.Back on Track

After failing to make the team in 2004, Magdalena Lewy Boulet had to start from scratch for this year's Olympic qualifier.

One hundred forty-six women raced into the gloom of the 2008 Olympic marathon qualifier. Ten were former Olympians, seven previous US champions. There was 2004 bronze medalist Deena Kastor, who was the first US woman to medal in the marathon in twenty years. Joan Benoit Samuelson herself, who won the first-ever women’s Olympic marathon in 1984, also contended on this April morning, hoping to catch lightning one more time at age fifty. But after just one mile into the race, a solitary figure was running as if she had something to prove. The widening seventeen-second gap between the main pack of runners and the small brunette in sunglasses and a red TranSports jersey caused many in the Boston crowd to ask, “Who is that?”

The same question was in the minds of the other elite athletes desperate to get one of the three spots being awarded to the Beijing Games. “I didn’t know who it was,” Kastor said after the race. “I couldn’t figure it out. All I saw in front of me was this long swinging braid.”

The mystery runner extended her lead in the second mile, and then doubled it again in the third. Neither the spectators nor her competitors knew exactly what was happening.

Pacesetter Magdalena Lewy Boulet of Oakland wasn’t too sure herself. “I had no idea I would be by myself,” she later recalled. “I was definitely a little bit uncomfortable, a little surprised.” But she wasn’t slowing down.

Lewy Boulet was averaging 5:42 a mile, not a breakneck pace, but at least enough to get sportswriters to start scrambling through their media guides to figure out the TranSports logo on her singlet. In a world of Reebok and similarly branded jerseys, Lewy Boulet might as well have been wearing something that said Chico’s Bail Bonds. In fact, she was wearing the name of her husband’s Rockridge athletic gear shop, which is the sort of thing you do when you don’t have a sponsor, which is the kind of thing that happens when nobody thinks you’re going anyplace special. And on April 20, that seemed to be a reasonable prediction for Lewy Boulet.

She had once been an Olympic hopeful, but that was four years; three jobs; and one injury, coach, child, and training regimen ago. Since failing to make the team in 2004, she had only finished two marathons. One was the fifteenth-place performance in New York in 2006 that qualified her for this Boston race with a time of 2 hours, 42 minutes. But that barely made her the 39th-fastest woman running on this day. Her only other finish since 2004 was a marathon she completed later that year in Oregon, a race she finished eight minutes slower than the one in New York. In October 2007, she started the Twin Cities Marathon only to drop out midway through. “It was quite a lesson,” she said in retrospect. Others might have taken that as a sign to buy their own tickets to Beijing. But now Lewy Boulet was taking her fellow runners to school. By the fifth mile marker she was a full minute ahead and going steady as a clock. Her mile splits: 5:43, then 5:39, 5:39, 5:41, and 5:40.

“A million things were going through my mind, and one of them was Blake from 2004,” she recalled months later. Blake Russell, also a favorite on this day in Boston, had gained and then lost a huge lead in 2004 after pacing the field for seventeen miles. In the end she finished fourth, and out of the Athens games. “I was thinking ‘Oh boy, I hope that doesn’t happen to me.'”

Magda Lewy Boulet wanted to be in the Olympics from the time she was a little girl. But the dream had nothing to do with the marathon, and she was dreaming in Polish. Lewy Boulet was born in 1973 in Jastrezebie, Poland. She started her athletic career on her own. “One day I told my mother that I had made the swim team and she said, ‘Okay, great.'” Magda grew attached to a schedule that sandwiched school between workouts at 5 a.m. and 5 p.m. “I loved it,” she recalls, “and my parents were busy working and happy to have me busy.”

But life in Communist Poland turned difficult for the family after her father left the country in 1986 for political reasons. It took the family three years to join him in West Germany, just in time to see the Berlin Wall torn down. From there it was another three years before they made the long leap to the United States, where her mother’s brother welcomed the émigrés to Long Beach. Once there, the seventeen-year-old Magda found that other swimmers had passed her by. “I tried, and I was no longer very good at it,” she recalled.

When swim season ended, the Lakewood High senior struggling with a new language and looking for a new passion trotted over to the track and started practicing with the team. After a few practices it was clear that this was different. “It was ‘Wow,'” she said. “I was more competitive as a runner than I ever was as a swimmer.” Interestingly enough, she credits her late start as advantageous to her success. “Because I didn’t start when I was a young teenager, I think I avoided some of the injuries that happen to runners who have been doing it for ten or fifteen years. I think my legs are grateful.”

After a two-year stint at a community college, Lewy Boulet transferred to Cal, where the raw but talented young runner met Tony Sandoval, who still coaches at the university. He remembers Lewy Boulet as having the gift from the start. “It’s not about how talented you are, it’s about how hard you are willing to work,” he said. “Magda was always ready to learn and she has great energy. When she was here at Cal she majored in human biodynamics, and put her degree to work out on the track.” Sandoval said he’s worked with more gifted athletes, but few better people. “Magda was a winner here at Berkeley, and would have been even if she had never won a race.”

One-third of the way through the race in Boston, Lewy Boulet was up 1:20 seconds. “I was kind of wondering where everyone was,” she recalled. “But I looked at my watch and I wasn’t going faster than I was supposed to.” 5:40, 5:42. Like most distance runners, she measures her progress on how fast she runs each mile. 5:43, 5:41. Eventually she was nearly two full minutes in front of everybody and the runners behind her still didn’t know who she was.

After the race, she was shocked to find out the reason. Her competitors might have sussed out who she was had they seen a ponytail, but on this day the 34-year old-Cal grad was wearing a braid. Gamesmanship? One of those things elite athletes do to juke one another out? In fact, Lewy Boulet had not planned it at all. “Really?” she later asks, when told of her peers’ confusion. “A braid? I didn’t know. I guess I just went with something different that day.” And then she laughed, the sound of someone willing at last to see that the best way to get back to the top might just be to let go.

In her two years at Cal, Lewy Boulet became a winner. She was named an All-American for running long-distance races at an elite level. She also fell for Berkeley hard. “This is the very best place,” she said on a recent 70-degree afternoon. “I can’t imagine living anywhere else. It’s the best of all worlds; the culture, the weather.” Did she partake of Telegraph Avenue life while finishing her undergraduate degree: Cody’s Books? Blondie’s Pizza? Rasputin’s? Thrift shops? “All of it” she said with a laugh, before adding, “Okay, maybe not Blondie’s.” She trained in the Berkeley hills and Redwood Regional Park while prepping for her lengthy races. But 5,000 meters was just a warm-up for what came after graduation.

While at Berkeley, she also found love, not surprisingly while running around the track. Her catch was Richie Boulet, a Drake High standout and Golden Bear marathoner who was nationally ranked in men’s distance races and at one time ran a 3:53 mile. The couple was engaged while Lewy Boulet picked up a master’s degree in exercise physiology at Cal State East Bay, and both helped coach the track team at Cal. In one of those things that couples do, they decided to share one another’s interests. Lewy Boulet became a marathoner. She notes that her husband still runs a faster marathon — for now. “One of my goals,” she said with a chuckle.

Lewy Boulet had one other significant goal before taking her next big step. She wanted to become a US citizen. She speaks with the zeal of a convert when talking about her adopted country. “It is all about opportunity here,” she said with a soft Eastern European accent. “I was used to nobody handing you anything, and here it is there for anyone who wants to get it.” She wanted to get it, and after jumping through the various hoops and passing the various tests, it was all over but the ceremony. And so she and Richie got in the car on a sunny Tuesday morning and drove to San Francisco for her swearing in. Lewy Boulet remembers well that she and her fiancé talked the whole way over, never once turning on the radio. They parked and readied themselves for a four-hour event. The date was September 11, 2001.

“I feel a special connection because of that day,” she said. “We got to the building and there were all these people running around. We didn’t know why. They hurried us into the room and said, ‘Okay, it’s not going to be a real long one today.’ No guest speakers, no big build-up, and they said we don’t have four hours; instead it was about five minutes long, and then they said, ‘Get in your car and go home.’ The brand-new American listened to the events of 9/11 on the car radio with her fiancé for an hour before driving back to their home in Oakland. “It’s a very special day. I remember every September 11 now.” The circumstances surrounding her citizenship day have only made her feel more connected to her country. “I gained a world of opportunity on a day that several thousand people lost their lives. I love this country, it’s my home, and being an American was a choice for me. And I think when you choose something and go through a process to attain it, it’s that much more precious.”

One hour and twenty minutes into the race, Lewy Boulet had moved further away from the other athletes, building up a 1:55 lead over her closest competitor. Trailing behind her were four runners in a pack, among them Kastor, a heavy favorite to win the qualifier. But Kastor’s strategy to hold back some energy in reserves had found her much further behind than expected. Running in the same pack was Russell, who had failed in 2004 using a strategy that looked eerily like Lewy Boulet’s four years later. If it had just been two chasers, the pressure would have been less significant. With double that number waiting to catch a fading leader and only the first three going to China, the anxiety of holding on would tax any front-runner. So why did Lewy Boulet take the risk? Right before the starting gun, her coach and husband had told her, “The race will not come to you; you have to go get it.”

Unique in the setup of this particular Olympic qualifier was the fact that the race was not one long stretch of endless miles, but rather a six-mile loop, in which the contestants could see their opponents and track their own progress as they completed the circuit four times each. Although that meant there was a lot less confusion once everyone sorted out who the runners were, there also was no way to run and hide from one’s opponents. The thousands of fans lining the race route were also taking part in the drama. “The spectators on the track were reading out my splits,” Lewy Boulet recalled, “so I knew pretty well how I was doing.”

By the time she decided to become a marathoner in 2000, Lewy Boulet had sacrificed much to compete at the highest level. Ability has always seemed just one part of the elixir needed to be an Olympic-caliber athlete. The expectation is that it also requires a complete and total commitment to the sport and then more effort still. School, family, partners, summer, and birthday parties all get pushed aside to achieve the dream. Lewy Boulet originally followed the same path. “It’s what it takes to get to the top. If you aren’t working hard, somebody else will be.” She spent the next four years not wasting a moment.

Her talent was augmented by a ferocious training routine. She was working full-time at GU Energy doing research and product testing with the Berkeley-based athletic nutrition company. The company web site still has a profile of her on their athletes’ page. Her blurb is revealing and characteristic of her attitude heading into 2004. Given a softball query about her superstitions, she responded forcefully, “None. Unless you consider hard, consistent training a superstition.” While working at GU, she didn’t find the time to run; she had to make it. Her routine was unyielding: Up at 5 a.m. for training at Redwood Regional Park in Oakland, heading to work, then training hours more in the afternoon and when possible squeezing in time to work with Cal athletes on a volunteer basis.

By 2004, she had completed her first handful of marathons and was training in earnest to make the Olympic team at the trials in St. Louis. She remembers the days heading into the qualifier vividly. “I was in such good shape, the best shape of my life. Everything I had been working for was right there.” And then just as the race reached its finish, it all slipped away. Lewy Boulet was thought to be a likely enough winner that she got a fair amount of publicity leading up to the race. It was expected that she would be one of the favorites to take a bid. Instead, after 22 miles and within striking distance of third place, she came up empty. “I blew it,” she said after the race. “Right after mile 23, I kind of drifted out there. I was pretty disappointed,” she told reporters. “In my heart I believed I was capable of making that team.”

When asked later about her fifth-place finish, Lewy Boulet was atypically cryptic, “I don’t know,” she said. “It’s one of those things. The mysteries of the marathon.” Now, with the passage of time, she has an answer. “I overtrained for it.” Former coach Sandoval agrees. “Something happened in ’04. Magda was strong but she was in too good a shape too soon. By the time of the race she had already peaked; and runners sometimes go from being competitive to being obsessive.”

“I see it now that I’m coaching,” she said. “When you’re training yourself you say, ‘Come on, you can go another mile, don’t stop now.’ But sometimes stopping is the right thing to do. You say ‘another lap,’ or ‘a little faster,’ and you start to draw off some of your reserve.” As for the last two miles in St. Louis, she recalled, “At the end I was just hanging on for dear life.”

She had run 2:30:50, a personal best. But it wasn’t good enough. Then the web site New York Road Runners said what other track fans had been whispering, “Over the next four years she seemed to disappear.”

The period after her failure was among the toughest she ever faced as a competitor. The debilitating foot condition known as plantar fasciitis slowed her down, and after steady and consistent first- and second-place marathon finishes heading into the 2004 Olympic effort, she now went two years training hard but unable to compete in a single marathon.

A potentially greater obstacle to remaining an elite athlete came in the form of a gift. She gave birth to the couple’s son, Owen, in 2005. In a last gasp of a routine she hadn’t yet abandoned, she gave birth the day after an eight-mile jaunt through Redwood Regional. “I was kind of walking pretty much at that point,” she says as if expecting someone to call her a slacker. Her fellow athletes believed that the baby would be an added complication to her returning to elite status. That much she had expected. What she hadn’t counted on was that it would change the very nature of how she thought of herself as an athlete.

“At first I had said to myself, ‘Okay, after the baby, next day, back in training.’ For a while after Owen was born, I swam, and then I got on the bicycle, but by the time I got back to the track I struggled. I remember asking myself, ‘Where am I going with this? How can I get back to what I doing what I did before 2004?’ And the answer to that was I couldn’t.” For the rest of 2005, Lewy Boulet raised Owen, resumed her work at GU, helped out at TranSports, and tried to deal with her foot pain and her far more limiting schedule. “I just wanted to do everything the same way I did before St. Louis and it just didn’t work like that anymore. Did I ever think I was finished as an elite runner? Never. But I didn’t know how to get back to where I had been.”

Enter Jack Daniels, an exercise physiologist and head distance coach at the Center for High Altitude Training, who had worked with Lewy Boulet off and on since 2001. Daniels had enjoyed a lengthy athletic career of his own, which included Olympic medals in the pentathlon and a stint as consultant for the US track team in the 1968 Mexico City games. Lewy Boulet put her fate in his hands and traveled to his training center in Flagstaff, Arizona, to see if he had any insights that would allow her to get back on track. The first step was to open up a dialogue.

“If it’s going to work, you have to be able to communicate clearly with your coach,” she said. “Both ways, so that when there’s something the matter and he can’t see it or feel it, you have to tell him.” Between e-mail and phone calls and regular visits (Daniels worked briefly at Stanford) the trust developed, and with it a bold new strategy. “Jack said, ‘Look you can’t do things the way that you were accustomed to. You don’t have the time, and your body is telling you that it’s hurt. So we’re going to work around what you can do.'” Out went the punishing laps around the track that Lewy Boulet had neither the time nor foot strength for. In came the treadmill.

“I had never been on a treadmill before,” she said. “I had never seen reason to use one.” Now she was told to do her afternoon training where she wanted to be anyway, in the house, near her newborn. “Jack said, ‘The treadmill will work on what you do best, the hill training that you need, and will save your foot from what hurts it most, the turns around a track.’ And so I began.”

At first, she ran the treadmill with Owen in a crib nearby, and as he grew, she put it next to him as he played on the floor. When he became big enough to sit up, he cheered her on. “‘Good job Mommy, good job, go faster Mommy,'” she recalled her two-year-old saying. That’s when she concluded that she was doing the right thing. She and Richie would take shifts in running and child care, and her husband was her inspiration throughout this period. “I have watched him train and race at a very high level, and to this day I see how much he loves to run,” she said. “He understands what it takes to compete at this level and supports me every way he can.”

Lewy Boulet discovered something between 2004 and 2008, and she says it made the difference professionally and psychologically. She found balance.

“If there’s anything that sets me aside from the other runners, it is that my road’s been a bit different,” she said. “Instead of giving over every moment I had to running, I had to make room for running to fit into all the other things in my life. It’s made me a better person and it’s made me a better runner.” There are days when Owen is sick or day care falls through and Lewy Boulet stays home. There are nights when family trumps training. But she is a happier runner than she’s ever been before. “It took me a while to get here,” she says, “and I know other people thought ‘Okay, she’s done.’ But my goal the whole time was to come back and try one more time. I just didn’t know how different the journey would be this time around.” Her longtime Cal coach Tony Sandoval says the most significant change in his former star is her state of mind. “She has more balance in her life and she’s absolutely benefited from it.”

How is it possible that having less time has made her a better runner? “I have had to change my focus for sure,” she said after thinking for a moment. “I know I only have a finite amount of time to train so that time needs to be spent thoughtfully and passionately. It translates into everything else I suppose. I love what I am doing and at the end of the day I look at my husband and I look at my son and know that I am busy and will not be able to fit everything in, but I also know that I am happy.”

By 2006, she was training for the New York City Marathon while trying to shake off the effects of her plantar fasciitis. Unable to do more than three miles at a time for the month before the race, she accepted her fate and pressed on, doing only what she could. The short-distance practice limits might have maddened an athlete who burned to get to peak level, but for the mother who now had running and a life, she made do. And she made the cut, earning her way to Boston for the Olympic qualifier. “I knew I had a 2:30 in me, but even the 2:42 I did in New York took me quite a while to recover from.”

Lewy Boulet resigned from GU, and filled in as a shoe salesperson at her husband’s running store. “I liked selling shoes and I think I was good at it. My goal was to have the customer come back and say, ‘I liked those shoes you sold me, it really helped me improve my running and I love to go out now.'” She says it also gave her valuable insight. “It helped me realize how lucky I am to have a natural talent for racing. It’s not that way for every person, and when my motivation is lacking I think back on the people who came to the store who really struggle to get going and think, ‘I have a lot to be thankful for.'” Her co-workers cheered her on as she approached the Boston qualifier, and are thrilled to see her succeed. “Magda is the best,” said sales associate Dwight Upshaw at the company’s Solano Avenue store. “She is one of the only top athletes you’ll ever meet who has such a full load, and she is the most balanced person I know. She’s very devoted to what she does and still has a life.” Co-owner Bev Newcomb agrees. “We all got up at 5 a.m. to watch her run in Boston. The best thing is no matter what she’s accomplished she has never turned into a diva; that’s not her way. My hope for Magda is to reach whatever goal she wants. She deserves it. And then I hope she’ll come back and work for us again!”

Two thousand seven was a year of 10K races, mini-marathons, and more training, but no completed marathons at all for a woman hoping to be one of the three best American marathoners. Hired as a coach at Cal, Lewy Boulet was one of a very small group of Olympic-caliber runners to actually hold a full-time job while also training. Not surprisingly, she has made a connection there as well. “What I learned from coaching is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach, no matter how good that approach is,” she said. “I really have to look at each individual runner if I want to help them discover what’s best for them, not just find something that works in general.” Also, Lewy Boulet found that coaching others made her much more anxious than running herself. “You just feel so responsible for what’s going on before the race, during it, and then after. Everything! I thought about this and realized that I actually run very relaxed when I run on my own.”

And halfway through her Olympic qualifier in Boston, with thirteen miles down and thirteen miles to go, she was still very much alone. But her progress was not going unnoticed. A slew of real-time reporters began to weigh in, gaining knowledge with each passing mile. A Boston-based blog called her “the Great Unknown.” Little better was a Brighton, Massachusetts blog that called her “a little-known runner,” but most breathless was a racing blog called The Final Sprint that went from skeptic to cheerleader. Mile six: “Lewy Boulet continues to lead but she cannot run and hide on this course with the hairpin turns where the leader and the pack can judge their distance very accurately. Thus far Lewy Boulet has used these turns for an adrenaline advantage — let’s see how long she can keep it up!” Mile ten: “She’s a great story and continues to lead.” Mile twelve: [Magda] has looked down on her watch to check her time, maybe in disbelief that she had a minute and a half on Deena Kastor and was in first place.” Mile fourteen: “Lewy Boulet increases her lead and is now out of view. There now seems to be a sense of urgency among the runners behind her. Lewy Boulet is facing the wind alone but still looks great.”

Then, three miles later everything changed.

Kastor was gaining, doing what were called “negative splits,” meaning she was running faster in the second half of the race than she had in the first. Not only was Kastor gaining but Lewy Boulet was slowing. Mile eighteen: “She is now showing signs of working hard and her lead was down to 1:32. Mile nineteen: “Kastor only 1:19 behind. The race may come down to who gets third place. Russell and Davila gaining ground.” Mile twenty: “Magdalena Lewy Boulet leads with one loop to go.”

But if Lewy Boulet was panicking, she didn’t show it. A reporter for The Boston Globe wrote, “Lewy Boulet never looked back. Not once.”

By mile 21, she didn’t need to look back to see her competition. It was breathing down her neck. Reporters said that it looked like she was hurting, her 5:57 mile was her slowest yet.

Then mile 23, the same one that doomed her four years before. The crowd cheered the favorite and there were more runners on their way. “For more than two hours she was in her world, her own race,” the Globe wrote, “but Kastor was now coming like a race horse … nine seconds back.”

By mile 24, Kastor has passed her. With a pace closer to 6:00 than her desired 5:40, Lewy Boulet finished the last loop around the main track and headed toward the finish watching Deena Kastor pull away. But her thoughts were on what was happening behind her, and those were thoughts were of joy. Lewy Boulet was thrilled to see that it was Blake Russell right behind her. “I wanted to scream Blake — we made it this time! But I knew that wouldn’t be wise.” But the last mile wasn’t about strategy, it was about heart. Kastor finished in front by 44 seconds, and Lewy Boulet in second, more than a minute ahead of Blake Russell. All three were going to Beijing.

“I just wanted to be on the team,” said a teary Lewy Boulet after the race, where together with Kastor they hugged their third teammate after she crossed the finish line.

Shortly afterward, she told an interviewer, “I can’t even find words to describe how special the day was. It was just incredible. I felt joy and pride and just finally felt so glad that I stayed with it, because there were times in my career when I said, ‘I don’t know if I could do this. I don’t know if I can juggle all of this every day.’ But at the end of the trials, I just had a huge smile on my face. And I still do every day when I wake up.”

USA Today recognized the feat when they ignored the marathon’s winner and awarded Lewy Boulet the honor of Athlete of the Week immediately after the race.

Since qualifying, she has taken a few runs to get ready for China. She ran the 10,000 meters at the Olympic Track trials in Eugene, Oregon, dashed through a winning 10K in Marin (and then ran another 10K right after finishing the first order from coach Jack Daniels). She’s training in Tahoe and then plans to spend a quick week back home before heading overseas. Her old Cal coach, Tony Sandoval, says he can’t predict where she’ll finish but there is one thing of which he is certain: “For most of the top runners it’s not a question of their physical state of being, it’s what happens mentally. Under pressure they tend to fall apart. That’s not going to happen to Magda.”

And what is she doing to get ready for China? “I’ve been watching a DVD of the course,” she said. That’s fairly mild preparation for someone who once would have wanted to walk every step of the course twice. “My focus before was very narrow,” she said. “Now there is more going on in my life, and it’s all positive.”

Lewy Boulet wants to deliver the same message now to young athletes. Her Boston qualifier finally scored her a big-time sponsorship. The athletic-wear company Saucony hardly waited for the post-race press conference to get to the runner-up. Company vice president of public relations Sharon Barbano literally grabbed Lewy Boulet right after the race to sign her up. “She is an incredible runner and an even more incredible person,” Barbano enthused.

She should know of what she speaks, having been one of the participants in the very first Olympic women’s marathon qualifier in 1984. Barbano says there was something beyond Lewy Boulet’s split times that excited her. “We saw this young woman run a bold race with all kinds of confidence in her running. She embodies what we’re looking for — a pure love of competition.” Saucony will use Lewy Boulet as a rep for their young athletes program Run for Good. “Magda has a great sprit,” Barbano said. “She inspired us and she will inspire others.” Her responsibilities will include distance coaching in every sense of the word; working with teen athletes who plan on taking on long runs, while making herself available to them from her home via the Internet.

Regardless of the results of the August 17 Beijing marathon, Lewy Boulet already has accomplished what she set out to do. She speaks of the friends she’s made, the people she has met, the places running has taken her, and the way that she has brought her life into a new balance. Long-term goals are to stay in top physical condition, help others to achieve their athletic dreams, and raise her family in the city she has come to love. She does have one medium-term goal. Having run up and back Mt. Whitney one year, she now would like to climb Cerro Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Americas at 22,841 feet.

But before any of that, Lewy Boulet has a more immediate goal. She’s going to try climbing Olympus.

East Bay Express E-edition East Bay Express E-edition