Unusual team to toe the starting line
ByKaren B. LondonPhD, March 2019
Three guide dogs will lead Thomas Panek in the New York City Half Marathon on March 17, 2019. He will be the first blind runner to finish the race with the guidance of dogs rather than of other human runners, and his Labrador Retrievers will be the first athletes from their species to participate in the race. The race is 13.1 miles long and the dogs will each guide him for a portion of that distance.
The guide dogs’ health and safety are extremely important to everyone involved, and care will be taken to make sure they are hydrated and doing well in every way. Volunteers and veterinarians along the course will monitor the dogs and provide check-ups. The dogs will be wearing footwear for protection and they will all set their own pace.
Panek is the president and CEO of Guiding Eyes for the Blind, and an avid runner. He has already run many marathons since losing his vision in his 20s. Even though he greatly appreciated the volunteer human guides who made those races possible for him, he wanted the feeling of independence he had with his guide dog.
With that in mind, he started a program to train guide dogs specifically for running and racing. So far, 24 dogs have graduated from the “Running Guides” program and another 12 are part of the way through the training process. The trainers in the program chose with great care the dogs who will guide Panek in today’s race. They consider the pair of siblings they chose—Waffle and Westley—to be the best of the best, and the pair will guide Panek through the first 10 miles of the half marathon.
The last 3.1 miles will be extra special for Panek, and not just because he will be finishing a race with guide dogs for the first time in history. The real magic of that final stretch will come from sharing it with Gus, his guide dog of many years. This will not be the first time that Gus will lead Panek in a race, having done so in a 5K (3.1 miles) last fall, but it will be the last. After completing the New York City Half Marathon together, Gus will retire at the finish line in Central Park.
Stay tuned for an update after the race about how the team did!