GUIDE DOGS HELPING BLIND RUNNERS STAY FIT DESPITE PANDEMIC

AppleMagazineJuly 31, 2020

GUIDE DOGS HELPING BLIND RUNNERS STAY FIT DESPITE PANDEMIC
Social distancing rules can make exercising a challenge for a blind runner who needs a volunteer tethered as a guide. But Thomas Panek has no problem because his running guide, Blaze, is a Labrador retriever.

“I’m doing all the things a person would normally do, except I’m doing it with the help of a best friend who happens to be 77 pounds of love wrapped in soft yellow fur,” Panek said.

Panek, a blind runner with a wall full of ribbons from marathons he ran with a human guide, developed a canine running guide training program five years ago after he became president and CEO of Guiding Eyes for the Blind in suburban New York. Last year, he became the first blind finisher of the New York City Half Marathon to be guided entirely by dogs.

Now, he said his dog Blaze plays an essential role in maintaining a healthy lifestyle amid gym shutdowns and other pandemic restrictions.

“The running guide program is incredibly important right now not only for physical health but emotional well being,” Panek said in a recent Zoom interview. “For people who ran in the past and had to stop running because of the pandemic, this enables them to continue to exercise.”

Panek has always been a runner and continued to compete in road races after he lost his sight to a genetic condition in his early 20s. Like other blind runners, he relied on volunteers holding a short tether to lead the way.

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July 31, 2020