Thomas Panek's philosophy in running is simple: if you love the sport, do not let anything stop you.
This motto has led the 48-year-old runner to finish an impressive 20 marathons, five editions of the Boston Marathon (arguably the sport's most prestigious 26.2-mile race), despite his vision in the early 20's due to a genetic disorder lost.
Last Sunday, Panek re-embodied this mantra when he was the first. The NYC half-marathon finisher is said to be run by dogs.
To achieve the historic goal, Panek, president and CEO of Guiding Eyes for the Blind has a nonprofit guide dog training school, partnering with a squadron of three Labrador Retrievers, all specialized by the Running Guides program of their organization were trained. Westley, a black lab, accompanied Panek for the first five miles. His sister, a yellow lab called Waffle, walked the next 5 miles. And then Gus, also a yellow lab and Panek's personal guide dog and running partner, went back the last 5km. The team ended in 2 hours, 20 minutes and 51
The experience, says Panek, "was a lot of fun". And according to New York Road Runners (NYRR), the organization that hosts the NYC Half Marathon, and many other races each year, Panek's goal was the longest distance a blind runner and guide dog could travel in a NYRR-approved event.
"As a blind runner, I've already achieved the most iconic marathons you can run," says Panek, but ending this half-marathon with his trio of pacifiers "was the most meaningful thing for me," he says blind milestone in its work to make running more accessible to people who are.
Panek launched the Running Guides program in 2015 to give blind athletes more freedom and independence.
Running dogs make it so that blind people have a "barrier less", they usually need human supervision to train or participate in. At an event like a road race, Panek says.
Since Panek more than When he lost his own vision for two decades, he kept hearing that blind athletes just could not walk with their guide dogs, it simply was not done When Guiding Eyes took over the helm for the Blind, he asked, "Why not?" And then he began to change the way he worked.
In collaboration with a team of dog trainers and veterinarians, Panek developed the Running Guides program, which prepares young puppies through two years of intensive teaching for safe and efficient knowledge of ongoing partners. Since the official launch of the program in 2015 two dozen dogs have completed their studies and another 12 are currently on their way to graduation. Once the dogs are ready, they are brought together with human companions that are completely free to humans. Guiding Eyes for the Blind costs around $ 50,000 (no, that's not a typo) when you need to breed, educate, train, and bring together every dog, says Panek, and the non-profit organization relies solely on donations for these funds.
According to Panek, who is a member of the International Dog Show Association (the authority responsible for developing and monitoring standards for guide dog programs around the world), Guiding Eyes for the Blind is currently the only guide dogs school in the world , which trains guide dogs to lead guided tours. With the growing demand for guide dogs – currently more than 50 people have asked Guiding Eyes for the Blind on the waiting list for these special bitches – he hopes they will not be the last. "I want others to follow in our footsteps," he says.
An important part of the introduction of the Running Guides program was to design a special dog equipment.
Having the right equipment would allow both canines and their human companions to be safe and secure, moving comfortably at a faster pace. Running the traditional dog harness that Panek calls "vintage and buggy leather" would be like "wearing a pair of dress shoes for a race," he explains. That's why Guiding Eyes of Blind has partnered with apparel manufacturer RuffWear to create a custom harness with tailor-made handles that gives runners more flexibility in moving their hands while maintaining a strong bond with the dog. They also made special dog shoes, which were all adapted to each doggie.
According to Panek, running a guide dog over a human guide can have some great benefits.
First, Panek is clear that "human guides are wonderful. "As mentioned earlier, he completed 20 marathons, all with the help of" extraordinary "human guides. "Everyone has their own lives and it is not realistic for a volunteer to call me," says Panek.
His guide dog Gus is with him all day long. Everyday, to protect him, "from the moment I wake up to the time I go to sleep." Her special relationship makes Gus the ideal companion for training runs, giving Panek the freedom, at all times to run. As for the actual experience of walking with a human versus a handler, "it's like being a passenger in a car versus driving," says Panek. "If you're running with a human leader, you're that passenger and the guide will tell you where to go, where you turn left and right," he explains. "With a guide dog you are in the driver's seat, you are independent and the dog is only there to be effective your steering wheel."
In Panek's five years with Gus, he says he has never been taken off course. In Sunday's race, "these dogs covered 13.1 miles without a single mistake," he says. "They are so capable of being able to do that kind of work." In addition, Panek says the dogs seem to "really enjoy" running, as their tail feathers and their lifted ears prove. "It's a win-win situation." (Of course, dog safety is also of paramount importance – Panek caps perform dog-supported runs at a distance of about 6 miles, and during the Sunday races, veterinarians were on standby and the dogs drank at water stations while driving.)  Panek does not do this. It is not planned to handle endurance races with guide dogs. Instead, he just wants to inspire others to run.
"I really want to encourage people to go out and run," says Panek. "As a blind person [I knew]I was able to run this half-marathon," he adds. "Hopefully, more blind people will look at the option of guiding guide dogs, and they will feel empowered to recognize their sporting potential.
To learn more about Guiding Eyes for the Blind, including how to make the organization financially and / or as a volunteer, visit here .