Alexi Pappas: Staying connected to yourself

Oregon Track Club Elite's Alexi Pappas chats with one of her running heroes, Olympic gold medalist Joan Benoit Samuelson, at the Beach to Beacon 10K in Maine.

Springtime in TrackTown USA is fascinating.

Eugene becomes filled with athletes, coaches and fans from all across the world, leaving their mark on historic Hayward Field. As a runner training in TrackTown, I feel the magic of Hayward Field skyrocket when a big race is coming up. The whole town becomes valiantly dressed in robes of flags, grandstands, vending trucks and tents. Even the UO frat houses become residences for visiting teams. It is remarkable.

I feel both energized and overwhelmed by this transformation. This is the time when we athletes are primed for the biggest races of the year … or of our lives! It is when we are most fit and most mentally ready to compete. It is also when we feel the most pressure. Running, the simple sport we all fell in love with, is cloaked in a flashy layer of publicity, bright lights and loud stadiums. It is awesome and wonderful to see, to be sure – but it’s also when we feel most vulnerable to being tossed and lost in the thick of the energy and competition.

In my last article, “My Growth As a Runner,” I discussed how I learned to maintain composure during races using simple playable actions. This lesson was very valuable to me during my championship races – no matter how much pain I was in, I could remember the simple action of pumping my arms harder to get to the finish line. But it didn’t seem like I could come up with any playable actions to cope with the nerves and energy swirling around championship season itself.

I needed to develop a strategy to cope with such a high-stakes and high-energy situation.

After the USATF Outdoor National Championships, I left Eugene and went to train in Park City, Utah with an old teammate and good friend, Greta Feldman. We planned the trip on our own and rented a room from a wonderful and welcoming local family. The family lived running distance from countless hilly single-track trails where we would do our workouts. We could easily take a bus to the gym and grocery store … or to the top of a ski mountain, which became our weekly long run routine. Lost in the woods of Park City, the intensity of championship season felt like an old memory. The bundle of nerves didn’t go away – I knew it was hid

Oregon Track Club Elite's Alexi Pappas celebrates her win at the Beach to Beach 10K in Maine.

Oregon Track Club Elite’s Alexi Pappas celebrates her win at the Beach to Beach 10K in Maine.

ing just out of sight – but for now, in my new environment, it did not consume me.

It is amazing that putting one foot in front of another can feel so different depending on the environment.

Since every run in Park City was some combination of hilly and at high altitude, I had no choice but to run by feel. Greta and I run different distances so I did all of my workouts on my own. Every workout was done on effort, rather than pace, which was very different than my June spent mostly on the track under the guidance of a stopwatch and splits. There was a sense of space there – both spatially and inside my own head. I was working hard, but it was a different kind of working hard than at home with my coach and team.

For one thing, I did all my workouts by feel. Since there was no way I could run 5-minute mile repeats on the woodsy trails (due to hills, wind, altitude), Coach Ian Dobson instead prescribed me something like 5-minute pickups instead.

I learned that running to try to hit a 5-minute mile split was a different mental game than running fast for 5 minutes. For one thing, a GPS watch was not accurate on these trails and could not confirm nor deny if I was running 5-minute mile pace. And since I worked out entirely alone, save for the occasional moose, I was accountable only to myself – those 5 minutes were truly up to me.

But working out alone did not mean I took it easy on myself.

In fact, I think it was because I was alone that I was able to work so hard in Park City. I remember clearly moments during my 5-minute intervals that I realized I could, if I wanted to, stop. I remember thinking I could slow down or work as un-hard as I wanted. There was no one there watching and not even I would know how fast or slow I was going. But at the same time, I remember thinking, I was doing this for a reason. I wanted to be here. It was then that I realized that I could not only continue running for the duration of the 5 minutes, but that I could actually push harder.

It was during this time alone that I learned to put in even more effort when it hurt – not for prize money, not to make anyone happy, but for me. And while I missed my home, coach, team and reservoir of support in Eugene, this was a welcomed and meaningful learning experience.

I left Park City after a few weeks and flew to race in the historic Beach to Beacon 10k in Maine. This is a race I have run for the past two years, and it is particularly special to me because of it was founded by one of my role models, the Olympic gold medalist Joan Benoit Samuelson.

I knew I had a shot to be the top American in this race, but I knew it would truly come down to a race – with road racing, it isn’t always the fastest person who wins but the person who shows up on that particular day and competes the best. As I expected, this race came down to the final kick.

I remember feeling pain as I do during any race. I remember hearing the roar of the crowd in the final thousand meters, just as I did in Hayward Field at the USA Championships.

But this time, unlike my previous race experiences, I felt an ability to mute the world around me when I needed to so that I could hear myself. I channeled the sense of solitude I honed in Park City, which allowed me to maintain composure during the most crucial part of the race. I remembered my workouts alone where I was able to push myself to run 5-minute intervals at some Alexi-pace – the actual pace I will never know, but the effort I committed to my muscle memory.

I was neck and neck with my competitor – a girl I have not beat in a race before – and I told myself, calmly, to pick my legs up and run faster, even though it hurt. On the outside, I pumped my arms wildly, but on the inside, I was calm.

When the stakes are high, staying calm and focused is more important than ever.

I won the American title in the race by less than a second. But more important, I learned how to listen to my own calm voice in a festival of pain and noise.

Oregon Track Club Elite's Alexi Pappas stands atop the awards podium after winning the U.S. title at the historic Beach to Beacon 10K in Maine.

Oregon Track Club Elite’s Alexi Pappas stands atop the awards podium after winning the U.S. title at the historic Beach to Beacon 10K in Maine.

The energy surrounding big races is a magical part of competitive running and one of the things that makes me feel so grateful to be a professional athlete, especially in Eugene. But to be successful, it’s important to stay centered and maintain your relationship with the person who will cross the finish line: yourself.

Similarly, there is a time and a place for track workouts where the splits do matter. But there is also a time and place for free-form effort-based workouts where we can explore our personal pain limits. Workouts like that are how I got to know myself better as a runner this summer.

The more we get to know ourselves, the less likely we will forget the sound of our own voice in a crowd of others.

Previous TTUSA stories by Alexi Pappas

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.