A 48-year-old man has become the first blind person to finish the New York City half marathon – and he did so with the help of three guide dogs who wore little doggy running shoes on their paws.
Thomas Panek was guided through the 13.1 mile race by Westley, Waffle, and Gus – a trio of labrador retrievers who took turns leading their dedicated owner.
Each dog set their own pace and ran for three to five miles. Along the way, the dogs were regularly checked by vets and volunteers to ensure they were hydrated, healthy and safe.
The oldest member of the guide dog team is seven-year-old Gus. He is Thomas’ long-time companion, which earned him the honour of being the one to cross the finish line in Central Park.
Thomas lost his sight in his early 20s, but he has always been a keen runner and wasn’t going to let being blind stop him from doing what he loves.
He has managed to complete an incredible 20 marathons with the help of human guides, but this is the first time he has completed a race without another person supporting him.
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He had missed the independence and longed to run alone, which is why he ended up setting up a training programme for running guide dogs.
‘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,’ explains Thomas.
‘It was just a matter of bucking conventional wisdom and saying why not.
‘The bond is really important,’ he added. ‘You can’t just pick up the harness and go for a run with these dogs.
‘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.’
Thomas is the president and CEO of Guiding Eyes for the Blind, 24 dogs have now completed his running training plan – so hopefully more blind runners will be able to reclaim their independence.