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A neurological condition stopped her from running forward. So she turned around

After being diagnosed with focal dystonia, a neurological movement disorder, Justine Galloway couldn't run forward but could enjoy the sport backwards.
/ Source: TODAY

When Justine Galloway hit mile 18 during her third Boston Marathon, she felt something off and didn’t finish the race. Two weeks later, she knew something was definitely wrong.

“My left leg wouldn’t listen to my brain. It was like my left leg was a piece of wood, and it wouldn’t move with my body,” Galloway, 42, told TODAY’s Sheinelle Jones. “It would either stay up in the air or go to the side, and it just wouldn’t plant when I wanted it to plant. And I couldn’t figure out what was wrong.”  

After visiting multiple orthopedists and neurologists over two years, Galloway learned what was wrong with her: She had focal dystonia, a neurological movement disorder that impacts one part of the body with involuntary muscle contractions, according to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons. It normally starts when people are in their 40s and 50s, and women are three times more likely to experience it than men. It only affects Galloway’s running: She can bike or use an elliptical machine normally. In some people, it impacts the thing they enjoy the most, she said.  

“Writers can get it who all of a sudden can’t write. Musicians, pianists who can’t play a song they’ve always played their whole life will get it,” Galloway explained.

Justine Galloway.
For Justine Galloway, running connected her to her father who died of Parkinson's disease. When a neurological condition made running difficult for her, she tried a new way to continue the sport she loves.TODAY

For Galloway, not being able to run hit her hard. Her dad ran a marathon the year she was born, and throughout her childhood, he often trained and ran races. Running became a bonding experience for the pair.

“When he would finish his marathon, I would run around the block with him. He’d always let me win, even though I probably wouldn’t have,” she said. “(I love) the connection to my dad.”

But then her dad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and he had to stop running. His last marathon was in 1990, and he landed in the hospital because it was too grueling for him with his health condition. Galloway’s running took on new meaning for him.

“I ran through high school,” she said. “He lived vicariously through me. I would tell him about my runs.”

In 2010, her dad died, but she continued running, completing nine marathons. After the Boston Marathon, running became painful.   

“Two weeks later I took a fall, and then right after that, my running significantly changed,” Galloway said. “All of a sudden, running forward became more difficult to do.”

After her diagnosis, Galloway participated in physical therapy and discovered something exciting — she could run backwards without pain.

“For some reason, the backwards and the sideways (running) seemed fine, but when I would run forward on the treadmill, I (would) almost start to cry,” she explained. “It just seemed so much more difficult than it ever was before.”

She enlisted the help of friends to run with her to spot any dangers in her way and began enjoying her beloved exercise again. Along the way, she broke two Guinness World Records for running half marathons backwards. She recently completed the New York City Marathon, giving her a different perspective on the race.

Receiving encouragement from Micheal J. Fox during the New York Marathon helped Justine Galloway during the last six miles of the race.
Receiving encouragement from Micheal J. Fox during the New York Marathon helped Justine Galloway during the last six miles of the race.Brett Norton via TODAY

“It was amazing. It was phenomenal running (the) Verrazzano (bridge),” she said. “I see all these people coming up to me and they’re smiling.”

She ran to raise money for the Michael J. Fox Foundation in her father’s memory and received a surprise embrace on the course.  

“I was tired, wet, sweaty and all of a sudden there’s someone who gives me a hug, and at first I thought maybe it was my brother,” she said. “I was like, ‘OK, I’m just going lean on you, (but) then I realized it was Michael J. Fox … and he gave me encouragement.”

She shared her advice with others:

“Keep moving forward and keep moving,” she said. “Don’t let anything stop you, and nothing is impossible.”