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Blind Runners’ Best Friend

Blind runner becomes first to complete a half marathon with a team of running guide dogs, showcasing a program that frees the visually-impaired to run solo.

Running history was made at yesterday’s United Airlines New York City Half Marathon. Thomas Panek became the first known visually-impaired runner to complete a half marathon guided by a dog. More than a single-time stunt, however, the event showcased a program and technology that is allowing the blind to enjoy the freedom of solo running.

Panek, the president and CEO of Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a New York-based non-profit that provides guide dogs to people with vision loss, was actually guided by a relay team of three guide dogs in the half marathon. At 7:30 yesterday morning, Panek left Prospect Park in Brooklyn with Westley, an 86-pound black lab who is “built like a sport utility vehicle,” according to Panek. After five miles, Panek traded out Westley for his sister, Waffle, a yellow lab who ran the next five miles.

Panek’s personal guide dog, a yellow lab named Gus, anchored the race. At 9:52 a.m., Panek and Gus crossed the finish line in Central Park in 2:20:52. Gus, now that he’s earned his medal, is going to retire from guide dog work. “It was emotional,” Panek says. “He’s been with me since the beginning of this program, for the past five years. Gus is the first guide dog that was actually trained to run.”

Ruffwear’s Timothy Gorbold, who was the lead product designer on the Unifly harness that each dog wore, was at the race this morning. “Seeing Gus and Tom cross the finish line was a swirling combination of excited butterflies and pride,” he says. “I know the magnitude of the dream and the dedication with which the Guiding Eyes team pursued this goal.”

A Long Road to This Finish Line

“It’s been about a four year effort to get the race organizer—New York Road Runners—to embrace what we’re about to do,” Panek said before the race. “There was some education that had to take place, some things we had to work through.”

For example, what if a dog has to go to the bathroom during the race? “You clean it up and dispose of it,” Panek says. “With humans we do the same thing.”

More seriously, what if the race course has to be cleared quickly and runners are redirected to the subway? “Our dogs work in the subway every day,” Panek says. “But they didn’t know that. They weren’t familiar with how capable and confident our guide dogs are.”

To prove the concept that guide dogs are capable of leading a blind runner through a race, Panek and Gus successfully completed the Poland Spring Marathon Kickoff five miler in Central Park in October 2017.

A half marathon seemed like the logical next step, and New York seemed like the perfect race. “It’s the big city, it’s the Big Apple,” Panek says. “You know how they say if you can make it there, you can make anywhere?” If they could prove the concept on the streets of New York City, it’s pretty clear you can do it anywhere.

NYRR, which offers a comprehensive program for athletes with physical disabilities, agreed. “For any athletes requiring special accommodations to cross the finish line, like Tom, we work with them to determine the best accommodations on a case-by-case basis,” says Race Director Jim Heim. “For the NYC Half this weekend, we worked closely with Tom and his team to create two transfer points along the course at the 5-mile and 10-mile mark where Tom changed dogs.”

Each transfer was pretty quick—Panek simply unclipped his handle from the harness of one dog and attached it to the harness of another. “It was really seamless,” Panek says of the transitions. “It was like passing a baton.”

photo: Ruffwear

Pushing a Rope: The Dog/Runner Connection

Years ago, when Panek was just starting to think about training Gus to run with him, he purchased a Ruffwear skijoring harness and attached all kinds of handles to it—a copper refrigerator pipe, a white cane—in hopes that he could find a solution that was comfortable (for the dog and for himself) and gave him enough feedback to run confidently.

“It was like bloopers,” he laughs. “We had to start somewhere. It was kind of like the Wright brothers with those first planes made out of balsa wood, it just looked ridiculous and flew for 50 feet. That’s what it felt like, flying that first plane—and now we have this beautiful piece of equipment.”

That beautiful piece of equipment is Ruffwear’s Unifly harness and handle that was carefully designed to meet the needs of all guide dogs and their owners. “We’ve been partners with Ruffwear on the Unifly harness since its inception, giving feedback throughout the process,” Panek says. “It’s almost as if you were designing a running shoe while the runner was running in it.”

The partnership started in 2015. Ruffwear, a performance dog gear company based in Bend, Oregon, was an expert at making harnesses that fit dogs securely and comfortably. “But where they did not have expertise is the extension to the [visually impaired] human being,” Panek says. “We needed something that, the best way I can describe it is sort of like pushing on a rope. We needed to have the ability not to push on the rope, but for the rope to push back, and that required something that was giving feedback to the handler.”

The resulting handle is what makes Panek so confident in the Unifly. “The only feedback I’m getting throughout the whole race is through my left hand,” he says. “I’m not seeing what’s around me, I’m not able to see elevation changes, I’m not able to see turns ahead or runners ahead—all that information is being conveyed through this handle. It’s striking a balance between being comfortable for the dog yet rigid enough for me to feel where the dog is so that ultimately, I can fly.”

photo: Ruffwear

Always Ready to Run: The Case for Dogs

Panek, now 48, lost his vision in his 20s. He stopped running for many years before trying it again with both human guides and guide dogs.

Like many visually impaired runners, Panek has completed races tethered to a human guide (in his case, usually ultrarunning legend Scott Jurek) who gives mostly verbal cues. Panek is quick to point out that most experienced human guides do an incredible job and that he wouldn’t be where he is today without them.

But he also notes how much time and effort goes into finding a compatible human guide: you have to find someone who runs at a similar pace, someone who is available when you want to train and race, and someone who is willing to “let go” of his or her own race to ensure you have a good race. “It’s a lot to ask of a volunteer,” Panek says.

A guide dog, on the other hand, allows visually impaired runners to experience running the way so many people enjoy it: as a solo sport. “Sometimes you just want to get out there and be like this is my time, my space,” Panek says. “That is not possible with a human guide, but it’s possible with a dog.”

Walking with a dog is hardwired into Panek’s brain, so running with a dog is not too much of an adjustment. “I trust the dog to get me across busy streets,” he says. “That’s how I travel all the time.”

Not to mention, the dog is always available and ready to go. “Their natural pace is our jogging pace,” Panek says. “If we’re born to run, they’re born to run plus. They absolutely love it.”

Photo by Craig Barritt/Getty Images for Guiding Eyes For The Blind

Guiding Eyes for the Blind

Panek says that he’s heard stories of people who’ve run with guide dogs over the years, but there’d never been an official program to train both the dogs and their owners. “The analogy I can give is that it’s like speeding in your car,” Panek says of running with a guide dog. “People do it but it’s not allowed except in specific avenues such as a race track.” Guiding Eyes for the Blind now provides that specific avenue.

Guiding Eyes dogs are purpose bred for working and are trained at a facility in Patterson, New York. Volunteers raise dogs in their homes and also run with the dogs up to the 10K distance. Of the 170 regular guide dogs that Guiding Eyes will graduate this year, about 10 percent of those will be running guide dogs.

People who are interested in one of Guiding Eyes’ dogs simply apply on the organization’s website and have a home consultation. “We try to find a dog that’s a right match for you by how busy your life is and what pace you run,” Panek says. “Even if you’re not a runner, but you aspire to run, a running dog is an option—it’s about health and wellness for everyone.”

Once a match is made, people are given a dog at no cost—even though it takes approximately $50,000 to train a guide dog. Because Guiding Eyes for the Blind is a non-profit, these costs are covered entirely by donations.

“This is goodness in people,” Panek says. “This is the running community saying ‘hey, what would happen if I couldn’t see?’ Sometimes we donate running shoes to people, but this is donating eyes to people through a dog.”

“Dogs are like superheroes,” Panek continues. “They can run faster than we can, they can smell immeasurably better than we can, they can see movement better than we can, and they can hear much better than we can. It’s just a matter of harnessing the dogs’ abilities in a way that allows us to go.”