Blind ultra runner passes through Lake of the Ozarks on historic trek across the U.S.
It’s a cool grey overcast day as Jason Romero pauses to take a break at the Tonka Hills Restaurant in Linn Creek early on Friday afternoon.
He lays out a blanket in the parking lot and sits down with a cup of beans beside him as he proceeds to take off his tennis shoes that look like sandals because the toe boxes have been cut off to help prevent blisters. The pair of shoes are just one of 28 that will likely wear out like the eight pairs before it as he continues his journey to become the first blind person to cross the continental United States on foot.
It is not every day that someone decides to run 3,300 miles across the country, but Romero said he felt like it was his calling. At the age of 14 Romero was diagnosed with a degenerative eye condition known as Retinitis Pigmentosa that gradually decreases the ability to perceive light. Now having just 15 percent of his sight remaining, he is legally blind and it was the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes that pulled him out of depression and connected with him other blind athletes. The Denver native now wants to give back by raising funds and awareness for the organization through this run.
“A couple of years ago I found myself in a really deep depression because my eyes had become significantly worse than what they had been before,” Romero recalled. “The USABA was an organization that enabled me to get back to running and enabled me to pull myself out of that depression. What they do for me they do for thousands whether that is getting a visually impaired person off the couch to run a 5K, to get someone to the Paralympics or to back someone to run across America. It’s a great organization and it’s driving me.”
Romero became intrigued by ultra running after seeing his uncle Ted Epstein on a track in Boulder, Co., finding out how many miles he could run in a six-day span. Romero said Epstein was one of the pioneers of the ultra endurance style achieving feats such as running across Siberia, swimming around Manhattan and bicycling across the U.S.
“He would go eight hours and sleep an hour and the guy was like a zombie,” Romero said of his uncle at the track that day. “I was blown away and saw there that anything was possible and that kind of gave me the bug.”
It was not long before Romero ran his first marathon and while living in Puerto Rico, he ran another marathon to raise money for a school he started for children with autism as one of his children was diagnosed with the disorder. Romero currently holds world records in the 50K, 50-mile, 100-mile, 24-hour, 48-hour and 72-hour race distances and times. He is a three-time IRONMAN triathlete, 2014 USABA marathon champion and represented Team USA with a fourth place finish at the International Paralympic Committee’s World Marathon Championship in 2015. Although Romero has earned these significant accomplishments, he says they do not define him as he puts those records out there so others will become involved in the ultra distances and want to beat him.
“They are not crazy records that cannot be beaten and I think they can and will be beaten,” he said. “As I look around there are so many more talented visually impaired athletes than me and they are just not going into the ultra distances. I’ve reached out to a whole bunch of different organizations to recognize a blind and visually impaired category and they’ve talked about it, but really have not done it yet. I’m throwing them out there and I figure over time it will pave the way for the visually impaired to be out there in that community because there are some extremely talented runners out there and they inspire me."
Romero began this unprecedented journey at a pier in Santa Monica, Calif., on March 24 with his mother driving a van nearby mile after mile. Romero noted that other people who have taken on such a task may have RVs and extra cars consisting of a crew up to seven or eight people, but he is thankful to have her support every step of the way.
“She has been with me for all of my big races,” he remarked. “My mom is doing the job of about seven or eight people and we laugh at night, but we are getting it done.”
Romero’s mother Cindy Epstein says she is glad to be with him from start to finish.
“I have loved traveling across the United States and I’m glad I could share and enjoy this with him,” she said. “I think we’ll both be very excited and happy when he takes his last step.”
For the span of about two months, Romero’s goal is to gain a distance of 50 miles every day in a 12-hour time period as he tries to keep a pace of an 11-minute mile. When he wakes up in the morning he feels all the aches and pains from the day before and it takes awhile to get moving. At the end of each day he does two hours of recovery at a hotel and goes to sleep and the next morning he jumps out of the van and does it all over again.
“What my life has become is that it takes me about a half hour to roll out of bed and want to get my body moving getting past the aches and pains. I feel like the tin man and it takes awhile to get my body back to where it can move and stand.”
However, the ultra runner says he has learned that this challenge is more mental than physical as there is no training manual that exists for running across the country.
“Physically, I trained for about a year and a half to get to this point. I really did not know what I was doing and you can talk to others who have done it, but everyone does it differently,” he said. “Patience and consistency are the two things that enable me to get through a day. I see all these cars zooming by and everyone is going somewhere in a hurry so what I’ve realized is that if you slow down and are consistent you can get those 50 miles done. Things are going to happen. Yesterday we almost drove this van off a cliff and had to get towed out, but you either take it in stride and be calm about it or you can have a large reaction. You can figure out a way around it.”
Besides dangerous roads, there is another obstacle in play as well. Romero says it can get lonely repeating this exact process without a single day off. Having that much time to think, he has thought about everything in his life at least five or six times so far, but it is his interactions with others on the road and the support he receives on social media that drive him and constantly remind him how important this task is.
Romero recalled meeting a sheriff whose dad had a degenerative eye condition and paved his way as a chiropractor and preacher at rodeos. Meeting this sheriff and others along the way, Romero has found comfort and drawn inspiration from these interactions knowing how much he can accomplish when he loses the rest of his sight.
“These interactions are not by chance and I believe everything happens for a reason,” Romero said. “I was having very tough days and it is really neat to be inspired by other folks. It gives me hope because the majority of my life I have lived as a sighted person and now that my sight is going I am scared to not see anything. Imagine one day someone puts a blindfold on and you cannot take it off. This thing I have progresses at different rates for different people and when I meet or hear about people where being blind did not end their life it gives me hope as I go through this journey.”
Romero has enjoyed his time in the Midwest as well, noting how nice everyone has been to him and he did not take his time in the Lake of the Ozarks for granted stating he is not sure if he’ll ever see something so beautiful again.
“They don’t try to run you off the road and pull over and ask if you are ok or need help,” Romero stated. “Since I’ve been in Missouri I am so thankful I had a chance to do this during this time of year and I don’t know if I’ll ever be here again when I have sight. I was taking a picture at the lake with some house boats and someone came down and asked if they could help me or if I was lost. I realized I was on his property and I told him I just had to stop and take a picture because it was so beautiful. This area is absolutely stunning.”
His other source of strength comes from the support he receives on Facebook where he has started dedicating a day or part of his run to those who have inspired him and he thinks about when he may be feeling low.
“Seeing how this run impacts people and gives them hope, inspiration and encouragement it lets me know that every step out there is important,” Romero stated. “Even though I may want to quit and almost get killed by cars out there, it makes it worthwhile. There are people deriving hope from my simple act of putting one foot in front of the other and not quitting. That drives me and spurs me on. There may be plenty of aches and pains, but for some reason I am able to get out there and keep on going.”
As he continues this journey, Romero hopes this run will help anyone who may be going through a difficult situation.
“I’m not special. I have chicken legs and until two years ago I was not even a legally blind runner,” Romero said. “If I can take on a big challenge like this, hopefully other people can see this and realize whatever they got going on in their life they can overcome that adversity and things will get better. If you don’t try you’ll never know.”
Romero may be losing his vision but as he keeps his stride traveling east-bound on Highway 54 and onward towards New York City, his vision to drive others and help them succeed has never been stronger.
Donations can be made on visionrunusa.com. They are non-profit tax deductible donations that will support Romero’s run and the USABA.