DOHA, Qatar -- The 68 women who lined up for the marathon in a virtual steam bath off the bay fronting Doha's downtown were posed with one not-so-simple question when the clock struck midnight Saturday: How much are you willing to suffer?
Suffer to win? Suffer for a medal? Suffer just to say you finished?
On a night in which 28 of those runners didn't get to the finish line, Ruth Chepngetich of Kenya had all the answers. She took the gold medal at world championships in 2 hours, 32 minutes, 43 seconds. It was the slowest winning time in three-and-a-half decades' worth of these events, but one that made absolute sense on this night.
"It was not bad for me,'' Chepngetich said.
For everyone else, miserable.
The temperature when Chepngetich crossed the finish line first at 2:34 a.m. was 88 degrees Fahrenheit. The humidity was 77%. The heat index was 105. The wind: none.
"Those who win, they are heroes," Israel's Lonah Salpeter said. "Those who finish, I tell them they are strong. Even those who didn't finish, they're also strong. They tried their best."
Small swaths of hardcore fans lined the 4.35-mile loop and watched runner after runner fill towels and hats with ice, then pick it out to drop it into their sweat-saturated tank tops and bottoms.
They saw runners double-fisting electrolyte drinks, and running with drenched towels wrapped around their necks, and wringing cool water from sponges they plucked off tables that were scattered around the course.
They saw ... suffering.
"I didn't know what to expect," American Roberta Groner said. "The goal was to finish and not hurt myself."
No matter how the organization spins it, the IAAF's plan to run the race at night to beat the heat was something less than a success. As the international track federation's president, Sebastian Coe, paced near the finish line, his pink button-down polo completely sweated through, runner after runner buckled over, tumbled to the ground and had to be moved gingerly into golf carts, or wheelchairs, and transported off the course into the medical tent.
Defending champion Rose Chelimo came in 63 seconds back of Chepngetich to take the silver medal, and Helalia Johannes won the bronze to become the first female from Namibia to win a medal at worlds.
"I cannot say I enjoyed the event,'' Johannes said.
Salpeter had been considered a contender. But a slip-up in grabbing a water bottle and a towel at around the 3.1-mile mark cost her precious time -- and energy -- and after racing hard, and in vain, to catch back up to the lead pack, she dropped out.
Groner, a 41-year-old mother from New Jersey, said she never adjusted to the time change from her home, and came out pretending like it was the middle of the afternoon. She took things slow and steady -- and finished sixth.
Consider it a victory.
And really, there were no losers on this night -- only those willing, or crazy, enough to want to do this on one of the toughest nights this sport has ever seen.
Sviatlana Kudzelich of Belarus is a steeplechaser-turned-marathoner who, halfway through the midnight run, must have been wondering why she switched. She finished 32nd.
But she finished.
"A real accomplishment," she said. "I can't describe the joy."
Neither could Spain's Marta Galimay.
She raised both fists to the sky and acted like a winner when she crossed the line in 16th place. Her coaches from Spain draped a flag around her neck, then placed an icepack there as they shared a long embrace. Sixty seconds later, she was drooping into a wheelchair, skipping the traditional trip to the interview area for a stop in the medical tent.
She had plenty of company there.