She lost her vision, but not her desire to run.
Now she’s able to again.
Pam McGonigle caught the running bug when she won her first race in sixth grade.
In 1992, the visually impaired runner won gold in the 3,000m at her first Paralympic Games, and went on to compete in 1996, 2000, and 2004. But when it became increasingly harder to find guides to train with, McGonigle called it quits.
“It takes a lot of extra work and a lot of extra time on the part of the visually impaired athlete to put those things into place,” McGonigle told Runner’s World by phone. “The effort and energy with which it took was significant, and I wasn’t really having that much success.”
But it wasn’t an easy decision by any means.
“I just kind of said, ‘I had a really successful career as a Paralympian, I’ve travelled the world representing the U.S. and had fantastic results, so if I’m not finding the guides, my time is done,’” she said. “I love running so much. It’s been a part of me forever, and it’s what gives me my fire, my drive, and my confidence. It’s not like I wanted to retire.”
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The 49-year-old Ardmore, Pennsylvania, resident never would have thought she’d be running again 12 years later. But in April 2016, she was able to do what she loved again, all thanks to a 3-year-old German Shepherd named Maida.
McGonigle got her first guide dog from Guiding Eyes for the Blind in 2008, and when the dog was getting ready to retire and she needed a new one, the organisation asked if she was interested in its new Running Guide Program.
“I said I was, but first and foremost, I needed a dog that could guide me day in and day out since I’m pretty active,” she said. “And it amazes me that I said that. I think I was protecting myself because I didn’t want to set myself up to think, ‘Oh great, I’m going to run again’ and have it not actually happen.”
Guiding Eyes for the Blind matches dogs with people based on the amount of regular guide work they need—running is secondary. Because McGonigle does a lot during the day, like commute to work or go to her son’s school, Maida’s high-energy personality was the perfect fit. But McGonigle was still a bit guarded until she knew the running piece of the puzzle would work. And two months later, when representatives of the Running Guide Program came to train the pair to run together, McGonigle was certain that Maida was the dog for her.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock
“I was super nervous the first time we ran together because I so wanted the running match to be a success,” she said. “I was really quiet and didn’t say anything, but really, I was so ecstatic that I was actually running again and that this was going to work out. I just didn’t want to show it.”
But it didn’t take long for McGonigle’s joy to become evident.
“When we came back to the house after, my husband looked at us and said that we all looked so happy. Even Maida was smiling.”
After a few more runs with a Guiding Eyes trainer, the pair got the okay to run independently, and they regularly log up to 19K at a time, five or six days a week. However, McGonigle is sure to pay attention to Maida’s workload and will scale back their running mileage if they have a particularly busy day doing other things.
“I was fortunate enough to be matched with a dog who loves to run, and I actually feel that the running makes her a better guide during our day work,” she said. “It’s incredible to have that gift back.”
Not only does McGonigle have running back, but she has it back in a way she’s never had it before. Because there was never a human running guide living with her 24/7, she could never just go right out her door and start running. Maida now makes this possible.
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And a dog gives just as much feedback as a person, just in a different way.
“When my hand is on that harness, I can feel when and where she looks around,” McGonigle said. “Whether it’s looking for where to go next or if she sees something, I can feel through the harness what angle she’s at.”
Now that they’ve gotten to where they can show up to group runs and Maida can run successfully with a pack of runners, McGonigle has started to think about racing with her.
“I would need to pick the race accordingly. Something with wall-to-wall people wouldn’t be a good race to run her in, so I’ll just have to be wise about my choice in that regard so it can be successful.”
But McGonigle does have concrete plans to run the North Face 50-Miler this May at Bear Mountain State Park in New York. Although the distance is too much for Maida to handle, it isn’t too much for Guiding Eyes trainer and ultrarunner Nick Speranza, who offered to be McGonigle’s guide for the race. However, Maida will be waiting at the finish line.
McGonigle says Maida isn’t too impressed if she isn’t involved in a run with her, but she can’t be thankful enough that she was paired with a dog who loves running as much as she does.
“Maida loves running, so she’s just like me in that sense. She’s just right at home. It’s so peaceful for her, which is kind of cool because that’s how it is for me, too.”