Marathoner Regains Ability to Compete After Life-Changing Spine Procedure

When Beth Sanden found Dr. Burak Ozgur, Director for the Hoag Spine Center, she was losing hope. After visiting 5 other doctors, she wasn’t sure anyone would be able to help her back injury. “She went in and had a consultation. I didn’t get to be there, but when she came home, she was radiant,” said Burt Sanden, Beth’s husband. Dr. Ozgur was the miracle Beth Sanden was looking for to get her across the finish line.

Sanden suffered her first injury during a bicycle race in 2002, while preparing for the Boston Marathon and the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii. Falling on a downhill stretch, Sanden said she landed on her shoulder blades on broken asphalt. The crash, she said, rendered her an “SCI incomplete T-6-7 paraplegic.” She was partially paralyzed and wheelchair bound.

At the time she said, “They said, ‘She’ll never walk again.’”

But the 68-year-old’s determination and positive attitude wouldn’t hold her back from achieving the unimaginable. She eventually was able to walk with a cane, became a champion marathoner and Guinness World Record holder on the handcycle.

But the challenges for Beth didn’t end there.

In 2021, Beth was involved in an automobile accident on Pacific Coast Highway in Dana Point. Being partially paralyzed, she couldn’t feel at first that she had suffered a broken back. More specifically, pars or stress fractures in her L-4 and L-5 lumbar vertebrae in her lower back.

Eventually, however, the pain came. Along with it came weakness in her legs and several falls that forced her from a cane to a walker and back into the wheelchair full-time.

Beth visited numerous neurosurgeons to try to get her back to where she was before the accident. It was fate that she found Dr. Ozgur.

“I was willing to go find the right doctor, and, boy, was it worth it,” Sanden said.

“It’s not easy to find the ones you can trust,” she added. “It’s hard for me to trust a lot of people in the medical field.”

Especially when one’s future and mobility are at stake.

When she visited Dr. Ozgur, Sanden said the connection was immediate.

“He got right to it,” she said. What seemed to be eluding the other neurosurgeons was the diagnosis. Where is her problem coming from? Was it her 20 year-old thoracic spinal cord injury getting worse, or a new problem in her lumbar spine? Through comprehensive testing, Dr. Ozgur, a specialist in minimally invasive surgical techniques for common degenerative and complex disorders, was able to come to the conclusion that the issue was in her lumbar spine and that surgery would provide the best chance of regaining her mobility.

And with the surgery came great news.

“He said, ‘We’ll get you up and walking,” said Sanden, who expected at least four or five days in the hospital.

After her 2002 accident, she had been in the hospital for 3½ months.

Now, in 2023 she arrived at Hoag in a wheelchair for her surgery anxious about the recovery time, but in 24 hours post op she was already up and walking.

“She’s such a hard-working and determined person with a positive drive and amazing spirit,” said Dr. Ozgur. “I was thrilled to help her get back to doing what she loves.”

Less than six months after surgery, Sanden completed the 2023 Los Angeles Marathon in a time of 2 hours, 27 minutes. And she also completed the Boston Marathon in April.

Long ago she could make anyone’s Hall of Fame list for distance athletes, challenged competitors, just plain True Grit.

Consider in addition to her 114 marathons, AFTER her initial injury Sanden also:

  • Completed marathons on all seven continents in Boston, Mt. Kilimanjaro, Rome, Lima, Tasmania, Vietnam, and Antarctica;
  • Earned Guinness World Record recognition as the first Challenged Athlete to complete the seven continents. To date she is the only athlete to finish Antarctica on a handcycle;
  • She was also recognized by Guinness for completing the Khunjerab Marathon, which summits the highest paved mountain road in the world – 15,396 feet – between Pakistan and China;
  • Finished seven marathons in seven African nations in seven days;
  • And seven marathons in seven days in the Caribbean;
  • And marathons in 33 countries;
  • And the North and South Poles.

Sanden lifts others up through her teaching, her training, and her story. Along with being a member of the Challenged Athletes Foundation, Sanden is also a USA Triathlon coach.

“I want to motivate others, that’s the whole purpose,” she said. “People with disabilities can do things above and beyond what people thought they could.”

And it’s not just the disabled she inspires.

Sanden has rallied the staff at Dr. Ozgur’s office as well.

“I’ve talked the whole office into doing a 5K walk with me,” she said. “If I can do it once, I can do it again.”