He’s already the first blind man to win an ultramarathon. Now Jason Romero, 46, of Denver, Colorado, is aiming to become the first blind man to run across the United States.
Romero began his journey from Santa Monica Pier on March 24, and he hopes to arrive at Faneuil Hall in Boston by the end of May.
He hopes to average 50 miles a day and he’s wearing a tracker so people can follow his progress via his Vision Run USA web site.
Romero, a father of three children, ages 10 to 16, was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye condition, at age 14. His vision loss has been gradual, but a couple years ago, he had to give up driving and acknowledge his impairment.
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His vision is good enough that he can run solo under certain conditions, and he is currently planning to run alone for most of his journey, with his mother driving a support vehicle nearby.
“I have useable sight and during the day, I can run independently pretty [well],” Romero told Runner’s World by phone the day before he embarked on his run. “During the dark hours, that’s when it’s going to be tricky. What we’ve decided is I am going to run in the early morning hours, because I’m an early person, and then come sunset, I’m not going to run because I’ll be fatigued and my eyes don’t work as well.”
Romero hopes that as word of his run spreads, runners will come out and join him. He was joined for the first 17 miles by Mark Lucas, executive director of the United States Association of Blind Athletes (USABA), and one of his running heroes, Adrian Broca, who is also blind. Romero expects to be out on the roads for 12–15 hours per day, running about half the distance and power walking the rest.
He hopes to have hotel rooms donated along his route, but when he cannot, he’s prepared to sleep in the 2002 Honda Odyssey that serves as his support vehicle. He’s fundraising to cover the costs associated with his trip.
An accomplished runner who has raced as far as 205 miles in a three-day race, Romero realizes this will be a different kind of challenge. He’s prepared physically—he’s run as much as 300 miles in one week in training—but Romero said in advance of his trip that staying safe may be one of his biggest challenges.
“I’ve been hit seven times by cars, and that’s in a city where I run and I know the streets,” Romero said. “Here I’m going to be running in foreign areas where people are not going to be accustomed to seeing a person running out in the middle of nowhere, so safety is really the biggest thing that we are concerned about.”
As he’s come to accept his blindness, Romero has learned more—and experienced firsthand—the discrimination that some members of the blind community face.
“I became a [much] more active member of the blind community and I realized there are these staggering statistics, like a 70 percent unemployment rate for blind people, a 66 percent obesity rate, two times the rate of depression compared to the general population,” Romero said. “You can’t tell me that 70 percent of blind people are unemployable and don’t have those skills.”
Two years ago, Romero voluntarily stopped driving and sunk into a deep depression.
“As a single dad, you try to go to the grocery store to stock up to feed three kids and you get a lot of food. All of a sudden, now I’m on the bus or in a taxi or walking to the store and schlepping home all of these bags,” Romero said.
Though Romero has an impressive résumé—he’s worked as an attorney, as a business executive for GE and Western Union, and as CEO of a nonprofit school—he is currently unemployed and living on disability.
“[It’s] a tremendously humbling experience. A lot has changed,” Romero said. “I’ve applied for jobs over the past couple of years and I don’t get past the phone screen interview. I came out of the closet as a blind person and I don’t know if that has something to do with it. Or maybe it’s a higher power saying, ‘Jason, you can’t have a job right now because you’ve got to do this run across America.’”
Romero used his running to help pull him out of his depression, and he posted some impressive performances in the process. In January, he ran 2:50 at the Houston Marathon. In February, Romero became the first blind runner to win an ultramarathon at the San Jorge 50 miler in Puerto Rico. Romero’s run at the same race in 2015 is the subject of a movie, which will be released April 21.
Romero says his biggest running highlight, however, was representing the U.S. at the 2015 International Paralympic Committee’s World Marathon Championship in London, where he finished fourth.
As Romero makes his way across the country, he hopes to inspire others and spread the message that people with vision impairment are capable of anything, if given he chance.
He is looking for runners to join him for segments of his journey. He said that those interested in joining in can either track him and show up, or email firstname.lastname@example.org in advance to plan a meeting spot.