Some of Magda Boulet’s greatest competition is roughly half her age. Boulet (who is 46) and Cat Bradley (who is 27) are both professional ultrarunners who go at it race after race, chasing each other down and trading top podium spots at some of the biggest 100-mile events in the world. Yet only one of them has to worry about making sure her workouts don’t interfere with her 14-year-old son’s schedule. “It hit me just the other day that I’m racing women who are 20 years younger than me,” Boulet says from her home in San Francisco. “I didn’t even know what ultrarunning was when I was 27.”
Boulet grew up in Jastrzebie-Zdroj, Poland, and immigrated with her parents to the U.S. when she was in high school, becoming a citizen in 2001. She ran track at the University of California at Berkley, focusing on the 1,500-to-5,000-meter events, but switched to marathons after college. Working with legendary distance coach Jack Daniels, she came to dominate the distance, racing for the U.S. in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. After almost a decade running the marathon, Boulet started to become restless. “I felt I was getting the most out of my mind and body that I could in the marathon distance,” Boulet says. “I got invited to a local half marathon trail race, and it was captivating. I ended up walking for the first time in a race—I could not run up a certain hill. Instead of being discouraged by it, I suddenly realized there was so much I still had to learn. Recognizing that there’s room for improvement is a beautiful thing.” In 2013, Boulet transitioned again, this time to ultramarathons.
To prepare for her switch, Boulet retooled her training, focusing more on hill work and perfecting the art of power hiking. She spent two years working her way up the ultra ladder, tackling 50K’s, then 100K’s, and had a lot of early success. In 2015, Boulet won six ultra trail races, including the first 100-miler she entered—the iconic Western States Endurance Run.
Since then, Boulet has become one of the top female ultrarunners in the country. Last year she won the Marathon des Sables, a grueling six-day 155-mile race in Morocco. In February she won the Nine Dragons Ultra in China, and in September she topped the podium at the legendary Leadville 100. But winning is really just a happy side effect for Boulet, who says her evolution from marathons to ultras isn’t about staying on the podium, it’s about staying engaged in the sport she loves. “I think what has allowed me to keep going and stay in the sport for as long as I have at this level is the variety I apply to training and racing,” she says. “You have to feed your soul and mind as much as you’re feeding your body.”
“When you do what you love, you want to keep doing it for the rest of your life.”
Boulet explains that running marathons at an elite level required rigid and precise training: speed work countered with long miles at exactly the right time and a finely-tuned nutrition plan. But with ultras, there’s more than one way to reach the final goal, allowing for more variety and creativity when it comes to training. Boulet does strength training twice a week, using a combination of bodyweight exercises and free weights to build her core and legs. She’s also gotten into the habit of wearing a 20-pound weighted vest around her house and the Gu Energy Labs office—where she works as the company’s vice president of innovation—to help squeeze in extra workouts during the day.
Boulet also likes that each race offers a different “project” for her to plan for and solve. “You have an endless bucket of options with ultras—distances and elevation and terrain. It forces you to adapt your training to specific races, and that keeps it fresh and interesting,” she says. For example, Western States often starts out cold but forces runners to climb through desert canyons in 100-degree afternoon heat. Boulet spent a lot of time training for this race in an altitude chamber that she converted to a heat room set to 105 degrees, knocking out 60 minutes of step-ups on a box. If a race has an exceptional amount of climbing, she’ll run hill repeats or perform 2,000 step-ups to build her quads. If it’s a flat race, Boulet heads to the track for speed work.
She continues to evolve as a runner. Her next project isn’t technically a race—it’s an attempt at breaking the fastest known time on the 165-mile Tahoe Rim Trail, which is currently held by ultramarathoner Krissy Moehl. It’s Boulet’s first go at an FKT, and she says she’s not sure if she’ll set a new record or come up short. “With ultradistance runs, you never know,” she says. “You show up with the tools, and hopefully you pull it off. But sometimes it goes from a record-breaking run to just hoping to finish. You have to renegotiate in your head on the fly.”
Not knowing the outcome is part of what inspires Boulet to keep pushing forward into new terrain, new distances, and new challenges. If she wanted the same thing, she’d still be running marathons. She says that uncertainty and variety will keep her in the game for years to come, and for Boulet, longevity is a sweeter prize than any podium finish. “When you do what you love, you want to keep doing it for the rest of your life,” she says.