Breakthrough App Guides Blind Runner on Solo 5k Run Through Central Park

Vision isn’t always measured by the things we see, but rather by the things we imagine, the things we strive to accomplish, and the things we make happen. Runner Thomas Panek lost his sight to a genetic disorder in his twenties but he’s never given up on the race.

“The safest thing for a blind man is to sit still. I ain’t sitting still,” he told Reuters.

Three decades down the road, Panek is breaking into a new stride. Using a cutting-edge app he was instrumental in developing, he recently became the first blind runner to complete a 5K race without the aid of a guide dog or human running partner.

Panek is no stranger to firsts. As president and CEO of New York-based nonprofit Guiding Eyes for the Blind, in 2015, he launched the “Running Guides” program that trains guide dogs for blind runners.

“I’ve been a runner for my whole life, except I stopped for a time too afraid to run without assistance. I picked up running again using human guides,” Panek said in an interview with Time. “People volunteered to connect with me with a tether to show the way to go but I would have to leave my guide dog at home—and yet, dogs love to run and I love to run so I really wanted to see with my training from Guiding Eyes for the Blind if it was possible to train a guide dog to run.”

In March of 2019, Panek—the first blind entrant to do so—ran the 13.1 mile New York City Half Marathon, crossing the finish line with a time 2:20:52 with the help of a three-dog relay team.

He started the race accompanied by a black Labrador named Westley. Westley was relieved by a yellow Lab named Waffle. Panek completed the last leg of the race with his personal guide dog, Gus.

As much as he enjoyed the companionship of his guide dog, Panek wondered if there might not be a way to race on his own. He reached out to Google for help.

The answer came in the form of a camera-assisted artificial intelligence cell phone app. Using painted track markers, the app calculates a runner’s location and orientation and responds with audio cues to guide them in the right direction.

At an event co-sponsored by Google and the New York Road Runners Club, Panek tried out the Project Guideline app for the first time. “To be able to be here, it’s real emotional,” he said. “It’s a real feeling of not only freedom and independence, but also, you know, you get that sense that you’re just like anybody else.”

Except Panek isn’t like anybody else. He believes humans are “born to run” and he’s gifted with the kind of vision that strives to make sure that no one who shares his dream gets left behind.