Before starting a cross-country bicycle ride to raise awareness for heart disease and stroke, former Intel executive Sean Maloney described the trek as the second-toughest challenge of his life – behind only a stroke that left him unable to talk or use his right side.

Halfway through “Heart Across America,” this challenge is proving to be far tougher than expected.

Maloney broke his left hip and several ribs, plus sustained other cuts and bruises, in a high-speed bicycle crash on the 15th day. Aided by a walker, he met his goal of rejoining his team in Dallas over the weekend, but the reunion was shrouded by the saddest of circumstances.

Don Brennen – who continued the ride in Maloney’s absence along with his brother-in-law, David Fisch – was found dead in his hotel room outside Dallas on Saturday morning. Brennen, who was diabetic, is believed to have died in his sleep. His daughter, Amy, also was part of the traveling team as the driver of the support vehicle.

“Words cannot describe how difficult this has been for all of us,” Fisch wrote in his online journal. “Don’s family and friends have gathered together to offer comfort to each other.”

Maloney and Fisch discussed whether to continue. They came to the same conclusion made after Maloney’s fall: There’s a greater good to be served by continuing to spread their message.

“Don would’ve said, `Keep on going,’” Maloney said. “Dave is strong. I listened to him. The show must go on.”

Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association and American Stroke Association, sent condolences to the Brennan family and thanked Maloney and Fisch for their perseverance and dedication.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of Don, and everyone on the Heart Across America team,” Brown said.

The team set out Tuesday morning, headed south to Austin for a visit with one of the event’s top corporate supporters, Dell; on Saturday, members of the team will ride with the company’s founder and CEO, Michael Dell.

Other major visits coming up include Houston (May 4), Nashville (May 20), Chicago (May 28), Pittsburgh (June 5), followed by the culmination in New York City on June 15. Everyone is encouraged to ride along for a few miles, or to visit them at one of their public events.

Maloney kept two scheduled appointments Monday, including a visit to the national office of the AHA/ASA in Dallas. In discussing his highlights of the first two weeks before his crash, he talked about the beauty of the roughly 700 miles he rode down the California coast.

He blamed himself for the crash, lamenting that he got caught up in the thrill of leading the pack at 32 mph.

“I had my bike helmet crushed. Bike helmet crushed!” he said. “Slow down.”

Maloney said the policeman who rescued him mentioned that many riders wipe out in that spot. Maloney added that the policeman joined the ride for about 30 miles the next day.

“Awesome guy,” Maloney said.

Maloney is a former Intel executive who lost the ability to walk, talk and use his right side following a stroke in 2010. He defied all expectations by resuming his career and his active lifestyle. He retired from Intel in 2013 and on March 22 began this ride in Palo Alto, California.

Heart Across America, a California-based non-profit organization initiated by Maloney, already has raised nearly $267,000, some of which will support the American Heart Association and American Stroke Association. Maloney is especially proud that the tour itself, as well as accompanying publicity and social media chatter, have helped spread his primary messages. They include:

  • Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of Americans, and stroke is No. 5 as well as a leading cause of adult disability.
  • Nearly 800,000 Americans die every year due to heart disease and stroke, and nearly 80 percent of all strokes and heart attacks are preventable.
  • The AHA aims to improve the cardiovascular health of all Americans by 20 percent while reducing deaths from cardiovascular diseases and stroke by 20 percent, by the year 2020. That could mean a difference in more than 1 million lives, plus countless more loved ones spared from the emotional, physical and financial toll that comes with it.

“Every person you talk to up and down California has someone who’s had strokes or heart attacks – every person! I never really realized that before,” he said. “So it’s really resonating.”

Burial information for Brennen was not immediately available. Amy Brennen is returning home to be with her family, with someone else taking over the vehicle supporting Fisch and others who join him.

Maloney hopes to take over driving in mid-May, when the tour reaches the Natchez Trace Parkway in Mississippi.

“Bit by bit, I’m coming back,” he said.

He will not be getting on the bike again during the event. The doctor said he has to wait at least three months after his surgery, and the finish line arrives a few weeks too soon. Although he defied odds in his stroke recovery, he’s not taking any more risks.

Photo by Matt Bannister