On Sunday, British cyclist Chris Froome will likely pass beneath the Arc de Triomphe as champion of one of the world’s most grueling athletic endeavors, the 100th edition of the Tour de France.
He will have pedaled a bicycle through 21 challenging stages covering 2,115 miles – but he will finish the day after a 26-year-old Portland High graduate who plans to reach the famous Paris landmark on Saturday, having traversed the same steep mountain passes, arduous switchbacks and lengthy segments through the French countryside.
Without the aid of wheels.
Zoe Romano is running the Tour de France, an 11-week feat of endurance with no known precedent.
“It’s mind-boggling,” said George Towle, the longtime University of Southern Maine track and cross country coach who lives in the same North Deering neighborhood where Romano grew up. “Who in their right mind would even believe something like this is even possible?”
Besides the historical significance of the Tour de France run, Romano is also running about 30 miles a day in hope of raising $150,000 for the World Pediatric Project, based in Richmond, Va., about 10 blocks from where she now lives.
The project provides diagnostic and surgical care to needy children in Central America and the Caribbean. Romano’s original goal was $100,000 but as of Wednesday supporters had pledged nearly $133,000.
“Originally, we were going to send four (weeklong) surgical missions,” said project spokeswoman Jennifer Curtis. “Now we can send six.”
This isn’t Romano’s first long-distance run. Towle met Romano in a local coffee shop more than a year ago when she was plugging away at a book about her first big adventure — an unsupported transcontinental run across the United States in early 2011, the first ever done by a woman.
That resulted in a $15,000 contribution to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.
Curtis was initially taken aback when approached in January by Romano and her German boyfriend, Alexander Kreher, who also serves as documentary filmmaker, photojournalist and driver of the support car containing Romano’s supplies.
“I was in disbelief at first because it almost sounded impossible,” Curtis said. “But we invited her to come on over and she got our mission right away. She was most impressed with our capacity-building program (to build medical infrastructure in the region). We don’t just save lives, we try to prevent diseases.”
Romano and Kreher flew to France in mid-May (followed four days later by their luggage) and Romano started running. The Tour actually began June 29 on the island of Corsica, but she plans to run the 317-mile island portion after tackling continental France.
As with her run across the United States — during which she pushed a baby jogger carrying supplies — Romano has been providing updates on social media. She posts on Twitter, Facebook and her Zoe Goes Running wordpress blog.
She has written about a wild boar encounter, weeks of rain and overcast skies nearly breaking her will, the beauty of French landscapes and the warmth and generosity of the people she meets.
“It’s a way to connect, because what we’re doing is isolated from everyone back home,” she said by phone after a recent 26-mile day in the Alps. “We understand it’s more than just a run, more than just a film. It has connected us with a lot of people in ways that are still surprising us.”
PORTLAND HIGH ATHLETE
Romano is the second youngest of four children, three of them girls. At Portland High she played lacrosse, softball and soccer. The running bug didn’t bite until college at the University of Richmond, where she played club sports and earned degrees in Spanish and international studies.
As a college sophomore, Romano developed an infection in her lymph nodes serious enough to require surgery after strep throat went untreated. She wound up spending eight days in the hospital, hooked up to a breathing tube, unable to speak, strapped into her bed at night so she wouldn’t rip out the respirator.
“During that time,” Rick Romano said of his daughter, “she convinced herself she wanted to do something special.”
An idea for an East Coast bike trip transformed into the Pacific-to-Atlantic run between January and May of 2011.
Among her revelations was the inherent goodness of strangers, who offered a warm meal, a clean bed or simply support for a 23-year-old woman with spunk, grit and determination.
“I truly feel like I can chase down any dream I have,” she blogged after finishing that run from Huntington Beach to Charleston, S.C. “I just have to take the first steps. … I honestly believe this is true for each and every person. There’s nothing special about me.”
ANTSY FOR ADVENTURE
Halfway through a book about that journey, she got antsy for another adventure. She and Kreher considered an Icelandic circumnavigation before settling on the Tour de France, a famous sporting event with a challenging course that doesn’t include women, although six female cyclists did ride last year’s Tour a day ahead of the men.
Romano found out about them while doing research for her trip. “They gave us some great advice,” she said. “Bring a good rain jacket!”
She needed it May 18, the day she started her personal tour in Nice, France. Since then, she’s been averaging 30 miles a day at a roughly nine-minute mile pace — which picked up considerably when, with Kreher nowhere in sight, a wild boar burst from nearby woods.
“I’ve never been so scared,” Romano said. “I mean, I’m afraid of dogs, and here was this big disgusting-looking wild boar grunting at me. I turned around and booked it.”
Weeks of rain and cloudy skies made an already arduous task seem even more daunting. The absence of sunshine took an emotional toll on top of the blisters, aches and pains that come with running over a route designed to make professional cyclists wince. The total elevation gain alone is more than 100,000 feet.
On the worst day, in late June, with a calf injury, swollen feet and an itchy red rash, Romano went to sleep wondering if she would be able to make it. Next morning, the hoteliers greeted her with news that they had spent the night reading her blog, and that both room and breakfast were gratis. Oh, and take this box of fresh croissants and local cherries.
“Things got better from that point,” said Romano, noting the sun’s emergence, the discovery of 30 euros (about $41) on the ground and encountering other generous hosts, often through the warmshowers.org website set up for traveling cyclists.
She tackled the Pyrenees in early June and emerged from the Alps on Wednesday. She scheduled eight rest days among the 64 she figured it would take to cover the demanding course.
The steep climbs and shin-pounding descents are what make this run far more difficult than her 2011 transcontinental journey. Plus, the first run was on her own schedule, with no particular end date.
Upon entering the Alps last week, she admitted to still having doubts.
“There hasn’t been a day yet when I thought, ‘I have this. I know I’ll finish when I want to in a way I want to,’ ” she said. “Every day is still kind of a question mark.”
So she continues her routine. Up early, eat breakfast, run until 5 or 6 p.m., drive to a host’s house or find lodging, eat dinner, stretch, massage, core workout, update her blog (if Internet is available), then to bed.
If all goes well, Romano will remain in Paris to see the Tour finish, then drive eight hours with Kreher to board a ferry to Corsica for her final stages. She plans to fly back to Maine on the night of Aug. 2, giving her a few hours before the start of the Beach to Beacon 10K Road Race in Cape Elizabeth.
“It would be cool (to run), but I don’t have a number,” she said. “I can at least watch.”
Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at: