This Woman Started Running Backwards When a Rare Disorder Ruined Her Stride
She finished the New York City Marathon on Sunday without taking a single forward step.
Nov 9 2017, 9:11pm
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Justine Galloway knew something was wrong when she put a hole through the toe box of her left running shoe. The shoes weren't old and ready for retirement. They were practically fresh out of the box—Galloway had only logged 20 miles on them. But her left leg had gone haywire, and instead of following her natural gait, it was swinging outward and colliding with the pavement at a new angle. "My brain had to tell it, Hit the ground, come back up. Hit the ground, come back up," she recalls. Galloway went to several doctors and got many diagnoses that didn't quite fit. One told her she had multiple sclerosis, another that she should see a psychologist.
The involuntary movement was also screwing up her walking. Still unsure of the cause, she saw a physical therapist in New Jersey who had her run forwards, sideways, and backwards on a treadmill. Running forwards was nearly impossible, but running sideways and backwards felt weirdly natural. Her walking gait improved, but Galloway, who ran cross country and track in college and has completed ten marathons, reluctantly accepted that her running career was shot.
But six years later, it's far from over. On Sunday, Galloway crossed the finish line at the New York City Marathon for the fifth time. She's no stranger to the race, but it was still a first for her: She ran the entire 26.2-mile course backwards.
Galloway got hooked on the forward-facing sport in the 80s, before the advent of the sports bra, when all you needed to run was a simple, no-frills pair of sneaks. In 1985, her dad, James, was training for the NYC Marathon and five-year-old Galloway would join him after his long runs for a lap around the block. James finished the marathon that year in 3:34:45, but his running career ended much too soon: Two years later, at age 47, James was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.
Although James' running deteriorated quickly, Justine stuck with it. She ran for Rutgers University for three years and completed her first NYC Marathon in 2002 in 3:53:47. Next she ran the Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia marathons. And then came a devastating loss: James passed away in 2010 at age 69. "My dad was the biggest person in my running career," Galloway says. Slamming on the breaks wasn't an option: Running was a way to stay connected with her dad after he was gone. She ran the Big Sur Marathon in California a few weeks after her dad passed away and had no plans of stopping.
In 2011, she was left with no choice. She dropped out of the Boston Marathon around mile 18 because her body felt weak and stiff. A few weeks later, she fell and hit her head. It's unclear if these events are related, but not long after that, she started having difficulty running. That's when she drove a hole through her shoe.
Galloway had no idea what was going on. Why did she suddenly have so little control over her left leg? For months, she kept asking questions and she saw several doctors who couldn't diagnose her. She decided to go to her next appointment prepared: Galloway showed a new group of doctors her busted left shoe and a video of her running forwards. Knowing her father had Parkinson's, the doctors diagnosed her with runner's dystonia, a specific type of movement disorder that causes uncontrollable muscle contractions during long-distance runs.
Just like Parkinson's, there's no cure for dystonia. Medication can help manage the symptoms and make it easier to run forward, but Galloway didn't want to take them. "I loved running forward, but I want to remember it the way it was when I didn't have to think about it, when it didn't feel so weird and awkward and unnatural," she says. Galloway moved from New Jersey to California, thinking that she could at least surf and swim on the West Coast if she had to say goodbye to the running community.
She found that impossible. "It turns out, I really like the running community," she says. "I decided that I needed to be with runners." Somehow, Galloway had to make it happen. She thought back to her physical therapy sessions in New Jersey, and remembered how natural it had felt to run backwards.
Suddenly, she regained her footing. She started out running backwards on the sand but quickly switched to road running because the divots on the beach were difficult to navigate on her own. Then she had the crazy idea to run a half-marathon. Then the even crazier idea to beat the Guinness World Record for the fastest half-marathon run backwards by a woman, which was then 2:49. In 2015, she shaved three minutes off that record at the Rock 'n' Roll San Diego Half. (Another runner broke her record this past March.)
Running backwards stresses her calves and feet more than running forwards—she has fractured her sesamoid bones, the ones in the balls of your feet, since she started running backwards—so Galloway doesn't run as much during training as traditional runners might. An average week of workouts included four spin classes, two backwards runs, and a hike and swim when it fit into the schedule. Her longest backwards run before the NYC Marathon was 21 miles.
Gene Gurkoff, founder of Charity Miles, acted as her eyes on the course, helping her navigate potholes, other runners, and water and fueling stations. Gurkoff is also a guide with Achilles International, an organization that helps people with all types of disabilities participate in running events. "Justine is running backwards, so she's going to have a view of the race that nobody else does," Gurkoff told me a few weeks before the race. "Everybody else is going to see the Verrazano Bridge as, Oh my god, I'm going to go over that, and Justine is going to see it as, Oh my god, I just did that."
Gurkoff and Galloway ran facing each other for essentially the whole race. He ran a few paces behind her facing forwards, and she ran a few paces ahead of him facing backwards. The course felt completely different from the first four times she ran the race. "The hills felt a lot steeper and longer, but the crowds were truly amazing," she says. Around mile five, she pushed through some cramping in her left foot, but she still managed to finish the first half with her fastest backwards time ever—even with two pee breaks.
It was a drizzly and overcast Sunday afternoon. Galloway saw family and friends throughout the course and her boyfriend and nephew gave her a change of socks around mile 20 so she could switch out her soggy socks for a dry pair. "Running backwards with wet feet was hard," she says. "Really hard." Now that she runs backwards, Galloway wears running shoes that are a half size or full size bigger because her toes tend to jam into the front of her shoe when she pushes off the ground. "The bigger the shoe, the less this happens," she says. But the wet socks felt very heavy and were kind of sagging off her toes in the extra space at the front of her shoes. "It felt like there was a weird friction every time I pushed off the ball of my feet," she says. "It also felt like the socks weighed a million pounds."
Around mile 23, right before entering Central Park, she hugged Michael J. Fox. (Galloway ran as part of Team Fox, a group of runners who have raised, at the time of publication, more than $690,000 for the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research through the event.)
"Then I really fell apart in the park," she says. "I took a lot of stretch breaks, but finished the whole thing backwards!" That was the goal: to finish without taking any forward-facing walking breaks. By the end, everything hurt, including her toes. She crossed the finish line in 6:06:51.
The NYC Marathon is more than just a race for Galloway. She was a little girl when her dad ran the course and fresh out of college when she ran it for the first time. And after doing a complete 180, she tackled it again. "I think one of the reasons I'm still running is because of my dad," she says. "I didn't want to give it up until I had to. Right now, I don't feel like I have to yet, so I haven't."
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