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Gloversville duo to make history at Boilermaker 5K race

Bill Smith and his guide dog Ed run through Trail Station Park in Gloversville along the Rail Trail on Thursday. Smith and Ed will break new ground on Sunday when they run in their first 5K together during the Utica Boilermaker and become the first blind person and guide dog team to participate in the road race. (The Leader-Herald/Ashley Onyon)

GLOVERSVILLE — A city man will make history when he becomes the first legally blind person to run in the Boilermaker 5K road race in Utica on Sunday accompanied by a guide dog.

Bill Smith and his guide dog Ed have been together for four years thanks to the nonprofit organization Guiding Eyes for the Blind that provided Smith with the trained Labrador retriever free of charge after he became legally blind due to glaucoma.

“Guiding Eyes for the Blind and Ed saved my life,” Smith said while out on the Rail Trail with Ed Thursday.

Bill Smith described how his life changed when he and his wife, Lisa Smith, were told by his doctor that his glaucoma had progressed to the point where he was legally blind and would no longer be able to drive or work about four years ago.

“That killed me,” Bill Smith said. “I was a butcher for 22 years and I couldn’t work.”

Bill Smith and his guide dog Ed rest at Trail Station Park in Gloversville while going for a run along the Rail Trail on Thursday. Smith and Ed will break new ground on Sunday when they run in their first 5K together during the Utica Boilermaker and become the first blind person and guide dog team to participate in the road race. (The Leader-Herald/Ashley Onyon)

“Bill knew he would go blind in his lifetime, but we didn’t know it would be this soon,” Lisa Smith said on Friday.

Bill Smith said his wife, who was a stay at home mom to their five daughters at the time, went back to school to earn her master’s degree and became a teaching assistant at Gloversville High School while he became a stay at home dad for the first time.

“That right there is the best job I’ve ever had,” he said of becoming a stay at home dad. “There’s always different things going on and it is fun.”

“What amazes me is that not once did Bill let this all get him down. He [has] not once felt sorry for himself or dipped into depression. He just got up every morning and tried to still do the yard work and housework, so I could work full time,” Lisa Smith said.

Bill Smith said his daughters help him around the house, picking things up off the floor that he could trip over and he receives assistance with cleaning from the Association for the Blind. He described his current eyesight as similar to looking out through two straws and said that his doctors expect that he will lose his sight completely within the next few years.

After first receiving his diagnosis Bill Smith began learning how to get around on his own with a support cane. Then after a year he received Ed.

“He helps me out a lot,” Bill Smith said. “It’s the best thing I ever did.”

Bill Smith said the support from his wife, family and friends over the years has been tremendous, as is the fact that with Ed he can go out to do things on his own such as visiting a store by simply telling Ed who knows his way around the city where he wants to go.

“I got my independence back,” Bill Smith said. “And he’s a lap dog when we’re home.”

“Ed isn’t just a guide dog, he’s a part of the family,” Lisa Smith said. “[Bill] found a new best friend.”

As these changes were unfolding, Bill Smith learned from his doctor that he was beginning to develop diabetes and needed to lose weight. So he began working out and running on a treadmill.

“I enjoy it, it clears my head and it does a lot for me,” Bill Smith said.

His fitness routine has changed over the last year since he became involved in the Guiding Eyes for the Blind Running Guides program that trains guide dogs assisting the blind and visually impaired to guide their people while running in a variety of settings, including outdoors.

Guiding Eyes led Bill Smith and Ed through training exercises and a series of tests to receive certification as part of the running program. Although running guides are typically trained before they are provided to their humans, Bill Smith said Ed — who was not previously trained to guide while running quickly — took to the program.

“When Guiding Eyes came out one of the things they told me is that sometimes the dogs don’t like to run or they won’t do it, because they’re so used to walking on the sidewalks and doing commands, and now we’re walking on the side of the road,” Bill Smith said. “At first it was a little difficult, but he loves running.”

Since receiving the training, the duo normally run two to three miles in the city every other day along the Rail Trail. Ed has special gear that he wears while running including red booties that protect his paws from hot asphalt or sharp surfaces.

“Once I get those booties out he goes nuts,” Bill Smith said. “He loves it.”

Ed also wears a unique harness Guiding Eyes provided that offers a freer range of motion than his normal guide harness and features a gripped handle that is easier to hold while running.

Bill Smith said he enjoys running through the city with Ed and people along the Rail Trail often offer them words of encouragement. He added that he sometimes hears children asking their parents questions when they see him running with Ed, which he described positively, hoping that seeing him running with Ed helps raise awareness that being blind or visually impaired is not a barrier to leading a normal life.

“There’s a lot of people who don’t understand,” Bill Smith said. “It doesn’t stop me from doing what I want to do, I want to run and he’s there with me.”

Bill Smith and Ed will break new ground on Sunday when they run in their first 5K road race together during the Utica Boilermaker and become the first blind person and guide dog team to participate in the race.

“I feel like it’s a privilege to do this,” Bill Smith said, noting that other blind people have run in the Boilermaker before guided by another person.

While they are running the unfamiliar course, the duo will be supported by his brother and nephew who will run alongside them to provide visual cues that Bill Smith can give to Ed as verbal commands.

Bill Smith said he was initially inspired to participate in a road race after Guiding Eyes President and CEO Thomas Panek ran in the New York City Half Marathon this year led by a team of guide dogs that took turns running during the race and then shared a video online of the feat.

“He really got me emotional because he said ‘if I can do this anybody can,'” Bill Smith said describing the video of Panek. “That really, really inspired me to do this with Ed.”

Originally from Utica, Bill Smith said he decided to make the Boilermaker his first race since his brother is a longtime participant. Although he would like to tackle the 15K that will also take place Sunday, he ultimately decided on the 5K after he was advised that the 3.1 mile distance is about as far as a guide dog can safely run in a single instance.

“I’m excited, I can’t wait,” Bill Smith said, adding that his goal for Sunday is simply to have fun, while completing the race. “I feel great to do it, I feel proud and we’re going to do more 5Ks.”

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