Thursday, January 10, 2013

Lapping it up: Nicole Porath and the concept of running an indoor marathon

Venue means a lot when you're running a marathon.

If it's a course with a few hills sprinkled in, the inclines will likely look more mountainous as the race progresses. If it's on a course with little to no tree cover, you keep your fingers crossed for cloudy weather and gentle breezes.

Or, if it's the Zoom! Yah! Yah! marathon at St. Olaf College in Northfield, you better be ready for a few turns and very little scene variety, because it all takes place within the confines of Tostrud Field House. Where you run around a track. For 150 laps.

The annual race took place this past weekend and, as reported by my colleague Jordan Osterman of the Northfield News, Northfield native Nichole Porath set the world record for fastest indoor marathon time by a female, clocking in at 2:57:34. According to Runner's World, Porath's time obliterated the previous record (held by Melissa Gillette) by more than 11 minutes.

Nichole Porath leads a group of runners at the
Zoom Yah Yah! indoor marathon at St. Olaf.
(Photo by Jerry Smith of the Northfield News)
"I must take the time for a brief aside to mention that I know this is an obscure world record, and I in NO way think that I am a world class runner. I am just merely the fastest crazy woman to run an indoor marathon!" Porath wrote to Runner's World.

Incidentally, the record-breaking time wasn't even Porath's fastest marathon. She ran a 2:44:12 last year at the Olympic trials in Houston and is currently training to qualify again this coming fall.

The concept of an indoor marathon isn't a new one. Joie Ray held the record for fastest indoor marathon time for more than 80 years until Michael Wardian broke it with a time of 2:27:21 in 2010. 

It is however a type of race with sparse participation. Despite its growing popularity in recent years, most indoor marathons have modest turnouts. The Zoom! Yah! Yah!, for example, had 44 racers this year. Of course, this is partly due to practicality, as it'd be near-impossible to cram the 10,000-plus runners who participate in Grandma's Marathon onto an indoor track. It would also be difficult to provide all of those runners with individual timers, as the Zoom!  Yah! Yah! does thanks to strong volunteer numbers.

Despite the low participation numbers, indoor marathon enthusiasts assure that it's a sociable race. Crowds are close to action at all times -- rather than just picking one viewing spot like you would at a conventional marathon -- and the time spent running next to each other on a track gives competitors a chance to get to know each other.

"It's one of the easiest marathons a person can run. It's a really controlled environment, and there is a lot of interaction with other runners," runner and Northfield native Joe Winegardner said in a Star Tribune story last week. "It's just a wonderful experience."

As with any marathon, indoor races have injury risks. The constant turns can have a serious effect on a runner's hips, feet and knees and the hard track surface doesn't do any favors either. Porath herself dealt with a blood blister on her foot for the last hour of her race.

However, most indoor races try to limit the effects of constant turns by allowing runners to switch directions every so often. The Zoom! Yah! Yah! race, for example, allows runners to switch every 30 minutes.

And as Porath told the Northfield News, the close quarters of the field house also helped her keep focused on what she wanted to accomplish.

“It’s much more of an intimate environment. Everyone is watching you literally every step of the way,” she said. “It was cool to have that support throughout."

I can't say I'll be one of runners converting to indoor races anytime soon. I love running outside too much and when I think of marathons, I visualize crossing the Brooklyn Bridge or conquering Heartbreak Hill. Running on an indoor track makes me think of the mandatory gym class I took in college and how I wished our professor would let us play badminton instead. Big difference.

I will however tip my hat to Porath for her amazing accomplishment and extend my admiration to the runners who make indoor marathons a regular race for themselves. It takes a lot of focus to get through a marathon even with the most picturesque setting as a backdrop. I can only imagine the concentration it takes to run 26.2 miles with nothing more than field house walls and an indoor track to look at.

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