This Blind Runner Ran the NY Half-Marathon with his Guide Dogs

Thomas Panek and his three running guide dogs safely navigated the 13.1-mile race

Apr 6, 2019

Marathons runners come in all ages and sizes. They are united in their desire to test their limits and run the distance. They practice and prepare for marathons for months if not years. It all comes to fruition on race day as their two-legs pound the pavement.

But this year at the New York half-marathon, three four-legged runners made history as the running guide dogs of Thomas Panek, a blind runner who has previously completed 20 marathons with human guides.

Panek, the president and CEO of Guiding Eyes for the Blind ran with his running guide dogs, Westley, Waffle and Gus, all Labrador Retrievers who took turns along the 13.1-mile course on Sunday, March 17.

"It's really a team," Panek told CNN. This unique team of runners finished the race just under two hours and 21 minutes according to the official running results.

Always a running enthusiast, Panek never gave up the sport even when he lost his eyesight in his 20s. He has previously used human guides to run marathons, but Panek missed the feeling of independence when he ran. That's why he decided in 2015 to start a formal training program for training running guide dogs.

"It never made sense to me to walk out the door and leave my guide dog behind when I love to run and they love to run," Panek told CNN. "It was just a matter of bucking conventional wisdom and saying why not."

The first-of-its-kind running guides program is located at the Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a certified nonprofit school in Westchester Country – a bedroom community of New York City – that has trained dogs for the blind for many years.

A total of 24 dogs have completed the program, and 12 more are being trained. Upon graduation, the dogs are matched with an applicant, and the nonprofit helps train the new running team for free.

Only a small number of dogs are cut out for the running program. They have to have a high level of physical fitness and discipline. The dogs have to navigate terrain, stairs, curbs, other runners or bicyclists and be able to tune out city noise according to Guiding Eyes.

Panek used professional trainers to pick out his team. They handpicked siblings Waffle and Westley to join Panke and his guide dog Gus. "The bond is really important. You can't just pick up the harness and go for a run with these dogs," Panek told CNN. "You're training with a team no matter what kind of athlete you are, and you want to spend time together in that training camp."

Panek and his canine runners trained together for months, rain or shine, and even frigidly cold weather like the arctic blast that hit New York City in January.

On race day, each dog took a specific part of the race with Gus, Panek's long-time companion, taking the final 3.1-mile leg to the finish line in Central Park. "It's a little emotional for me because he's been there with me the whole time," Panek told CNN.

There were veterinarians and volunteers stationed along the route to provide check-ups and to keep the four-legged runners hydrated.

Panek and his trio of guide dogs each received the United Airlines NYC Half Marathon medals. Gus is retiring after years of service both on and off the running track, so it was especially poignant that they ran across the finish line together.

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BONNIE RIVA RAS, EDITOR & WRITER
Bonnie Riva Ras has dedicated her life to promoting social justice. She loves to write about empowering women, helping children, educational innovations, and advocating for the environment & sustainability.

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