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Chemistry Olympics: A marathon in PPE and optimized jumping blades

by Rowan Walrath
June 29, 2024 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 102, Issue 20


Running a marathon dressed as a scientist

Stephen Cochrane runs the London Marathon while wearing a white lab coat, safety glasses, blue nitrile gloves, full-length dark pants, and close-toed shoes. He carries a small graduated cylinder. Behind him, Big Ben cuts a figure against the sky.
PPE on the run: Stephen Cochrane claimed the Guinness World Record for "fastest marathon dressed as a scientist" at the London Marathon in April 2024.

Stephen Cochrane wasn’t far along on the London Marathon route when he remembered why lab coats aren’t made for running. Reusable ones like his are thick and heavy, trapping body heat—especially the kind of heat generated by distance runners like Cochrane. Splashing water over himself to cool down only made the coat heavier. The nitrile gloves weren’t doing him any favors either. Sweat pooled in the impermeable blue elastic, spurring Cochrane to wave his hands overhead whenever he could to let the liquid drip out.

But Cochrane had a job to do. The Queen’s University Belfast professor and organic chemist had learned from a student about 4 months prior that there was a Guinness World Record for “fastest marathon dressed as a scientist.” The previous record-setter’s finish time was much slower than Cochrane usually ran, including in several World Marathon Majors—Berlin, Boston, and Chicago. Cochrane immediately set out to beat that record.

On April 21, Cochrane crossed the London Marathon finish line at 2 hours 48 minutes and 51 seconds wearing full personal protective equipment (PPE): lab coat, nitrile gloves, safety glasses, and full-length pants, carrying a 50-mL graduated cylinder. Guinness adjudicators were on-site to crown him as the record holder.

“Some people have this idea that professors are boring, dreary people who just hide away in labs or sit in their offices all day,” Cochrane tells Newscripts. “It’s nice to show the more human side.”

Cochrane is also awaiting Guinness certification for “fastest half-marathon dressed as a scientist,” a title he set out to achieve in March at the Portadown Running Festival in Northern Ireland. He says he’s submitted “a mountain of evidence” because no adjudicators were present.

If someone breaks his record and the new time is still within his running capabilities, Cochrane says he’d don PPE and set out again. But this time, he’d wear a more lightweight lab coat.


Better jumping blades for Paralympians

A close-up of the sole of a jumping blade against a dark background.
Credit: ENSTA Paris
Physics in action: Scientists with ENSTA Paris are working to optimize jumping blades for Paralympic athletes.

Paralympic runners have similarly pragmatic concerns when it comes to gear. Athletes with amputations below their knees wear jumping blades made of carbon fiber: hyper-rigid, gently curved appendages that act like springs, compressing when they strike the ground and returning the stored energy to the runner at takeoff.

Athletes prefer more rigid blades because they store more potential energy. But they can cause injuries—particularly where the prosthesis meets the leg and at joints—because the blades send shock waves through the sensitive flesh and bone.

A team of researchers at ENSTA Paris has been working to solve this problem. Élodie Doyen, Fabien Szmytka, and Jean-François Semblat set out to recreate in the lab the conditions of a long-jump event, designing a machine with a custom mount and cameras to precisely track the movements of the blades. They found that the type of sole on the blade and the angle at which it struck the ground most heavily influenced the blade’s stiffness and, in turn, the potential energy it could store, suggesting a path to optimize the prosthesis (Sci. Rep. 2023, DOI: 10.1038/s41598-023-31981-2).

Adjustments to the sole and to the contact between the blade and the residual limb are promising solutions, Szmytka says, “because they can be easily adapted to each athlete.”

He, Doyen, and Semblat have already begun working on new designs in partnership with the French Handisport Federation through its Sciences 2024 initiative. The updated blades won’t be ready in time for this year’s Paralympic Games because the researchers need time to test them: athletes need at least 1 year to get used to a specific material before they can jump safely with it, Doyen says. Still, the research should lay a foundation for Paralympians in the future, even as soon as the 2028 Los Angeles Games.

As Doyen tells Newscripts: “Real physics is a very complicated thing.”


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