NASA astronaut Sunita Williams is ready to run the Boston Marathon, though her trek aboard the International Space Station will carry farther than most runners.
Williams, an ISS Expedition 14 flight engineer, has spent months aboard the orbital laboratory training for the April 16 race, despite the fact that she and her two crewmates routinely cover its 26.2-mile (42-kilometer) course in seconds as they orbit the Earth at some 17,500 miles (28,163 kilometers) per hour.
"I started this a couple of months ago right after our spacewalks finished, and I started hitting the treadmill pretty hard," Williams, 41, told the New England Sports Network Wednesday. "I think I'm almost there."
A native of Needham, Massachusetts, Williams qualified for the Boston Marathon last year when she completed the 2006 Houston Marathon in three hours, 29 minutes and 57 seconds. The Boston Athletic Association has issued her the bib number 14,000 for the race.
"I would like to encourage kids to start making physical fitness part of their daily lives," Williams said in a NASA interview. "I thought a big goal like a marathon would help get this message out there."
Her sister Dina Pandya, fellow NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg and friend Ronnie Harris will be running the marathon on Earth beginning at 10:00 a.m. EDT (1400 GMT) April 16, though whether Williams' schedule allows her to run in tandem with them remains to be seen, the astronaut said.
"This is a working laboratory, a working spaceship, and we have a new crew coming here," Williams told the Boston Globe Wednesday in an interview broadcast on NASA TV, referring to the anticipated arrival of two Expedition 15 cosmonauts and a space tourist on April 9. "Hopefully we'll actually get to do it at least as close to the time as the marathon is going on."
Williams said many of her family and friends will gather between the race's Mile 14 and Mile 15, where she used to watch the marathon during her youth.
"I think a bunch of friends of mine will be out there at a support stop, and that's sort of the transition between Expedition 14 and Expedition 15 which is going on during this timeframe," said Williams, who will join the Expedition 15 crew for part of their mission. "I think, from that standpoint, it will be sort of significant."
Williams is about midway through a planned six-month mission aboard the ISS, where she arrived in December, and runs about four times a week on the station's Treadmill Vibration Isolation System (TVIS). Located in space station's Russian-built Zvezda service module, the space treadmill is designed to help astronauts preserve bone and muscle mass through exercise. It holds astronauts down with a harness and network of bungee cords, though the set up can put strain on the hips and shoulders.
"The treadmill is a little tough," Williams said, adding that unlike on Earth, sweat clings to the body in space which can also prove uncomfortable. "The first time I got on there, I couldn't even do a mile and my legs were wobbling back and forth."
ISS Expedition 14 commander Michael Lopez-Alegria agreed.
"I think it's going to be pretty challenging for her to stay on that thing for such a long time, it really is kind of a torture device," Lopez-Alegria said of the ISS treadmill, adding that he and other space station crewmembers will try to keep Williams entertained during the run. "We'll be throwing wet sponges and trying to keep her occupied...but it won't be like having the throngs of people that will be lining the course in Boston that day."
In training sessions, Williams has run up to 15 miles (24 kilometers) straight on the space station's treadmill and plans to set a six-mile (9.6-kilometer) pace during the marathon. But the real payoff will come at the marathon's end, she said.
"I think I'm going to have good lunch," Williams said, adding that lasagna and ravioli on her menu. "I think I might have two servings of that, a big glass of orange juice and put my legs up."
- VIDEO: Orbital Exercise: Expedition 14 Astronauts Keep in Shape Aboard the ISS
- Complete Coverage: ISS Expedition 14
- International Space Station Mission Coverage