Zoe Romano reinvents Tour de France

After dismissing a run across Iceland because it was too safe, Zoe Romano decided the Tour de France route was right for her. Courtesy Alexander Kreher

As the peloton begins to make its way into the Pyrenees on July 6, Tour de France riders will be met with their first major test, courtesy of the Col de Pailhères. Climbing nearly 10 miles, colorful crowds will line the narrow switchbacks waving flags, beating drums and cheering the athletes upward. After a grueling ride marked by an average 8.2 percent grade, riders will pop over the summit at more than 6,500 feet, revealing a spectacular panorama of the Pyrenees.

On June 4, on those very same roads, there was a different sort of spectacle. Temperatures hovered in the 60s, clouds hung overhead and there was one lone runner, Zoe Romano, making her way up the craggy, green mountainside. The quiet asphalt absorbed each of her beleaguered steps, her hamstrings and calves screamed, and all that could be heard was her steady plod and in-and-out breath.

Similar to the riders, this was a big first in a long haul for Romano, a Spanish tutor who resides in Richmond, Va. That is because she will be running the entire Tour de France course several weeks ahead of the riders. Covering 2,000 miles in nine weeks, finishing in Paris a day before the peloton arrives, the 26-year old will be the first runner to accomplish this feat. Averaging 30 miles each day and navigating 100,000-plus feet in elevation change, she'll log the 21 stages at an average 9-minute-mile pace.

The long haul

Romano's journey began on May 18 in Nice. The Tour's initial three stages, starting Saturday, will be in Corsica. Because of time constraints, she plans to complete this portion after she crosses the bike ride's official finish under the Champs-Elysées in Paris. She is accompanied by her filmmaker boyfriend, Alex Kreher, who has the dual role of standing behind the lens to document the trip and providing Romano with logistical support.

As it happens, Romano is no stranger to covering ultra distances. Back in 2011, she became the first woman to complete an unsupported transcontinental run, traveling on foot with a running stroller to carry her gear 3,000 miles from Huntington Beach, Calif., to Charleston, S.C. In conjunction with her expedition, she raised $13,000 for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

After her big finish, she spent some time contemplating graduate school, traveling through Germany and trying to turn the memories of the places she'd been into something that looked like a book. That was about the time when the wanderlust set in again.

"After that U.S. run, transitioning back to normal life was difficult," she said. "I was acutely aware of what my potential was and was very aware that I wasn't reaching it."

So it was decided she needed another adventure, but this time she wanted it to be more challenging. First she thought about taking a different route across the U.S. Then the idea of traversing Iceland was kicked around for a month or so. Deciding that was too "safe," this past winter she and Kreher entered into a late-night brainstorming session when the idea of running the Tour de France was raised.

The extreme mileage, the mountainous climbs, the pressure to finish a day ahead of the riders and the fact that women don't compete in the Tour were all factors in convincing them that this would be her next quest.

"It's the Tour, known as one of the world's toughest races, and it has so much history and pride behind it," she said. "To do it on my own as a runner, I figured that would really test me and what I conceived to be my physical limitations."

In January, she counted back the months and devised a training plan. She started with six miles six days a week and built up her mileage by a reasonable 10 percent from one week to the next. Every fourth week was devoted to recovery, which meant scaling back mileage and adding more cross-training. Whenever she got the chance, she ran in the mountains near her home in Richmond, Va., doing her best to prepare for the punishing climbs that she would encounter in the Pyrenees and the Alps.

Having previously included a fundraising component in her transcontinental run, she also went in search of a charitable partner. She found that in the World Pediatric Project (WPP), based in Richmond, which works to provide pediatric critical-care resources to children from developing countries.

"When we met with them, we got to meet the patients and fell in love with the people behind the mission right away," she said.

Making this challenge bigger from more than just the physical perspective, Romano set the fundraising goal much higher, and so far has raised more than $125,000 through individual donors, sponsorships and corporate giving. These donations will go toward sending six pediatric teams to WPP's partner countries in Central America and the Caribbean on weeklong surgery missions. The funds will also help bring four children to the U.S. for more-complex procedures.

Romano says the support goes both ways. "It's like they sense when I'm having hard days, because those are the times they always seem to send pictures of the kids," she said. "The fact that their offices are just 10 blocks from our apartment in Richmond makes it that much more meaningful."

63 days of running

Since starting her journey six weeks ago, Romano has fallen into a routine. Her days consist of eating breakfast, driving to where she stopped the night before, running until 5 p.m., finding a place to sleep, eating dinner and going to bed. On the run, she eats a lot of fruit and snacks along the way.

Kreher usually stays nearby during the first mile in case Romano needs to make any wardrobe changes on account of temperature and then drives down the road to interview people along the way and set up shots for the film, as well as provide the occasional water bottle refill.

The hardest part for him is serving as both filmmaker and Romano's sole support. It's the moments when she feels like she has reached her limit, causing her to break down both physically and emotionally, that he wants to put down his camera and give her a hug.

"I see how dangerous the roads can be and how hard this task is," said the German-born Virginia Commonwealth University film student. "So I try to find a good balance between telling her story, but also being there when she needs me."

Kreher additionally works to set up lodging when they need it. Thus far they have relied on networks like Couchsurfing.org and Warmshowers.org, as well as kind strangers they have met along the way who've provided free or discounted rooms and often meals gratis. Their cause has gone viral in some French circles, prompting friends of friends to take in the pair when they are in need of lodging.

If Romano decides to pursue her dream of writing a book, these are the people who will likely provide the richest fodder. There was the host who collected "fine gastronomical things," had his own bar and even a printed menu for dinner. There was the college student who recently rode a tandem bike from Estonia to the Pyrenees with his twin brother, who offered them a place to crash in his college flat. And there were the hard-working sheepherders of the Pyrenees who gave her knowing nods as she passed.

"All the people we have met and our hosts have been so interesting," Kreher said. "Their stories, along with the history of France, are so rich."

As Romano goes into the seventh week of her journey, she says the people and the local landscapes have willed her to continue putting one foot in front of the other.

"Some days are awesome. Yesterday I was running an 8:20 pace for 33 miles and when I finished I thought, 'Hey, this is easy,' " she said on June 24. "And then today it was overcast, and I just didn't want to run. Those are the moments I have to give myself a pep talk."

Indeed, finding the motivation to run more than a marathon every day for nine consecutive weeks requires a whole lot of pep. Garnering inspiration wherever she can, she says the biggest revelation has been the fact that a dream really can become reality.

"It's all about going from that crazy idea and making a plan," she said. "It's not going to be easy, but if you're willing to make a plan and work hard, that's how it happens."