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Legal Blindness Didn’t Stop Jason Romero From Running 3,000 Miles Across the U.S.

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Hold two paper-towel rolls up to your eyes. Your peripheral vision goes black, and your visual field shrinks to the size of a golf ball. Scan up, down, right, left, to get a full picture of everything nearby, then back up a few hundred feet, until everything in that picture is fuzzy. Imagine that fuzzy picture is your whole world. Now lace up your shoes and try to run.

To most of us, this seems nearby impossible. But to Jason Romero it is just another day on the trails. Romero, 46, is living with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye condition that causes a person’s sight to gradually deteriorate. On May 23, he became the seventh-fastest person, and first legally blind person, to cross the United States on foot.

According to Dr. Vincent Hau, a retina specialist from California, most people with retinitis pigmentosa (RP for short) lose their night vision and peripheral vision first. As the condition progresses, the visual field shrinks, causing tunnel vision.

“The eye is like a camera,” Hau says. “You’ve got a lens in front, which focuses the image onto the film, at the back. If the film is scratched along the edges, the image quality will be compromised.” The more you scratch the film, the worse the image will be.

Romero is in the later stages of RP. During daytime or in well-lit areas, Romero can see enough to function on his own. “I have about a 15-degree field of vision,” he says; that’s around what you’d get with a paper-towel roll held up to each eye.

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Romero holds a volleyball that his friends signed before he left. He usually kept the ball in the van, and says it gave him strength when he felt lonely. Photo courtesy Jason Romero

Within that narrow field, Romero sees objects 20 feet away with the same clarity that you or I might see something from 200 feet away. And that’s on a good day, when his eyes are well rested. At night, he says, “It’s like putting on sunglasses in a dark room.” He might be able to make out the glow of a street lamp, but not the cars or pedestrians passing beneath it.

When Romero was diagnosed with RP at age 14, doctors told him he would lose his sight entirely by the time he was 30. They suggested that he prepare himself for life as a blind person rather than going to college. Romero ignored their advice. He earned an undergraduate business degree, went to law school, got married and worked his way up the corporate ladder at General Electric.

He started running in 2007, after temporarily relocating to Puerto Rico. There were no schools there that could accommodate his son, Sage, who had been diagnosed with autism. Romero decided to build one, and ran a marathon to fundraise.

He had always been athletic, captaining the wrestling and football teams in high school and playing rugby in college. The challenge of running farther and faster appealed to his competitive sensibilities. He soon graduated to 50Ks, then longer ultras. He ran his first 100-miler, the Leadville Trail 100, in 2011.

It was not until 2014, when he was 44, that Romero gave up his driver’s license. After 30 years of defying the odds and living life as a member of the sighted community, he was devastated. He had recently become a single parent, and he could no longer drive to the grocery store or the movie theater.

The duties of single parenthood left little time for work, especially when a trip to the store took several hours on foot and by bus. Within a few months Romero decided to leave his job.

He was shocked to discover that he was far from alone. According to the National Federation of the Blind, roughly 60 percent of the blind and visually impaired population is unemployed, and 30 percent lives below the poverty line.

Around that time, Romero had the idea for a country-crossing run. “I wanted to prove that blind people can do anything,” he says.

For the next year and a half, Romero and his mother, Cindy, spent hours pouring over road maps, plotting routes and organizing logistics. Because of Romero’s visual impairment, they would need a straightforward route with as few turns as possible.

They decided that Romero would only run during the day. In daylight, he can see enough to run without a guide, even on trails. He uses trekking poles, tapping them along the ground so that he can hear upcoming roots and rocks. At night, he wears a powerful headlamp and runs with a guide, picking up inconsistencies or changes in pitch by watching the reflective bands strapped to the guide’s ankles.

Romero switched from trail ultras to road ultras, to prepare himself for 3,000 miles of running on pavement. He ran Florida’s Keys 100 in May 2015 and California’s Badwater 135 that July. In September, he traveled to Greece for the Spartathalon, a 153-mile road race, where he and his guide Brandon Stapanowich lasted 100 miles before dropping.

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In Santa Monica, where he began his run, Romero picked up a shell from the beach (top). He carried it with him all the way to New York, where he threw it into the Atlantic Ocean, in view of the Statue of Liberty. Photos courtesy Jason Romero

When he started from the Santa Monica Pier, in California, on March 24, Romero was terrified, but determined to get to New York by the end of May. “I needed to get back to see my kids,” he says.

He began each day at sunrise, and ended promptly at 8:00 p.m., when the light began to dim and night blindness crept in. The key to his recovery plan was getting a full seven hours of sleep a night, but that didn’t take away the pain.

“It was like going to war against my body,” he says. “I had every injury you can think of—tendonitis, pulled muscles, plantar fasciitis, back strains. My hair and fingernails stopped growing. I think my body was using the extra protein to heal itself.”

Cindy served as his support crew, driving five miles per hour behind her son, in a van they had nicknamed “the Silver Bullet” and stocked with food, running shoes, clothes, foam rollers, ultrasound and e-stim recovery equipment, blankets, pillows, a “bathroom bucket,” reflective gear, headlamps, maps and a baby stroller covered in lights—in effect, a giant headlamp—in case Romero had to go it alone. The exterior of the van had signs saying “Blind Runner: Romero.”

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The van was too cramped to sleep in, so when Romero took short midday naps he would lie on the side of the road. At night, he would stop in a hotel. Photo courtesy Jason Romero

None of that could protect Romero from the biggest danger of a transcontinental road run: other vehicles. In Missouri, he ran along a two-lane highway with no shoulder and a steep drop off. There was a semi-truck in each lane, and nowhere for Romero—or either truck—to go. “I was waving my hands, trying to get the truck driver to see me and slow down,” Romero says. “He just kept driving straight at me.” All Romero could do was turn sideways and hope for the best, wincing as the truck’s side-view mirror whacked his hand.

Another time, Romero nearly got sucked onto the interstate by the air vacuum created by a series of four passing semis. In Arizona, a wild animal chased him into the middle of the highway. He recalls 10 times that cars drove at him, intentionally, in the breakdown lane. “But 99 percent of the time,” he says, “the people were phenomenal.”

Police officers pulled over to ask if he and his mother were OK, then returned throughout the day to check in. Tow-truck drivers offered to pray for him. In Ohio, a man ran with Romero for two hours in the pouring rain, just so they could get cinnamon rolls at his mother’s market.

“They were the best cinnamon rolls I’ve ever had in my life,” Romero says. “It gives me shivers that there are such wonderful people out there.”

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Romero on the steps of City Hall in New York, the end point of his run. Photo courtesy Jason Romero

Romero crossed into New York City on the evening of May 23, almost exactly 60 days after beginning his journey.

“The sun was about to go down, and my headlamp was dead,” he says. “I was pushing seven-minute miles trying to get it done before dark—sprinting against traffic, dodging cars, potholes and people. When I finally got to City Hall, I was numb.”

The building had already closed for the day, but several representatives from the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes convinced the police officers to let Romero through the gates, so he could climb the steps and officially finish his run.

“I experienced a lot of overwhelming kindness during this journey,” he says, “and I think that is something we should all aspire to.”