Channelling your inner racing bug: How to survive outside the box

USATF championships Alexi Pappas Oregon Track Club Elite
Oregon Track Club Elite's Alexi Pappas used a strong surge at the end to place eighth overall at the 2014 U.S. National 12K Championships in Alexandria, Virginia last month. (Photo courtesy of Clay Shaw)

EUGENE, Ore. – I keep my running shoes by the front door, like many people do. I also keep my bugs by the front door – intruders, ants mostly, who occasionally find their way into and onto my shoes. The invasions are especially frequent this month, when the warmest place in Eugene is a house, and the warmest place in a house is inside a shoe.

I can only imagine how strange it must feel for the ant, who has just successfully escaped the Eugene rain into the safety of my shoe, to suddenly find his (or her) new home being picked up for a most unexpected morning run. Surely, the little ant wants nothing more than for this awful and terribly repetitive bounce-bounce rollercoaster to stop.

When the rollercoaster does stop for the first time – when I, the runner, have to retie my laces – the ant leaps off! How scary it must feel for the ant to dismount trailside. The terrain is far from (our) home. It is foreign and dangerous. It is raining. The ant scurries into the uneven woods on one side of the trail where there is at least the promise of some shelter from the rain under a moldy rock. In order to survive, the ant must accept the challenge of hills ahead (in the form of rock, leaf and dirt piles).

The ant does not detect “challenge,” though. The ant may accidentally take the hilly way out of the woods but it never thinks, “I’ll take the hilly path because it will be good for me.” Ants don’t care about challenging themselves, but rather are constantly in a state of being challenged in order to survive – this comes standard with being an ant.

Because of an ant’s perpetual fight for survival, ants must always, always try their best. The ants that do not try their best will die.

The necessary effort of ants is a quality that makes me both jealous and not jealous. As a runner, it’s quite important to maintain a reasonable level of challenge and trying-my-best in training.  But unlike ants, human runners have the pleasure and burden of self-awareness – if we are going to challenge ourselves to do something thrilling, new and risky, it is going to be by our own willpower.

It is now late fall, a time for winding down a 2014 track season or just starting up a 2015 season. It is the perfect time for a track athlete to embark on adventures outside of his or her comfort zone. Now is the time for the unknown. Now is the time to brave various rock, leaf and dirt piles. Now is the time to voluntarily be like an ant.

I had an ant experience this month when I raced in the second annual U.S. National 12K Championships in Alexandria, Virginia – the newest edition to the USA Road Circuit, and the culminating USARC event of the year. Thus, the awards ceremony would crown a race champion as well as this year’s USARC overall champ. There were 23 women in the elite division. I qualified with my 4th place finish at the USA 15K Champs last spring.

I had never run in a race quite like this before. I expected to be competitive, which to me meant finishing anywhere in the top 10 in a field that included American record-holders, Olympians, and some pretty impressive NCAA-eligible athletes.

USATF Alexi Pappas Emily Infeld Joan Benoit Samuelson Olympics

OTC Elite’s Alexi Pappas (right) is shown with Emily Infeld (left) and Olympic marathoner Joan Benoit Samuelson.

The race distance – which doesn’t exist on the track and is rare to the roads – felt awkward. And the timing, being just after my own break from training, felt odd. The race started at 7:15 in the morning, which to my West Coast self felt like 4:15. But this was a championship! A real championship!

I bet many of us on the start line felt a little like our friend the ant. And try as I might to have a sense of humor about the race and not let the competition get to my head, when the starting gun goes off, I find that I am always as ant as any – I instinctually fight for my life and I will always do my very best.

This is where human runners and ants are most alike: when placed in challenging situations, such as a race, we runners (I hope) do our best.

This particular challenge was really difficult but also wonderful. The race felt uncomfortable from gun to finish, but the pain was neither life-threatening nor did it get drastically worse. When the top 10 women all took off ahead of me, and far faster than I was prepared to run, I had to find an inner okay in a state of not-okay. I tried to be as antlike as possible, and like the ant that must sometimes crawl alone, I focused on my own race and tried to be brave within the boundaries of my own present fitness.

I was in 12th place until the last mile – when something changed. I thought to myself, I can either finish feeling un-brave and in pain, or I can take a risk. What if I run as fast as I can for as long as I can? One mile is a long kick. I might not survive. However unwise, I decided it was time to leave my rational human brain and become an ant. So, right there at the final mile marker, I tried to change gears immediately. I thought about Coach Ian telling me to pick my feet up. I pedaled as mechanically as I could – it was not graceful, it was purposeful. It felt like a survival adventure. I passed three women in the last stretch and finished 8th.

I found my friend Emily Infeld at the finish. When traveling without immediate teammates, we solo ants find comfort in the company of one another – especially those we admire. It was evident we two ants were a little beat up but also powered through something difficult. It was good. We didn’t light the world on fire, but the world also didn’t light us on fire. We really did take some risks and we also did our best.

I’m glad I pushed myself out of my comfort zone with that race. I left Virginia with a completely new experience under my belt, and I felt stronger for it. And I realized: it is good to be an ant from time to time. It’s important to put ourselves in a position to feel vulnerable, where we must fight to survive. These experiences are important, and we just might surprise ourselves with what we are capable of – ants can lift up to 5,000 times their own body weight, you know.

And if the spring track season comes and I am able to carry my most sharp and ready self, but am also prepared to carry my most ant-self if the race doesn’t go my way, that is good.

After all, the ant does not think, “While I am alive, I should try something thrilling and new.” Rather, it does what it must. And so I hope we runners will do what we think we can, but when we reach a point when we think we cannot, may we all become ants.

Previous TTUSA stories by Alexi Pappas can be found here.

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.