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.

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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.


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