Midnight marathon – the ultimate test

DOHA, Qatar – The mantra of long-distance runner Carrie Dimoff’s team, the Bowerman Track Club Elite, is “Not professional, but not unprofessional.”

After a 13th place performance in the women’s marathon at the IAAF World Championships Doha 2019 on September 27 (and September 28), it would be hard to consider Dimoff anything other than a world-class professional athlete.

Carrie Dimoff finishes 13th in the midnight marathon in Doha. Photo by Kevin Morris (@kevmofoto)

Carrie Dimoff finishes 13th in the midnight marathon in Doha. Photo by Kevin Morris (@kevmofoto)

A mother of two and a full-time employee at Nike, where she works as a Footwear Innovator, the 36-year-old Dimoff may not have had the fastest seed time or the accolades of some of her competitors. What she did have, however, was the knowledge that she had prepared meticulously for the exceedingly difficult conditions presented by a marathon in Doha.

“Preparation is 95 percent of the success of a marathon,” said Dimoff. “I showed up at the start line the most prepared I’ve ever been.”

That preparation came in many forms. Dimoff and her coach, Elliott Heath, knew that the biggest factor over the 26.2-mile course would not be the other women racing. It would be the weather.

At 11:59 p.m., the starting gun went off. The time was chosen to ensure optimal environmental conditions. According to the local organizing committee, the air temperature at that time was 32.7 degrees Celsius (90.86 degrees Fahrenheit); the humidity was 73.3 percent.

The Doha city skyline as seen at 3 a.m. following the women's marathon at the 2019 IAAF World Championships. Photo by Jessi Gabriel

The Doha city skyline as seen at 3 a.m. following the women’s marathon at the 2019 IAAF World Championships. Photo by Jessi Gabriel

To get ready for the brutal conditions she knew she would face during the race, Heath and Dimoff created a plan that included bouts of heat conditioning in the environmental chamber at Nike World Headquarters in Beaverton, OR.

“Really, the most important thing we did was heat conditioning,” said Dimoff. “We knew heat was going to be the biggest factor. We used the environmental chamber at Nike. For the first block, I ran eight straight days training in there and progressed from 60 minutes to 90 minutes. We set conditions for what we thought it would be like here [in Doha]. It was definitely a good exercise in one, understanding what it would feel like, and getting to know the discomfort, and two, learning my sweat rate, and how much I should be drinking, and how we could best train me to hydrate.”

Essentially, the chamber created conditions similar to Doha, and by training in it, her body began to learn how to perform in such extreme conditions.

Dimoff also practiced hydration, getting to the point where she could consume 2 to 3 liters of fluids on a run without too much discomfort.

“We practiced drinking as much water as possible,” said Dimoff. “It really helped because my body was used to taking the fluids.”

In addition to teaching her body to adapt to heat and hydration, Dimoff also spent a month training at altitude in Park City, Utah. It was her first altitude stint, and she felt she reaped the benefits of the trip. She still worked remotely, but Nike was supportive of her decision to do whatever she could to go into the World Championships marathon as prepared as possible.

In Park City, Dimoff was able to go for 2.5-hour long runs, putting in work with members of the Bowerman Track Club. While altitude camps are now relatively common for professional distance athletes, with two kids and a full-time job, dropping everything to “just train” for four weeks hadn’t been a realistic option for Dimoff before her build-up to the marathon in Doha.

"Ready as I’ll ever be to take on the heat and humidity and the 26.2 miles of the Doha World Champs marathon course," Dimoff wrote on her Instagram prior to racing. Photo by Carrie Dimoff (@fastcarrie)

“Ready as I’ll ever be to take on the heat and humidity and the 26.2 miles of the Doha World Champs marathon course,” Dimoff wrote on her Instagram prior to racing. Photo by Carrie Dimoff (@fastcarrie)

Finally, in order to be physically able to run a marathon at midnight, knowing she would likely be running for close to three hours, Dimoff worked to prevent her body from adjusting to local Doha time. Along with her husband, John, she kept her sleeping schedule in line with Portland-time, 10 time zones earlier than Doha.

“We got in Tuesday, slept all day, and stayed awake all night,” said Dimoff. “It was pretty anti-social. We would wake up at 7 p.m., we ate breakfast at dinner time. The waitress got to know us really well because we were the only people ordering coffee at that time of night. We would watch the sunrise… and go to sleep at 8 or 9 a.m.”

Still, all the planning in the world doesn’t guarantee that you will be able to execute on the day. Heath knew there would come a point in Dimoff’s race where the reality of the conditions would take its toll.

“She prepared as well as she possibly could, but it’s hard to prepare for how you’ll feel 20 miles into an insanely hot, humid marathon,” said Heath.

Dimoff’s goal going into the race was to place as high as she could. Not knowing how she would feel, and not truly being able to predict what pace she would be able to run, she focused instead on place.

She had a bag of ice cubes with her in the call room and wrapped them in a towel when it was time to go to the start line. She ditched the towel before the gun and was able to start the race with ice cubes in her hand. Once the race got underway, Dimoff felt pretty good.

“It wasn’t hard at the beginning,” said Dimoff. “We tried to keep controlled for the first half. But people kept telling me my position and it kept going up.”

Her pacing was helped by U.S. teammate Roberta Groner, who ended up finishing sixth. Groner, a fellow mom with a full-time job, and Dimoff had competed against each other on several previous occasions, and knew they likely had similar fitness levels.

“It was pretty natural for Roberta and me to run together,” said Dimoff. “We went through halfway together. Chatting with her was a good gut check on how we actually felt.”

Dimoff on the marathon course with Team USA teammate Roberta Groner, who ended up finishing sixth. Photo by David Watkins

Dimoff on the marathon course with Team USA teammate Roberta Groner, who ended up finishing sixth. Photo by David Watkins

Having someone else there to gauge where they were each at physically and mentally made the first half of the marathon go by without too many issues.

“After halfway, it started to feel hard,” said Dimoff. “Which means I ran the entire second half feeling bad… I literally couldn’t drink enough to keep cool.”

Dimoff had 4.5 liters of fluids on the course, and she drank pretty much all of it. She estimates she ran nearly 20 miles of the race with a water bottle in her hand. Her stomach felt full, but she felt coolest when she was drinking.

People were pulling out of the race in front of her and behind her. Ambulance golf carts were shuttling those runners off the course, away from the oppressive heat and humidity. Still, she personally never considered not finishing the race.

“I didn’t really think about dropping out,” said Dimoff. “I was in 10th at halfway, and I felt engaged…once you got into the final lap, you struggled or slowed down, but at that point it wasn’t a decision.”

The majority of spectators that had been along the course eventually tired. There were stretches of the road where there weren’t any people around at all.

“It felt lonely; it felt like I was in last place,” said Dimoff.

For context, of the 68 women who started the race, 28 dropped out. The winner of the race, Kenya’s Ruth Chepngetich, came into the race with a personal best time of 2:17:08, set in January of this year in Dubai. Her finishing time at this marathon? 2:32:43. She won by over a minute.

Dimoff’s time was a solid 2:44:35. Her personal best is 2:31:12.

“I was so excited to see the finish line,” said Dimoff. “I did it. No meltdown.”

Everything ached when she finished. She lay down on the floor in the recovery room with her feet up on a bench. But for a woman who makes her living trying to reach the greatest possible footwear solutions for athletes, and who works with a team charged with constantly developing, experimenting, and exploring, it was a successful experiment.

“This was such a test,” said Dimoff. “You’re never going to have to step up to a line to these kinds of conditions again.”