While growing up in Jamaica, Sashea Lawson-Douglas was the ultimate "active child." Swim team, tennis, karate, track and field—she loved them all. But around the age of 10, the young athlete discovered she had asthma. She dropped one sport, then another, because she was scared of getting hit with an attack. Little by little, one by one, the activities she loved slipped away.
Within a few years, she'd quit them all.
At age 28 and by then living in New York City, Lawson-Douglas visited her doctor in 2009 for a routine check-up. After a breathing test, he delivered shocking news: she had the lung capacity of the average 70-year-old.
"I wasn't sure what to do," Lawson-Douglas, now 31 and living in Orange, NJ, said in a telephone interview while on her way to a kickboxing class as she trains for Sunday's More Magazine/Fitness Magazine Women's Half-Marathon. "He told me to eat better and be more active, that I didn't have to do anything extreme and could start with walking. So that's what I did."
But while she walked around the 200-meter track in Riverside Park on the Upper West Side, people would pass her. Then the same people would pass her again, sometimes five or six times. Lawson-Douglas grew curious. "I tried jogging, and it hurt so much," she said. "I couldn't even imagine running; I thought, 'This is not possible.'"
She didn't think that for long, however. Soon she was walking for 30 minutes or an hour, then jogging halfway around the track, then walking again. As the days went on, she walked less and jogged more.
"Then I started setting goals," she recalled. "'Okay, if I can do 10 laps in 20 minutes, that would be great.'"
A subscriber to Fitness Magazine, Lawson-Douglas came across an article on how to train for a half-marathon in eight weeks. Again, her first reaction was "This is not possible." And again, her next reaction was to give it a try, following the beginner's program laid out by the magazine and signing up for the 2009 More Magazine/Fitness Magazine Half-Marathon to be held just a few months later.
Despite heat so brutal that the accompanying marathon was cancelled and the half-marathon altered to become an untimed fun run, Lawson-Douglas finished the race, overjoyed and in tears.
"Once I got to that finish line," she said, "I decided to just keep going."
Since that day, Lawson-Douglas has shed 20 pounds and completed dozens of races, including triathlons and the 2011 ING New York City Marathon in a time of 4:32:14. This year, her goal is to finish in less than four hours.
It's been years since she's used her inhaler, and she no longer takes any medication.
Dr. Zeromeh Gerber does not treat Lawson-Douglas, but she has been a friend since their high school days together in Jamaica and has been delighted at the transformation.
"Usually asthmatics have exercise intolerance, especially if it's not managed well," said Gerber in a telephone interview from her home in Utah. "And then it can wax and wane in severity. Environment affects it, too. Everyone with asthma is different."
As for Lawson-Douglas's energetic approach to fitness, said Gerber, "If her activity has worked for her, by all means she should continue doing it. Usually asthmatics who [want to be] active are limited, and we end up giving them more medication so they can enjoy activities, but for her it's the opposite effect. She's more active and having to use less medication."
"I was telling her this morning how inspired I am by her."