John Tarlton, 50, is curled up on the asphalt of a suburban parking lot, his head suspended by a bandage since the muscles in his neck have failed. Having crossed the country from California to Maryland on his bicycle, 2,800 miles in 10 days, Tarlton has less than 48 hours left to complete what might be the world's most demanding cycling race.
A support crew lowers Tarlton's bruised body into an impromptu ice bath made out of a white cooler. The shock of the frigid water is their last resort to keep him alert and limit the amount of times he falls asleep while riding and involuntarily swerves into the path of speeding vehicles. Tarlton's wife, Jenny Dearborn, embraces their children and weeps, knowing that other riders have already dropped out due to internal bleeding and collisions with towering semi-trucks.
Tarlton set out on this journey to raise funds for cancer research, but will his obsession with curing the disease that stole away his sister and mother result in debilitating injury and place insurmountable stress on his family?
A Palo Alto father of three and CEO of his family's eponymous real estate company, Tarlton has donated money to cancer research, but these contributions are not enough. Instead, Tarlton bears the Stanford Cancer Institute's logo across his chest while competing in grueling ultracycling events like Race Across America (RAAM). While Tarlton's family draws inspiration from his dedication, they have also witnessed him tumble over highway guardrails and lose control of his arms while deliriously weaving across winding roads.
Tarlton usually breaks into a coy smile when Dearborn worries about his safety, but when asked about when he'll compete in RAAM again, his face hardens. "That's not something we talk about," he said. "Maybe with his next wife," Dearborn added.
Stanford Health Care provided treatment for Tarlton's sister, then his mother as they battled cancer. For Tarlton's parents, burying one of their children was a harrowing experience, with the grieving process "driving a wedge" between the couple, said Tarlton's father, Tig, in a previous interview. Crediting Pathways Home Health and Hospice for helping the family heal, Tig, the founder of Tarlton Properties, helped Pathways construct a new headquarters in Sunnyvale in 2005.
John Tarlton has followed his father's example, and the family's company now develops life sciences properties housing biotech companies and medical researchers. He also operates a philanthropic foundation called Team Tarlton, and his family recently released a documentary about Tarlton's participation in RAAM 2019, "Until the Wheels Come Off," to raise additional funds for cancer research.
Heading off on a 3,000 mile bike ride
RAAM boasts that it is "The World's Toughest Bicycle Race." Starting in Oceanside, California, and ending in Annapolis, Maryland, the race covers over 3,000 miles with a 12-day time cap and offers no prize money. In 2014, Tarlton, a competitive cyclist in college, barely finished the race with under three hours to spare. In 2019, he was one of 38 solo riders, and a third of them never reached the finish line.
Riders assemble support crews who hand off food and water, navigate, keep track of opposing athletes and scream out when the delirious cyclists veer into oncoming traffic. Tarlton's crew in 2019 included his wife Dearborn and children Cooke, Cloe and Jack, who were in high school and college at the time.
During the start of the race, which includes crossing deserts in Arizona, Tarlton cycles at a moderate pace. As he reaches San Diego County, the road steepens into a mountainous decline, and wind gusts push him toward oncoming traffic. The support vans struggle to keep up with the bicycle, which can reach over 50 miles per hour along tight twisting roads lined with rocky cliffs. Sweat coats the faces and arms of the entire crew, and Tarlton laughs when offered a reflective jacket at nighttime. The thermometer reads 115 degrees.
Driving through the desert, Dearborn confidently said, "He's totally passionate about this, so I'm not worried at all." However, a few miles later, she pulls over under the relentless sun and checks her phone. A text message provides the update that Tarlton is bent over in the other van, retching on the road. Surprised by the immediate challenges posed by the beginning of the race, Dearborn wonders how Tarlton will stay hydrated.
The mental challenges posed by the Midwest
When the terrain flattens out in Kansas, Tarlton is setting a strong pace and heading toward his goal of a podium finish. However, many athletes drop out amongst the monotony of endless fields alternating between verdant green and barren brown soil. Crossing the Great Plains, Tarlton listens to "Harry Potter'' audiobooks. He repeatedly pulls over and unclips his shoes, searching for his son Jack. Tarlton incoherently looks for his broomstick, convinced that it must be repaired for an upcoming Quidditch tournament. Each time Tarlton stops, speeding vehicles narrowly avoid him.
Under Tarlton's red-and-black-streaked helmet, his mind expresses gratitude for his crew. Then, he compares his aching neck and blistered feet to the fatigue and nausea caused by chemotherapy drugs flowing into a cancer patient's veins. Tarlton's sister fought glioblastoma, a rare cancer that aggressively attacks the brain and spinal cord, for nine years. Most patients survive for no longer than 18 months.
Interrupting the roar of passing trucks and the rolling of wheels on asphalt, Tarlton's late mother and sister speak to him, reminding him that while his pain is temporary, breakthroughs in cancer research will provide permanent relief to suffering patients. These voices continue calling him even when his eyes shut in the middle of the night and he rolls over a guardrail in Kansas, sliding down an embankment.
What keeps John Tarlton pedaling?
Tarlton's family members each have their own theories about what keeps him going during these endless stretches.
"Our parents have a hard time accepting that there is nothing they can do to change a situation," said Jack Tarlton. "Our dad, he's not a cancer researcher … for him to hear that the only thing he can do is give money … that's not enough."
Similarly, Cloe Tarlton said, "I think it's hard for him to find a different way to help. This is one way he can center himself, he can find the strength within himself to do something for someone else. And that's a power that he has control over."
Somewhat miraculously, Tarlton appears to escape his crash without any major injuries. However, even though the crew has concealed the accident from Dearborn in case she might stop the race, she has already learned that one rider collided with a semi-truck and another dropped out due to heat exhaustion and internal bleeding. "I think about widowhood a lot, what would it be like if John was killed and how would I tell my kids?" Dearborn said while at the wheel.
The crew turns into a trauma team
Entering the final third of the race, the support crew has become a medical staff, forced to engineer solutions to Tarlton's worsening injuries. Most worrying is his neck, essentially limp, hanging parallel to the ground.
Each time that Tarlton stops for a short break, hands carry him from his bicycle to a massage table and feed him spoonfuls of the few food combinations that he is still able to process. Comforting a distraught crew member, Dearborn notes that this father and CEO has become the team's child. "We're all looking at John saying … 'Be our leader, be our boss. Be our husband, be our father, be our employer, be our landlord.' And at the end of this, it switched. He's like a baby and we're all taking care of him," she said.
Tarlton's bruises and burns deepen in color, and the vans' horns blast more frequently as he falls in and out of sleep. When the team approaches the East Coast, the crew turns to an ice bath in order to relieve inflammation and keep Tarlton alert. He whimpers while five crew members repeat messages of encouragement and press white trash bags filled with ice against his curled-up body. The team has become a group of stoic caretakers, doing all they can to treat Tarlton while Dearborn sobs off to the side.
When an incoherent Tarlton accidentally pulls over to the left across a lane of traffic, the white and yellow lane markers he has followed for over a week have blurred together in his vision. The crew props up Tarlton and forces him to rest.
The end of a race, but not the journey
With these additional breaks, the podium is no longer in sight, but the Tarlton children eventually ride alongside their father across the finish line onto docks jutting into the Atlantic Ocean. The crew poses for a celebratory photograph in the sea breeze and holds Tarlton's head up to meet the camera, the family resemblance strikingly clear across each smiling face.
Cooke, the youngest Tarlton, consistently slouched down in his seat at the beginning of the journey. By the end of RAAM, he pored over maps and timetables while confidently shouting out directions.
Dearborn, a tech executive, never wanted to accompany her husband on RAAM. Now, she hopes to broadcast memories that she considers traumatic on theater screens across the world in order to raise funds.
Jack, who speaks with the same reflective pauses that his father does, likes to imitate Tarlton dismounting, barely aware of his surroundings yet still asking his crew if they were getting enough sleep. "I think we all have that feeling that when someone we care about is hurting, the best thing we can do is try and be there with them as much as possible," he said.
Still stuck in a fetal position, Tarlton desperately spoons a celebratory cup of ice cream into his mouth. For the moment, he has done all he can to pursue his goal, even though some cures and treatments still remain just out of the reach of cancer researchers. "Part of the wonder of Race Across America is that everyone involved is exploring the limits of their own human potential," he said.