DOHA, Qatar – Long before any contestant left here in Doha, their bodies tormented and broken by the heat when Friday night turned into Saturday morning, the announcer published the race as a unique event, as something to celebrate: the first midnight marathon in a global competition.
Really, the late start of the women's marathon at the World Athletics Championships – 11:59 pm. local time, to be more precise – was a conscious concession to the elements, the conditions that tend to hover between the melted and the buckled. By the time the race began, the temperature had cooled to a pleasant 90 degrees.
Officials of the International Association of Athletics Federations, the governing body of athletics, worked hard before the event to emphasize how much they had dedicated to athlete safety. Extra water stations. Extra medical staff. For the runners themselves, who made six laps on a seven-kilometer track, the race was extremely painful.
Most painful for everyone except Ruth Chepngetich of Kenya, who won in 2 hours 32 minutes 43 seconds and celebrated raising her fists and running a little more. Others were not so enthusiastic.
Most of the athletes competing this week revel in the cold weather of Khalid International Stadium, an outdoor structure that is miraculously acclimatized. Long jumpers? Sprinters? Barriers? They have it easy.
Only marathoners and pedestrians are trapped outside, walking along a stretch of road adjacent to the Persian Gulf.
Marathon women had their first chance to enter this night's cauldron – races were scheduled to compete this weekend, while the men's marathon is scheduled for next Saturday – and the scene was surreal. There seemed to be nearly as many reporters and staff as there were spectators. Sometimes it was so quiet that a drone looked as tall as a helicopter.
It was not a race for the meek, and everyone knew it: the runners, who shed sweat with every step; photographers wiping lens condensation; the Qatar Red Crescent brigade brigade, the medical professionals who closely followed wheelchair and stretcher procedures; and even the modest groups of bystanders, who peered each time the camp was sweeping one corner for another lap of the course.
But these hard facts did not deter some runners from taking an early break, if only for a few feet and a splinter in the spotlight. Sardana Trofimova, 31, from Russia, who was competing as an authorized neutral athlete Because of his country's doping scandal, he tried to keep up the honest pace about 10 minutes before returning to a backpack that was already starting to dissolve.
About 40% of runners gave up. Among those who finished: Roberta Groner, a 41 year old full time nurse from New Jersey and mother of three. She finished sixth.
"Probably the toughest conditions I've ever run in," she said.
"Definitely," she said.
One of the keys, Groner said, was hydration. She drank large amounts of fluids days before the race, she said. She also prepared for early midnight, staying in Eastern time after arriving in Doha on Tuesday.
"It's for my children," Groner said as he choked back tears, "to show them that you can do things with a lot of work."