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Altitude training

Astronaut gears for own Marathon

In addition to training for the Marathon, Suni Williams has various other duties to tend to on the "working laboratory." (PHOTO COURTESY NASA)

After Mission Control in Houston opens audio and video connections between Earth and the International Space Station more than 200 miles away, "the event" can begin. Following protocols provided a day in advance, the transition into a live conversation with Expedition 14 Flight Engineer and official Boston Marathon entrant Suni Williams goes smoothly.

Capsule communicator (Capcom): Station, this is Mission Control. Are you ready for the event?

Station: We are ready for the event.

Capcom: Boston Globe, this is Mission Control Houston. Please call Station for a voice check.

Boston Globe: Station, this is the Boston Globe. How do you hear me?

Station: Hello. We have you loud and clear.

From the U.S. Destiny Laboratory aboard the International Space Station (ISS), Williams bobs gently beside Expedition 14 Commander Mike Lopez-Alegria, a microphone floating between them. Williams wears a Red Sox cap, which keeps her long, wavy, black hair from standing on end in all directions. She looks like a typical marathon runner, thin and compact. She sounds like one, too, talking excitedly about her training for the Marathon a week from today and her strategy for completing the race.

It goes without saying, Williams will run anything but the typical Marathon aboard the International Space Station. There will be no crowds jostling Williams at the start, just the five other crew members floating around and jokingly throwing elbows in microgravity. There will be no screaming Wellesley coeds creating a deafening corridor between Miles 12 and 13, just preselected movies and music played on nearby computers and possibly a Red Sox game. There will be no Heartbreak Hill, just the constant pain of the harness that tethers Williams to the space treadmill.

"Thank God, we can't [re-create Heartbreak Hill in space]," said Williams, who is familiar with the course from growing up in Needham, watching the Marathon from the 14-mile mark, and running the race previously. "I remember running that hill on the 100th running and that's a pretty vicious hill. But I have to say the treadmill itself isn't the easiest thing to run on. Not only are we running, but we're held down with a harness and it's a little bit heavy on your shoulders and your hips. So, it's going to be a little bit of a pain as it is. So, I think I'll do just as well [simulating the difficulty of the course] running on the treadmill."

Calling the 41-year-old Williams modest in detailing her attempt to run the first full marathon in space, Lopez-Alegria describes the space treadmill with a vibration isolation and stabilization system as "kind of a torture device." The harness -- a set of bungee-cord cables that function as part of a spring system -- shoots straight up from the treadmill and wraps around runners' hips and shoulders. By tightening or loosening the cable springs, Williams can adjust the amount of force exerted on her body. The goal is for Williams to approximate the effects of gravity with a pull equivalent to her body weight.

Further complicating matters, the treadmill floats inside a service module, preventing the pounding of running astronauts from causing vibrations that could damage the space station. Wires affixed at each corner of the treadmill hold the 800-pound machine in place while a gyroscope keeps it level as astronauts work out.

On Earth, Williams runs slightly better than an eight-minute-per-mile pace. Contending with the awkwardness and discomfort of the space treadmill, Williams completes a mile in 10 minutes, meaning it will take her almost 4 1/2 hours to complete the Marathon if all goes well. Starting her training in earnest after a series of space walks in mid-December, Williams has run as many as 15 miles at a time on the space treadmill.

"Because I came up here on a shuttle flight and it was really busy for about 10 days, I didn't get on the treadmill probably for about two weeks after I got up here," said Williams. "You start to lose some of your physical fitness right away just because you're living in microgravity. There's an issue with bone mass and muscle mass deteriorating rather rapidly because you're not using your legs. So getting on the treadmill was tough right from the beginning, but now I can run 10 miles [consistently], which is not that big of a deal.

"The first time I got on there, I couldn't even do a mile with my legs wobbling back and forth. You're not going to fall off the treadmill. If your legs move [back and forth off track], you just start floating. So, that's no big deal."

Williams laughs alongside Lopez-Alegria before answering most questions about her upcoming marathon and life in space, giving the impression that running 26.2 miles on a floating treadmill aboard the International Space Station is nothing extraordinary. She often utters the phrase "no big deal." While crew members are required to exercise for 2 1/2 hours a day, with at least four days a week on the treadmill to help maintain bone and muscle mass, it doesn't begin to compare with what Williams will experience during the Marathon.

Aside from the challenges presented by the space treadmill, Williams will run in a service module where the temperature hovers around 75 degrees, about 25 degrees warmer than ideal race conditions. While Williams is accustomed to training in the heat and humidity of Houston, where she qualified for Boston running a 3:29:57 marathon in January 2006, sweat does not evaporate normally in space.

"Water just sort of hangs on you until it makes a big enough glob that it floats away," said Williams. "So, it gets pretty sweaty up here when you're working out. That's sort of a pain. I anticipate that at some point during the run I'd like to change my clothes because I think they're going to be pretty wet."

To rehydrate, Williams will sip from water-filled packets suspended near the treadmill. The silver-colored packets with attached straws bear a resemblance to a child's juice box, just bigger, more durable, and round-shaped. As Williams discusses her plans for "water stops," Lopez-Alegria grabs a water packet floating nearby and squeezes out a drop from the straw. The drop floats in the air until Williams leans forward and swallows it.

"We'll be throwing wet sponges at her and trying to keep her occupied," said Lopez-Alegria.

Joking aside, the crew members recognize the difficult task ahead for Williams. During the Marathon, they will take breaks from their official duties to visit Williams, making sure she has the support she needs.

"Honestly, I think it's going to be pretty challenging for her to stay on that thing for such a long time," said Lopez-Alegria. "The crew member that we have assigned to [monitor Williams] is Suni. She's going to be watching herself. Seriously, we'll certainly be keeping an eye on her."

But one of the biggest concerns for Williams is finding time during a typically hectic day at the space station to run the Marathon. Even though crew members constantly adjust their sleep cycles depending on their duties, she hopes to run the race at roughly the same time as the actual Boston Marathon. The first wave of runners will start in Hopkinton at 10 a.m.

Williams's duties may keep her start time from coinciding with that of other Boston runners, including her sister, Dina Pandya. Williams qualified for Boston almost a year before she departed for space on Dec. 9, 2006, to take part in Expeditions 14 and 15 and did not want her qualification window to expire without competing in the race. Williams is serving a six-month stint on the space station, where her duties include walking in space, operating a robotic arm to move equipment outside the station, and conducting science experiments. She holds the women's record for hours spent space walking with 29 and counting.

"Up here, this is a working laboratory, a working spaceship," said Williams. "We've got a new crew coming in, the Expedition 15 guys. They'll be here just a couple days before the actual Marathon day. We're going to have a lot of turnover operations going on. So, hopefully, we'll actually get to do it, at least close enough to the time that the actual Marathon is going on. That's one of the biggest concerns. I don't want to interrupt all that other stuff that's going on, that has to go on."

If the timing cannot be completely synchronized, Williams will have an opportunity to call her sister somewhere between Hopkinton and Boston. Pandya will be running with a cellphone. Normally, calls between Williams and her family are limited to brief windows during weekends. Pandya will be part of a "ground support" crew that includes runners from Delaware, Maryland, and Houston with ties to the space program, such as NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg and Naval Academy alum Ronnie Harris. There also will be a spectator support group between Miles 14 and 15 marking the transition between Expeditions 14 and 15.

"I hope we both finish the race," said Pandya, who plans to wear the official patches of Expedition 14 and 15 on her running top as well as a picture of Williams's beloved Jack Russell terrier, Gorby. "I feel like if she can make the effort up there, I can make the effort down here."

Back in space, Williams will wear bib No. 14,000 in honor of Expedition 14. Marathon officials electronically sent the bib number to NASA, which forwarded it to Williams. She also plans to don a pair of red socks for part of the race for her favorite team. With characteristic modesty and some space humor, Williams figures she will celebrate the completion of the Marathon with a good meal and some rest.

"I think I'm going to have a good lunch, some pasta we have up here, some lasagna and some ravioli," said Williams. "I think I might have two servings of that, a big glass of orange juice and put my legs up." Williams rocks backward and smiles, showing that her legs easily float upward whenever not running on the space treadmill.

Lopez-Alegria quickly adds: "I'm sure peanut butter and fluff will be on her menu."

The astronauts bob up and down even more, laughing at their remarks. Then, a voice from Mission Control comes over the audio line.

Houston ACR (Audio Control Room): Station, this is Houston ACR. That concludes the event.

Now, from Boston to the moon, the real big event takes place a week from today.