Astronaut Suni Williams To Run Boston Marathon on Space Station

By Lea Terhune
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington – She may be flying about 320 kilometers above the earth in the International Space Station (ISS), but that does not deter astronaut Sunita “Suni” Williams from competing in the April 16 Boston Marathon. She will join the annual footrace on a uniquely cumbersome treadmill, circling the earth as she runs in place.

“The treadmill itself isn’t the easiest thing to run on. Not only are we running but we are held down with a harness and it’s a little bit heavy on your shoulders and your hips,” she told journalists in a NASA interview webcast on April 4. “To stay on it … clips connect to a bungee that holds you down onto the treadmill and you can regulate how much force it is putting into your hips and shoulders by shortening or lengthening of the bungee. That way you can sort of simulate your own weight.” It helps counter the propensity to lose bone mass in space. “It’s a little bit painful to be wearing that harness while you are running,” she said.

Even perspiration is a problem in space, she said. “Water doesn’t evaporate off you or drop off you. It just sort of hangs on you, until it makes a big enough blob so that it floats away.”

ISS Commander Captain Michael Lopez-Alegria elaborated on what her onboard support team will contribute: “We’ll be throwing wet sponges at her and trying to keep her occupied. Honestly, I think it’s going to be pretty challenging for her to stay on that thing for such a long time. It really is kind of a torture device.”

As if running in harness were not enough, the treadmill is mounted on a gyro so it moves around. This “vibration isolation system” prevents the impact of running feet from putting loads on the space station in the gravity-free environment. “It’s a little bit tricky to have some balance,” Williams said.

“Suni is being a little bit modest,” Lopez-Alegria interjected. “Running on a treadmill is really pretty challenging.” The first few times, he said, “it is hard to just stand up.” He said although she would not be running up steep hills, “this will be a very challenging event in a completely different way.” Her speed or whether her run exactly coincides with the April 16 marathon is not the point, he said. “I think the fact that she’s able to do it and finish it will be quite an achievement for her, because it really is a different environment up here. … It really will be tough for her.”

The ISS is a working space station. Each of the crew has critical daily duties. New crew members for Expedition 15 will arrive on the ISS just before the marathon. The crew’s work and sleep schedules will determine whether Williams can run simultaneously with the ground marathon. “We are going to be pretty busy with normal occupations,” Lopez-Alegria said, but according to NASA, mission control hopes to coordinate the space event with the terrestrial one.

Personal fitness apart, Williams wanted to run the marathon in space to “encourage kids to start making physical fitness part of their daily lives.” She challenged friends and family to join in her fitness program. Daily exercise is mandatory for astronauts in space to prevent loss of bone density and muscle mass resulting from weightlessness.

Williams, a seasoned runner, qualified for the event after running a 3:39:59 marathon in Houston in 2006. She did not want to lose the opportunity to run in the 111th Boston Marathon just because she was in space. Her bib number, 14,000, signifies her membership in ISS Expedition 14. It was issued by the Boston Athletic Association and sent to her electronically.

She said she has been training for months, and is “consistently” running about 9.6 kilometers per hour, or 1.6 kilometers a minute. She has worked up to 25.7 kilometers at a stretch. The marathon is 42.1 kilometers long.

Williams said she can pass the time watching movies while running on the treadmill. She will not have the crowds to look at that usually line Boston’s streets during the marathon. An astronaut colleague, Karen Nyberg, and Williams’ sister, Dina Pandya, will keep her company, running the marathon on the ground. Williams and Nyberg qualified together by finishing among the top 100 women in the Houston Marathon.

Williams, who is midway through her six-month stint aboard the ISS, hails from Needham, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. Boston’s marathon is among America’s oldest.

Surrounded by a busy working crew, Williams will monitor herself during the race. “I plan to take a couple of stops … sometimes it’s nice to take a little break to get some relief from that harness,” she said.

For video highlights, see NASA Web site.