No cool runnings for Doha marathoners
“I am disgusted by the conditions,” said French race walker Yohann Dinz. The 41-year-old Frenchman, the world record holder and world champion in the 50km race walk, was talking about the heat in Doha, where the World Athletics Championships began on Friday.
“We are going to start and finish in the equivalent of Dante’s Inferno-type conditions,” Dinz said. The race, he said, “will be a lottery. “The (lottery) balls will fall one by one and it will be the last one that falls which will win.”
So much for tactics; athletes at Doha are consumed far more with thoughts of how to tackle the heat and humidity of the desert city—temperatures are expected to hit 40 degrees celsius, with 80 percent humidity. While most events will take place inside the air-conditioned Khalifa stadium, it’s the race walkers and marathon runners who will have to deal with the heat threat.
With this in mind, the road events have been scheduled for late-night starts—a first for the world championships. The women’s marathon on Friday, where the first medals of the championships will be decided, will begin at 11:59pm local time.
International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) President Sebastian Coe said he is confident marathon runners will be able to cope with temperatures forecast at around 32 degrees Celsius and humidity of 80 percent—which effectively feels to the body like it’s around 44 degrees.
Organisers have pulled out all the stops: There will be a larger than usual team of paramedics present for the events, and more water stations than is the norm.
“The overwhelming thrust of this is the welfare of the athletes,” Coe said on Thursday. “We will have more water on the course than we’ve ever had in any marathon.”
Take the pill
Coe also said that the marathon runners and race walkers have been offered “pill thermometers” to monitor their core temperature in realtime during competition.
Coe said the road races would be closely monitored by medical staff and information would help the IAAF prepare for next year’s Tokyo Olympics where temperatures are also expected to be hot and humid.
How do these thermometers work? They are sophisticated devices the size of the average fish oil capsule that are ingested. The silicone-coated capsule contains sensors, a microbattery and a quartz crystal temperature sensor. Once swallowed, the quartz sensor vibrates at a frequency reative to the body’s temperature, according to NASA, who developed the device in the 1980s for use by astronauts. The quartz trasnmits a low-frequency signal through the body. A handheld device outside the body can read the signal wirelessly, and display a core body temperature. The pill passes through the digestive system after about 24 hours. The pill has been in use by athletes in the US since 2001.
Starting a marathon at midnight is challenging in itself for athletes used to day time races. With various challenges in mind, India’s leading marathon runner T Gopi started fine-tuning his preparations for Doha well in advance.
The race schedule would certainly affect competitors sleep and diet said Gopi.
“The concept that roads might cool down at night is fine but the heat coming off the roads is still felt long after the sun has set,” he added.
The first thing he did to simulate the conditions was to shift all his long runs, usually done early in the morning, to late evening.
“The weekly long run of 40km, the tempo run of 20km and even some fast speed sessions too I did in the evening,” he said.
Some runners abroad, according to Gopi, use technology that simulate the conditions of the race on a treadmill.
“There are also gadgets to evaluate the water loss through breathing and sweating in hot conditions, but such facilities aren’t available in India,” he said. I trained in natural conditions in Bengaluru.”
Marathon races in warm weather conditions during major events—where athletes tend to push themselves to the limit, unlike, say at the Mumbai Marathon, where the runs are tailored to the conditions—has been contentious in the past as well. At the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in April, the Scottish runner Callum Hawkins led all the way till the 40km mark with the temperature hovering near 30 degrees Celsius, but then collapsed on the course and was rushed to a hospital with dehydration.
India’s marathon runner OP Jaisha too spoke about the debilitating effects of heat during the 2016 Rio Games. She had collapsed after finishing the race and was treated for dehydration.
National distance coach Surender Singh said that at Rio, a sudden downpour before the men’s marathon cooled things down during the race, and “the conditions were slightly better, but during the women’s race it was very hot. At this distance, any discomfort can spoil chances of a personal best.”
This is the second time Gopi will be competing at the Worlds. He had finished 28th with a time of 2:17:13 at the 2017 edition in London. At Doha, the marathon route will trace six laps around a 7km course along the Doha Corniche, a waterfront promenade lined with towering, glittering skyscrapers. At night, with all those lights, it’s quite the spectacle.
The athletes may have to overcome great challenges during the run, but at least they will look cool doing it.