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Blind Runner And His Trio Of Guide Dogs Make History In NYC Half Marathon

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Most good dogs get treats, pats, snuggles. Yesterday three very good dogs in New York got medals. That was for completing the New York City Half Marathon.

THOMAS PANEK: (Whistling). Hey, Westley. Come here, buddy.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

That's Thomas Panek. He got a medal, too. On Sunday he became the first legally blind runner to complete a half marathon led entirely by guide dogs.

PANEK: Good boy, Westley, good boy. Hey, Waffle. Hey, sweetie. How are you guys?

KELLY: The dogs guided him in shifts of a few miles each. They are all Labradors, and their names, Westley, Waffle and Gus.

PANEK: They're an extension of my being. So running with a dog for me is not only a whole lot of fun, but I feel very safe when I'm running with them.

CHANG: Panek is 49 years old. He ran cross-country in high school. In his 20s, a genetic disorder left him legally blind. And running while blind, obviously, can be dangerous.

PANEK: There was a long time where I was too scared to run. I was just afraid to get out there. And I had run in the Chicago Marathon. And about midcourse, I ran into a stake that was in the ground, didn't see it. And I realized it probably isn't safe for me to continue running anymore.

KELLY: A decade later he started running with fellow humans as his guides.

PANEK: You tether to a human guide with a shoelace or a piece of cloth. And then they give you verbal cues throughout the race.

CHANG: He ran over 20 marathons that way. But he liked the freedom he felt moving around the world with a guide dog.

PANEK: Running with a guide dog, it's sort of like driving on the highway. You're just doing the same things that you do when you drive on a side street. Except now you're doing it much faster.

KELLY: In his day job as the president of a guide dog training school called Guiding Eyes for the Blind, Panek started a program to get more dogs in on the marathon action. And this weekend's race, the New York City Half Marathon, was a first for him and the dogs.

PANEK: This will be quite a unique medal to hang on the wall today. Matter of fact, if you take a second, maybe you can hang it with me. Do you mind? I'm going to hang it right about now.

(SOUNDBITE OF MEDALS CLINKING)

PANEK: What do you say, Westley? I think we earned that one together, buddy.

CHANG: There are probably more races with dogs in Panek's future. But today everyone is getting a hard-earned rest day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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