For the first time, a blind runner will participate in the 2019 NYC Half Marathon guided by a relay of running guide dogs instead of human guides. The dogs are trained by Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a nonprofit organization that has been training service dogs for people with vision loss for the past 65 years.
The nonprofit’s president and CEO, Thomas Panek, will run in the New York Road Runners event on March 17, 2019 to raise awareness and funds to provide athletes who are blind with a service dog capable of guiding while running. Panek, an accomplished distance runner who is blind, will be partnered with a relay of three Labrador Retrievers that will pace him one at a time on the 13.1-mile race course. A team of veterinarians and volunteers stationed along the course will provide vet check-ups and ensure the team’s hydration, health and safety.
Three yellow labs, Lynx, Waffle and Yukon, and one black lab, Westley, are logging in miles training for the upcoming race. Gus, a yellow lab and the first running guide dog to complete a sanctioned New York Road Runners and Boston Athletic Association Event as a running guide, will pace Panek for the final 5K across the finish line. Gus will officially retire as Panek’s personal guide dog and running partner, trading in his Ruffwear UniFly Guide Dog Harness for a medal.
Gus, Waffle, Lynx, Westley and Yukon were selected out of 170 dogs in training at Guiding Eyes for the Blind for their desire to run and ability to stay focused while guiding Panek. The running guide dogs are graduates of Guiding Eyes for the Blind’s Running Guides Program, which teaches the dogs to avoid obstacles and navigate a route at a comfortable pace, giving their blind athletes the freedom to run safely. Having a running guide enhances independence, autonomy and overall physical fitness—whether the team is going for a casual run or training for a marathon. This program can be added to any other Guiding Eyes for the Blind programs. To date, Guiding Eyes has graduated over two dozen Running Guides teams, and demand for the program continues to grow.
“I am so thankful for Guiding Eyes’ Running Guides program, which helps people who are blind and visually impaired, like me, achieve independence and overall physical fitness by providing them with a running guide dog,” Panek said. “Special thanks to Jamie Dimon, chairman and CEO, and John Donnelly, vice chairman, of JP Morgan Chase & Co. for leading the way with their personal generous philanthropy that helped to support the training and lifetime vet care of two of the running guide dogs that will be given at no cost to blind athletes upon completion of the race.”
“Serving the needs of our students is our top priority,” said Donnelly, vice chairman and senior adviser to CEO of JP Morgan Chase & Co., and chairman of Guiding Eyes for the Blind. “Many of these students have expressed a desire to run outside on their own, something that I personally love to do and in which I see a great deal of importance. I am optimistic that Tom’s adventure in this half marathon will further our goal of accommodating our students who are runners.”
Panek, Gus, Waffle, Lynx, Westley and Yukon are in the midst of training for the event. Viewers can check their status on the Guiding Eyes website on their “training logs.” Their progress as of last week indicated such: “Tom ran a total of 12.4 miles today, guided by four dogs in sequence: Westley, Yukon, Waffle and Gus, each running 5K, or 3.1 miles, with Lynx taking a well-earned rest day. The pairs were accompanied by Nick as the pacer, while Ben was overseeing the progress and training from his electric bike. The dogs sported our partner Ruffwear’s spiffy dog boots to protect their paws and provide added traction.”
Since its founding in 1954, Guiding Eyes has bred, raised and trained more than 7,000 guide dogs and matched them with people with vision loss, supporting the partnership for life. With more than 1,400 volunteers, Guiding Eyes provides guide dogs, plus training and lifetime support, to blind and visually impaired students at no cost to them.
The $50,000 cost that it takes to prepare students and dogs to become a Guiding Eyes team is supported entirely by donations. Guiding Eyes is an accredited member of the International Guide Dog Federation (IGDF), the organization that establishes worldwide standards for the breeding and training of guide dogs.