NEW YORK – Thomas Panek and his running guide dogs Westley, Waffle and Gus made history Sunday in the 2019 New York City Half Marathon.
His trio of Labrador Retrievers — who will take turns pacing him along the 13.1 mile course — will be the first four-legged athletes in the race. Panek, president and CEO of Guiding Eyes for the Blind, will be the first blind runner to complete the half marathon with guide dogs.
“It’s really a team,” Panek said.
An avid runner, Panek had no intention to give up the sport, even after losing his eyesight in his early 20s.
Thanks to volunteer human guides, he has since completed 20 marathons. Still, Panek missed the feeling of independence, which ultimately inspired him to start a formal training program for 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,” he said. “It was just a matter of bucking conventional wisdom and saying why not.”
Journey to the finish line
In 2015, Panek established the first-of-its-kind “Running Guides” program at Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a certified nonprofit school in Westchester County, New York that has trained guide dogs for the visually impaired for decades.
Twenty-four dogs have completed the program and another 12 are halfway to graduation. Once trained, Guiding Eyes matches each dog with an applicant and helps train the new team free of charge.
But only a handful of the dogs are cut out for the Running Guides program, which requires an even more rigorous level of fitness and discipline. Running outside presents a unique challenge — the dogs have to navigate terrain changes, stairs and curbs all while tuning out city distractions and noise.
When it came time to choose his team for the race, Panek turned to the Guiding Eyes’ team of professional trainers, who handpicked sister-brother duo Waffle and Westley, two of the most active dogs in the pack.
“The bond is really important. You can’t just pick up the harness and go for a run with these dogs,” Panek said. “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.”
They’ve been training together for many months, rain or shine. Even the arctic blast that gripped New York in January didn’t stop Panek and his canine companions, who took to the Armory Track.
The dogs set their own pace and tackled a different leg of the race. Gus, Panek’s longtime guide dog, ran the final 3.1 miles and retired at the finish line in Central Park.
“It’s a little emotional for me because he’s been there with me the whole time,” Panek said.
Panek said he hopes his 14-legged team will inspire others with ambulatory and visual disabilities to keep pushing the bounds of what they think, or are told, is possible.
“Running with your dog is wonderful and if they can do a job while they’re doing it and sure, it happens to be 13.1 miles through the streets of New York city but we’re going to get it done. I know we will,” he said.