Thousands of giant steps for womankind

By Simon Turnbull

Thirty-eight years after Neil Armstrong took his "one small step for a man" on the Moon, Sunita Williams is getting ready to take several thousand much quicker steps for womankind while orbiting the Earth.

A week tomorrow, Williams, a 41-year-old US Navy commander and Nasa astronaut, will be running the 42km distance of a marathon aboard the International Space Station. She will be performing her remarkable feat 240km above the Earth and as competitor No 14,000 in the Boston Marathon.

When Williams is strapped on to the treadmill on the International Space Station, with her race number pinned to her vest, she will be taking sport to the outer limits.

The Boston Marathon is the world's oldest annual marathon - it started in 1897 - and it has strict entry standards for its 24,000 participants. Having qualified for this year's race with a time of 3h 29m 57s in last year's Houston Marathon, Williams was not going to let a space flight stop her taking her place.

When she was chosen as one of the three-person crew for ISS Expedition 14 - a six-month tour that started in December - she asked the Boston Athletic Association, if she could compete as a long-distant entrant. It agreed, sending her race number by email to the International Space Station.

"I consider it a huge honour to qualify, and I didn't want my qualification to expire without giving it a shot," Williams said.

The International Space Station, flying at a speed of more than 28,000km/h will orbit the Earth at least twice while Williams pounds out her marathon on the treadmill, to which she will be tethered by a harness to overcome the lack of gravity.

"Running on the treadmill is a little tough," she said. The first time I got on it, I couldn't run a mile [1.6km] and my legs were wobbling. Now I've got up to about 15 miles on it."

"We have the treadmill because we need to exercise a lot to stop losing bone mass and muscle mass. You can't run as fast on it, so it's going to take me longer than it did when I ran my qualifying time."

Still, if she lasts the distance, Williams will have another record to add to her list - the fastest marathon out of this world.

She holds the records for the most space walks by a woman (four) and most time spent on space walks by a woman (29h, 17m). By the end of her present tour she will also hold the Nasa record for the longest time spent in space by an astronaut of either sex.

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