Gus hopped up as my phone came to life at 1:00am with a text message read aloud that said:
“Due to high winds, we are reducing the amount of tenting, directional signage and other structures at the marathon staging areas at the start, along the course and at the finish. “
Gus went back to sleep on his warm, cozy dog bed while I lay awake for the next two hours in anxious anticipation of the race to come. The temperature was plummeting and the wind was already howling louder than Gus’s snoring, yet Gus lay relaxed with his muzzle on his paw, as if he knew he would have the morning off.
What Gus did not know was that his job today was not to lead me safely through New York City. The job that takes one well-trained Guiding Eyes dog would be left to three pairs of guiding eyes of the human kind. My trusted human guides would include three volunteers: Running Rabbi Michael Friedman, ultra runner Amy Hanlon and trail marathoner Mendy Taylor.
Today, Gus would leave off his harness and put on his VIP (Very Important Pooch) badge instead. His job would not be to avoid obstacles and stop at every curb before crossing a street. Rather, today he could sleep in and attend the race with my wife, Melissa, and Guiding Eyes’ director of corporate and foundation relations and strategic partnerships, Linda Press.
So, at 3:30am, well before the dog bowl filled with kibble, I pet Gus goodbye , left him with my family and made my way with my human guides to the Team Gatorade and Team Achilles tents. At the start line we donated our warm up gear to Goodwill and the 1:00am text message alert was now a bone chilling reality.
Rabbi Michael took his place at my left with a nylon tether connecting our wrists. He shared his take on the course, having run it before. “There is definitely temptation in a marathon to go out too fast (as in any race) especially because the first mile is uphill and the second is downhill.” The start gun popped and Amy, who runs a marathon almost every weekend, took the lead guide position in front of us. Amy’s voice could not be heard as the strong wind blew us like a kite from one lane to the other on the first bridge; it was like running under water. Our first mile was not at risk of going out too fast – it was four minutes too slow. Now we had to make up time to finish 26.2 miles in less than four hours.
At mile three, we sped up and set our pace and kept it going through mile eight. At mile eight, Rabbi Michael took the pole position, making way by keeping pace and weaving through thousands of spectators and runners. Amy pulled the tether to the left onto Lafayette and then the crowd got boisterous.
I remember Michael telling me this was one of his favorite parts of the marathon, perhaps because he got married a few months ago right where we ran by a screaming crowd. Suddenly, Michael went from a run to a complete stop and pulled me to the side, just like Gus does when an obstacle appears. An aloof pedestrian stepped out onto the course and if it was not for my guide, I would have collided at full speed. This happened to me in a half-marathon and I broke ribs, so I was ever grateful!
All through Brooklyn we fought the urge to pick up the pace, hovering at 8:30 no matter what. The halfway point was at a small bridge that links Brooklyn to Queens. We got a little jolt of energy there. That was useful because the big bridge (Queensboro) was ahead.
Running up the span was grueling and it seemed to go on forever. Like in life, the most important thing to remember is to keep going – don’t stop to dwell on the uphill challenges we each have to endure.
Then came the long downhill of First Ave, the closest our team will ever get to being elite runners. We kept our calm through this section, but I could not help but get emotional as I waved a hand to the thousands of spectators. I felt like an orchestra conductor raising my hand to a crescendo of cheers.
I thought of Gus and knew he was at the finish line with Melissa. But the toughest part of the race was ahead, and now we were crossing into the Bronx. We ran all the way to Manhattan, and now it was time to leave again! But the run into the Bronx was short, only a mile or so. We reached the 21 mile mark as we crossed back into Manhattan. We were running the full effort to be on pace but the cross-winds were still so severe that the level of effort was adding time to each mile. We still had a chance to make it under 4:00 hours if we could weave through the hundreds of walkers who hit the wall at 20.
Michael shouted, “After all our training, five miles is nothing!” Mendy took the tether for a while and we took off faster and made up some time.
The 3/4 mile hill on 5th from about 106th to 91st felt like climbing a mountain. I was prepared mentally for that, but it took all my effort to keep on pace. From there I heard the countdown to turn into Central Park at 90th and we cruised downhill. Michael shouted, “800 meters left” and at this point, only the thought of crossing the finish line and reuniting with Melissa and Gus kept me lengthening my stride. Finally I heard a familiar voice screaming my name and I knew the finish line would pass beneath my feet any moment if I just kept putting one foot in front of the other.
The crowd watched as the blind runner and three exceptionally giving athletes wearing yellow vests crossed the finish line.
We ran for Guiding Eyes, so others like me who can’t see could have a dog like Gus. We threw our arms up in triumph and gave each other big hugs with some windblown tears. It was over. We navigated the largest marathon ever, with more than 50,000 runners.
The race director put a medal over my head and it rested on my chest just above the print on my tee-shirt that read, “My other guide has four paws.” It was time to retire my human guides and pick up the harness that keeps me safe everywhere I travel.
And then another message came. It read: “Thomas, Congratulations—you did it! Unstoppable. Amazing. Indomitable. Together. You Got Your New York On in grand style. From all of us at NYRR, a huge congratulations on your personal achievement and on being part of a whole that was simply awesome. You took the swirling winds head-on, and throughout the five boroughs of NYC, you inspired. Your official 2014 TCS New York City Marathon finish time is 3:59:10.”
As I write, Gus is curled up at my feet and we are flying JetBlue 35,000 feet up in the air en route to our next adventure – but I’ll save that for next time.
Thank you all for your support!
Thomas A. Panek
Guiding Eyes President & CEO
Thoughts from our NYC Marathon team:
Amy: “It was an amazing day that I will never forget. I feel lucky to have been a part of it. I even loved the crazy winds, because that was part of the adventure. And we were all in it together.”
Mendy: “I can’t thank you all enough for the experience I had. What an inspiration you three were! I have to say Thomas, you’re one of the bravest people I know! What courage it must have taken to do what you did. Thank you for trusting us to lead you. And Michael and Amy – you both have hearts of gold!”
Rabbi Michael: “Mazel tov, Tom! Something we all should be proud of, especially with the beastly wind.”