Kenya’s Ruth Chepngetich powered through brutal heat and humidity to win gold in the women’s marathon, on a dramatic opening day at the World Athletics Championships in Doha.

With around two dozen runners in the 68-strong marathon field falling by the wayside as the sweltering conditions took their toll, Chepngetich dug deep to win the first gold medal of the championships in a time of 2 hours 32 minutes and 43 seconds.

The marathon, held on a floodlit course alongside Doha’s waterfront Corniche, had started at 11.59pm local time on Friday, in a scheduling move designed to protect athletes from the daytime heat.

But even allowing for the midnight start, temperatures of around 32 degrees Celsius and humidity approaching 80 percent proved too much for several exhausted competitors who were seen being stretchered away or escorted from the course in wheelchairs.

Race organisers had staffed the course with extra medical personnel and an increased number of watering stations to help athletes stay hydrated.

Chepngetich, 25, took the tape shortly after 2.30am local time, pulling clear after kicking for home on the final lap, crossing the finish line over a minute clear of her nearest rival, defending champion Rose Chelimo of Bahrain. Namibia’s Commonwealth Games champion Helalia Johannes claimed bronze.

“It was too hot,” said a weary Chelimo, who said seeing so many competitors wilt had “strengthened my resolve.”

The high number of dropouts however is likely to renew debate about safety for marathon runners and endurance athletes competing in Doha.

France’s world champion race walker Yohann Diniz earlier lashed out at the decision to make runners and walkers compete in the heat rather than the climate-controlled Khalifa Stadium, where the bulk of events are taking place.

“I am disgusted by the conditions,” the 41-year-old world record holder said. “They take us for idiots. If we were in the stadium we would have normal conditions, between 24-25 degrees, but outside they have placed us in a furnace, which is just not possible.” (AFP)