Rice psychology professor Mikki Hebl completes quest to run marathons in all 50 states
BY AMY HODGES
Rice News staff
The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, or in Mikki Hebl’s case, a single state.
Over the last 15 years, the Rice University psychology professor has run more than 1,300 miles and traveled several thousand more in her mission to complete marathons in all 50 states. On Dec. 11, her quest came to an end when she crossed the finish line at the Kiawah Island Golf Resort Marathon in South Carolina.
Hebl has been running since college and completed her first marathon in San Antonio while she was in graduate school. She remembers thinking it would be her first and lastmarathon. “It rained the entire time, and I was hurting throughout the race,” she said.
It would be four years before she gave the 26.2 mile challenge another try, in Keene, N.H. Soon after, she was hooked.
“Marathoning is completely addictive,” Hebl laughed. “During so many races I’ve thought, ‘I’m never doing this again!’ And two days later, I seem to forget the pain and misery and happily sign up for the next one.”
Her “addiction,” along with a realization that she wasn’t going to improve her speed much more than her best time — 3 hours, 24 minutes, prompted her to join the Houston-based 50 States Marathon Club, which boasts 2,639 members in all 50 states and 11 foreign countries. The club’s membership has run a combined total of more than 156,000 marathons (or 4,087,200 miles).
Although she’s set foot in all 50 states and run in all imaginable conditions, Hebl claims she doesn’t have a favorite state. There are memorable ones – like California, where she lost eight toenails in the San Marin County Headlands race; Utah, where she ran in the snow; and Minnesota, where she ran through a lightning storm. But she’s enjoyed experiencing the uniqueness of each state.
“I study discrimination, so I’m always interested in hearing why people like or dislike certain states,” Hebl said. “And I like reflecting on my wonderful experiences with each of the states, sometimes the ones that people cite as their least favorite. But I don’t have a favorite. I have appreciated the distinctiveness of each one. The whole experience reminds me of Woody Guthrie’s song ‘This Land is Your Land,’ which just makes me appreciate the East and West, North and South – our beautiful country.”
During her races, Hebl’s family, friends, colleagues and students are in her thoughts. “During the hard parts of my marathons, I try to focus on people I love or who inspire me,” Hebl said. She said she draws special inspiration from the Rice Women’s Cross Country team and their “super coach,” Jim Bevan. “Those women are just amazing,” she said. “When I see them running toward me on the loop, I get chills and feel so excited about how darn fast they are. What talent they have.” In fact, some of Hebl’s favorite people are former Rice University runners, including Malia Mason, now a professor at Columbia University Business School, and Lennie Waite, currently a psychology graduate student at the University of Houston.
“A hot shower never, ever, EVER feels so good as after a marathon!”
Running is more than an “addiction” for Hebl – it’s a family affair. Hebl’s husband, David, is also a marathoner. She met him when they joined the same running club. They and their three young children make running a regular part of their family time.
“It’s been a great way for us to spend time together as a family,” Hebl said. “We let the kids out for the ‘stroller challenge’ – as long as they stay ahead of the stroller, they can stay out of it. If we catch them, they get back in.”
While she’s not looking to expand her marathon running to all seven continents, she has at least two more marathons on her to-do list: the Big Sur International Marathon in California and the National Marathon in Washington, D.C.
All in all, Hebl is happy she took on the 50 state challenge. “I’m proud that I did it. It’s an accomplishment, but I wanted it to be over — which is why I ran eight marathons this year.” She enjoys the camaraderie of running, and all the people she’s met along the way.
“Runners are a special kind of breed,” Hebl said. “They’re down-to-earth and supportive of each other. It’s a real band of brothers (and sisters!).”