Alexi Pappas: The longest run

Oregon Track Club Elite's Alexi Pappas goes on a long training run with Lauren Jimison of the Mammoth Track Club.

EUGENE, Ore. – The 2016 U.S. Marathon Olympic Trials will take place on Saturday. I am lucky to have the chance to be in Los Angeles to watch, as I have the honor of being the “Resident Millennial” panelist for the Millennial Running Study unveiling at the annual Running USA conference the day before the marathon.

I’ve never run a marathon. I’ve paced half of the Chicago marathon, participated in one marathon relay in Mount Desert Island (I ran one-third of the race), and I was honored to view the New York City Marathon up close this fall when I rode in the lead car.

But I have never, myself, run a full marathon. To me, the marathon seems like the biggest-kid thing you can do as a runner and something I will perhaps do one day. For now, the closest thing I’ve come to running a marathon was completing my first ever 20-mile long run last month when I was training with the Mammoth Track Club in Mammoth Lakes, California.

I had run close to this distance many times before, but somehow crossing the barrier from 19 to 20 miles felt completely different – it felt like one of a few transformative moments in my training journey.

Another major transformative training moment was when my Dartmouth College teammate Abbey D’Agostino and I did a 6-mile tempo run together in the woods of New Hampshire with our coach, Mark Coogan. Abbey was a sophomore and I was a senior and I remember the distance and pace sounded impossible and most un-fun. However, coach Coogan told us that this was the plan for the day and that’s what we were going to do. A coach is a gift in that way: by deciding what is to be accomplished at practice, the coach enables the athlete to focus on the task at hand and hopefully not waste energy wondering whether or not they can do it. A coach gives the gift of confidence in that way.

As we watched our watches strike the 3-, 4-, and 5-mile marks, Abbey turned to me and said: “we’re doing it.” Her confidence invigorated me and, at last, our watches struck 6 miles. Since that day, I’m sure that Abbey and I have both done workouts similar to (and greater than) this many times and not thought twice about it. But that doesn’t change how much this particular workout meant to me. The mental and physical barrier that I broke through was meaningful and catalyzed the upward trajectory in my running that followed.

OTC Elite's Alexi Pappas endures a hill workout.

OTC Elite’s Alexi Pappas endures a hill workout.

Abbey was a great teammate to me and helped me during a time when I was not the most confident runner. She believed in me when I wasn’t always sure I believed in myself. I think, especially in college, confidence is the greatest gift a teammate can give.

For my recent 20-mile long run, I was running with a wonderful marathoner named Lauren Jimison from the Mammoth Track Club. We were running fast but I was enjoying our journey. I was also well aware that I was not training for a marathon yet and that this 20-mile long run goal was mostly out of curiosity for my own capability. I was curious!

On this particular day at mile 16, I turned a corner with Lauren and saw the team van just a stone’s throw away. (One very cool thing about long runs with the Mammoth Track Club is that coach Andrew Kastor traces the carefully crafted route with the team van, handing out fluids, shouting words of encouragement, and also picking up runners who are done with their prescribed distance for the day. This is a blessing and a curse.)

Because the team van was in sight at mile 16, I knew I could stop if I wanted to, and that it would have been a perfectly great long run – 16 miles is long enough for someone training for the indoor 3k this winter.

I also knew that I was allowed to run 20 miles from my coach, Ian Dobson, who advised me to run 20 only if I felt good – but this is distinctly different than an instruction to definitely do the full 20. The team van was calling my name. But instead of stopping, I thought of my 6-mile tempo with Abbey at Dartmouth. I remembered that what kept me going that day was confidence from my teammate who I admired.

So, I turned to Lauren and I asked her, “do you think I can do it?” Lauren didn’t even look at me. She continued to run without breaking pace and coyly asked me, “Do I think you can do what?” She was not going to convince me to do anything – that would be letting me go easy. Of course she knew what I was going to ask, but she made me ask the question out loud anyway.

I took the bait and I asked Lauren if she thought I could run 20 miles. In response, I got the most perfect big sisterly answer anyone has ever given me in my sister-less life: “I don’t know, Alexi, do you think you can run 20 miles?” The question didn’t require an answer, apparently, as Lauren darted across the street. I followed. I ran the full 20 miles that day – and in the moment when my Garmin watch turned over from 19 to 20 miles, it was as if I had become the runner’s version of Cinderella.

Alexi Pappas will serve as a "resident millenial" panelist at the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Los Angeles on Saturday.

Alexi Pappas will serve as a “resident millenial” panelist at the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Los Angeles on Saturday.

I had done it! I could do it!

I later came to realize that the gift Lauren gave me during our 20-mile run was a different gift altogether than the important gift that Abbey had given me during our 6-mile tempo. Lauren didn’t tell me I could do it – but she also didn’t say that I couldn’t. She was holding me accountable. Perhaps for a runner, this kind of responsibility to ourselves is an important part of growing up. It is up to me to use my imagination and decide what I am capable of.

A good teammate believes in you. When the time is right, a good teammate also challenges you to choose to believe in yourself, and to give yourself the opportunity to break your own boundaries. I know my teammates believe in me, but it is most important for me to believe in myself.

Previous TTUSA stories by Alexi Pappas

Run like your best 12-year-old selves

On being happy to compete

Watching greatness

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.