Thomas Panek is a 47-year-old man who loves to run. As a kid, this was one of his favorite hobbies. Unfortunately, Panek lost his eyesight in his early 20s, but he couldn't give up his greatest joy. Running.
Like many blind runners, they rely on volunteers to guide them through the race. Panek raced in the New York City Marathon and the Boston Marathon tethered by human guides that led his way towards the finish line. Doesn't sound very independent, does it? Panek didn't think so either.
So, he considered losing the human guides and hook up his guide dog instead. Panek consulted with several trainers and each of them said, "guide dogs were not appropriate for long-distance running, let alone a race."
Panek added, "The presumption was that it wasn’t safe. And no school had ever trained a guide dog to run.”
After some research, Panek caught wind that there were several other blind runners running with their guide dogs, such as Kerry Kuck. But Panek was still skeptical about changing things up.
Until one morning in April 2014, Panek was eating breakfast before running in the Boston Marathon a friend asked, "Why don't you see if it's possible?" That question couldn't have been asked at any better moment.
Panek had just become the CEO and president of "Guiding Eyes for the Blind," a non-profit school in New York. The organization trains guide dogs for people who are either blind or vision impaired.
After Panek met with his training team, he held a focus group for the community for their input. "The response was overwhelming," Panek said.
Early 2015, "Guiding Eyes for the Blind" launched the world's first program for training dogs to run with their handlers. But before it could be introduced, Panek had to be the first to pilot the program.
Panek used his guide dog, Gus, a yellow Lab, for his first attempt. “I said, ‘If other blind people are going to do this, I’ll have to prove it’s safe,” he said.
Since October, there have been 24 guide dogs that have graduated, but the wait list keeps growing for more. While none of these certified guide dogs have participated in a race, on October 29 Panek and Gus will run the Poland Spring Marathon Kickoff, a five-mile run in Central Park, without human assistance.
After many six-mile runs around the Central Park look together, Panek and Gus are ready. Gus sets the pace at nine minutes per mile while avoiding obstacles that can injure Panek. Gus also has been trained to ignore any of Panek's commands if they impose a risk to Panek.
"Gus sets the pace," Panek explains. "and I follow him." Gus appears to be unfazed by the endless flow of pedestrians, bicycles, vehicles, and other dogs. Gus has a job to do and he won't risk Panek's life. His loyalty to his handler is extraordinary and unbreakable.
While they run, Panek says, "yes," a keyword Gus knows that Panek is doing well. He also says, "Good job!" and "Good boy, Gus!" to praise his loyal companion.
While it's not cheap to raise and train each guide dog, the estimated cost of $50,000, these dogs are needed. Much of the funding comes from donations. A somewhat surprising fact, only one-third of their German Shepherds and Labrador retrievers will end up not graduating from the program. Fortunately, these dogs won't go without a job; many will take up other lines of work such as a bomb detector dog.
Guide dogs are considered the elite of all working dogs. These dogs receive intensive daily training at their schools that last from six months to a year. They are not only concerned with their lives, but with their handler's lives as well. Navigating through city streets is no easy task.
Panek assures skeptics that these dogs receive the highest level of training and these dogs are never pushed nor do they run in high temperatures. "Guiding Eyes for the Blind" will not allow a dog to run more than six miles.
“We want to make sure that the dog is happy and healthy while running,” Panek said.
For their upcoming marathon, a spokesman of "A New York Road Runners," Chris Weiller, said, "We want Thomas to have a good run and be safe, and we want the dog to have a good run and be safe.”
To ensure everything goes smoothly, there will be a spotter on a bicycle and several water breaks for both runners, also, there will be a vet on site. Weiller just wants the event to go smoothly for everyone; all participating runners.
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