“Having a disability does not have to limit you. No dream is too big. We should all stop asking ‘why?’ and instead ask ‘why not?’. Get out there and go faster, farther and have no fear.”
Thomas Panek wrote his name into the history books by becoming the first blind person to complete the New York City Half Marathon guided by a relay of three dogs.
He ran with Labrador Retrievers Westley, Waffle and Gus, with all three of them receiving finishers medals when they completed the race.
“It means the world to me to have been the first person to have done it but I truly hope this is only the beginning. I hope others see this as an opportunity to take part and enjoy the independence and overall physical benefits that come with having a running guide dog.”
All three dogs were trained by the Guiding Eyes for the Blind’s Running Guides Programme; the only running guide dog programme of its kind in the world. Guiding Eyes for the Blind is a non-profit organisation presided over by Panek that provides superbly bred and trained dogs to people who are blind and vision impaired.
Westley, Waffle and Gus were selected out of 175 guide dogs for their love of running.
“I love to run, and dogs love to run,” said Panek. “It was magical to find a way to marry the two and make it happen. It still took teamwork of the human and canine kind.
“The Guiding Eyes for the Blind training team trained the dogs to work at a fast pace and conditioned the dogs with me for the distance and pace.”
The idea of running a race guided by dogs had been years in the making. “It has long been a dream of mine,” Panek said.
“My friends and family were incredibly supportive of this decision. My wife has been encouraging me to run with my dogs for years, and my friends know how much I have wanted to do this.
“Our Guiding Eyes dogs, given their extensive training, were perfectly positioned to be the first ones to help me achieve this long-time goal. Not everyone believed in my dream, so I had to take it one step at a time and prove that a dog could guide me at a safe pace while running.”
Panek had previous experience running marathons but with the support of a human guide. Running with guide dogs was a brand-new experience for him.
“We trained for months. We practised how to handle different types of obstacles, everything ranging from avoiding dangerous elements in our way (branches, potholes, other dogs/pedestrians) to practising how to make 180 degree turns.”
His goal is not just to promote a healthy lifestyle but also to show that “having a disability does not have to limit you. No dream is too big. We should all stop asking ‘why?’ and instead ask ‘why not?’. Get out there and go faster, farther and have no fear.”