Loss of independence is an upsetting and difficult stage for those who become visually impaired. Last year, ultra-runner, Jason Romero, experienced this uncomfortable setback when he lost his job and stopped driving due to rapid deterioration in his eyesight. When faced with this sudden loss of independence, Romero slipped into depression. He struggled to stay motivated in a sport he had been introduced to by his uncle that had become his life, ultra-athletics. In the months following, he gained courage through support and encouragement from the visually impaired community and became resilient in proving anything is possible for those who are visually impaired.
Romero will run his first international race in London on April 26, representing the United States. Romero was selected to be a member of Team USA at the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) World Marathon Championship in February after he won the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes Marathon National Championships in Sacramento in December. The IPC Worlds American team is made up of 9 elite athletes including some familiar names like Tatyana McFadden, 2012 London Gold and Bronze medalist, and Ray Martin, four-time Paralympic gold medalist, who both compete in wheelchair races. Romero will be the only visually impaired runner on USA’s World Marathon team. If you’re thinking it must have taken a lot of hard work to get this far, you’re right.
Jason’s story is one of perseverance and determination. Jason has been losing his sight since middle school due to Retinitis Pigmentosa, an incurable degenerative retinal disease that causes night blindness, decreased visual acuity and a consistent loss of peripheral vision.
Despite this challenge, he was very active in high school, serving as captain of the football and wrestling teams. He ran track, was a member of the National Honor Society and took Advanced Placement classes. He is a first generation college graduate and was awarded a full-ride scholarship to the University of Colorado Law School in Boulder. There was nothing Romero could not do, despite his diagnosis.
Fast forward to last year when, being a single dad to 3 children, he lost his job. At first, he explains, it was difficult to accept the rapid deterioration of his eyesight. “I stopped driving. I went through depression,” Romero recounts. “But I fought my way back and now, I am competing in the World Marathon Championships for Team USA.”
“I came to the conclusion that we are all different. We all have something to contribute.” His motivation now is to inspire and “prove that there are no limits to what people who are blind and visually impaired can do.”
Where he used to participate in races as a sighted runner, he has proudly begun wearing his blind runner bib. “I’ve made a lot of connections since putting on the blind runner bib. It’s been very special to be part of the visually impaired community. We can do anything, together,” says Romero.
When asked about his motivation for the IPC World Championships, he answers “If I can reach one person, one kid, out there and give them hope in some way, I’ve done my job.”
Jason is an ultra-runner which means he is used to training for endurance – running longer distances at a slower average pace. Initially, his uncle, Ted Epstein, inspired him to get involved in ultra-athletics. According to Jason’s website, relentlessromero.com, he watched Epstein compete in a 6-day foot race and “was hooked.” Epstein has rode a bicycle across America, completed a deca-Ironman Triathlon and ran a multitude of ultra-footraces. “He really was one of the pioneers of ultra-endurance athletic pursuits.”
“Training for a marathon is totally different from how I normally train. Usually, I just run,” he pauses and adds, “for hours.” In preparation for his first opportunity to represent his country, instead of training for endurance, he focused on speed.
“U.S. Paralympics asked me to not run any ultras while I was training [for IPC Marathon Worlds], which made sense. I did 800s, mile repeats and tempo runs which are not part of my ultra-running training methods. I had to learn how my body reacted to faster paces and shorter distances. I worked with Cathy Sellers at the U.S. Olympic Committee Paralympic Division to develop a training program specific to speed.”
Romero will be running alongside Paralympian veteran medalists and IPC greats like Tim Pendergast (New Zealand), Youssef Benibrahim (Morocco), Aniceto Antonio Dos Santos (Brazil), Aleksei Akhtyamov (Russia) and Egor Merkulov (Russia). Despite being the oldest competitor, and having the slowest personal best marathon time, Romero still has a goal to finish on top. “I want to win it,” he says with enthusiasm. When asked who the one to beat is, he answers “I always run against myself.”
Though he talks about the competition, he doesn’t focus on it. “A time between 2:40 and 2:45 should win it, so that’s what I’m shooting for. My previous PR is 2:51 so I’m going to have to run a lot faster to be in the mix at the end.”
Overall, he is looking forward to the experience, no matter the outcome. “I feel like my training has gone well and I’m extremely proud to represent my country.”
Romero will celebrate his finish by traveling with family around London and visiting friends like Simon Wheatcroft, fellow blind ultra-runner, in the city. His race calendar for 2015 will include a 100 mile run in the Florida Keys in May, the Keys 100, a 135 mile run through Death Valley In July, the Badwater Ultramarathon, and the Spartathon in September when he aims to be the first blind runner to finish the historic race. “We will run from Sparta to Athens. It’s a 152 mile run that must be finished in 36 hours.” It seems Romero is more than up for the challenge.
His perseverance and determination have already inspired many, which is ironic when he talks about being inspired to press on by the athletes he meets on the road at races. His loss of independence, though understandably difficult to process initially, eventually opened doors to new experiences and opportunities. Romero attributes his perseverance to overcome hardships and obstacles to the visually impaired community. “We can do anything together,” he reiterates. Romero’s focus is putting forth his personal best, having an impact and representing the visually impaired community in a positive light.
The IPC World Marathon Championships will be held in conjunction with the London Marathon on Sunday, April 26. Runners will finish the 26.2 mile (42 kilometer) race in front of Buckingham Palace. Nearly 100 of the world’s top long distance para-athletes will be representing their countries as they compete in eight marathon races for para-athletes. Jason will compete in the T13 event for runners who can recognize contours between 2 and 6 meters away.
Follow Jason’s experience in London on Twitter Link will open in a new window@RomeroRuns.