Niki_FullBy Laurie Ross 

Mikki Hebl eyed the faces and hands of each person as she skirted the picturesque streets of Lausanne, Switzerland. A spy? No. She’s an industrial psychologist from Rice University in Houston, traveling on business. She‘s watching for smokers because she has asthma that’s set off by cigarette smoke.

“I seemed to be dodging every other person on the street because each time I inhale smoke, it makes me react just a little bit more and more,” she says.

Mikki has had asthma since she was a child. In addition to smoke, it’s set off by animal dander, air pollution and cold or dry weather. Growing up in Wisconsin and going to college in Massachusetts, the cold weather was most difficult to avoid. When she moved to Houston and turned to running to cope with the stress of graduate school, she found the warm weather easy on her lungs.

Sixty-five marathons, a PhD and three children later, she’s still going!

In October 2013, Mikki ran for Allergy & Asthma Network in the 38th Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C. It was her first time running the event. She is one of few athletes to join the 50 States Marathon Club – and run a marathon in all 50 states. (Allergy & Asthma Network Board of Directors member Brooke Curran, who also has asthma, is also in that elite group.)

“Most people who run have some sort of goal,” Mikki explains. “I had run marathons in seven states when I heard about the club and thought it would be super amazing to reach the 10 states required to join. Then it just became so much fun to do them and see the country one state at a time! It took 15 years to do it, with three babies in between.”

Mikki works hard to keep her asthma under control. She takes an inhaled corticosteroid daily and uses albuterol before each race. She avoids marathons that include cold, dry weather and monitors her breathing closely.

“I’ve had to cancel out a couple of times because I was having an exacerbation and I knew I wouldn’t make it,” Mikki says. “And I know I wouldn’t do well running in a different country where my body is not used to the pollutants.”

Her doctor has recommended she restart allergy immunotherapy this summer, due to an increase in exacerbations in recent years.

“Sports that are slow and steady, like swimming and running, have been very good for me – not sprints, but a slow jog with methodic breathing,” Mikki says.

Her advice to others? “When I am in shape, breathing is easier,” she says. “I encourage those with asthma to consult with a doctor, start slow and build up slowly. Listen to your body and your breathing, and don’t worry about how fast you run a race.”

Reviewed by Michael Foggs, MD and James Kemp, MD