The first time Maricar Marquez met Cliff—the beautiful, black Labrador Retriever trained to guide her through her outdoor runs—it was a freezing December morning in Upstate New York. As a deaf and blind runner who had only run with human guides previously, Marquez was nervous that Cliff would go too fast or pull her along the route too aggressively. However, their first half-mile together was nothing like that. “He was perfect,” she recalls.

Marquez and Cliff are members of Guiding Eyes for the Blind, the first and only program in the world to train guide dogs for outdoor runs. “Running [with a dog] wasn’t a priority for me—my priority was to be able to go to work, and to be able to travel independently,” says Marquez. “But this was an exciting addition.”

Marquez has been running for more than 20 years, and has competed in everything from 5Ks to triathlons to the New York City Marathon. As her vision began to deteriorate due to Usher Syndrome, a condition that causes vision and hearing loss, so too did her freedom to pound the pavement on her own. “It got more and more challenging for me to run outside, so I stopped,” she says. “I was running on a treadmill, but I needed someone with me if I was running outside.”

It took two-and-a-half years, but Marquez finally got just that. When she and Cliff were paired up, she says, “we fell in love immediately.” After their initial training at Guiding Eyes for the Blind, the two of them returned home and began prepping for their first 5K. “It was the perfect opportunity for us to start our running career together,” says Marquez.

Since then, the duo has run another 5K and competed in a triathlon. “With Cliff, I feel more free,” says Marquez, adding that she loves that he keeps up with her pace, instead of the other way around. “With a [human] guide, they’ll be in front of you and you’re holding on. There can be problems because it’s a little awkward holding onto someone’s body…their balance throws off your balance.”

Marquez notes that she’s completed the New York City Marathon, several triathlons, and other races with human guides, but her balance challenges increased once she no longer had her sight. “I lost my motivation to run for a while, but Cliff has given this back to me,” she says.

Of course, there are certain factors to consider when you have a seeing eye dog for running. In order to ensure her safety, Marquez needs to find “perfect” running conditions where there will be no risk of running into traffic or other roadblocks. She also must be sure that she knows the route inside and out before logging her miles. “Cliff doesn’t know the environment, and he can’t tell me things,” she says, adding that he can also become distracted. (He is a dog, after all).

Cliff’s job is to guide Marquez around obstacles, and the two of them communicate through their movements. Cliff will stop to let her know that they’ve arrived at a curb, and slows down to indicate that there’s an upcoming change in terrain. “This information allows me to prepare myself,”  says Marquez. “I have balance problems and he seems to understand that—he follows my pace, and he slows down at times to make sure I don’t lose my balance.”

So what advice does Marquez have for people with vision or hearing loss who are considering a seeing eye dog for running? “You have to be ready to make the commitment, and you have to be super excited and motivated to run,” she says. “But if it’s something you want to do, you can do it. First, you have to be confident in yourself, then you can be confident in your dog. He and I are a team, and I love that.”

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