Project Guidelines: Giving Blind Runners the Freedom to Run Solo

Vision isn’t solely defined by the things we see, but rather by the things that we imagine, the things we innovate and create. Some can see what others can’t, and some can see far beyond what others can ever imagine seeing.

Lifetime runner Thomas Panek lost his sight to a genetic disorder in his twenties, but he still has vision. Panek believes that humans are “born to run”. He clearly hasn’t seen me attempting a 5k, but he’s gifted with the insight that will ensure that blind people won’t be left behind any longer. Now the President and CEO of the Guiding Eyes for the Blind charity, he has worked with Google to develop an app that helped him run his first un-aided 5k through Central Park last week. 

“For the first time in a lifetime, I didn’t feel like a blind man, I felt free,” full of emotion, Panek explains what his first solo run in years felt like to his wife and children. 

Losing his sight in his mid-twenties meant that Panek slowed. He was afraid to run like he had throughout his youth and he gave up. Three decades later, he discovered that he could run human and dog guided routes. He even qualified for five straight New York marathons. Did these tremendous achievements that demonstrate the peak of human athletic ability satisfy him? Of course not. 

He turned his attention to other runners. He understood that not everyone has access to the help that he had. He wondered if it was possible to help guide a blind runner, independently. He posed the question to a set of designers and technologists at a Google hackathon, and was shocked to see that by the end of the day they had created a rough demo. 

Sprinting to the present, Panek ran a blistering 5k through his favourite route last week. Gliding across Central Park unassisted, he received audio-guidance through an earpiece as his smartphone automatically detected his movements. The app, Project Guideline, creates routes and provides pacing instructions to the runner. This was not only a milestone for Panek, but set another benchmark for what blind athletes can continue to achieve by themselves. 

Clearly a human “born to run”, Panek is pushing the boundaries of sports and technology. Not only does this open doors, and tie laces, for current blind athletes, but also encourages less separation between those more and less abled. This is a long stride in the right direction for society.