Alexi Pappas: Running as a team sport

Oregon Track Club Elite's Alexi Pappas shouts encouragement to Ethiopia's Genzebe Dibaba during her world record 5K attempt at the Prefontaine Classic.

One of my clearest memories from childhood was cheering for my dad’s first (and only) marathon. I was eight years old, and – like most little kids – as far as I was concerned, the entire world revolved around me. Anything that made me happy or sad was tied exclusively to my immediate surroundings and myself.

On this particular day I stood by the finish line and waited for what felt like forever. When I first caught a glimpse of my dad, it looked like he was in pain! My very strong pillar-of-a-dad was in pain, and that pained me. I was most surprised that it made me feel afraid.

Then he crossed the finish line – his exhaustion was overwhelmed by his joy – and my own feelings changed for the better, too. It made me happy to see my dad accomplish something that I watched him work so hard to achieve.

This moment was the first time I remember feeling an emotion for somebody else that had nothing to do with me directly. It was strange and positive and overwhelming, and taught me that at its best, running is a team sport.

During my time at Dartmouth, the University of Oregon, and even in the post-collegiate professional world, positive energy from teammates and my community has continued to be a critical factor in my training and racing.

But the team dynamic goes both ways. Of course it is important and beneficial to have a group of people who you care about cheering for you – this reservoir of support is key (as I discussed in my January column, “What the President Said”). Just as important, though, is the other side of the equation: cheering and being happy for your teammates. While it may not seem like it, this can be just as much of a boost to your performance as having people cheer for you.

OTC Elite's Alexi Pappas was the pacer for the women's 5,000 meters at the 2015 Pre Classic.

OTC Elite’s Alexi Pappas was the pacer for the women’s 5,000 meters at the 2015 Pre Classic.

Throughout my running career I’ve found that cheering my teammates on and celebrating their successes as well as my own has consistently rewarded me with a healthier, more productive, and positive training environment. In a sport where we tend to turn inwards and overanalyze our bodies and performances, turning attention outwards is also important.

I know this to be true because this is a part of who I am. There is a somewhat well-known YouTube video someone candidly caught of me cheering for my University of Oregon teammate Jordan Hasay in her first ever 10k on the track in 2013. While the cheers were light-hearted and fun, the connection between my teammate and me were very real. I gave Jordan a reason to smile in the middle of a difficult race – and I was able to draw on this experience for a smile in my own race when I tried the 10k for the first time this spring.

More recently, I had the chance to watch my training partner, Soh Rui Yong, run the Eugene Half Marathon – his preparatory race leading to his Southeast Asian Games Marathon, where he would represent his country, Singapore. The Eugene Half Marathon was early – 7 a.m. to be exact – but the few hours of missed sleep was the best trade I could have made for what followed. This particular course ran alongside the same Amazon trails that we run every day together – often just Rui and me. But being there alongside him during his race was special in a different way. This is the guy who sees me at my best and my worst, and who makes me laugh during our hardest workouts. While it would have been easier to stay at home that day, to see Rui thrive and succeed was an intangible gift for me as well.

Alexi Pappas and her training partner, Soh Rui Yong, trade fortunes.

Alexi Pappas and her training partner, Soh Rui Yong, trade fortunes.

Rui went on to win the Southeast Asian Games Marathon in an astounding race on June 6th, which I know will change his life forever. To be even a small part of his journey gives me strength and joy and enriches my own life as a runner.

I also had the chance to pace Genzebe Dibaba in her world record 5k attempt at this year’s Prefontaine Classic. Pacing is a job, but it is also a privilege and a gift to have the chance to lead someone as they chase their goal. I ran the exact pace I was asked, and knew I would do it because someone was counting on me and this, in my experience, is the best motivation. When the Ducks needed me to do everything possible to score at NCAA Indoors in 2013, I managed to come back from the 3k and grab my final team point in the 5k not because I felt great personally but because I felt strongly about the greater goal.

There are few words to describe the joy I felt for my University of Oregon Ducks in their men’s and women’s team titles at the NCAA Outdoor Championships just two weeks ago. It is phenomenal to see a program that meant so much to me thrive and grow. Alumni, family, friends and fans appreciate being a part of such a hard-earned milestone.

It is always the easier choice to duck my head down and only worry about myself. And while prioritizing my own needs is very important, I am also a better runner because I have also chosen to involve myself in other people’s running journeys.

So, running is not just about what your running can do for you. It is also about what you can do for your running universe, however far that reaches.

Previous TTUSA stories by Alexi Pappas:

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.