Alexi Pappas: On the best women's 10K race of all-time

Alexi Pappas placed 17th overall with a personal best and Greek national record of 31 minutes, 36 seconds in a world-record setting 10,000-meter race at the Rio Olympics in August. (Photo courtesy of Jeremy Teicher)

My anticipation for Rio felt similar to the anticipation of meeting a role model I’ve looked up to for my entire life. It was equal parts nervous-fear and excitement. There was the hope that The Olympics would be everything I dreamed of and more, and there was also the fear that it would fall short of my expectations.

Before leaving for Rio, I met several athletes who had varying experiences at past Olympics— some life changing-ly good and some epically disappointing. I wanted my experience to mean something to me, but I knew I couldn’t know until the thing was done. I decided ahead of time that I wouldn’t get an Olympic tattoo unless I felt truly moved by my experience.

From the moment I arrived in Rio, everything was chaotic and fantastic in a larger-than-life way. It was thrilling and scary – the Olympics felt entirely new and completely unlike any other race I had experienced. I was aware that I had a choice: I could try to sterilize this environment and treat the whole trip like any other race, cocooning myself in my room to limit distractions, or I could try to embrace Rio and the Olympics for its differences and soak in the experience.

While other competitors of mine opted to stay in hotels instead of immersing in the Athlete Village life, I chose to live in the Village during the 12 days leading up to my race. I allowed myself the time and space to meet new people along the bus rides, at the practice track, in the ice bath, and in the dining hall. I felt happy and relaxed adventuring in the Village. I learned its every nook and formed a routine for myself there as if it really were my home. I felt a sense of wonder at, for the first time, being completely surrounded by other people who had also dedicated themselves to their athletics. We may not have all played the same sports or spoke the same language, but we understood and respected each other on a deep level.

Coach Ian Dobson and Olympian Alexi Pappas chat prior to her 10,000-meter race at the Rio Olympics. (Photo courtesy of Jeremy Teicher)

Coach Ian Dobson and Olympian Alexi Pappas chat prior to her 10,000-meter race at the Rio Olympics. (Photo courtesy of Jeremy Teicher)

However, in the back of my mind I couldn’t help but wonder if immersing myself in Village life was really the best path to success on race day. Should I be trying to block out all new stimulation and distractions? Typically when I travel for races, I shut myself in my hotel room and binge watch Top Chef. Was I making a mistake by allowing myself to treat the Olympics differently from any other race?

But here’s the thing: the Olympics are not like any other race.

First, my race was at 11 a.m. – this is normal for a road race but was very new to me for a track race. I thus woke up and prepared for the race as if it were a road race. Also, I did not drive down the street to Hayward Field for this race. I took a bus from the Athlete Village with all the women I was about to race – everybody with their hoods up and headphones in.

I could not have my coach, Ian Dobson, on the bus or in the athlete warm-up area. Security was too tight and he was unable to stand with me as he normally does in the hour leading up to a race. That’s okay – we had worked together for three years leading up to this moment. We discussed race plans days in advance. When I got off the bus I briefly saw him – he gave me a good luck hug through the fence and I went on my way.

I had to warm-up 30 minutes earlier than I am accustomed to because we were summoned into the first “call room” about an hour before my race. We were shuttled from one call room to the next and each one was filled with volunteers checking our spikes and slipping timing chips into the bib pinned to our chests. This should have been highly stressful. There was fear in the back of my mind that I wouldn’t warm up properly or that I would do three-too-many strides before my race and wouldn’t have a coach to tell me to stop. But there was also another part of me that was increasingly amused by the thought of what I was about to do. It was thrilling, like when you’re slowly ascending a rollercoaster and you have an idea what’s coming next.

Coach Ian and I knew that I would be among some unconquerable women. We also knew I would be among some conquerable athletes whom I’d never beat before. This was only the fifth 10k race of my life, and Coach Ian helped me determine a general pace that I would be capable of maintaining for the majority of the race.

With the 10k, Ian told me, a lot can happen—it’s a long race and the entire field can change in just a few of the final laps. For the first time, I studied tapes before the race. Ian asked that I watch Shalane Flanagan’s 10k when she won bronze in the 2008 Olympics. In the race, Shalane very confidently and excellently executed her race plan. She ran within herself, which actually meant she was quite a few spots back from her eventual 3rd place finish for most of the race. Sure enough, girls came back to her and she closed in the final two laps of the race.

Olympian and Oregon Track Club Elite distance runner Alexi Pappas gets a hug from Vin Lananna, head coach of the U.S. Olympic men’s track and field team. (Photo courtesy of Jeremy Teicher)

Girls would probably run very inconsistent paces, Ian warned me, wavering in pace. If the race were a musical instrument it would be an accordion. Ian also assured me that I would probably get lapped – and I did. But the important thing was to expect these things and to stick to my own race plan despite all the influences around me, at least for the majority of the race.

When the gun went off, I was in nearly last place for over a lap. I knew I belonged far ahead, but I also sensed that my pace was right. So I slowly moved up and found a spot in the biggest pack of the race. I was calm. We were not the lead pack, nor were we the immediate chase pack, which was much smaller. We moved like a thick cloud, big and present. I was somewhere in the middle of the race, somewhere that wasn’t a world record, but somewhere that definitely mattered.

All I’ve ever wanted as a runner is to be somewhere that mattered. From my earliest days at Dartmouth when I was the worst on my team, all I wanted was to contribute a team point to the score. Then at Oregon, my goal was to make the most of my final seasons competing for a college team. Now as a pro, I still want to matter in each race that I’m competing in. I want to be a player.

During the race, I found myself feeling more calm and happy than I’ve ever felt. I think this was in part thanks to my coach preparing me for this moment, and part myself feeling happy to be there and ready to compete. It felt like a painful dream – but definitely not a nightmare.

And just like all dreams, things entered and exited without my summoning them – Almaz Ayana went flying by and then disappeared again. As she darted onward, I thought briefly about how I shared my water bottle with her just before we entered the stadium (only a few of us thought to bring a water bottle to the stadium on-ramp). This made me happy. Then, I saw Molly Huddle. I thought about the short run I had with her in the Village just days prior and it made me smile. Meanwhile, other girls in my pack freaked out each time we got lapped – many of them hastily sped up or slowed down accordingly – I remained calm, knowing that I was where I belonged and running to my greatest potential that day.

Alexi Pappas poses in front of the track at the Rio Olympics. (Photo couresy of Jeremy Teicher)

Alexi Pappas poses in front of the track at the Rio Olympics. (Photo couresy of Jeremy Teicher)

I tried, as one former coach encouraged me, to “hyperfocus” – to not think about my film work or my family or anything but this experience I was having with myself and the incredible athletes around me. It was a great feeling.

I heard the bell lap ring. This wasn’t my bell lap, of course, but I was close. This was the time to break away from the pack and make something happen. This is the difference between a dream and a race. In a dream, it sort of ends without my control, sometimes suddenly and often confusingly. In my final two laps in Rio, I tore myself from the dream-state and from the pack and into the mind-space of intensity, of taking control, and of finishing strong. I ran a personal best, a Greek national record, and finished in the top half in a world record-breaking Olympic race. The feeling was fantastic – and unlike my dreams, I will remember it in all its fine details forever.

Previous TTUSA stories by Alexi Pappas

The night before my first Olympic Games

Training with the boys at altitude

How I spend my Sundays

The longest run

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 joining 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. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, Alexi set a personal best and Greek national record of 31 minutes, 36 seconds with a 17th-place finish in the 10,000 meters.

As a filmmaker, Alexi co-wrote, co-directed and stars in the feature film, Tracktown, which was produced with support from the Sundance Institute and premiered at the 2016 Los Angeles Film Festival. She contributes poetry regularly to Women’s Running Magazine and most recently she and her partner Jeremy Teicher created a 5-episode short film series entitled “Speed Goggles in partnership with Kodak, published by the New York Times. She is also co-founder of the Portland chapter of the Film Fatales, a nationwide group of female directors.