The trust between a blind runner and her guide dog becomes essential when the duo hits the trails.
When Pam McGonigle heads out for a run with her running partner, she’s trusting that partner with her life.
Because McGonigle is legally blind, she relies on her guide to safely lead the way on winding trails and around trees, rocks and people. One wrong move could result in a catastrophe.
It’s a tremendous duty that Maida, a 4-year-old German Shepherd guide dog, has brilliantly mastered over hundreds of miles with McGonigle. “It’s absolutely incredible,” says McGonigle, who lives in Ardmore, Penn., and works as the director of development for the United States Association of Blind Athletes. “I am so thankful every time I get to go out and run with her.”
Maida runs up to 10 miles a day with McGonigle at about an 8:30 minutes-per-mile pace, but her primary job is to guide her owner through daily activities, which includes navigating mass transit. Running with Maida is a bonus, and McGonigle is careful not to overwork her phenomenal friend. “I always pay attention to her hydration and food intake,” McGonigle says. “I check her paws. It’s important to me to keep her healthy. If I feel she is tired from typical guide work, I won’t have her run that day.”
McGonigle was first paired with Maida in 2016 at Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a non-profit guide dog school in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Guiding Eyes, which is supported with private donations, provides guide dogs and training free of charge to people with vision loss. Guiding Eyes is also the only guide dog school in the country that offers special training for certain dogs to also serve as running partners.
Since its launch in 2015, the program says it has successfully graduated two dozen pairs of guide dogs and owners. Not every guide dog enjoys running, so trainers have to test the canines to see which are appropriate candidates for the running guides program.
“From her first run, we knew Maida was a perfect fit,” says Ben Cawley, director of admissions and graduate relations at Guiding Eyes. “She has so much focus and enthusiasm for running. The first time Maida and Pam ran together, Pam was asking us how to communicate to Maida that she was ready to start running. As Pam was asking the question, ‘So do I just say, ‘Let’s run?’,’ Maida took off running and Pam fell into stride with Maida.”
Before she was paired with Maida, McGonigle thought her best running days were behind her. The four-time Paralympian in track won a gold medal in the 3,000 meters at the 1992 Paralympics, but over the years she struggled to find human guides that could keep up with her. It also proved difficult to set up runs with others’ busy schedules.
Nowadays, McGonigle can go for a run whenever she wants with her ever-eager running buddy. “If I sit down to put my shoes on, she will sit on me—she wants to make it clear she’s coming,” McGonigle says.
Out on the trails in Pennsylvania, Maida demonstrates remarkable ability to not only navigate around obstacles and people but to also sense danger from other dogs. If Maida gets an uneasy feeling about an approaching dog, she will lead McGonigle off the path until the other animal passes. “It’s her way of avoiding what she thinks will be a bad situation,” McGonigle says.
The duo has done so well together that this year McGonigle took the step of introducing Maida to road races. They started with a couple of low-key 5K and 5-mile races that Maida handled with ease, successfully leading McGonigle through crowds of runners and quickly learning the best way to run a course. “She runs tangents, as if she’s a competitor,” McGonigle says.
Confident Maida was ready for a bigger challenge, McGonigle signed them up for Run the Farm, a 5-mile trail race in Katonah, N.Y., in October. Because they run on trails all the time, McGongile knew Maida would adapt quickly. Even though the course was more technical than McGonigle thought it would be, Maida rose to the occasion. In fact, the pair developed a communication system through Maida’s harness so McGonigle would know when a downed tree was blocking their path ahead.
“When she does three surges in the harness, I know that I jump,” McGonigle explains. “At other times, she will literally stop. She makes the decision that we can’t clear it together.”
They successfully cleared every fallen tree while averaging a 10:20 minutes-per-mile pace. Some of McGonigle’s friends, including Nick Speranza, who helped train Maida at Guiding Eyes, also raced that day. “I was thrilled for [Speranza] to see firsthand her work,” McGonigle says. “That success she and I had belongs to him and Guiding Eyes as much as me. They prepared her and made us a team.”
The one-of-a-kind team naturally draws attention at races, so McGonigle uses it as an opportunity to educate others about service dogs and visually-impaired athletes. Race directors have thus far embraced McGonigle and Maida at their events, though sometimes McGonigle has to explain that they’re an experienced team and will not be running in the back of the pack. “I am the one that’s limiting us at this point,” says McGonigle, who is rebuilding her fitness after hernia surgery earlier this year. “I think we can run sub-20 [minutes] for a 5K if I was trained.”
When McGonigle was forced to take a break from running after surgery, Maida didn’t want to leave McGonigle behind on days when friends came to run with her instead. After a few months, McGonigle was finally well enough to start running again—and Maida was overjoyed. “The first time I pulled out the harness and vest, she knew we were running,” McGonigle recalls. “I think she knows [running is] special. She knows that it means a lot to both of us and makes our bond stronger.”
The enthusiasm McGonigle and Maida share for running has encouraged McGonigle to continue embracing the racing opportunities open to them—and she for one is certain that the races ahead are events they’ll both enjoy tackling together.