Thomas Panek’s philosophy on running is simple: If you love the sport, don’t let anything stop you from doing it.
That motto has pushed the 48-year-old runner to finish an impressive 20 marathons, including five editions of the Boston Marathon (arguably the sport’s most prestigious 26.2-mile race), despite losing his vision in his early 20s due to a genetic condition.
This past Sunday, Panek once again embodied that mantra when he became the first blind finisher of the NYC Half Marathon to be guided entirely by dogs.
To accomplish the history-making finish, Panek, president and CEO of Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a non-profit guide dog training school, partnered with a relay of three Labrador retrievers, all trained through his organization’s specialized Running Guides program. Westley, a black Lab, accompanied Panek for the first five miles. His sister, a yellow Lab named Waffle, led for the next five. And then Gus, also a yellow Lab and Panek’s personal guide dog and running partner, paced the final three or so miles. The team finished in two hours, 20 minutes, 51 seconds.
The experience, says Panek, was “a whole lot of fun.” And according to New York Road Runners (NYRR), the organization that hosts the NYC Half Marathon and many other races every year, Panek's finish marked the longest distance completed by a blind runner and guide dogs in any NYRR-sanctioned event.
“I’ve already accomplished, as a blind runner, the most iconic marathons that you can run," says Panek. Yet completing this half-marathon with his trio of furry pacers "was the most meaningful one for me," he says. That's because it marked a huge milestone in his work to make running more accessible for people who are blind.
Panek created the Running Guides program in 2015 as a way to give athletes who are blind more freedom and independence.
Running guide dogs help there to be “one less barrier” for athletes who are blind, who typically need human supervision to work out or participate in an event like a road race, says Panek.
Since losing his own vision more than two decades ago, Panek says he heard again and again that athletes who are blind simply couldn’t run with their guide dogs. It just wasn't done. But when he took the helm at Guiding Eyes for the Blind five years ago, he asked, "Why not?" And then he started to change the way things were done.
Working with a team of dog training instructors and veterinarians, Panek developed the Running Guides program, which prepares young pups through two years of intense instruction to become safe and capable running partners. Since the program officially launched in 2015, two dozen dogs have graduated, and another 12 are currently on their way to graduation. Once the dogs are deemed ready, they're matched with human companions completely free of charge to the humans. It costs Guiding Eyes for the Blind about $50,000 (no, that's not a typo) to breed, raise, train, and match each dog, says Panek, and the nonprofit relies entirely on donations for those funds.
According to Panek, who participates in the International Guide Dog Federation (the governing body responsible for developing and monitoring standards for guide dog programs around the world), Guiding Eyes for the Blind is currently the only guide dog school in the world that trains guide dogs to also be running guides. As the demand for running guide dogs grows—currently, more than 50 people on the Guiding Eyes for the Blind wait-list have requested these specialized pooches—Panek hopes the concept will spread. “I want other people to follow in our footsteps,” he says.
An important part of launching the Running Guides program involved designing specialized dog gear.
The right gear would allow both canines and their human companions to safely and comfortably move at a faster pace. Running with the traditional guide dog harness, which Panek describes as made of “vintage horse and buggy leather” would be like “wearing your dress shoes to a race,” he explains. So Guiding Eyes of the Blind partnered with pet apparel maker RuffWear to create a specialized harness with custom-made handles that would allow the runner more flexibility to move their hands while still providing a strong connection to the dog. They also created specialized dog shoes all custom-fitted to each pooch.
According to Panek, there can be several big advantages to running with a guide dog versus a human guide.
First, Panek is clear that “human guides are wonderful.” As mentioned, he’s finished 20 marathons, and all were with the help of “extraordinary” human guides. But “everyone has their own life and relying on a volunteer to come at my beck and call [especially for training runs] is not realistic,” says Panek.
His guide dog, Gus, on the other hand, is with him all day every day keeping him safe “from the moment I wake up to the moment I go to sleep.” Their special relationship makes Gus the ideal companion for training runs and also allows Panek the freedom to run whenever he wants. As for the actual experience of running with a human versus a canine guide, “it’s like being the passenger in a car versus driving it,” says Panek. “If you’re running with a human guide, you are that passenger and the guide is the driver telling you where to go, where to turn left and right,” he explains. “With a guide dog, you’re in the driver’s seat, you’re independent, and the dog is just there to effectively be your steering wheel.”
In Panek's five years with Gus, he says he’s never been led off course. In Sunday’s race, “these dogs did their 13.1 miles without a single error,” he says. “They are so capable, they’re so able to do this kind of work.” On top of that, Panek says the dogs seem to “really enjoy” the running, as evidenced by their wagging tails and perked ears. "It's a win-win all around." (Of course, dog safety is prioritized too—Panek caps guide dog-assisted runs at about six miles, and during Sunday's race vets were on standby and the dogs were hydrated at water stations along the way.)
Panek doesn't have plans to tackle longer-distance races with guide dogs. Instead, he simply wants to inspire others to run.
"I really want to encourage people to get out there and run," Panek says. “As a blind person, [I knew] I was capable of running this half-marathon, and I did," he adds. Hopefully, as more people who are blind explore the option of running with guide dogs, they will feel empowered to get out there and realize their athletic potential, too.
To learn more about Guiding Eyes for the Blind, including how you can support the organization financially and/or as a volunteer, visit here.