Swanny Completes High Altitude Relay Race

Commander Steve Swanson takes part in Colorado's Wild West Relay Race while on the International Space Station. Image Source: ReelNASA

Commander Steve Swanson takes part in Colorado’s Wild West Relay Race while on the International Space Station. Image Source: ReelNASA

August 3, 2014 – Commander Steve Swanson spent his weekend aboard the International Space Station running as part of a group relay team. The astronaut was part of a team running in Colorado’s annual Wild West Relay on August 1-2.

The Wild West Relay is a 200-mile distance running event. Teams typically consist of 12 runners who each complete three legs of the race. Swanson, however, was part of an ultra-team, which meant that each runner had to complete six legs of the course, or approximately 33 miles each.

Swanson’s team is called 200 Miles, 20 Orbits and 90 Schillings. The name is based on the length of the relay, the number of orbits that Swanson anticipated making around the Earth while running, and the team’s favorite local beer.

In addition to Swanson, the team includes five relay members on the ground: Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger, a former NASA astronaut and shuttle crew member who considers Fort Collins home; Sunita “Suni” Williams, a NASA astronaut and previous International Space Station commander; Swanson’s sister-in-law, Carie Alexander; Tim Flynn, a physical therapy specialist from Fort Collins; and Swanson’s childhood friend Bredt Eggleston.

The Wild West Relay begins in Fort Collins. Entrants enjoy rugged scenery as they run through Northern Colorado, three national forests, up two mountain passes, and dip into southern Wyoming, before ending in Steamboat Springs.

Swanson, 53, considers Steamboat Springs his home. He has run the relay several times in the past and wanted to do it again. Before launching into space for his six-month mission, Swanson approached race coordinator Paul Vanderheiden about the possibility of running the relay in space. Vanderheiden was thrilled with the idea.

Due to its remote access, coordinating the relay with the other runners was a little tricky. The International Space Station enabled Swanson to radio Mission Control, which then transferred him to a teammate’s cell phone, or he could call a team member’s cell phone directly using the ISS Internet protocol phone. Many of the roads are so remote that they don’t have cell phone access and Swanson estimated that he would be able to contact his teammates from 60 to 70 percent of the time.

In addition to connecting with friends and family back on Earth, training for the race gave Swanson motivation for his daily exercise. A serious side effect of prolonged space flight is muscle weakness and bone loss due to the lack of gravity. Astronauts have to work out for at least two hours a day in order to maintain their health and fitness. They also participate in research investigations that allow scientists on Earth to better understand medical issues like cancer and osteoporosis.

Swanson runs on a specialized treadmill that tethers the astronaut with two bungees to counteract microgravity and create a load of approximately 140 pounds on the astronaut’s body. Swanson has said that the system works well, but that the harness is painful for long distance running.

Swanson is the second astronaut to complete a marathon in space. In 2007, teammate Suni Williams ran the Boston Marathon on a treadmill aboard the Space Station. She is also the only astronaut to have completed a simulated triathlon in space.

Click here to watch video of Steve Swanson running the Wild West Relay.