Blind runner makes history by finishing NYC Half Marathon with help of guide dogs

Service dogs help blind runners (CBS News)

For many, conquering a half marathon is all about putting one foot in front of the other. For runner Thomas Panek, a few paws also helped get him to the finish line.

Panek made history Sunday at the United Airlines New York City Half Marathon by becoming the first blind runner to complete the race led by guide dogs, instead of human guides. The athlete finished the race in just over 2 hours and 20 minutes, according to the New York Road Runners.

The team of Labrador retrievers — Waffles, Westley and Gus — took turns running with Panek. The dogs set their own pace and each ran between 3 to 5 miles of the 13.1 mile course, according to Guiding Eyes' website.

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The athlete is the president and CEO of Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a non-profit organization that "provides superbly bred and trained dogs to people who are blind and visually impaired," free of charge, according to their website.

Panek, a life-long runner, lost his sight over 25 years ago.

"When I lost my sight I was too scared to run," he told "CBS This Morning" in 2017.

After he adjusted to being blind, he started running with a human guide, but said it wasn't the same experience.

"Although many people run with running clubs, at the end of the day you're running your own race. And when you're tied to another person, it's no longer your own race. The independence isn't quite there," Panek said.

In 2015, Panek formed the Running Guides program at the suggestion of a former Marine named Richard Hunter, who was also blind, but was hoping to begin running again. A few months and many training sessions later, the Running Guides program was launched.

He created a team of experts to train a group of dogs, mainly Labrador retrievers and German shepherds, to run long distances. The pups start their training at 18 months old. But, only a select group actually become Running Guide Dogs. "Baseline skill set for a guide dog and running dog are the same," Panek explained. "They're looking for overhead obstacles and making sure that the person who's blind like me remains safe as we're mobile."

When the New York-based runner last spoke with CBS News in December 2017, he had recently completed a 5-mile race in Central Park with Gus, his longtime guide dog. A little over a year later, the same pup helped him cross the finish line of the half marathon. After the successful race — and with a shining medal — Gus retired, the organization wrote in a Facebook post.

The race wasn't just for the medal. Panek was making strides to raise awareness for his Guiding Eyes' mission, "providing guide dogs to people with vision loss." The race raised funds for the Running Guides program, which went toward the training and lifetime vet care of the dogs in the program, according to the organization's website.