It turns out that man’s best friend is also runner’s best friend. In March, Thomas Panek became the first blind person to complete the NYC Half Marathon, but he didn’t do it with a human to guide him along the course. Instead, three specially-trained dogs shouldered that responsibility.
Panek finished the 13.1-mile race in 2 hours, 20 minutes and 51 seconds. Labrador guide dogs Westley, Waffle and Gus took to the pavement in relay-style with their own bibs to make sure Panek navigated crowds, potholes and curbs safely.
The 48-year-old lost his vision in his 20s to retinitis pigmentosa, a rare and incurable eye disease. He now serves as the president and CEO of Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a New York-based non-profit that provides guide dogs to those who are blind or visually impaired.
Panek, who has completed 20 marathons with human guides, was a runner in his teens. But, as he gradually lost his vision, he quit running and was too uncomfortable to even cross the street. However, he received his first guide dog at the age of 26, on the same day he met his future wife.
“Having that guide dog gave me the confidence to fall in love, get a job, have children,” he told the NY Post.
Now he’s working hard to help others acquire these life-changing canines.
While there are about 175 dogs in the Guiding Eyes for the Blind training program, not all of them are cut out to be running guides. Roughly five to 10 make the cut each year.
“There’s a big demand from people who have vision loss that want to be active, want to be well like the rest of us, want to get out there with their dog,” Panek told ABC 7.
Panek hopes to inspire others with visual impairments to “put one foot in front of the other” and stay active.
As for the scene at the NY Half Marathon finish line, there were tears, tail wags and wet sloppy kisses — makings for a great ending to any race.
Amazing accomplishment!! Thomas Panek is visually impaired. Today, he ran the @nyrr half marathon with the help of three guide dogs trained by @GuidingEyes pic.twitter.com/I3YSA2l7EP
— Lydia S. Hu (@LydiaHuNews) March 17, 2019