Thomas Panek, the president and CEO of Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a non-profit guide dog training school, made history when he became the first blind finisher of the NYC Half Marathon to be guided entirely by dogs.
Panek was the first blind runner to complete the NYC half marathon with guide dogs. His trio of Labrador Retrievers took turns guiding him along the 13.1 mile course. Panek finished the race in just under two hours and 21 minutes.
The days leading up to the race brought Panek and his team a lot of attention.
Panek began losing his eyesight in his 20s, but says that didn't deter him from continuing to run. He has completed 20 marathons over the years with the help of human guides. The experience motivated him to create a formal training program for running guide dogs.
According to Self:
Working with a team of dog training instructors and veterinarians, Panek developed the Running Guides program, which prepares young pups through two years of intense instruction to become safe and capable running partners. Since the program officially launched in 2015, two dozen dogs have graduated, and another 12 are currently on their way to graduation. Once the dogs are deemed ready, they're matched with human companions completely free of charge to the humans. It costs Guiding Eyes for the Blind about $50,000 (no, that's not a typo) to breed, raise, train, and match each dog, says Panek, and the nonprofit relies entirely on donations for those funds.
Speaking to CNN, Panek said:
"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. It was just a matter of bucking conventional wisdom and saying why not."
All three labradors, Westley, a black Lab, his sister, a yellow Lab named Waffle, and Gus, also a yellow Lab and Panek's personal guide dog, participated in the race and all were trained through his organization's Running Guide's program. Panek reached out to the Guiding Eyes' team of professional trainers, who handpicked Waffle and Westley to join him on the course.
"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."
Panek and his dogs have become a social media sensation––and a winning example of determination and resilience for many.
"It's hard to not able to see, you know, but just to say to people who are blind, 'Get out there. You can do it. You can do anything,'" Panek told NY1 after the race.
Congratulations, Mr. Panek. We can't to see where you and your dogs end up next.