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.