Palo Alto’s John Tarlton races across the country to raise money for cancer research—spawning a documentary screened at the Napa Film Festival.
John Tarlton’s incredible race raised funds for the Stanford Cancer Institute.
Ten days and more than 3,000 miles on two wheels without much sleep. That’s the premise of Race Across America, or RAAM, a brutal trek as cyclists roll from coast to coast through desert heat and over mountain ranges. It’s a challenge that’s 30% longer than the Tour de France and accomplished in half the time; from Oceanside, Calif., to Annapolis, Md., there are no stages or rest stops. The race never pauses.
John Tarlton, who’s 50 and lives in Palo Alto with his wife, Jenny Dearborn, and three children and works in Menlo Park as a real estate executive, decided to enter RAAM to raise money and awareness for the Stanford Cancer Institute. His family came along to assist in a support van for the ride—along with a film crew, resulting in Until the Wheels Come Off, which screened last fall at the Napa Film Festival and will be available via video on demand platforms starting April 5. Tarlton and Dearborn sat down with us to discuss the ride and film project.
John, you've been an ultra-athlete for quite some time, but what was the impetus behind taking your pastime to this level?
JT: I’m an accidental ultra-athlete. After a decade of neglecting my health, I was a complete mess physically. I had gone from a collegiate cyclist to having a hard time getting out of bed in the morning. I had a look-yourself-in-the-mirror moment and decided I needed a change. I started making small steps to improve my health like riding my bike to work.
To keep myself motivated to improve, I started signing up for organized rides that would force me to stay on task with my training. I barely finished my first race, but felt a great sense of accomplishment because my health was improving. I was starting to be more the person I wanted to be for my family, friends and colleagues. So, I signed up for the next race, and then the next—and found a pattern that was positively reinforcing.
I created an addiction to fitness—I craved the endorphins and sense of accomplishment, and I lost 50 pounds.
How did you stay motivated on such an arduous trip?
JT: By the time you reach the start line in Oceanside, the motivation has piled up pretty high. It takes years of preparation, thousands of hours of training, hundreds of hours from the volunteer crew preparing.
Beyond the competitive desire to win, one of the biggest motivators is the fear of disappointing the people who got you to the start line and are supporting you during the race. Another huge motivator is the desire to bend the path of cancer. The pain that a RAAM racer endures is really nothing compared to the pain endured by a cancer patient undergoing treatment. The motivation mantra in my head when I’m riding is don’t disappoint, gotta win, beat cancer, don’t disappoint, gotta win, beat cancer.
What were two or three special moments on this trip that kept you going or that were completely unforgettable?
JT: For most days of the race, I honestly have no memories at all. You only sleep an hour or two a day—at the end it was even less, as you will see in the film, and the exhaustion is so extreme. The crew tells me I was delirious and talking nonsense, but I don’t remember.
One moment I do recall was in Missouri, falling asleep while I was riding at about 3AM and crashing into the guardrail on the side of the road. I flipped over the rail, slid down the embankment and ended up a twisted mess in a creek at the bottom of a culvert. And around Kansas my vision became so impaired that I started to only be able to see in black and white. It took until the day after the race was finished to regain my peripheral vision and to see in color again.
How did the film project come about?
JD: The evolution of Until the Wheels Come Off is really sort of bizarre. It started innocently enough. John was totally focused on training to ride and hopefully win RAAM. His crew, including our three kids, was focused on learning how to support John’s effort and how to live in vans for 10 days. John asked if there was anything I could do to support the fundraising efforts. Although very intense, RAAM is also pretty obscure. Not many people have heard about this crazy group of riders who somehow make it across the country in 10 days, and we were hoping to attract as much support as we could for cancer research.
Tarlton and his wife, Jenny Dearborn. PHOTO: BY DREW ALTIZER
I knew any fundraising effort was going to include some sort of promotion. I was already planning to post updates throughout the ride on social media channels and figured we’d need some video footage. So three weeks to go before the race, I enlisted the help of two 20-somethings who said they owned cameras and drones and knew how to operate them.
My offer was simple—would you two dudes want to go across the country filming a bike race? They said they needed a sound guy and knew a friend of a friend who could come along, and then it was determined we should have a field producer as well.
Tarlton’s trek included brutal days and nights of heat through America’s Midwest.
So, now I was responsible for four guys and all of their equipment, which presented a new challenge. Namely, how to transport them across the country as they followed John on his bike. The day before the race started, I rented a van, and we all started the drive across the country at 15 miles an hour following John and his support crew.
Wow. This makeshift crew filmed everything?
JD: The media team filmed absolutely everything they could—the highs, lows, laughs, tears, fighting and triumph. After the race, they turned about 3,000 hours of footage over to Rick Weis. Rick is a mad-scientist genius editor, and I gave him full discretion to find a story, if there was one, and he did.
It was never the plan for me to be in the film, let alone the character who almost derails the whole race. The final film tells the story of how family and friends pulled together to get across the finish line, even though the mother of the family is slightly nuts.
How much money did you raise for the Stanford Cancer Institute?
JT: To date, we’ve raised about $500,000 for cancer research. My sister died of brain cancer and my mother died of ovarian cancer. I’ve lost many friends and colleagues to cancer too. I ride to raise awareness so we can prevent future deaths with early detection and better treatment.
What did it mean to have your kids and wife along for the ride?
JT: It was Jenny’s idea to have the kids along, and I think it was really good for them to experience this—to see the preparation involved and the sacrifice by all of the riders that goes into crossing the finish line of something as big and complex as RAAM.
It was maybe not such a good idea for Jenny to come on the race, as you’ll see when you watch the documentary. Our kids are great and keep their cool, but their mother—let’s just say I don’t think she’ll be doing it again anytime soon! [All kidding aside], for those who want to support this, there’s a donate button on the website, untilthewheelscomeoffmovie.com, and 100% goes directly to Stanford Cancer Institute.
Photography by: PHOTO COURTESY OF UNTIL THE WHEELS COME OFF; PHOTO BY DREW ALTIZER; PHOTO COURTESY OF UNTIL THE WHEELS COME OFF