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Blind runner first to complete NYC Half with guide dogs

Thomas Panek of South Salem, NY became the first blind runner to finish the NYC Half assisted by canine rather than human guides

On Sunday Thomas Panek, 48, of South Salem, NY, became the first blind runner to complete the United Airlines NYC Half Marathon with the help of three guide dogs running relay-style, rather than human guides. The dogs were allowed to run at their own pace, each running three to five miles. Panek finished the race with Gus, his regular guide dog, in 2:20:51.

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Training with Waffle in Central Park. Photo: Guiding Eyes

According to a report by CNN, Panek was a runner before losing his sight in his early 20s. Since then he has completed 20 marathons, aided by human guide runners. But he missed the independence of running alone, and was motivated to learn to run with his guide dog instead. And in 2015 he started a program to train guide dogs to guide while running, at the not-for-profit Guiding Eyes for the Blind of Westchester County, which was established in 1954, and of which Panek is now president and CEO. 

Panek used three different guide dogs yesterday (Westley and Waffle, along with Gus, who will now go into retirement). All three are labrador retrievers. Volunteers from Guiding Eyes were stationed at intervals along the course to assist Panek and the dogs, who wore shoes to protect their feet.

Panek used the run to raise funds for visually impaired runners who need guide dogs. (The organization is funded entirely by donations.)

Twenty-four dogs have completed Panek’s course, and another 12 dogs are halfway through the program.