Talent, Guts, and Perseverance on Display at the Women’s Olympic Marathon Trials
When asked at a press conference during the week leading up to the Women’s Olympic Trials Marathon in Boston about her strategic plan for the race, contender Blake Russell commented that her coach advised her “not to try to win (the race) in the first mile.”
Posted Monday, 21 April, 2008
While the remark was made partly in jest, Magdalena Boulet-Lewy appeared to be doing exactly that when the field of 161 got underway on Sunday. By the end of that first mile she had left the entire field in arrears and built her lead to nearly two minutes by halfway. Was that a planned strategy, or was she merely running her own race? Boulet-Lewy said later, “Going into the race I planned to run 5:40s (per mile) pace. I knew I had to stick to my plan. In the first and second mile, I was surprised that I was out there by myself. Before the race, my coach and my husband said to me that the race wasn't going to come to me, that I had to go and get it. So that's what I did.”
So was she worried to be out there all alone on this near-perfect day for running on the course along the perimeter of the scenic Charles River in Boston, leading the Women’s Olympic Trials Marathon, with the top female marathoners in the country hot on her heels? Hardly. After all, after having left her native communist Poland and been separated from her family at age 16, she was not about to fret too much about marathon tactics.
Among the participants in this race, few faced a tougher road to the starting line than Boulet-Lewy. Having arrived in the U.S. in 1991 after three years in Germany, she was set to experience one of the peak moments of her life 10 years later in New York City with her husband Richie (also a world-class runner, a 3:53 miler): being sworn in as a U.S. citizen. But even that day was wrought with danger and tragedy: it was September 11, 2001. She recalled, “The ceremony lasted about five minutes. Then they told us all to go home. We (she and Richie) sat in the car and listened to the radio about all that was happening.” Before this race, that day still resonated within her, when she said, “I feel I owe it to the people who lost their lives (that day) to put it all on the line (in the trials race) to honor them.”
In the ensuing years after 2001, Boulet-Lewy settled into the Oakland area and three years ago celebrated an addition to her family when her son was born. That provided joy and happiness, especially on her home treadmill runs, when he watched her run. “It's so precious. It's unbelievable. He will just stand there, and he watches me and he claps and he goes ‘good job mommy, good job, go faster, mommy.’ And it just breaks my heart. I'm like ‘alright, I'm doing the right thing here.’ "
So there was Boulet-Lewy, cranking along at her preferred 5:45-per-mile pace, getting closer by the minute to a place on the Olympic team. Prohibitive favorite Deena Kastor lurked not far behind, slowly but surely closing the gap, appearing to be well within her comfort zone. The battle for the coveted and critical third spot on the team was left for Russell and other top contenders to vie for.
It was tough to root against Russell, who finished a disappointing fourth in the 2004 marathon trials, a result it took her months to get over, since it was dehydration from skipping early aid stations that caused her to fall from leading the trials race at mile 17 that year to not even making the team. “Now I look back and go, ‘what was I thinking?’ “said Russell. “In a situation like that, you have to keep reminding yourself that it’s the top three across the finish line, and nothing else matters. Hopefully, that race won’t be my claim to fame.” As fate would have it, the fifth-place finisher in that 2004 trials race was Boulet-Lewy, so she too had some not-so-happy marathon memories to erase.
As the runners entered the final miles in this race, Kastor was finally able to overtake Boulet-Lewy. All that was left for the 2004 Olympic bronze medalist was to stay relaxed and collect the first-place prize money of $50,000. Her winning time of 2:29:35 was 10 minutes off her personal best, but that was of little consequence. She had earned a berth in her third consecutive Olympic Games and will train with dreams of earning a gold medal in Beijing. Of her race on this day, she commented, “I had two major goals: to make the team and to win. Blake and Magdalena gave me a run for my money. There was a good portion of the middle of the race when I thought I had misjudged Magdalena's strength. As soon as I heard that the gap had started to shrink, that sort of fueled my fire and I started to gain in confidence. I couldn't think of a better group of girls to be on this team with.”
Boulet-Lewy proved that brash front running tactics can indeed play off, as she crossed the line second in 2:30:50. The pace? Yea, you guessed it: 5:45 per mile. She said after the race “In the back of my mind, I knew Deena was coming. That's the beauty of a criterium course: you can see where everyone is. Going into the fourth loop, I knew I had enough strength to (make the team). My pace slowed from 5:30s to some 5:50s. When she passed me I jumped in behind her to help pull me along and I ran 5:40. At that time I knew I had made the team.”
Russell had moved into the third and final Olympic position in the later stages of the marathon and was not going to give it up without a fight. Crossing the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge at mile 25, she ran steadily to the finish, in 2:32:40. Her thoughts on erasing the nightmare of 2004 were of redemption and relief: “Right now I don't think it's really sunk in…after the disaster in 2004 my coach and I said we've got to set up a plan to get me to this spot right here. I think later on tonight it's going to hit me, but right now it seems surreal. I just couldn't be happier. I learned from 2004 that a lot can happen in those last couple of miles, so I was telling myself to stay relaxed and not to panic. Then I threw in a couple of good miles to open it up a little bit more. I knew I just had to maintain it. They gave me a run for my money and I couldn't let up at all.”
So the women’s marathon team for Beijing will consist of a returning medalist and two other very deserving women, both of whom overcame hardship and disappointment to finally achieve a goal that long-distance runners can only dream of: the opportunity to compete in the Olympic Games. It takes talent, guts, and perseverance, three traits that are well represented by three great American marathoners.