Obstacle or opportunity? Doha’s world championship marathon to start at midnight

TORONTO — Runners will step up to the starting line for the next world championship marathon at a time Canada’s best marathoners are already asleep.

Dubbed the “midnight marathon,” the 42.195-kilometre race at the 2019 world track and field championships in Doha will be held at midnight in an effort to avoid the sizzling heat in the Persian Gulf state.

Last week’s announcement of the world championship schedule prompted an outcry on social media. British marathoner Mara Yamauchi was among critics that took to Twitter, writing: “WC Doha 2019 marathon start at midnight?! I wonder if IAAF a) asked marathon runners’ views, b) considered athletes & their welfare, c) considered likely (or unlikely) road-side support in making this decision??”

While track and field schedules often run late into the night, marathons are traditionally held in the morning. Runners are used to rising before the sun does.

“I’ve looked at a lot of the track runners and wondered how I would ever do it running even at 10 o’clock at night,” said Canada’s Krista DuChene, bronze medallist in last month’s Boston Marathon.

“Obviously it would just take time where you’d have to train your body to get used to that. I think it would struggle initially, just because I’m a high-energy person in the morning. I’ve got no problem waking up at 4:30, but 9 o’clock at night I’m pretty much in my pyjamas and the day’s done. So that would be a big change.”

Both DuChene and Canada’s Reid Coolsaet, who was ninth at the Boston Marathon, said they likely wouldn’t run in Doha. The world championships are at a peak time for Tokyo 2020 Olympic qualifying, so they’d likely choose a faster fall race such as the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon.

Still, Coolsaet said it would “be cool running in the dark” in Doha.

“I just don’t understand why it’s not at like 10 p.m. Unless maybe by midnight the roads have actually cooled down, I imagine the sun’s so hot there, the heat coming off the roads you’ll still feel it hours after the sun goes down,” Coolsaet said.

The world championships run Sept. 28 to Oct. 6 of 2019, when temperatures typically see nighttime lows of 22 C to daytime highs of 33 C.

The IAAF scrapped morning sessions for Doha entirely, with all events scheduled for the evening. The 20 and 50-kilometre race walk events have 11:30 p.m. start times, so will run well into the morning hours. Other late events include the final events of the heptathlon and decathlon, starting at 12:05 a.m. for the heptathlon 800 metres, and 12:15 a.m. for the decathlon 1,500.

But do the late start times pose an obstacle or opportunity?

Trent Stellingwerff, the Canadian track and field team’s head of science and sport medicine, called the Commonwealth Games in 2010 in Delhi — with their heat and diet challenges — the toughest trip of his career.

“But I also looked at ‘OK, if we can just do this better than other countries, and have more infrastructure in place, and better advice in place, then on a relative basis, we’re going to perform better,’” Stellingwerff said. “I see (Doha) the same way. We can plan with our athletes, put interventions in place to phase-shift them appropriately. And that said, when it’s a world championships or Olympics, when the gun goes off, there’s nothing like a bit of adrenalin to move your time clock really quickly as well.”

The unique marathon start time, he said, would affect everything from when athletes sleep to when and how much they’d eat.

“We would try to have a few periods strategically put in the months leading in where at least once they would push back (practice), maybe not do a workout right at midnight, but maybe in the evening,” he said. “And so that they’ve got to shift all their eating, and go through some of those practices so that when they get into Doha, they’ve done it before, we know what the challenges are.’

It’s sometimes possible, he added, for athletes to remain on their local time zone to avoid jet lag. He pointed out that Melissa Bishop arrived in Monaco last summer the day before racing, then ran a Canadian record in the 800 metres at the Diamond League there.

“It might be to their advantage to come in very late, and just be there long enough to get their legs under them, stay in the old time zone, do the race, and then deal with jet lag afterwards,” Stellingwerff said.

He also pointed out that Nike chose a very-early morning start time — 5:45 a.m. — before the sun rose, for their sub-two-hour marathon attempt last summer. Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge narrowly missed the historic mark, running 2:00:25 on the Formula One Monza race track in Italy.

“They were trying to pinpoint the absolutely perfect conditions. Kipchoge got up at 2:30 or 3 a.m. for breakfast,” said Stellingwerff. “So any athlete I sit with, I’m going to remind them of that and say ’It didn’t bother Kipchoge, he almost ran under two hours that day.’”

The Doha marathon will be held along the city’s picturesque Corniche waterfront promenade. The track and field events will be run at the refurbished Khalifa International Stadium.

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