When Thomas Panek lost his eyesight more than 25 years ago, the avid runner doubted he would ever pursue his lifelong passion again.
"I was too scared to run," he told CBS This Morning.
Indeed, although Panek had been lacing up since high school, the idea of running blind seemed altogether too daunting.
But he did manage to keep his dream alive — with help from human guides who assisted him on each run.
Even so, the real joy of the run — the thrill of independence that comes from conquering a course on your own terms — eluded him.
"When you're tied to another person, it's no longer your own race," the 48-year-old told CBS. "The independence isn't quite there."
But Panek found a friend — indeed, man's best friend — who would help him reignite that sense of purpose. He started running with a guide dog named Gus.
Not only did Panek rediscover his love for running, but, along the way, he founded Guiding Eyes for the Blind, an organization dedicated to providing service dogs for the visually impaired.
Thomas Panek was so inspired by his canine running companions that he founded the Running Guides program at Guiding Eyes for the Blind. (Photo: Craig Barritt/Getty Images for Guiding Eyes For The Blind)
Gus remained a stalwart at Panek's side for many races. And, last Sunday, the old dog glided across the finish line with his human at the New York City Half Marathon.
In that moment, they both breezed into the history books.
Panek, who finished the course in a little more than two hours and 20 minutes, became the first blind runner to complete the race led by dogs.
Brandishing their respective medals, Panek and Gus — who retired after the race — shared a breathless embrace.
"It's a little emotional for me because he's been there with me the whole time," Panek told CNN.
But Panek was quick to point out that it wasn't just Gus who provided the wind beneath his running shoes.
In all, three guide dogs helped him see his way to the finish line. Siblings Westley and Waffle picked up the early legs of the course, each running between three and five miles of the 13-mile race.
Along the way, the whole team got plenty of support from event host New York Road Runners.
"New York Road Runners has a great history with Tom and the team at Guiding Eyes for the Blind, and we were so excited to be a part of his historic finish with Gus at yesterday's United Airlines NYC Half," race director Jim Heim of New York Road Runners explained to MNN. "New York Road Runners offers a comprehensive program and accommodations for athletes with disabilities, and we've worked closely with Guiding Eyes for the Blind to ensure Tom and his team of guide dogs had a safe and enjoyable experience."
But when it came time to the final three miles of the event, Panek looked to his old friend Gus.
With retirement looming, it would be the faithful yellow lab's last race.
But for Panek, the road ahead remains long and bright — not only for him, but for anyone with a disability who still hopes to run down a dream.