verbal until about 20 months old. Then he stopped. After three weeks of silence, the Shanahans took Marty to visit Rush University Medical Center, where doctors diagnosed him with severe autism, a neurological disorder that affects individuals’ speech, language, learning and social capabilities. He was just 2 years old.
“At the time, I was terrified as to what my life would be like,” Shanahan said. “I was terrified for my family about how this was going to impact our whole family’s lives.”
He remembers joining a support group, where he saw two parents each in their late 70s tending to their autistic son, who was in his 40s. He couldn’t help but wonder who would care for the man when his parents died. “To try to get that 45-year-old man to assimilate in a group home setting has got to be almost next to impossible,” Shanahan said. It was then he decided that Marty would live in an individualized group home.
He can’t think of any organization more worth to ride for.
“These people are saints who work there, as far as I’m concerned,” Shanahan said, adding that the money he raises benefits PACTT staff salaries. “It is a hard job. I wouldn’t want to do it.
After four years of recovery following his heart attack, Shanahan went on a fitness regime last year and lost 60 pounds. His doctor gave the 62-year-old the go-ahead to finally race again. He’s spent the last nine months training for the Wisconsin ride, waking at 4:15 a.m. and peddling up and down the one-way streets in Elmwood Park, which he said have a slight incline reminiscent of those Wisconsin hills. Shanahan rides for two hours before starting work — he owns a medical equipment recycling company — and said the early wake-up call is the hardest part.
“The main thing I think about is, ‘God when is this thing going to be over with,'” he joked.
During the race, Shanahan listens to songs by The Who, U2, and the Rolling Stones, along with political commentary by comedian Bill Burr, to stay focused. In addition to the natural beauty, the ride has fostered a new respect for farmers — Shanahan said he can’t help but notice that they are working the entire time he’s riding.
“It’s a dusk to dusk job they’ve got,” he said.
After a week of riding, with just 20 miles left to go, Shanahan said he starts to go into a biker’s trance, where he feels a sense of euphoria that lets him sail through the rest of the race. Because Marty can’t speak, he said he’s not sure how his son feels about the ride. But he believes he would be proud of him.
“He can show you emotion through his smile, through his eagerness to do things; he just wants to be on the go,” Shanahan said. “But I think if he could talk, he’d be happy that I’m taking care of my health by doing this, and I’m raising money for him and his buddies.”