Friday, June 3, 2016

He Ran One of the Fastest-Ever Times Across the USA: Interview with Jason Romero

Jason Romero overcame the challenge of legal blindness to run among the fastest-ever times across the USA. Starting in Santa Monica, Calif. on March 25, he covered 3,063 miles in a little over 59 days, completing his journey at New York City Hall on May 23 at 8:30pm. Averaging better than 50 miles per day, he bested his original goal by five days. The 46-year-old father of three from Colorado has an impressive running resume, completing some of the most challenging races on the planet, including the Badwater Ultramarathon and Leadville 100. Jason's run across America, dubbed Vision Run USA, supported the US Association of Blind Athletes. Jason, a lawyer by training, is now a motivational speaker and enjoys giving corporate keynote addresses. More information about Jason, including booking details, can be found at his personal website. Now sit back and enjoy the interview!


At the start. Credit: USABA

RM: Jason, first off, congratulations on an extraordinary feat. Averaging 50 miles a day while running across the country—over 3,000 miles in all—puts you in pretty select company. Several reading this interview can identify with the desire for such an epic trek but I want to ask the big question on everyone's minds. Why? What compelled you to take this on as a runner who is legally blind?

JR: I believe I was called to take on the challenge of running across America. It was a total act of obedience. One day, I was volunteering at a homeless shelter where I serve on the Board (Chirst’s Body Ministries) and I was overcome with a sense of knowing that I was going to run across America. I didn’t understand why at the time...and I’m not totally sure I currently understand why I was called. 

Before I was called, I had just stopped driving due to deteriorating eyesight. That had strained some important relationships and I had found myself in a funk. I found my way out of it by running and openly being “legally blind." In so doing, I met many people who had gone blind or were already blind. They inspired me. I saw firsthand that life is not over when you lose your sight; it is only different.

I also witnessed some large issues confronting this population, like a 70% unemployment rate, a 66% obesity rate, and 2 times the rate of depression versus the general population. I felt compelled to run across America as a blind man to demonstrate to all that we are capable of anything, despite perceived limitations.

Credit: Carly Gerhart

RM: Let’s talk about your vision for a moment. I want to get a sense of the challenges you may have faced on your cross-county trek. What might you struggle seeing that someone with “normal” vision would have no problem seeing? 

JR:  I have 100% clear “vision” – no problem there. My “eyesight,” however, is deteriorating. I have Retinitis Pigmentosa, which is a degenerative eye condition. I was diagnosed at age 14 and told I would have no light perception by the time I was 30. When I was 14, my left eye was 20/200, my right eye was 20/70 and I had a full peripheral field of sight. At night, I had night blindness (I could see light, but not necessarily what the light illuminated). Fast forward to today: In my left eye, I see 20/400 and my right eye is 20/200-400 depending on how well-rested I am. I have lost my peripheral field (a symptom of RP), so I am able to see what is directly in front of me. I have tunnel-vision with a 15-degree field of sight – that’s like looking through 2 toilet paper cardboard inserts side-by-side. At night time, it has gotten darker and I see less. With RP, the retina slowly dies from the outside in; hence, the reason for shrinking tunnel vision.

Recovering between runs. Credit: Carly Gerhart.

RM: I can only imagine that, throughout your nearly 60-day run, it wasn't just your eyesight that was a challenge. You must have encountered a range of highs and lows. You told the Denver Post that on several occasions you wanted to quit but you didn’t. Tell me about those highs and lows and how you persevered through the tough times.

JR: As you can imagine, the run was a real physical challenge. But even more than that, it was a mental and emotional challenge. It’s hard to describe what happened because most people have never done anything for 60 days straight. I know I never had. I’ll give a couple of examples to try to sharpen the point. About 3 weeks into the run, a significant multi-year relationship melted down over a 3-day time period. This was a person I was very close to and all of the sudden it was gone. I was incapable of trying to mediate the situation, or work through to a solution. I was just trying to survive the act of getting up and limping for 3 hours before I could run every day. I had to put everything I had into just getting up and getting out there. There were 3 days where I was totally decimated, wiped out, and emotionally destroyed. I had to figure out a way to go on despite losing this relationship. It was very difficult. In a world where I did not have to run 50 miles a day, I would have been mopey and melancholy. But, put on top of that the fact that I’d already logged 750 miles, my body and mind were fatigued and I was in blazing desert. You just have to prioritize things and make a simple decision – am I going to quit (take the easy road) or am I going to continue and suffer (take the harder, and ultimately more satisfying road)? I never quit.

The other example of defining moments in this run came when cars either hit me, or attempted to hit me intentionally (drove directly at me while I was running in the break-down lane against traffic). When you are really confronted with your own mortality, you do a real gut-check. A crazy driver was completely out of the realm of things that I could control. I had to decide whether I was going to continue the run despite the real possibility of being hit and injured by a careless or intentionally mean driver. Ultimately, I decided this was a calling that I was doing and the only way I was quitting was if I was killed, or broke a bone that stopped me from being able to run. That is a really tough decision to make when you are a single father of 3 children. However, this run was not about me, it was for a higher purpose.

Credit: Carly Gerhart.

RM: I am sorry to hear about the relationship that ended. I can't imagine what those three days were like, knowing you had to deal with the loss but also run so many miles. With the run now "behind" you, how are feeling emotionally, spiritually and physically?

JR: Thanks for the empathy, Wyatt. As with all relationships, I hope time and perspective will help it evolve in a positive direction. Taking each category in turn, let's start with the easiest: how am I feeling physically. I'm about 10 days post-finish [as of June 2]. I have slight numbness in my feet that is improving every day. The swelling in my feet and plantar fasciitis flare-up have resolved. I have a little residual tightness in my left knee early in the morning; however, that one may be related to age as opposed to the run : ). Physically, I've recovered extremely well and I attribute that to all the preventative and reactive recovery work I did every night after each run. Basically, once I finished the daily run, I did recovery work for the next 2-3 hours before going to sleep, and I tried to get 7-8 hours of sleep so my body could heal itself. 

Regarding emotions, I'm kind of all over the place. I have an overwhelming sense of calm and satisfaction in having completed the run, and having exceeding the stretch goal I set. I am also feeling completely empty at times when I am not running all day long. After having transformed my existence into becoming a running machine, I think it is natural to have a "down spell" when you have to flip the switch back to being a person and attending to life as we know it.

Finally, spiritually, I am extremely fulfilled and content. God does not call the qualified, He qualifies the called. That was definitely the case with VISIONRUNUSA. I am a middle-aged, blind, skinny-legged guy with limited resources who went out and tackled a mind-bending pursuit. Even I have difficulty wrapping my head around it now that I am back. In my times of total loss and depletion, faith is where I turned. I prayed and asked for healing of my body, healing of my mind, protection and safe passage for me and my crew, protection of my children, for provision to cover about $20,000 in expenses associated with the run, and a strengthening of my faith. In New York City, the finish, a person asked me how I felt. I told her overwhelmed with emotion and crying, "I just hope I did everything that God asked of me." I am committed to serving the Lord for the remainder of my life. I sure hope He doesn't make me run across America again.

With his mother. Credit: Carly Gerhart.

RM: Circling back to the drivers who either hit or almost hit you.... I'm guessing they make up a small slice of the American pie, if you will. Did you ever encounter folks who tried to help? If so, what did they offer and what did it mean to you in the moment and now when you think back to it?

JR: The "knucklehead" drivers account for about 0.01% of the population. There were so many people who just wanted to help. I would have people drive up beside me and ask what I was doing. Once I told them, they would give me money, offer to drive and get me food, or just say they were going to pray for my safety. When I was stretching on the road, people would pull over and make sure I was OK. Many times they would offer to call an EMT for me  : )., We assured them that I was physically OK (maybe a psychologist could have helped me more). And, on one occasion, there was a big black truck that almost struck me. The driver turned around and pulled up beside me, and when the window rolled down a sweet spoken beautiful brunette woman apologized for about clipping me with the most wonderfully soothing accent. I should have taken the opportunity to tell her how grateful I was for her kind act of responsibility. I had many people spontaneously run with me. Sometimes they would see me on the road, have somebody drop them off and they would just do a few miles with me. It really meant the world to me that total strangers would give of their time to support the mission that I was on. Those conversations will forever be etched in my memory as meaningful moments in my life. 

At the end of the day, all we have is time. It really is our most valuable asset. How people choose to spend their time speaks volumes about who they are as a person. Are we consumed with chasing a dollar? I was at one point. Or, are we consumed with supporting others, helping them succeed, and caring for our own personal growth in the process? I sure hope that's where I am at and continue to stay.

At the finish at New York City Hall. Credit: Jason Romero.

RM: How did you "train" for this cross-country trek? Looking at your background, you've finished some stout races, like Badwater and Leadville. So clearly you had a deep base of mileage and experience. But how did you train for this run?

JR: I was a trail guy for my ultras. When I was called, all that changed. The year leading up to this race I ran all road ultras - PR150+ (183 miles in January), the Keys 100 (in May), Badwater (135 miles in July) and the Spartathlon (only made 100 miles in September). Those were four major races with big training blocks for each race, all in a single year. The intent was to learn to run and race on the road to understand what challenges were presented by this environment. I learned a lot! In October 2015, I started specific training for VISIONRUNUSA. That entailed learning to run every day without a break on asphalt and concrete. It involved increasing mileage to 100+ mile weeks consecutively without a break. At the end of each month, I would have a BIG WEEK. That would be a week of marathons, or a week of 50k's or a week of 50m/50k rotating for 7 days. Highest weekly mileage during training was 295 and my body was wrecked. I had muscle strains and tendonitis all over the place. I couldn't fathom doing 350 miles a week for 2 months. I was really scared going to the start in Santa Monica. I didn't know what was going to happen to my body when I put it to the stress test. There was a lot of pain and suffering, but in the end it was all worth it. Marshall Ulrich reminded me of that during my run, and he was 100% correct.

RM: You mentioned being a single dad to three kids. How did you family handle the run?

JR: My kids were extremely supportive. We prepared to be apart for a year and a half leading up to the run. When it finally came, we really weren't prepared to be separated; however, my kids supported what I was doing. We had some tough times along the way. Things happen in life where you need the support of your family. Sometimes a telephone call is just not the same as a hug or kiss. We all sucked it up, toughened up, and we made it through.  It was tough on all of us, but we are all together now.


Credit: Carly Gerhart.

RM: You got a lot of support on social media from legions of folks watching. Did you know about the response as the run was happening?

JR: Social media is what kept me going sometimes. I would get a chance to connect with people who I would have never known in my lifetime. Many times, they were the ones who inspired me to keep taking that next step, to not throw in the towel. That's the really neat thing about technology - it can enable you to share something that can have a positive effect on another person. I was very grateful for all the support I received and words of encouragement. I heard from people in Nigeria, Taiwan, China, Italy, the UK, Brazil, Columbia and some other places where I couldn't understand the languages. What a gift!

RM: What's next for you?

JR: My kids and I are going to Mexico for a vacation and sit on a beach. My next race will be to seek redemption and closure in Greece at Spartathlon.

At Twin Lakes during a 2010 training run for the Leadville 100.
L-R: Jason, Matt Curtis and the Running Man.

RM: Where can people learn more about you and the run?

JR:  My personal website for motivational speaking is www.relentlessromero.com.  The run's website is www.visionrunusa.com. We will be combining the information on both sites in the near term.

RM: Thank you for your time, Jason, and congratulations on a truly epic achievement!

1 comment:

  1. Great interview! Jason was such a huge inspiration to me and Natalie during our transcon run. And not only through his amazing running, but through the kind words and encouragement he somehow found time to offer us almost daily. We went through some really hard days, but knowing that Jason and his mom were going through the same challenges we were and still getting 50 miles a day done, really kept us going too. Although more than 1,000 miles apart, I couldn't help but feel like we were running together some of the time. I can't wait to see what he does next.

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