Thursday, March 29, 2007
Astronaut will run Boston Marathon _ in space
BOSTON -- Zooming through low-Earth orbit at 17,500 mph,
Suni Williams completes the standard marathon distance every 5.4
Good thing Rosie Ruiz never thought of that.
Williams is registered for next month's Boston Marathon, even
though she'll be stuck on the international space station when the
rest of the field lines up for the 111th edition of the race. So
the U.S. Navy commander will run the equivalent distance on a
treadmill -- 210 miles above Earth, and tethered to her track by
bungee cords so she doesn't float away.
Not since Ruiz hopped the 'T' to the finish line to accept the
winner's wreath in 1980 has a Boston Marathon competitor relied so
heavily on public transportation.
"She thought it would be cool if she gave it a try," said
Williams' sister, Dina Pandya, who will run the race the
traditional way. "She said, 'I'll call you on Heartbreak Hill."
Another NASA astronaut, Karen Nyberg, will dodge the potholes
from Hopkinton to Boston's Back Bay on April 16 along with Pandya
and almost 24,000 other runners. Although the race starts at 10
a.m. EDT on Earth, Williams might not be able to run
contemporaneously because her sleep schedule -- a fairly arbitrary
matter in space -- is set for the arrival of a Soyuz mission.
"I'm not sure the timing will be that she'll be awake," Pandya
said. "They're going to be on Russian time, so they're kind of
Williams qualified for the Boston race by finishing last
January's Houston Marathon in 3 hours, 29 minutes, 57 seconds.
Pandya didn't sweat the logistics when she signed them both up, but
on Dec. 9 Williams took off on the space shuttle Discovery and it
became clear she wasn't going to make it to the starting line.
"I considered it a huge honor to qualify, and I didn't want my
qualification to expire without giving it a shot," Williams told
the Boston Athletic Association, which organizes the oldest of the
world's annual marathons.
The BAA offered to send an official entrant's bib and a special
finisher's medal -- made without lead, per NASA orders -- to the
space station. But when this month's launch of the shuttle Atlantis
was postponed, Williams had to be e-mailed a bib that she can print
out; the other souvenirs will have to wait.
Race organizers have cooperated with far-flung endeavors like
the "Boston Marathon in Iraq," sending extensive packages of
trophies, water bottles and even a finish line tape to the Middle
East for three years running. A similar shipment is headed for
Kosovo this year.
But this is the first satellite race they've ever had on a
"The Boston Marathon is the pinnacle achievement for most
runners," BAA spokesman Jack Fleming said. "For Suni to choose to
run the 26.2 miles in space on Patriots Day is really a tribute to
the thousands of marathoners who are running here on Earth. She is
pioneering a new frontier in running and in sports with her run,
which will truly be out of this world."
Williams, 41, has run a handful of marathons, and she went
through rigorous testing before being blasted into orbit. But three
months with little gravity takes a toll on a human, and NASA
requires all members of a station crew to exercise on the
treadmill, a stationary bike and a resistance machine to maintain
bone density and muscle mass.
"In microgravity, both of these things start to go away because
we don't use our legs to walk around and don't need the bones and
muscles to hold us up under the force of gravity," Williams told
Gravity remains a problem for the world's top marathoners as
they trudge up Heartbreak Hill.
But Williams has her own problems.
A "vibration isolation system" built by a NASA engineer will
keep her from shaking the entire space station as she runs, but the
machinery puts a strain on the runner's hips and shoulders. She
also has to be ready to abort her mission.
Running a marathon is a strain under normal conditions: the
first person who ran one, according to Greek legend, dropped dead
when he finished. Since then, thousands of runners have sought
refuge from on-course aid stations and finish line medical tents to
be treated for hypothermia and dehydration, blisters and broken
bones and heart attacks.
Williams won't get so much as a mylar blanket when she's done.
"That harness gets hard on her back and her shoulders or her
hips. Her foot was going numb because the strap was on her hip so
much," Pandya said.
"She realizes that she has to be OK (after she's finished). She
mentioned the other day, 'There's no hot bath."