Thomas Panek lost his freedom to run 25 years ago, when he lost his sight. Twenty years later, he regained that freedom with the help of man’s best friend—running guide dogs. Now, he’s setting records in marathons and half-marathons.
The New York-based athlete became the first blind runner to complete the United Airlines New York City Half Marathon on March 19th. With a team of highly-trained Labrador retrievers, Waffle, Westley, and long-time guide dog Gus, Panek finished the race in 2 hours and 20 minutes. Each dog took turns running 3 to 5 miles to complete the 13.1-mile race.
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Panek and Gus had completed a similar 5-mile race together in Central Park in December 2017.
The lifelong runner had stopped when he first went blind—until he was finally able to make the adjustment and started running with a human guide. For many years, though, running had lost its feeling of independence for Panek.
“When I lost my sight I was too scared to run,” he told CBS This Morning in 2017.
“Although many people run with running clubs, at the end of the day you’re running your own race. And when you’re tied to another person, it’s no longer your own race. The independence isn’t quite there.”
That all changed in 2015, when Panek formed a guide dog training program at the suggestion of a blind former Marine named Richard Hunter, who was also hoping to get back into running again. After a few months and several training sessions, the program, called Guiding Eyes for the Blind, got off the ground.
The non-profit consists of expert trainers, who begin training pups starting at 18 months, usually Labs and German shepherds. The furry friends are introduced to running long distances, and only the cream of the crop will be chosen to become running guide dogs in the end.
“Baseline skill set for a guide dog and running dog are the same,” Panek told CBS. “They’re looking for overhead obstacles and making sure that the person who’s blind like me remains safe as we’re mobile.”
The program, headed by Panek as CEO, “provides superbly bred and trained dogs to people who are blind and visually impaired” at no cost, as per their website.
Formerly the runner’s own guide dog, Gus is now 7 years old and has just retired from service after completing their last race together in March. Their final race was an emotional one for the athlete and dog alike, apparently. Though it may be the end of the road for Gus, Panek has likely got many more races ahead of him to look forward to.