Runner's high: Tim Peake finishes London Marathon in space

British astronaut becomes first man to complete a marathon in space, finishing in three hours, 35 minutes and 21 seconds

The treadmill turned and the timer began. It was 10am on Sunday morning in London and as tens of thousands of runners set out on the marathon below, the British astronaut Tim Peake broke into his stride on board the International Space Station. He was somewhere over the Pacific Ocean.

Dressed in a red vest and black shorts, with the union flag hoisted behind him, Peake’s run took him into the world record books as the first man to complete a marathon in space. He finished in three hours, 35 minutes and 21 seconds. In the time he had taken to pound out 26.2 miles, he had travelled more than twice around the planet.

“This morning was fantastic,” he said on the phone to his medical support crew at the European Space Agency’s astronaut centre in Cologne. Moments earlier, he had completed the distance, thrown his hands in the air in triumph and taken a long, hard drink from a water pouch he had velcroed to the wall above his head. Then came the double thumbs up to the camera.

The astronaut centre was Peake’s home from home when he trained for his mission in space. On Sunday, the building was buzzing. Monitors on the walls carried live footage of him running on the station. Now and then, he grabbed water or mopped his brow. He ran clean and fast and, when he finished, cheers and applause broke out among the staff who had come in to watch.

“I’m relieved it’s over and I’m sure Tim is, too,” said Patrick Jaekel, an exercise specialist who has worked with Peake for the past two years. “His running style was really good all the way to the end. It was a perfect finish.”

Marco Frigatti, identifiable as the man from the Guinness World Records from the large words printed on his blazer and clipboard, was on hand to confirm Peake’s historic feat. “It’s official,” he said. “Tim Peake is the proud holder of a Guinness World Record title.” While the record itself is official, Peake’s finishing time will need to be confirmed.

Those who ran through the streets of London had the roar of the crowds and the city sights to keep them going. For all the great vistas the space station provides, Peake was on his own in a windowless room next to the toilet he shares with five other crewmates. At one point, Nasa astronaut Jeff Williams floated past on his way to use the facility. He returned later to take snapshots of Peake as he finished the run.

In space, no one can hear you scream. However, the body betrays discomfort in a thousand ways. There is the effort on your face, the reddening from the heat, the shifting beneath the harness that anchors you to the treadmill. If the pain and exhaustion got to Peake, it did not show. He set off at 7.5mph but 20 miles into the race had sped up to nearly 9mph.

Peake was loaded with only 70% of his bodyweight on Earth, but it was never going to be an easy run. He has been in space for four months. From the moment crew arrive, the battle is on to save their hearts, muscles and bones from the weakening effects of weightlessness. The daily exercise routine slows the wasting, but does not halt it completely.

Physical strength is one factor in success. Tolerance of pain is another. The harness system that secured Peake to the treadmill puts the weight firmly on the hips and shoulders. The bungees pull you around in a way gravity does not. To run half a mile in the system is horrible. After 40 minutes or so, the harness starts to dig in. Under the straps, abrasions and pressure sores form.

In space, astronauts exercise for about two hours a day to prevent their aerobic fitness and muscle strength from deteriorating too much. In the months leading up to the run, Jaekel adjusted Peake’s exercise routine to place more emphasis on his shoulders, back and core muscles.

To reduce the risk of tissue damage, the pair worked on Peake’s running posture too. “He absolutely must not injure himself. He cannot injure himself,” Jaekel said before the event. The concern is not so much that an astronaut can no longer work effectively on the space station: most of the jobs are not physically strenuous. But it is important that they can still exercise. If an astronaut loses too much fitness in space, they will have trouble standing up when they return to Earth.

Peake has long been a keen runner. Given the option, he favours cross-country over marathons and practically anything over the treadmill. The last time he ran a marathon was in London in 1999. He was in his 20s and finished in three hours and 18 minutes. This year, he ran the Virgin Money London Marathon, to use its official name, for the Prince’s Trust.

He is not the first astronaut to run a marathon in space. That title goes to the Nasa astronaut Sunita Williams, who ran alongside the Boston marathon in 2007 and finished in four hours and 24 minutes. Their times are not straightforward to compare: they ran with different harnesses, under different loads.

While nothing can make up for the lack of crowds, Peake had TV coverage to keep his spirits up and an iPad app called RunSocial, which allowed him and others to take part in a digital version of the race. The faster he ran, the faster the streets of London passed by in front of him. When Buckingham Palace swung into view, and moments later, the finishing line, the space station had just emerged from darkness high above the shoulder of Ecuador. As Peake unclipped himself from the harness and stretched his legs, the International Space Station sped on into the light on another lap of Earth.


Ian Sample Science editor in Cologne

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