Alexi Pappas: Outside my comfort zone

Alexi Pappas Ian Dobson Oregon Track Club Elite Hayward Field TrackTown USA
Oregon Track Club Elite's Alexi Pappas jogs down the backstretch at Hayward Field under the watchful eye of coach Ian Dobson. (Photo courtesy of Jeremy Teicher)

Last month at the Husky Classic in Seattle, I raced my first mile since my Dartmouth days. Racing the mile was a big adjustment for me, both mentally and physically – for the past three years I’ve been focused exclusively on longer distance events, such as pacing the Chicago Marathon.

I can probably count on two hands the amount of times I’ve raced the mile. The first time was in elementary school on our playground; a mile was eight times around the blacktop, which was in the exact shape of a foam finger. We were to run with eight popsicle sticks in our hand and drop one each lap. I remember really wanting to win this particular mile because I was challenged to the race by a boy I would later date (2nd grade through 5th grade; and yes, I won).

The most recent time I raced the mile – when I set my previous PR – I raced wearing glasses as a preventative measure against the outbreak of pink eye that took over Dartmouth’s campus.

Even though my coach, Ian Dobson, and I both knew that the Husky Classic mile was part of a larger plan to get in shape to race my first 10k on the track this spring, that didn’t make it any less nerve-wracking to step on the starting line for an event that felt out of my comfort zone. The race went well as I broke my PR by 8 seconds with a time of 4 minutes, 36.98 seconds. But I probably would have let my old PR remain untouched forever if coach Ian hadn’t pushed me to give the event a try.

OTC Elite's Alexi Pappas placed 3rd in the mile at the Husky Classic in Seattle with an 8-second PR of 4:36.98.

OTC Elite’s Alexi Pappas placed 3rd in the mile at the Husky Classic with an 8-second PR of 4:36.98. (Photo courtesy of Soh Rui Yong)

Back home in Eugene, I reflected on my experience. I realized that my entire career as a runner has been shaped by the coaches in my life challenging me to try new distances. As a matter of fact, I have raced a new event almost every year since I started college.

A dose of tough love

In high school, I started my running career with the mile and two-mile on the track – classic. But after a junior and senior year of high school away from running (thanks to a nameless high school coach who would not let me stay on the team unless I quit soccer, theater and student government), I began my freshman year at Dartmouth out of shape. I was no longer in a position fitness-wise to be competitive in the mile, and certainly not in the two-mile.

As a freshman at the Ivy League outdoor track and field championships, my coach, Maribel Souther, tossed me in the 800 meters. She told me it was the 800 or nothing – what choice did I have? The 800 sounded terrible. I knew I would not do well. Maybe she did, too. But coach Maribel still encouraged me to race. It was a dose of tough love.

I showed up at Franklin Field, the University of Pennsylvania’s historic stadium, having no idea what type of race the 800 would be. And although I did not make it past the preliminary round, I ran hard and raced my heart out. This experience did not teach me to love the 800, not at all. But what it did give me was an opportunity to experience competition on a track again, something I had not really felt since my sophomore year of high school. After that 800, coach Maribel gave me a very tangible goal to work towards: I wanted to come back to Franklin Field and win a race.

This brings me to coach Mark Coogan, who introduced me to the 3,000-meter steeplechase. Mark took over for Maribel as the Dartmouth coach in the fall of 2010, my junior year. By then, I had begun to get my fitness back. I wasn’t sharp enough to be competitive at the flat distance races yet (I had not yet qualified for a single NCAA championship), but coach Mark could see that I had potential. He had the insight to see that my size and general athleticism could give me a competitive edge in the steeplechase.

I never expected to be a steeplechaser, an event that did not even exist where I grew up in California – I had to explain what the event was to my friends and family – but coach Mark showed me that if I put in the work and believed in myself, I could come back to Franklin Field and win an Ivy League conference race. It came one year later as a senior. I went on to break the Dartmouth steeplechase record and race the steeple at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials. It happened because I had a specific goal for myself and I also had a coach who knew how exactly I might achieve it.

Moving up in distance

When I moved to Eugene to compete for the Oregon Ducks in the fall of 2012, my goal was to contribute to the team however I could. I didn’t have outdoor track eligibility, so the steeple wasn’t an option. Coach Maurica Powell gave me the news gently: I would have to try longer, flatter distances if I wanted to help the team. Fueled by my desire to help the Ducks win an NCAA title, coach Maurica pushed me to compete at the national level in cross country and indoor 3,000m and 5,000m.

It wasn’t until I was 24 years old that I would dare race an outdoor 5k. After I joined Oregon Track Club Elite, head coach Mark Rowland sat me down and told me I was, quite simply, a 10k runner. I assured him I was not. He assured me that I was. He also kindly told me I would have to brave an outdoor 5k before I was to try a 10k. And so, just last year, I struggled through my first outdoor 5k on the track. I did not finish the race. It felt like a whole new sport – I was more nervous than my college freshman self was stepping up to race the 800. I was a professional runner racing my very first 5k against women who may have been running this event since they were college freshman.

This was about the time that I began working more closely with coach Ian Dobson. He knew he had a handful to deal with – this 5k newborn. Over the coming months, coach Ian and I worked together to put myself in educational situations where I could learn the 5k. An almost entirely solo-run race at Willamette last year helped me learn what it was to run 12 ½ laps without jumping over any water pits. It was evident to me that this learning process was not going to be comfortable, and I had no choice but to trust coach Ian entirely. In return, he showed up to every practice with a smile on his face – the type of smile that emotes, “we are definitely going to work hard today but it is also definitely going to be fun.” This 5k was new business, but I was determined to learn the event. I have always approached running as a craft that can be learned. And just as with trying any new thing, we probably will not grow if we are too afraid to embarrass ourselves in the process.

Coach Ian has also encouraged me to embrace off-distance road races. These longer races are all challenging but good training for our plan to eventually try a 10k on the track this spring. Much to the shock of my college-freshman-800-meter-self, I rather enjoy a 12k or 15k on the roads. This is why I look forward to competing in races such as the Gate River 15k in Jacksonville, Fla., on March 15. It also serves as the USA 15k Championships.

Outside my comfort zone

When coach Ian suggested that I race a mile at the Husky Classic, I was taken aback – I did not expect a mile race to be part of our plan. He told me that he believed this would be a “good thing.” When a coach says something is a “good thing,” that can actually mean many things. It can mean you are probably going to do better than you expected. It can also mean you are going to do way worse than you expected, but it will show its benefit many days later. I was nervous. Did coach Ian think I would win? Or perhaps he meant that I would get my butt kicked and then, months later, during the last lap of a tough 10k, this mile race would shed its glitter.

Alexi Pappas gets ready to compete in the mile at the Husky Classic in Seattle.

Alexi Pappas gets ready to compete in the mile at the Husky Classic in Seattle. (Photo courtesy of Soh Rui Yong)

I ran an eight second PR in the mile by hanging in there when it got uncomfortable and trying to use the strengths that I knew I had, which coach Ian and I had discussed in advance. We knew I did not have the speed to outkick anyone in the last 300 meters, but I did have the strength of many, many miles to out-400 most of the people in the race. All except two, to be exact.

What I appreciate most about coach Ian pushing me outside of my comfort zone is that it is also something he does himself. He was an Olympian in the 5k in 2008. It is amazing to see that he is open to being pushed outside of his comfort zone in the coaching world by way of picking up the phone and asking other coaches and mentors in the sport about what works for them.

What I’ve learned is that for me, a great coach is not a rock, which moves for no one, and not a leaf, which moves with every gust of wind. A great coach is more like a tree. A tree is aware of the elements in the world and can sway with the wind, but is also able to stand confidently on its own roots.

This spring will be a fun season. I’m very excited to continue my tradition of pushing my limits and diving headfirst into new worlds outside of my comfort zone. And I could not be happier to be embarking on this adventure alongside my coach.

Previous TTUSA stories by Alexi Pappas: 

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.