Unstoppable

Photograph of Jason Romero running

JASON ROMERO’S REMARKABLE JOURNEY

On May 23, 2016, when Jason Romero ‘92 (BBA) climbed the steps of City Hall in New York City, he completed a 60-day odyssey that began 3,080 miles earlier on the Santa Monica Pier.

He became the first blind man to run across the United States.

It wasn’t easy, but Romero is on a first-name basis with adversity. Raised by a single mother, he was the first generation of his family to get a college education. That in itself was a challenge because he was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye condition, at the age of 14.

At USD, he sat in the front row but could not see the blackboard. So he spent long nights in the library using a bright lamp and magnifier to study — ultimately graduating magna cum laude.

Romero had run track and captained the varsity football and wrestling teams in high school. He played rugby at USD, which did not require 20/20 vision. “When you have a big guy chasing you, you just run as fast as you can,” he says.

The doctor who had diagnosed his eye condition told the 14-year-old Romero, “You will never become a doctor or lawyer,” and that he would eventually become completely blind. Nonetheless, after graduating from college, Romero went to law school at the University of Colorado at Boulder. It was then that he ran his first marathon.

After passing the bar, he was in private practice for five years before putting his undergraduate business degree to work: He spent 10 years at General Electric and two more as a vice president at Western Union. He also kept active: He ran the Boston Marathon twice and completed three Ironman triathlons — a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run — before turning to longer runs. He set world records for the 100-mile, 24-hour, 48-hour and 72-hour runs for visually impaired athletes, all while his vision slowly leaked away.

By the fall of 2014, he had become legally blind, could no longer read well enough to keep up with the 300 emails coming in to his office daily, and had to surrender his driver’s license. Unemployed and no longer independent, he sank into a depression that pinned him in his bed for three weeks.

“Going blind is harder than actually being blind,” he says. “It’s a slow torture, constantly having to adapt to what you’re no longer able to do.”

The turning point came when he met Richard Hunter, a blind ultrarunner, who invited Romero to a marathon which had a special division for blind runners. Romero won the event. More importantly, he met other blind athletes.

“They showed me all these things that were possible,” he says. “I also realized I didn’t have to be ashamed of being blind, which I had been most of my life.”

It wasn’t long before the inspiration to run across the country struck him. Crazy idea for a guy trying to support three kids ages 10 to 16 on a monthly disability check, but he recruited his mom as his lone support staff, raised some funds and managed to pull off the expedition for a relatively frugal $20,000. They set out from his Denver home  on March 24, 2016.

In addition to the expected challenges of fatigue, injuries, hunger, storms, heat, mountains, deserts and even car trouble, Romero also had to deal with a hyena who chased him in Arizona, a blue pickup truck that clipped him with its side mirror along Highway 54 and trying not to fall off the shoulder he couldn’t see.

“I had done a bunch of ultramarathons, but nothing prepares you for what you’re going to have to deal with doing this,” he says.

At night, he would ice his feet, soothe his legs with compression cuffs and soak in an Epsom salt bath. When the alarm sounded at 5:00 a.m., he somehow hobbled out on the road and logged another 50 miles. He did that day after day for 60 days straight, until he made it up the steps of New York’s City Hall about 8:30 p.m. on May 23, one of fewer than 300 people to have completed the trek cross country — and the only blind one in that elite fraternity.

All of this proved the Perkins School for the Blind motto he has come to embrace: “Blind people are capable of anything if just given the chance.” — John Rosengren

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