‘Same frying pan’: Marathoners brace for heat in Sapporo


SAPPORO — Eliud Kipchoge looks at the early-morning heat and the heavy humidity forecast for the marathon with a cool demeanor.

“All of us,” the defending Olympic champion from Kenya recently said, “will be in the same frying pan.”

The Olympic marathons, along with the race walks, were shifted all the way north to Sapporo due to the extreme heat in Tokyo. It’s at least a 1 1/2-hour flight, or two long train rides away, but a heat wave means it’s really no cooler in the Hokkaido island capital.

“No worries,” Kipchoge said. “Just go and run, compete and the best one will win.”

The start of the women’s marathon Saturday was moved forward an hour to 6 a.m. because of the forecast heat later in the morning. When the women’s race finishes, it’s expected to be around 85 degrees Fahrenheit (29 Celsius) with 75% humidity.

Those aren’t easy running conditions.

The men’s version Sunday may bring more cloud cover — maybe even some rain — and a more reasonable temperature of 79 (26 C). But the humidity will hover around 86% making it feel much toastier.

Some of the competitors in the Olympic field got a blast of furnace-type heat and humidity at the 2019 world championships in Doha. That race was a midnight run and still hit 88 degrees (31 C), with a heat index of 105 (40 C). It led to nearly 30 runners not getting to the finish line as Ruth Chepngetich of Kenya captured gold.

She’s among the favorites at the Tokyo Olympics. There could be quite a few “DNFs” — did not finish — given the conditions.

Along the looping race-walk course Friday, there was a screen that featured an up-to-date temperature reading.

Friendly tip from 50-kilometer Canadian race walker Evan Dunfee when the marathoners take the stage: Don’t look at it. The rising thermometer only makes it feel hotter.

“It was brutal out there,” Dunfee said after winning a bronze medal.

The marathons start at 7 a.m. local time, which means plenty of sun along a course that begins at Odori Park. The route features a large loop along with two smaller ones, before ending back in the park.

This path could’ve been an ideal place for fans. But like the events in Tokyo, spectators are asked to watch on television to limit the risk of coronavirus infection.

“I would be more happy if all these challenges were not there and fans could be lining up on the road to cheer us, give us hope,” Kipchoge said. “All in all, we respect the authorities. We respect the challenges.”

Since the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, the debate over footwear technology has received plenty of traction in the running community.

Nike created a game-changing shoe with its Alpha Fly Next% sneaker, which featured carbon-fiber plates for more spring and faster times. Kipchoge wore a prototype of the Alphafly when he ran the world’s first sub-2-hour marathon in an unofficial race in October 2019.

World Athletics, the sport’s governing body, put out a set of complicated guidelines about what constitutes a “legal” shoe for distance running.

Other companies are closing the gap.

“The shoes are really good,” Kipchoge said of his Nike model. “But, all in all, if you are not fit enough then you cannot really perform well. It’s about fitness. It’s about training.”

It’s about hydration, too. There will be numerous water stations and plenty of crushed ice along the way.

World Athletics put together a “calculator” to help athletes assess heat readiness. The title was, “Are you prepared to compete in the heat?” There were nine categories on the list, with a point value assigned.

For example, four points were earned for two weeks of heat acclimation, and one for a “pre-cooling” plan such as using ice vests. On the opposite end, clothing that limited sweat evaporation warranted a minus-one deduction. The aim was to reach five points.

In Doha for worlds, about 200 runners volunteered to swallow red-and-white capsules that contained data transmitters. It was part of a research project through World Athletics on the effects of heat and body-core temperatures.

They couldn’t have picked a better location than Qatar, where the temperatures reach 100 degrees (38 Celsius) every day.

“It has been extremely useful to prove that events can be staged even in challenging conditions, provided that an adequate mitigation plan is in place,” said Dr. Paolo Emilio Adami, the health and science manager at World Athletics.

For the Olympic races, World Athletics has technology available to provide real-time feedback on pollution levels, air quality, environmental temperature, relative humidity, wind characteristics and a reading from a wet bulb globe temperature index, which assesses the exposure level of a runner to heat stress.

“This information is fundamental,” Adami said, “to establish the risk athletes, officials and volunteers might be exposed to during the event.”

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