Capt. Seshadri Sreenivasan talks about how astronaut Sunita Williams trained for her marathon’s on earth and in space.
Every year, several hundred marathons are held on earth, commemorating the run of Pheidippides to Athens, bearing the news of the historic victory of the Greeks. This, however, is the story of a marathon that was run 354 miles up in space. It is a few years old but the feat still stands as new as of yesterday. Just over a decade ago, the world, and India in particular, celebrated the record breaking feats of an Indian origin lady from Gujarat, idolizing her and making her an icon for posterity. While lesser mortals struggle to walk long distances on land, she walked nonchalantly in space for 7 hours and 31 minutes non-stop, setting a record in the process. Cdr Sunita Williams, Navy Seal, helicopter pilot and astronaut, later Commander of the International Space Station, long distance swimmer, triathlete, marathon runner and achiever extraordinaire. As December approaches, the month in which she first boarded the International Space Station, we pay a special tribute to her grit and determination that marked her journey into space.
As a child, Suni was an ardent swimmer, cycling to classes morning and evening, even in the harshest of New York winters. One day, at age 11, along with brother Jay, she suddenly decided to participate in the grueling Boston Marathon Swim, from Boston Light to the aquarium, a distance of 15 miles, braving huge waves and schools of jellyfish, finishing creditably for a chit of girl not even into her teens.
Space was the beginning of her glory years and brought her fame and a fan following from around the globe. But it was hard work all the time. Extra Vehicular Activity, the mundane technical term for spacewalking, was extremely taxing. The exercises to stay fit on the Space Station involved a mini triathlon comprising 25 minutes of cycling, 20 minutes or roughly 2.7 km of running and floating laps, akin to swimming in air, combined with lifting weights, a far cry from the training done on land.
Food for thought
Suni Williams (as she is commonly known) was in a peculiar position, sandwiched between a pure vegetarian father from Gujarat and a meat eating mother from Slovenia. Thus sprang her love for wasabi and an equal craving for sukhadi and pakoda, along with gulab jamun and jalebi. A true blend of Indian food and international spirit.
Her marathon debut was as a junior in high school, when she ran the Boston Marathon with no formal training except for running as a warm up before swimming. Running in old boy high top shoes, her feet were so sore at the halfway mark at Wellesley, that she kicked the shoes off and completed the rest of the race barefoot, completing in just over 5 hours. In later years, at the US Naval Academy, athletics director Ron Harris, himself a world class runner, was to put her through her running paces for future marathons.
The year 2006
On December 28, 2006, wearing a Navy T shirt bearing the number 14,000, Cdr Suni Williams strapped herself to a painful harness on a treadmill aboard the International Space Station and ran the marathon in a grueling 4 hours 23 minutes and 10 seconds. Running at an average of 6 miles an hour, while the space station hurtled along at 5 miles per second, she ran the 42.2 miles while the spacecraft traveled an astonishing 121,600 km, almost thrice round the world.
Hers is a life of commitment, focus and discipline and should serve as an example for every athlete around the world. And all these marked by simplicity, humility and a love for mankind.