This past year, I was captivated and inspired by Oakland’s running hero, Magdalena Lewy Boulet, as she boldly — and unexpectedly — finished second at the Olympic Women’s Marathon Trials in Boston last April, earning a spot on the team, and then suffered a heartbreaker in Beijing. Last night, I joined a couple dozen women to hear her firsthand account of the Trials and the Women’s Olympic Marathon as she spoke at our favorite local running store, TranSports.
TranSports co-owner Bev Nakashima hosted a scrumptious “diva nite” for women only at the store, with Magda as the featured speaker. What could be better than a mom’s-night-out to drink wine, shop for shorts and bras, and schmooze with running friends? Magdalena was at the door to greet the ladies while also keeping an eye on her three-year-old son, who sprinted around the clothing racks. She was dressed casually in a faded TranSports T and jeans, but several others had dressed up for the night. I got a kick out of seeing my longtime mentor, ultrarunner and TNT coach Lisa Felder (aka Mama Lisa), in a svelte purple leather dress and 4-inch-high stilettos; of course, I had to give her a hard time about wearing shoes that can be so bad for your feet, since she’s always lecturing others to take care of theirs!
After socializing and raffling off prizes, everyone settled down to hear the star of the night: the 35-year-old woman who emigrated with her family from Poland as a teenager and became a U.S. citizen on September 11, 2001. She started her athletic career as a swimmer but switched to running while a student on scholarship at Cal, where she now works as an assistant track coach. She used to work at TranSports, where her husband, Richie Boulet (another Cal track star) still works. “It all started here,” she told us. “I loved the Bay Area so much, I never left. … Being a runner in the Bay Area is a dream; we’re so spoiled here.” Yeah, she’s got that right.
She recounted her two unsuccessful attempts to make the women’s marathon team, coming in fifth at the 2004 Trials. “Every time you come up a little short in the dream you work so hard for, that’s motivation to wake up the next morning and try a little harder,” she said. She took a break after ’04 to have a baby and credits her husband Richie and her coach, Jack Daniels of Arizona, for getting her back in shape and ready to try again in 2008. Jack Daniels (yes, you have to get past the fact his name is the same as the whiskey) is “the most amazing coach,” she said. “He’s mellow, and running is very basic to him. He says, ‘You gotta love what you do and get up in the morning and do it because you love it.'” Amen to that.
Then she gave the scoop on the Trials and the Olympics — the highest high and lowest low.
First, some background: Leading up to the Trials, Runner’s World handicapped the race and profiled the likely winners and long-shots — and Magdalena wasn’t even mentioned. She wasn’t on anybody’s radar screen as a real contender because she had a baby and faded from view after 2004. “No one really took me seriously anymore,” she said. She used the low pressure and low expectations to her advantage. “I had only one plan: to run my own race. I ran what I trained for; I didn’t do anything else … It just happened that the American record holder [Deena Kastor] decided to go a lot slower, and everyone else went with her, except me.” People I know who were in Boston that day watching the Trials said it was amazing — Magda got out in front in the first mile and never looked back. Bay Area spectators who recognized the TranSports logo on her singlet went wild, and at one point she had a two-minute lead on the pack. Magda said the crowd was so thick and close that she actually heard some people scream, “Who is this girl? She’s gonna die!” — meaning everyone thought she’d fade after going out too fast. Deena Kastor likely thought the same thing. It wasn’t until mile 24 that Deena went “uh-oh” and sped up to catch Magdalena, finishing first but only by 44 seconds, 2:29:35. Magdalena PR’ed with 2:30:19. “I was on a high … it definitely was the race of my life,” she said. (Check out NBC’s photo album of the event.)
Personally, I remember being giddy the day after the Trials, showing off the newspaper pictures to my family, saying, “Look, I know who she is — she runs in Redwood Park and used to work at TranSports! And she had a baby too!” I kept flashing back to a day I saw her a couple of years ago on the sidewalk outside of TranSports, probably 6 or 8 weeks postpartum, with her infant son. She was bent over while trying to snap the infant carrier seat into the stroller base; her face looked tired, and her belly and breasts looked bigger than normal. She looked like such an ordinary mom, and I thought at the time, “Nothing levels the playing field like new motherhood — and nothing makes you stronger.”
Fast forward to Beijing: She headed there after peak training in the mountains, putting in 150-mile weeks, and felt in top shape. She was determined to finish the marathon in the top 25 at least. She flew to Beijing on her 35th birthday one week before the race, got off the plane, and got on a shuttle bus to the Olympic Village. The bus stopped, she stood up to walk down the aisle, and whack! she accidentally rammed her knee into an armrest. She couldn’t believe what she had done, even as her knee began stiffening and swelling. “I was in huge denial,” she said about the week in Beijing, leading up to the marathon. She was limping around but “nothing was going to stop me from at least trying.” So she lined up with the other women and started the race, but her knee wouldn’t cooperate. She knew she wasn’t the only one having a bad race when she spotted Deena Kastor’s water bottles still untouched at the aid stations — she presumed Deena would be ahead of her. But Deena had dropped out at mile 3 when she heard a “pop” of a bone breaking in her foot. Midway through, Magdalena dropped too. “One little thing just took that all away,” she said of the shuttle bus accident. She boarded the bus that takes those who drop out to the finish, and there was Deena Kastor. “I hugged her, and it was very emotional,” she said.
Looking back and looking ahead, Magdalena personifies resilience. “In situations like that, when you hit bottom, there’s nowhere to go but up,” she said. “What you learn from running, you can take to other aspects in life.” (I love that statement — it’s somewhat obvious yet also profound, capturing something that runners learn and re-learn over time.) Seeing her and Kastor injured in the midst of chasing their dreams, after all that training and sacrifice, was terrible but riveting. I actually had seen Deena training in a gym in Mammoth last July, when I was recovering from my own broken foot, and she looked fiercely strong in the weight room in spite of her tiny frame, her muscles bulging as she did squats with a barbell over her shoulders. And then “pop” — in one instant, injury can strike and you have to start over. It’s a reminder to savor and celebrate your best performances — or for that matter, savor and celebrate every run, every moment — rather than only viewing them as stepping stones toward an ultimate goal.
So the end of 2008 is a new beginning for Magdalena Lewy Boulet — the start of training for 2012. “I’m gonna try one more time,” she said. Her goal is to make it to the Olympics and finish strong. We will be rooting for her all the way.