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In the exemplary 2011 book “Hell on Two Wheels: An Astonishing Story of Suffering, Triumph and the Most Extreme Endurance Race in the World,” endurance athlete and author Amy Snyder details not only the staggering athletic feat of a band of cyclists competing in the Race Across America but also the driven personalities powering those pedals day and night. It makes for a gripping read and gives an eye-opening glimpse into the hardcore realities of one of the toughest races on the planet.

In the documentary “Until the Wheels Come Off,” the story hones in on the 12-day, 3,070-mile coast-to-coast odyssey of Palo Alto cyclist John Tarlton, a Menlo Park real estate executive. 

It too makes for an invigorating sitting-on-the-coach experience to say the very least, as we watch his wife, Jenny Dearborn — a producer — document what happened on that course while members of their immediate family — sons Jack and Cooke and daughter Cloe — cheer and support their father as part of the Team Tarlton crew.

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One of the primary motivators behind the 50-year-old participating in the 2019 RAAM — his second attempt — is to raise awareness and funds for cancer research at the Stanford Cancer Institute. It’s a cause he understands well, having lost two dear people in his life to the disease.

This passionate story about an extreme athlete (he’s also done the Ironman Lake Tahoe, 72-Mile Tahoe Midnight Express, Ride Santa Barbara 100 and Race Across the West) encourages us to think about going outside of comfort zones in order to make the world a better place.

“Until the Wheels Come Off” is directed by Matt Dearborn and Rick Weis, and is now available for rent. We caught up with John and Jenny, and emailed them questions about RAAM, the making of the film and the perceptions of the race itself.

Jack Tartlon (front) runs next to his dad, John, during RAAM. (Photo courtesy Team Tarlton)

Here’s what they had to say:

The Race Across America (RAAM) requires a tenacious mix of physical and mental prowess. During the ride which quality was the hardest to sustain?

John Tarlton: The race is long enough with sufficiently varying conditions that the balance of physical and mental strain varies quite a bit. Leaving the start line in Oceanside, the body feels electric and strong, requiring a great deal of mental acuity for restraint. The strain shifts to physical as you enter the desert and battle with the interminable heat. This seesaw continues across the country. Toward the end of the race, the physical and mental strain have blurred together.

What did it mean to have your family there by your side throughout?

Tarlton: I was grateful to have my family countless times during the race. Truly, the entire crew becomes family before, during and after the race. The crew sacrifices so much for the success of the rider, it is awe-inspiring.

At any time were you about to give up?

Tarlton: I can’t recall thinking about quitting at any point. All of the time that goes into training and race preparation, combined with all of the sacrifice from family, crew, sponsors, my work team, etc., makes it really unimaginable to quit. Besides, RAAM pales in comparison to the hardships endured by a cancer patient.

What compelled you, Jenny, to want to make this film?

Jenny Dearborn: It came together in a circuitous way. John was training for the 2019 Race Across America to raise funds to support cancer research. RAAM is an enormous undertaking and requires tons of support, and he had assembled a terrific team (including our three kids), who were fully focused on getting John through the race and hopefully winning. So I took on the fundraising duties, trying to drum up interest in supporting this cause.

Although very intense, RAAM is also relatively obscure — not many people have heard about this brutal endurance race (where 50% of the entrants don’t even finish!). I figured we could use some video taken along the way, to post on social media and encourage people to lend their support. 

So three weeks before the race, I found a couple of young men who owned cameras and drones and said they knew how to operate them, and invited them to go across the country with us. Next thing I knew, they had enlisted a sound guy, and a friend of a friend who could come along to assist. 

In the end, we filmed everything we absolutely could, and after the race, I turned all the footage (about 3,000 hours) over to Rick Weis, whom I call a mad scientist, genius editor type guy. I gave all the discretion up to him to find a story (if there was one), and he did. “Until the Wheels Come Off” became a story of how a family pulled together to get across the finish line (even though the mother is slightly nuts and in danger of losing it, pretty much all the way through).

John, when people hear about RAAM, they question the sanity of those cyclists participating. How do you respond to that?

John Tarlton at the Race Across America starting line in Oceanside, California (Photo courtesy Team Tarlton)

John Tarlton: I suppose that any activity is perceived through a filter of preconception, an idea of what is realistic or possible. Training for and participating in RAAM required that I break through my own preconceptions of my own potential — it is one of the blessings of RAAM.  Rider and crew embark on a journey of self-discovery, ending in a heightened or expanded awareness of human potential.

Put a completely different way: RAAM could be seen as insane. It could also be seen as the bright light on the horizon that serves as the organizing principle or forcing function for the rider’s life — similar to the spotting technique that a dancer uses to avoid dizziness while spinning. RAAM has become for me an intentional addiction that focuses my diet, training, health, sleep, etc., toward long-term sustainable human performance. Insane, you say?

Describe your training regimen?

Tarlton: Training was tilted more toward gym work than a typical training program, in order to accommodate family needs. I rode quite a bit of my training mileage on a trainer. The same headset that we use for the race (Terrano) allows me to take conference calls while riding. I also shifted nearly all of my commuting and travel to meetings from car to bike, allowing me to clock quite a few miles during the work day. A typical training week leading up the race, but prior to tapering, is:

  • 3-4 strength training sessions in the gym per week
  • 2 shorter rides (e.g. Old La Honda for 25 miles and 1,200 vertical feet) per week
  • 1 medium ride, often in the middle of the night to train for night riding (e.g. San Gregorio for 60 miles and 2,700 vertical feet) per week
  • 1 long ride (e.g. Santa Cruz and back or Mount Diablo and back for 100 miles and 9,000 vertical feet) per week

In the lead-up to the race, we also did a 24 hour ride with crew support (300 miles and 20,000 vertical feet).

A personal reason motivated you to do this. How did that give you the power to continue on?

Tarlton: I lost my sister and mother to cancer. Our crew chief from 2014, David Johnson, lost his wife to cancer as well. As a result, and after discussion with various organizations, we decided to focus our fundraising efforts on Stanford Cancer Institute. The innovators at Stanford Cancer have been able to funnel relatively small amounts of money into primary research resulting in massive progress in our efforts to understand and manage cancer. There are significant parallels with my professional life, which revolves around creating buildings where entrepreneurs can create innovations that lower the cost of healthcare and improve patient outcomes. Many of our tenants are involved in various parts of cancer management as well.

As I often say, the challenges that cancer patients face during treatment (especially for patients of more aggressive cancer types) put the challenge of RAAM in perspective. Keeping this perspective somehow helps to keep the pedals moving for the one million or so pedal strokes required in RAAM. The idea that other families might be spared some of the pain associated with terminal cancer is particularly motivating in dark moments.

A map of the route for the Race Across America (Photo courtesy Team Tarlton)

What do you hope viewers take away from “Until the Wheels Come Off”?

Tarlton: I hope that viewers come away from watching the movie with a sense of wonder about human potential and the power of teamwork. I hope that viewers will have an invigorated sense of hope that, with the help of entrepreneurs like those at Stanford Cancer Institute, we will come to understand and manage cancer. I hope that viewers will have an invigorated sense of power to influence their own health journey through careful management of diet, exercise. I hope that a few viewers will be motivated to participate in RAAM, whether as a crew member, race support or rider (there are soloists, two-person teams, four-person teams and eight-person teams). Finally, I hope that viewers will find a sense of hope in the power of family (both nuclear and extended).

The South Bay has a tight cycling community. How did they contribute in pursuing your goals?

Tarlton: I have been inspired by many members of the Bay Area cycling community over the years. I remember a manager of a Mountain View bike store who was kind enough to overlook what could be characterized as an optimistic age on the job application form, allowing me to have my first job cleaning up the parking lot, stocking shelves, building some of the less expensive bikes for sale and occasionally selling a bike. I have benefited from countless kindnesses from fellow cyclists over the years. When you put in that many miles, help will be needed along the way. I am especially grateful for the expert bike assistance from the Jacoubowsky family at Chain Reaction Bicycles. They have helped navigate thousands of miles of bike maintenance and bike replacements, arranged partial factory sponsorships, helped with stolen bikes, along with a whole heap of accessories and race prep — always with a smile.

A steely psychological mindset combined with intense athletic ability are essential requirements in the Race Across America, or RAAM. Palo Alto resident John Tarlton’s amazing feat and his family’s support gets chronicled in “Until the Wheels Come Off.” (Photo courtesy Gravitas Ventures)

What would you like to do next?

Tarlton: At the moment, I am focused on rebuilding. Rebuilding muscle, overcoming some impairment that occurred during the race, strengthening relationships that were strained during training and the race, and taking care of our real estate tenants, many of whom are life science companies experiencing incredible growth at the moment, and are directly impacting cancer care. It is hard to say if/when I will race RAAM again. In the meantime, I will likely do some Ironman triathlons — something I have done in the past to cross-train.

What was your highest point on the ride? What was your lowest point?

Tarlton: Geographically, the highest point in the ride is Wolf Creek Pass at the top of the Rocky Mountains, and the lowest is in the California desert. Mentally, the high points were that start line, crossing the Durango, Colorado, time station and the finish line. The low points were the tail end of the Arizona desert, and the slow realization that my neck was not functioning properly, making it progressively more unlikely that I would achieve my goal.