Nobody really notices the jogger wearing several layers of cold-weather gear running in Central Park near Tavern on the Green with a black Labrador Retriever sporting green booties.
But history is in the making in front of the horse-drawn carriages, bicyclists and rollerbladers as Thomas Panek, president and CEO of Guiding Eyes for the Blind, and his guide dog Westley recently train for the upcoming New York City Half Marathon.
When the starting gun sounds in Prospect Park this Sunday, it will be the first time that a team of guide dogs will lead a blind runner in the race, according to Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a Westchester County nonprofit that provides guide dogs to people with vision loss.
Panek, 48, lost his sight to retinitis pigmentosa, a rare and incurable eye disease, in his early 20s. He hopes to raise awareness – and funds – for his organization’s Running Guides program, which provides blind athletes with a service dog capable of guiding while running.
“Only the dogs who love to run go into the Running Guides program,” where they are taught to “navigate safely around obstacles and people, giving their blind athletes the freedom to run safely,” Panek said.
In addition to their desire to run, the dogs are selected for their ability to stay focused while guiding a runner.
“Being able to teach the dog to run while guiding is quite a feat,” Panek said.
Panek, who has run 20 marathons with a sighted human connected by a tether and giving verbal cues, hopes to complete this Sunday’s half in about two hours. He’ll be led by a relay of three Labs, who one at a time will run slightly ahead of him on his left side.
Panek will most likely start the 13.1-mile race with Westley before switching to his energetic sister, Waffle, who both turn 2 on March 30. Panek will finish the race with Gus, his 7-year-old yellow Lab, who will officially retire at the finish line.
“Gus was the first working guide dog to be trained as a running guide, so it is fitting that like so many human elite athletes, he plans to retire after medaling in a world-class race,” Panek said.
While human runners often carbo load before a race, canine runners take a slightly different approach. “We call it kibble loading,” Panek joked.
A team of veterinarians and volunteers stationed along the course will check the dogs and ensure their hydration, health and safety.
“The dogs have a veterinary station like I have a medical tent. There’s a vet tech to see how the dogs are doing,” Panek said.
Panek isn’t nervous about running the half with his pack. “I have a lot of confidence that the dog is going to keep me safe,” he said.
Being able to run with his guide dog gives Panek the opportunity to run any time he wants, not just when a sighted companion is available.
“Dogs love to run,” he said. “It makes a whole lot of sense to give him some exercise.”
Through the Running Guides program, runners with vision loss don’t have to be reliant on human guides or limited to the treadmill.
“We do this out of love and to give people the opportunity to be healthy and well, even though they have vision loss,” Panek said.