As spectator sports go, ultrarunning isn't exactly cut out for primetime. The races last for hours—five, ten, 12, 24—and competitors spend most of their time in the backcountry, well out of view of onlookers. The prize money is small or non-existent, and much of the athletes' suffering is mental—intense private negotiations between brain and body, fighting the overwhelming urge to quit.
But in the age of social media, ultrarunning has gotten a lot more exciting. On the last Saturday in June, I was glued to my phone, following the Western States 100 Endurance Run on @irunfar's Twitter feed. The updates, which came in waves, were so mundane they were mesmerizing. "Emma Rocca...is 20 minutes off the lead. She stopped and ate YOGURT!" Early front-runner Michele Yates's "belly is off" and another runner's legs were "thrashed already!" I could practically feel the sweltering California heat rising off my screen, the cool swirl of the American River, where runners submerged to lower their body temperatures, the collective focus of 350 runners forging ahead for the finish line, trying to make good on months and years of training.
But no story captivated my attention more than that of Magdalena Boulet, a 41-year-old Olympic marathoner-turned-ultrarunner, who was making her hundred-mile debut. I ran with Magda at the TransRockies stage race last August, where she'd won the six-day women's team race, and had been following her progress ever since. I knew she was gunning for the win at #WS100 and that if she ran smart and in control, like she's been known to do, she'd nail it.
I feel a certain kinship with Magda, because like me, she's in her early 40s. Though ultrarunning favors "older" runners, in their mid-30s and beyond, who've had time to develop endurance and a high pain tolerance, Magda doesn't fit the profile of a typical elite ultrarunner. She has a ten-year-old son, Owen, and a full-time day job. In my book, that spells badass.
“When Owen was born, most people thought I was done with my competitive running,” Boulet says. “But I wasn't done. Now I'm more organized and I know when to let go and let life take over. There's a reason why I haven't gotten hurt from overtraining.”
As competitive athletes, it's easy to forget that we can both raise our children wholeheartedly and pursue our sports seriously, even into middle age. Juggling motherhood and athletics is, on its best days, a tricky juggle and, on its worst ones, an insane scramble. But it's good for us and our kids. I'm a better mother when I am running, more focused and patient, when I apply myself equally to my own goals and theirs. I'm still occasionally wracked with guilt and doubt, I worry I'm running through their childhoods, burning it up like the trail miles beneath my feet, and I sometimes think life would be simpler if I just chilled out and let go of my biggest ambitions, to run fast and far, to contend. But whenever I get close to doing that, a small, squeaky voice inside rises up like an itch that won't go away. It says, Don't stop!
In her terrific article, "This is 40," published in mid-June in The Players' Tribune, three-time gold medalist, five-time World Cup soccer star, and 39-year-old mother-of-two Christine Rampone describes her own high profile balancing act. "Society is still wrestling with the image of women in elite sports, to say nothing of the stigma of a woman's age," she writes. "It's obvious that part of the focus on my age is because I'm a mom. I was back on the field less than four months after having each of my girls, but isn’t maternity leave typically less than that? I think it’s why women feel like they have to work twice as hard sometimes. I had to sacrifice time normally spent for friendships...for my top two priorities: motherhood and soccer. But any working mom knows what I’m talking about."
For those who believe that parents who pursue competitive adventure sports are selfish at best, neglectful at worst, I say this: Wherever we go, we carry our children with us. No matter how many miles I put between us, I'm always running back to my daughters. And I'm not alone in this. "People asked me what I was thinking about while I ran," says Boulet, who ran conservatively for the first half of the race, veered off course, ran two extra miles, and finally, improbably, took the lead at mile 62. "I was thinking that Owen was up at 4 a.m. to see the start and that he was going to be at the finish, and how in the world was he going to stay awake for that long?"
But when Boulet crossed the line in first place, in 19 hours and 5 minutes, Owen rushed out to wrap her in a tight embrace. "I could feel my ribs almost breaking," she says. Caught on film, the photograph of a boy's single-minded focus matched only by his mother's gritty determination speaks volumes about perseverance and love.
As parent athletes, we model our passions to our children, inspire them to go after their dreams, and exemplify hard work and commitment. "I run because I wanted him to be so proud of what I do, to set an example," Boulet says. But it’s not just a one-way street, she adds. Kids teach us, too. "When Owen was born, most people thought I was done with my competitive running," Boulet says. "But I wasn't done. Owen helped me run with a greater purpose. When I made the Olympic team, Owen was two years old. Now I'm more organized and I know when to let go and let life take over. There's a reason why I haven't gotten hurt from overtraining."
Boulet's Western States strategy included plenty of early-morning workouts that had her home in time for breakfast. And for the first time in her professional running career, she was able to include Owen in her training. After wrapping up a trail run, Boulet’s husband and Owen would meet her at the trail, then she’d strap on a weight vest and spend two hours power hiking with Owen while her husband went for a run. "Talk about quality time," says Boulet, who used the uphill trekking to build strong quads for the course's brutal, 22,000 vertical feet of descent. "You don't get this time back with your children. I know I will cherish it forever."
And judging from the Owen's epic victory hug, he will, too.