Thousands of runners participated in the New York City Marathon. One of those runners was Thomas Panek and he is rather different from most of the other runners. Thomas is blind.
Thomas ran to raise funds for Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a non-profit organization of which he is president and CEO. The non-profit provides trained guide dogs to blind or visually impaired people, and children with autism.
They provide around a dozen dogs to people in need every month, he said. He got his guide dog, a yellow Labrador Retriever named Gus, in April.
“People come from all over the world to Guiding Eyes to receive our guide dogs,” Thomas said. “I’m trying to run every mile for Guiding Eyes so other people can receive a dog like mine.”
When he was young, Thomas played baseball, basketball, football, and cross country. Unfortunately, he had to give them up after he developed retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease, in his early 20s.
“I didn’t really think it was possible to get back into athletics as a person who was blind,” Thomas said.
Just three years ago, he was motivated by his four children to set a goal: to complete a 5K run.
“Being a dad, you want to set a good example, and I didn’t want to set an example where it’s not OK to participate in sports if you’re blind,” he said. “You have to lead by example as a parent, so I figured if I could show them that fitness is important, that would be a good start.”
Thomas runs races with the help of guide runners who run alongside him. He is tethered by the wrist and provided verbal queues regarding his surroundings.
For the New York City Marathon, Michael Friedman and Amy Hanlon, volunteer as Thomas’ guides.
“There are many athletes out there with good hearts that are willing to give a little help,” he said. “With the guides, I can run to my full potential.”
Thomas has now improved from the 5K runs to get to where he is now. Earlier this year, he ran in the Boston Marathon, where Gus met him at the finish line.
“Boston was a good training ground for New York,” he said. “New York is very challenging. I learned in Boston to take it easy in the beginning so I can have a strong finish.”
The Labradorwaited at the finish line in New York, just like in Boston.
“I look forward to reuniting with him at the end of the race,” he said. “Between Gus and a big kiss from my wife, I think I’m motivated.”
You can send help to Guiding Eyes for the Blind by giving donations, visit www.guidingeyes.org or text GUIDE to 80888.
Images: Guiding Eyes for the Blind