No easy way to prepare for marathon pacing

Oregon Track Club Elite distance runner Alexi Pappas (P 141) took her first step into the world of marathons as a pacer at the 2014 Chicago Marathon. (Photo courtesy of Clay Shaw)

CHICAGO – We are creatures of preparation. When we are young, we nervously prepare for the first day of school. We pick out the outfit, the backpack, the pencil we will use to make our first “mark” in the world. When we are older, we prepare for new things, other traditions: a romantic date, a job interview, a marathon …

But no matter how many times we rearrange our hair before the first school day, date, interview, or marathon, there isn’t a definitive indicator of “preparedness.” I find, instead, that I am always-never fully prepared for anything – inevitably, there comes a moment when it becomes necessary to stop preparing and just GO.

This October, I had the honor of pacing the Chicago Marathon for a group of women chasing the U.S. Olympic Trials “A” standard time. With the exception of cheering on my dad in his first (and only) marathon, this marked my first step into the marathon world. I also discovered that I was the only female pacer in the elite field, and maybe even in the history of the race – making this quite an auspicious marathon experience.

Alexi Pappas Chicago Marathon Nike kit OTC Elite

2014 Chicago Marathon race kit for OTC Elite pacer Alexi Pappas

I arrived in Chicago as prepared as I could be: I was well-rested after recently coming back from a month away from training (as is custom at the end of a long professional season), and I also had taken on a few key workouts to practice the proper pace and sharpen up fitness-wise. I learned how to use a GPS watch for the first time, just in case my inner clock failed or tricked me come race day. But no number of perfectly paced workouts could have fully prepared me for the electric experience of being a part of the Chicago Marathon.

What I found when I arrived is that there isn’t a practical way to prepare for some things, such as waking up at 4:15 a.m. for race day breakfast and 5:30 a.m. security check. Do we practice ripping off a band aid? No. We just do it.

When I arrived to the elite athlete warm-up area, I found that I was again unprepared: I had no idea what constituted a proper marathon warm-up. A mile? A walk? Nothing? I observed and followed: it seemed about an eight-minute jog was the standard.

I was also very unprepared for the Vaseline. After warm-up, everyone filed back into the elite athlete tent and then, in unison (as in a theatrical musical), pulled out personal tubs of Vaseline and began lathering up like there was no tomorrow. Did I miss a memo? I asked why Vaseline? A fellow pacer explained that Vaseline is useful for warmth, like a gooey set of long underwear, and also helps prevent chafing. He insisted that I use some of his. I did. We applied the goop liberally to every exposed surface on our bodies, like knights donning their armor. This is a tradition I might take with me to chilly races in the future … maybe.

I was unprepared to wait in the high-security start-line area for 30 minutes prior to the race start – before the gun goes off in a marathon, there are prerace television interviews, national anthems, photographers, overhead jet planes, and a couple tiny lead-cars full of Joan Benoit-Sameulsons smiling, gathering, happening. Nobody is allowed to leave, not even the nervous racers, eager, trying to hold their pee in. I looked to my left and spotted a small group of elite women taking turns encircling each other as they peed, one-by-one, on the roadside. None of the women ran for the same team, but the respect and support they showed each other in this moment was nothing short of teammate-ship. As I took my turn shielding and then peeing, I realized: I have never experienced this on a track start line before and I will never forget it.

When the gun went off, I committed to my pace. I searched for my pace-ees, the women shooting for the “A” standard, and waited for them to file in behind me (I imagined ducks in a line). This was not the case. One woman went with me, a few fell back on a different run-train, and others went on ahead. After a little while, instead of leading a pack of women, I realized that my pace-pack had become a group of mostly men.

Alexi Pappas Chicago Marathon OTC Elite

OTC Elite’s Alexi Pappas is all smiles after her first experience as a pacer at the 2014 Chicago Marathon

One of these men – let’s call him Frank – ran alongside me. I was not prepared to run a challenging over-half-marathon with a man I never met, but we quickly became inseparable. If it weren’t for Frank pushing his half-sipped cups of Gatorade my way, I probably wouldn’t have taken in the necessary mid-race electrolytes my inexperienced short-distance-self hadn’t thought to drink. It was endearing, really, Frank – after downing his allotted half of fluids – would deliberately crease the Dixie-cup for my maximum drinking efficiency. Gatorade, followed by water. You drink, princess. I drank, princess. Frank and I traded off blocking the wind for each other and thereby for the one woman left depending on our studious pacing. For that brief 25K of time, Frank felt most unexpectedly like a family member to me – an uncle, a teammate, a something.

I had never spoken to Frank before and I would never speak to him again – except maybe next year. All of a sudden it hit me. Marathons are a tradition just like … Thanksgiving.

Really.

The marathon felt like Thanksgiving in that weird way where everyone in the family does their very best to prepare what needs preparing: the turkey, the stuffing, themselves, the house. And when the event finally arrives – when the aunts and friends have emerged from the traffic and the marshmallows have emerged from their little sack (they’ve been waiting all year!) – we find that some things turn out outstanding and other things turn out most unexpectedly awful. The green bean casserole has burned (expected), but the gluten free stuffing is surprisingly delicious. The twins are fighting again.

We try so very hard to prepare for Thanksgiving, but just like the marathon, we are always-never fully prepared. Eventually, it is necessary to just do the thing. And then it’s all over, and yes Thanksgiving and the marathon will happen again next year. Of course they will – they are traditions. That doesn’t mean we won’t procrastinate again and stay up the whole night cooking.

And so, I bid you happy Thanksgiving and happy Marathon. Don’t worry, none of us are ready – we have no idea how it will end and can only hope that the general outcome is more good than bad. Either way, I hope yours ends with you hugging your wife, husband, dog, coach, friend, mom, or dad.

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