Women's marathon at World Athletics Championships derailed by brutal conditions

Mark Puleo

Rutendo Joan Nyahora, of Zimbabwe, drinks water during the women's marathon at the World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar, Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

Sixty-eight of the world's best women's marathon runners gathered in Doha, Qatar, for the World Athletics Championships event on Friday night. By the time the race finished on Saturday morning, only 40 racers reached the finish line.

"The humidity kills you," fifth-place finisher Volha Mazuronak of Belarus said. "There is nothing to breathe... It's disrespectful towards the athletes. A bunch of high-ranked officials gathered and decided that it would take [the Championships] here but they are sitting in the cool and they are probably sleeping right now."

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With temperatures reaching 90 degrees F (32 degrees C) and humidity at 73.3%, hydration became a far bigger obstacle for the athletes than the 26.2 miles. Organizers opted to move the race to a midnight start time in order to avoid the heat as much as possible, but the heat still played a large role.

Ruth Chepngetich, right and Visiline Jepkesho, second from right, both of Kenya, run during the women's marathon at the World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar, Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

Race winner Ruth Chepngetich came into the event with the fastest time of 2019 while also owning the third-fastest women's marathon of all time. Her winning time 2:32:43 was over 15 minutes slower than her personal best and would have earned her 13th place at the less-heralded Berlin Marathon held on Sunday.

The brutal heat not only depleted the competitive field of athletes, it also squashed any hopes of a fast time. Chepngetich's time was the slowest winning time in all 36 years of the World Championships.

While some fans speculated that the race may be canceled, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) released a statement on Sep. 27 confirming that the race would go on as planned.

Anne-Mari Hyryläinen, of Finland, cools herself off during the women's marathon at the World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar, Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

In their statement, the IAAF reiterated the efforts taken in order to minimize health risks from the heat. Along with moving the start time to midnight, those efforts included increasing the number of refreshment points along the course, over scaling the medical plan for these endurance events and recruiting leading medical experts to be part of the medical team.

However, many remained critical of the decision to hold the race in such brutal conditions.

"It was a mistake to conduct the championship in such hot weather in Doha, especially the marathon race," Haile Gebrselassie, a former world record holder in the marathon, told the Associated Press. "As someone who has been in the sport for many years, I've found it unacceptable. God forbid, but people could have died running in such weather conditions."

Croatian Bojana Bjeljac competes during the women's marathon at the World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar, Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

Haji Adillo Roba, the coach of three Ethiopian runners who dropped out, was critical of the organizers after the race.

"We never would have run a marathon in these conditions in our own country."

The Kenyan Chepngetich told reporters that she trained for the heat by training in the most brutal conditions possible.

"It was a tough race, but I knew what to expect as I ran in Dubai," Chepngetich said. "I trained for this weather running in the afternoon when the sun was high. I want to win another for Kenya in Tokyo."

After the race, the IAAF released another statement defending their decision, arguing that the number of finishers is comparable to previous World Championship races, such as when the race was held in Tokyo, Japan, in 1991.

Runners sit in a golf cart after abandoning the women's marathon at the World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar, Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

However, Tokyo itself has became a hotbed of debate as the city prepares to host the Olympics next summer. Like Doha, Tokyo deals with brutal heat waves that are far from favorable for marathon racing.

With less than a year to prepare for similar conditions, Olympics organizers have used events like the World Championships to analyze how alternative measures may be effective.

At a test marathon held in Tokyo on Sep. 15, officials used mist machines, handed out ice cubes, gave out plastic fans and even created ice scarves for racers and spectators.

On Sunday, the men's marathon will take place, giving Tokyo organizers another opportunity to witness how the heat can impact the event.

However, even the athletes competing in the air-conditioned indoor events have strongly spoken against the decision to hold competitions in such hot settings.

"Can I just mention how I would have died today if that stadium wasn't air-conditioned?" American pole vaulter Sandi Morris said. "It would have been one mass grave for us all."

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