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Charlotte race will feature runners with ‘foot drop’

Beth Deloria of Greensboro completed two Boston marathons by the time she was 38. So it might not seem like a big deal that she’s running a half marathon Saturday as part of the 2014 Novant Health Thunder Road Marathon in Charlotte.

But given what happened in the 10 years since, it’s improbable that she’s running at all.

In 2004, after collapsing on her apartment floor, Deloria underwent back surgery that revealed a mild case of spina bifida, a birth defect that was previously undiagnosed. Spinal fusion surgery enclosed the five inches of her lower spinal column that had failed to close before birth and also repaired multiple misaligned and ruptured discs.

That surgery relieved her lifelong back pain, but the discs that had collapsed on each other also crushed the nerves to her left leg. That caused partial paralysis called “foot drop.” As a result, she can’t lift her left foot and has no feeling from the knee down.

To get around, Deloria wore a white plastic brace like a ski boot. It supported the back of her leg and fit into her shoe, locking her ankle in place and keeping her foot at a 90-degree angle so it wouldn’t drag. But it didn’t give her much mobility and left her with an awkward gait.

With practice, Deloria was eventually able to “clunk through” a 3-mile run before wearing out. But her calf muscles atrophied from lack of use. And she became depressed. Frustrated that her orthotics specialist couldn’t recommend a better brace, she went on a mission to find one herself.

Two years later, she happened upon an email list for orthotics professionals. And when she asked if anyone could help her get back to running the Boston marathon, she got 70 replies from all over the world.

Many suggested a technologically advanced ankle-foot orthotic (AFO) made by the Swedish company Allard USA. Some even sent her samples of the brace made of carbon fiber, Kevlar and fiberglass. When she tried it on, she began to cry. Not because it didn’t fit, but because it fit so well.

Because the brace is open in the back, it leaves her calf muscles “freed up and allowed to work.”

Six months later, she ran the Boston marathon for the third time. “It wasn’t the spinal cord injury that was holding me back,” she said. “It was the foot drop.”

For the past three years, Deloria, now 48, has worked for Allard to raise awareness about foot drop and her brace. She recently created a running group, TeamUP, with 10 others who have foot drop caused by a variety of conditions, such as spinal injury, stroke and multiple sclerosis. Although TeamUP is sponsored by Allard, Deloria said other companies make similar braces. TeamUP members will be walking or running in Saturday’s race, thanks to an Allard orthotic device.

“We want to encourage others not to let foot drop steal their quality of life,” she said. “Together, we are demonstrating what is possible.”