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Blazing Her Own Trail: Interview With Magdalena Boulet

We caught up with the recent winner of the Western States Endurance Run.

Magdalena Boulet made her 100-mile debut a memorable one at the Western States Endurance Run on June 27, winning in 19 hours, 5 minutes and 21 seconds—15 minutes ahead of runner-up Kaci Lickteig. It was the latest in a string of long-distance triumphs for the 41-year-old, who won the Sean O’Brien 100K in February to qualify for the event and also captured top honors at the Canyons 100K in May, running 11:32. Boulet, a 2008 U.S. Olympian in the marathon, dominated The North Face Endurance Challenge Championships 50 mile last December, winning in 7:08:09 to celebrate her one-year anniversary as an ultrarunner.

We recently caught up with Boulet, who lives in Oakland, Calif, with her husband Richie—a former 3:53 miler—and son Owen, and works full-time as the VP of Innovation, Research & Development at GU Energy Labs, to talk about her Western States win, her evolution as an ultrarunner, and what keeps her competitive fire burning as a Masters athlete.

RELATED: Photos From The 2015 Western States Endurance Run

As runners, we tend to learn something from every race. What did you learn about yourself in the 19 hours it took you to get from Squaw to Auburn? And did any of those lessons surprise you?

In those 19 hours I learned how much more powerful the mind is than the body. I know there are probably many people reading this article and thinking “100 miles is insane, I could never do that.” But the truth of the matter is that with proper preparation, successful fueling plan and enough will, your mind can push your body far beyond what you once thought was possible. This is something you learn when you face rough patches in your race and you discover that you indeed have strength to work through it.

Building off that question: When racing a marathon, it’s not uncommon to work through a rough patch or two in the course of a 2.5-hour race. How does that differ in a 100-mile race that lasts all day? You often hear many ultra runners talk about being in a dark place at points of the race. Did you experience any of that, and if so, how did you work through it?

In a 100-mile race the rough patches can last for an hour or more, but you have to believe that they will end. They usually do. My roughest patch was the last hour or two. My knee was swelling up a bit and I was really tired. I knew I had a bit of a lead, so instead of focusing on counting miles to the finish I focused on the task at hand. I put my effort on one foot at a time and also made small goals that I could chase—and reach—such as finishing sipping my Roctane drink that was in my bottle before I reached the next aid station. Before I knew it, I reached the iconic Robie Point at mile 99 and from there you take it all in and nothing really hurts anymore.

What were the biggest differences for you in moving from the marathon to longer ultra distance races such as 50 miles, 100K and 100 miles from both a training perspective, as well as nutritionally?

I run at a slower pace more frequently when preparing for ultras but I train about the same amount of time as I used to for marathons. I run a lot of hilly trails that sometime require power hiking and I hardly see the track anymore. Instead, I rely on short and intense hill repeats as a substitute for speed work. Specificity is key. Nutritionally, the biggest change for me was dialing in the maximum amount of calories my body would absorb for many consecutive hours. In preparation for Western States, I trained often on GU Roctane drink and then raced on it exclusively for 19 hours during Western States. Because temperatures at Western States can be very hot, I chose to combine my hydration and my energy all into one bottle that I consumed each hour. This nutritional approach not only provided me with 300 calories per hour, but also electrolytes and amino acids that fueled me and kept me focused constantly throughout the entire race. My nutritional strategy ended up being very simple to execute.

What did a typical training week look like for you when you were in a peak phase before Western States?

Monday: Easy run of 6-8 miles followed by 20 steep and intense 30-second repeats on a treadmill. Usually from work.

Tuesday: Easy 6-mile run followed by either 6 x 1 mile at threshold effort or 3 x 10 minutes up a steady hill, then a strength-training session.

Wednesday: Mt. Tam summit with the San Francisco Running Company crew followed by an easy 8-10 mile run for a total of 13-16 miles.

Thursday: Easy recovery of 8-10 miles, usually from work or home.

Friday: Easy recovery of 8-10 miles and strides, usually from work or home.

Saturday: Medium long run of 2 hours in the Oakland Hills and a strength-training session.

Sunday: Long, hilly run of 3-4 hours on Mt. Dibalo or Mt. Tam.

You’ve been running ultras now since late 2013, and since then have seen almost instant success from 50K all the way up to 100 miles. Does any of that surprise you? And now, with wins at The North Face Endurance Challenge and Western States 100, what’s next for you in terms of ultra-distance trail racing? 

I’m an extremely goal-driven and competitive person, and I knew with my running background that I’d have an opportunity to be competitive in the ultra endurance events. But there was still some doubt as to just how well my body would transition to the longer races and the higher elevations, so I guess I would say that I’m pleasantly surprised at how well I have adapted and how much I enjoy the training for the longer events. Next up for me is the CCC in the French Alps in August, then UROC 100K and The North Face 50 again later this fall. Next year, I’m still not sure which races I’ll do. It is tough not to envision myself returning to Western States because I had such an amazing experience there.

Moving back to your roots, the marathon. A little over a year ago you ran 2:41:36 at Boston, qualifying you for the 2016 Olympic Trials. Do you plan to race there? And if so, how will that affect your racing plans for the next 6-7 months?

Yes, absolutely I will run the U.S. Olympic Marathon trials! It only happens every four years and it is an opportunity to compete with the best women in the country. After North Face, I’ll switch over to full marathon mode. I think it will be a nice change of pace for me.

At 41 years old, you’ve achieved so much over the course of your career, having had success across a variety of disciplines from cross country to the track to the marathon and now ultra distance racing on the trails. At a time when many professional runners begin winding down their careers, what keeps you motivated to continue competing at such a high level?

Part of what has kept me in the sport for so long is that I like to change disciplines and distances to keep things interesting for me. But what a lot of people don’t remember is that I spent about four years after college struggling to get by. I wanted to compete but injuries, grad school and having to work several jobs made it almost impossible—almost. When I finally decided to move to the marathon in 2002, I found my event, established support from sponsors and started to see progress in my training. I was incredibly happy and grateful for all the opportunities I was given, and I think I’m still experiencing that joy today with amazing support form my sponsors: HOKA One One, GU Energy Labs and UltrAspire. I think they’ll have to drag me away from this sport eventually, but for now I don’t see an end to my training and competing.

Last question: In addition to still competing at an elite level, you’re a mom and work full-time at GU Energy Labs. How do all of those three things—being a mom and wife, elite athlete and VP of Innovation at a sports nutrition company—complement each other? And how important is it to have both the support of your family and employer to continue chasing your competitive goals?

I absolutely could not achieve my competitive goals without the amazing support I receive from my family and GU Energy Labs. My family knows how important it is for me and we turn many of my long runs and races into family time. I am fortunate to live this journey and having my family’s support motivates me to do better each day and gives me a reason to dream big. GU has always supported me, even when I was not an employee, but now more than ever my product development role at GU gives me the fire I need to pursue my athletic goals. I work with many athletes that inspire me to drive innovative sports nutrition products that all athletes can thrive on while training and racing. Not only does GU Energy labs provide an inspiring work environment for me as an athlete but a big group of my co-workers were all over the Western States course giving me the emotional support I needed.