There was the challenge of the physical accomplishment, of course, and he knew his partner, PJ Snyder of Lakewood, would enjoy going along for the ride. Snyder has Angelman syndrome, a disability that forces him to use a wheelchair for mobility. He likes being outdoors and loves racing.
But it had been one thing for Vanderheiden to team up in shorter events such as 10K road races with Snyder and others with disabilities who have been served by Vanderheiden’s Athletes in Tandem organization since 2010. The Ironman would cover 140.6 miles, taking more than 15 hours, 32 minutes to complete on a day in August when the high temperature in Boulder hit 87 degrees.
Vanderheiden was carrying another burden at the time. His wife was in a battle with cancer that she would lose six months later.
He got the answer he was seeking during the Ironman.
“Cyclists would slow down and talk to us, which was impressive, because everybody’s trying to do the best time or make the cutoff,” Vanderheiden says. “And in the final chute, it’s a very supportive environment — people are cheering on complete strangers. I realized at that point that he was accepted into the triathlon community, and that’s really why I did it. They’re recognized at races. They became members of a community where they hadn’t been before.”
Snyder has done 70 events through Athletes in Tandem since 2012, most of them with Vanderheiden, but this week they will embark on a different sort of adventure. Beginning Monday, Vanderheiden will pedal Snyder 600 miles on a bike from the Four Corners in southwestern Colorado to Golden as a fundraiser. They expect it to take 13 days.
23-year love story
Snyder’s father left his mother when PJ was 22 months old. His biological mother tried to raise him but was overwhelmed and put him up for adoption when he was 4.
First PJ went to foster care, but two years later when his special education teacher found out he was up for adoption, she started an adoption process and officially became his guardian when he was 8. Cindy Snyder is still his caregiver now. PJ will soon turn 31.
“I always thought about adopting,” Cindy says. “When I was young, I knew I was going to teach, but I wanted to be at home with my own kids. I thought, ‘I’ll have my own kids, I’ll get married, stay at home with my kids, then still do special needs by foster care or adoption.’ Well, I never got married, never had my own kids. I had that maternal clock kicking in.”
Angelman syndrome is a neurogenetic disorder that causes seizures, severe curvature of the spine and balance issues. PJ is nonverbal but can communicate using an electronic device. Around the house, he can crawl. He enjoys time in swimming pools and watching music videos on the 60-inch screen in his bedroom.
“He’s social,” Cindy says. “He can go to the park and watch the kids play and not get mad.”
As Cindy describes PJ’S personality, noting that he “likes to be the center of attention,” PJ takes her hand and strokes his cheek with it.
“That’s his ‘Thank you, I love you,’ ” she says.
For most of their 23 years together, Cindy assumed she would outlive PJ, but now she doesn’t think so.
“We’re at a point where he’s going to outlive me and I’m having to plan for the future,” Cindy said. “That’s one of the reasons we’re doing the bike tour. We’re going to try to buy him a house so he can live in the house and somebody would come in and take care of him in his home.”
The mission statement of Athletes in Tandem says it exists “to provide the thrill of competitive sport to every athlete with a disability who imagines running, swimming or biking in individual events or triathlons.” Vanderheiden founded it after coming to realize racing merely for himself was no longer satisfying.
“I just enjoyed swimming and biking and running and I wanted to keep life simple,” Vanderheiden said. “It was a way to have meaningful reasons to do what we do as triathletes, and athletes in general.”
He was inspired by the example of Dick and Rick Hoyt, the father-son tandem from Massachusetts that has completed more than 1,000 endurance events including 72 marathons and seven Ironmans.
Rick Hoyt has cerebral palsy. Seeing their story made Vanderheiden want to reach out to Colorado’s disabled community.
“They had as much excitement about being outside racing and being around athletes as I enjoyed doing it,” Vanderheiden says. “I could benefit from being able to continue physical activity, and they could benefit from being stimulated by other athletes and the environment, being outdoors in movement.”
Vanderheiden typically does 20 to 30 events a year, and Athletes in Tandem has other volunteers who partner in events. He has known PJ and Cindy since 2012 and couldn’t help but be inspired by Cindy’s caregiving, especially after Vanderheiden’s wife was diagnosed with a brain tumor that same year, putting him in a caregiver’s role, too.
“She was an excellent mother and wife,” Vanderheiden says. “It was a labor of love to be able to give that back to her, at a time that she needed it and I could provide it.”
She died in February 2015 at age 54 after 31 years of marriage that produced three children.
“There were things that happened after she passed that helped me figure out who I am and how to move forward,” Vanderheiden says. “PJ has a challenge of having a disability, his mother has a challenge with all the logistics of financial hardships, and my challenge is a ‘moving on with life’ sort of thing.”
And so the Angelman Ride (“Four Corners to a Home”) is intended to raise money for Angelman research and Athletes in Tandem, as well as the home for PJ. It was Vanderheiden’s “wild idea” to use a 600-mile bike ride as the vehicle.
“Somewhat to my dismay, they said yes,” Vanderheiden says. “It’s just a way of helping somebody out. I get to do something that I love, which is cycling and being outdoors and taking pictures. And here’s a friend that will get to go along for the ride.”
To follow PJ Snyder and Dennis Vanderheiden or to contribute, go to fourcornerstoahome.com.
John Meyer: firstname.lastname@example.org or @johnmeyer