COLFAX — Halfway through Monday’s Boston Marathon, everything was going according to plan for Colfax Mayor Todd Vanek.
He felt fine and was running smooth, reeling off the first 13.1 miles in 1 hour, 33 minutes. The time put him in the Top 200 in his division, men ages 45 to 49. It was exactly the same pace he set last year when he completed the Missoula Marathon in 3 hours, 7 minutes and qualified for Boston.
Then the heat and possibly a problem with a different sports drink caught up with him.
“About halfway through, I started having trouble with my breathing,” said Vanek, the customer support manager for Decagon Devices in Pullman. “It felt like a gas bubble in my chest. I’ve had struggles before, but nothing like that. As soon as I finished, I needed medical help. I was exhausted.”
Vanek was elected mayor of Colfax in November. He trained for Boston in the early mornings and evenings, doing speed work, hill climbs and long-distance runs across the Palouse. Every other week he’d run from work in Pullman back home to Colfax — a distance of about 17 miles, depending on which route he took.
But 17-mile runs on the Palouse in March can’t prepare you for 89-degree temperatures in Boston in April.
“I don’t think I’ve run in 89 degrees since I left Virginia,” Vanek said.
More than 22,000 runners started the 116th edition of the marathon — about eight times the population of Colfax. They left in waves, women and wheelchair racers first, then the elite men at 10 a.m., followed by “pods” of slower runners.
“They put you in corrals, grouped by time, so you take off with people your own speed,” Vanek said. “There were eight or nine hundred runners in the first wave. I think I was in the fifth. It worked well, but it was a minute-and-a-half before we even crossed the starting line.”
The race itself was like a 26-mile long rock concert, he said.
“I don’t remember seeing a spot where people weren’t standing,” Vanek said. “They were clapping and cheering, calling out your bib number. I saw signs saying ’Good luck, total stranger!’ People had their own water stations set up — outside of the race volunteers — where they were passing out drinks, fruit, orange slices. There was all kinds of support. When we were at the airport coming home, my (4-year-old) daughter said she was going to marry someone from Boston, because people were so nice and helpful. I’d love to have enjoyed it more, had the weather been different and had I felt different.”
Gatorade may have been part of the reason why he didn’t enjoy the second half of the race quite as much as the first.
“I’ve heard if you train with one sports drink and then switch to another, it can cause problems,” Vanek said. “I train with Powerade. They had Gatorade.”
He started drinking more water, trying to flush the Gatorade out of his system. That helped him feel better, but it didn’t replace the sugars and minerals he was using, so his energy level dropped. He continued to walk the course, crossing the finish line in 4:07.
“For me, every race comes with reflection,” Vanek said. “What did I do right? What did I do wrong? It will take me a couple of long runs to figure that out. The Gatorade was a problem and the heat was clearly a problem.
“It came down to survival, just making it to the finish line. I have a competitive nature — competitive against myself — but I also have a rational self. I was competitive until the breathing problem developed, then the rational self kicked in. If I wanted to finish, I had to stop (running) now.”
That mental discipline is ultimately what appeals to him most about running, rather than any physical ability.
“It’s not about running a marathon,” he said. “It’s about (not) saying ’I can’t’ and limiting myself. It’s about determination. … I think people confuse long-distance running with a desire to be strong. But to me, the ability to control your mind is the greatest challenge. There’s a little pain, but suppressing it so you can think clearly — it’s awesome.
“When you look at people who run ultra-marathons or who compete in the Iron Man, they have phenomenal mental toughness. That’s the thing about the Boston: If you make it there, you’ve already done the hard work.”
Despite his struggles, Vanek has already recovered physically from Monday’s race. He and a group of friends are planning to take part in Washington State University’s 100K (60 mile) team relay race this weekend.
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