Alexi Pappas blog: Watching greatness

Oregon Track Club Elite's Alexi Pappas (left) prepares for a long run with Deena Kastor, her biggest role model in sport and life. Pappas spent time training with the Mammoth Track Club in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., in September.

MAMMOTH LAKES, Calif. – When I was little, my family had live-in Au Pairs who would stay with us for a year at a time. My favorite Au Pair was Petra from the Czech Republic. In addition to helping my dad take care of my brother and me, Petra also coached my basketball team. In my childhood memory, she was the tallest woman I had ever seen.

At basketball practice, Petra could take on a court of five girls versus her. She could jump, she could shoot, she could touch the rim – to me, Petra was unstoppable and infinite. She was the first female athlete I ever saw achieve something that I never imagined a person could do.

In this way, Petra expanded my scope of what I thought was possible. Watching her play from the sidelines, I wanted to climb out of myself and become her. But in her broken English, Petra told me not to do that. She said to become “a very big Alexi” instead.

Though I was the smallest girl on my basketball team, Petra taught me how to play ball like I was big. By playing “bigger” than I was, I eventually became one of the best players on the team. Nothing had changed about the basketball court, and I hadn’t gone through a growth spurt, either – the only difference was that after spending time with Petra, I saw myself differently. I felt capable. I haven’t seen Petra since she left our family that year, but I hope she knows the profound impression she left on me.

This past September, I had the privilege of training with the Mammoth Track Club in Mammoth Lakes, Calif. With support from the Mammoth Lakes Crib, this was the second time I have had the opportunity to train with Coach Andrew Kastor and his team. (After my first training trip to Mammoth, I wrote a column called “On Budgeting Willpower.”)

One of the differences between my last Mammoth trip and this one was the chance to embark on workouts and long runs – not just training runs – side-by-side with my biggest role model in the sport (and in life), Deena Kastor.

The long run has always been a hard piece of the training puzzle for me. I’ll admit that I get nervous for every single long run and workout that I do, and my 2-hour runs with Deena felt particularly daunting. A long run is a hard thing to fake.

OTC Elite's Alexi Pappas takes some time to relax in Mammoth Lakes, Calif.

OTC Elite’s Alexi Pappas takes some time to relax in Mammoth Lakes, Calif.

I remember before my first long-long run with Deena, I was feeling more nervous than usual. The distance and pace was definitely ambitious compared to the long runs I was used to, and I especially knew that I didn’t want to stop early and let myself or anyone down. Sure enough, about an hour and 40 minutes into the run, I felt the hurt coming on. If I were alone I would have maybe slowed down. Even though I knew that the purpose of this run was to go “chat” pace, not “chit-chat” pace, as Coach Ian Dobson had told me (and as one of his coaches had once told him), I still wasn’t sure if I was prepared to handle this type of effort. But I knew I didn’t want to give up.

I shifted my attention away from my own pain and instead onto Deena. I focused on the body next to me that seemed to be unrelenting and beautiful all the time. Just like with Petra, part of me wished I could just jump out of my own skin and be her. But then I remembered what Petra had told me: don’t wish you were someone else – instead, become a very big Alexi.

In that moment, although I felt like maybe I was in some trouble, a wave of confidence rushed over me. I looked at Deena again and saw that maybe she was feeling some pain, too, but I also saw how she was not stopping. She pointed out a passing deer nearby, and perhaps this was her way of telling me (and maybe herself), without actually saying it, that we can do it, and look, we are doing it. She was optimistic and persistent and thereby enabled me to be so, too.

Suddenly, a bad kind of trouble turned into a good kind of trouble. I was able to focus back on myself with a new sense of calm and confidence. I no longer wanted to climb out of my own body – I wanted to be exactly whom and where I was.

I made it to my 2-hour mark and completed my run. Deena would have another 30 minutes to go before finishing her own marathon-preparatory long run, which I watched in awe with Coach Kastor from the team van.

I can imagine Deena has probably done long runs like this (or harder) many times before, but I had never seen it play out in person. As I did with Petra, I witnessed Deena physically do something incredible that I had never seen before – she continued to put one foot in front of the other beyond what I thought was possible. She gave me the spark to realize that maybe I could do it, too. Deena and Petra both helped me become a bigger version of myself right before my own eyes.

Last weekend, I had the chance to watch (from afar) as Deena ran the Masters World Record in the 5k in San Jose, California – this is not only extraordinary for Deena, but it is great for the sport, and it is good for athletes like me who thrive on seeing feats like this come to fruition.

I am extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to train in Mammoth with Coach Kastor, Deena and the other world-class athletes on the team. I know that my coach encouraged me to do this because he saw the opportunity for me to learn-by-seeing. Coach Ian used to train side-by-side with Deena when he lived in Mammoth Lakes as a professional athlete. By having the chance to observe the path that my coach and role models created and continue to create, I feel like I am capable of being a part of a greater tradition.

A long training run in the mountains near Mammoth Lakes, Calif.

I realize now that preparation for a successful season is about more than physical training and internal visualization – it’s also about exposing ourselves to greatness in the sport as it is happening in the world around us. Effort and energy is contagious. Watching those we admire achieve something can be a significant ingredient in our own journey, expanding our ceiling for what we believe is possible.

I look forward to growing-by-running and also growing-by-watching this year.

Returning to Oregon and TrackTown USA, I have a greater appreciation for what extraordinary running feats are happening in my own backyard. I feel lucky that there is a world-class meet happening March 17-20 with the IAAF World Indoor Championships in Portland, Oregon. I am on the hunt to compete in the meet myself – but in any case, I will be there to experience greatness and learn from it firsthand.

By watching greatness, our mind can literally open doors for our bodies. The track we run around will always be the same place, it’s just that we may learn to see it – and ourselves – differently.

Previous TTUSA stories by Alexi Pappas

Staying connected

My growth as a runner

Running as a team sport

Race decisions can be invisible 

Trust your race plan 

Outside my comfort zone

On budgeting willpower

What the President said

Channelling your inner racing bug

No easy way to prepare for marathon pacing

Alexi is an avid tweeter and her thoughts can be  found @alexipappas.

Alexi Pappas graduated magna cum laude from Dartmouth College before running off to compete in the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene. Alexi then joined the Ducks as a University of Oregon fifth-year student, helping lead the team to two NCAA championships in 2012 and 2013. She currently runs professionally for the Nike-sponsored Oregon Track Club Elite in Eugene, Oregon, with her eyes on 2016.

Alexi is also a writer, filmmaker, and actress. She co-wrote the script for the award-winning feature film Tall as the Baobab Tree, and is currently in post-production on her second film,Tracktown. Alexi was a Top 9 Nominee for the 2012 NCAA Woman of the Year Award, and is also a graduate of the UCB Theater improv program in LA/New York City.