Thomas Panek, President and CEO of ‘Guiding Eyes for the Blind,' has become the first blind athlete to complete the New York City Half Marathon with a dog guide. Panek ran the 13.1-mile course in about 2 and a half hours to secure his title as the first blind runner to finish the race with the aid of a guide dog.
During his teenage years, Panek was a zealous runner before slowly losing his eyesight in his 20s. The new condition he was forced to live with made him even scared to cross the street. As a result, he stopped running for awhile. However, after regaining some confidence, he started running again and has since completed over 20 marathons with the aid of human volunteers. Despite all the achievements under his belt, he still craved independence. In his pursuit of this, he began going out with his guide dog and eventually met his wife.
Panek, who now resides in South Salem, New York with his wife and four children, decided to begin a nonprofit training program for dogs. He would carefully handpick dogs with running potential and train them to become world-class running guides like Gus, Waffle, and Westley - his esteemed companions who ran with him during the New York City Half Marathon. The dogs train daily for a limited number of miles. They hydrate at designated water stations and receive regular vet services to ensure they are always healthy for the program.
Since its inception, about 24 dogs have graduated from the program. About 5 to 10 dogs are picked for graduation annually. The program currently has an enrollment of nearly 175 dogs indicating the growing interest in formally trained guide dogs. Upon graduation, the dogs are paired with their new companions who are already on a waiting list. The new team is trained to be compatible for free. Dogs that make it to this program, according to Panek, ought to be in great physical shape as well as have great discipline.
Speaking about his New York City Half Marathon’s team, Mr. Panek said that "The bond is really important. 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." His counterparts ran less than 6 miles each, with his long-term guide dog Gus running the last 3.1 miles and retired in a blaze of glory.