Ten Minutes with The Running CEO of Guiding Eyes for the Blind
Thomas Panek, who is blind, ran his first race with a guide dog
Thomas Panek is CEO of Guiding Eyes for the Blind, which trains guide dogs for the visually impaired. Blind himself and an avid runner, Panek has competed in several marathons with human guides, but wanted to race with a guide dog instead. On October 29, Panek, who lives in South Salem, ran his first race, five miles, with his yellow Lab guide dog Gus. Panek has been developing a program to train guide dogs to run with blind runners so others can feel the same sense of independence.
What’s the biggest challenge of raising, training, and setting up dogs with those who need them?
Matching the right dog to the right person. That’s where the magic happens. It’s more an art than science.
How many do you provide each year?
We will graduate 170 this year, and we have 1,000 active guide dogs.
Why do you believe a program that helps blind runners is important?
I am a runner myself. I use Gus to guide me wherever I walk—with family, to the store, to the Prospector. When I run, I seek out volunteer guides. I wanted to see if we could teach a dog to guide while running. It makes perfect sense—the dog likes to run, so why leave him behind? People said it was impossible, but we set out to prove that wrong.
How many blind runners utilize this program?
We have about two dozen. We have a year waiting list.
You are pretty fast runner.
In my division, the visually impaired community, I was top 20 in the Boston Marathon.
What motivated you to begin running at a young age?
I couldn’t do the traditional ball sports since I began losing my vision at an early age, so I took up running and, back then, could always follow someone in front of me. I never won because I had to follow someone.
How has your blindness impacted your running?
When you commit to running with a guide runner you run as a team, so I’m compelled to finish. I can’t decide to sleep in because my guide is ringing the doorbell. It’s been motivating.
On the road, is it constant chatter?
Yes, it’s conversation, verbal cues—”curb, 3-2-1.” And I repeat it. My guide’s letting me know what’s ahead, when a turn is coming, what the runners around me are doing.
Gus is amazing. He ran part of the Boston Marathon with me, first time they ever let a dog run. Ultrarunner Scott Jurek was there with me, keeping an eye on Gus. If we wanted to go for a six-miler right now, Gus would do it.
What do you bring to Guiding Eyes?
I understand the difference it makes in people’s lives. I can relate to the end result of all those volunteers and donations. We are 100 percent supported by donations.
Any groups really been supportive?
For running guides, Pepsi/Gatorade really supports the program, helping the idea of mobility and independence.
What do you like to do in Ridgefield?
The Prospector Theater is one of my favorite places. Ridgefield Hardware, Tazza with my running club. It’s our town.