Alexi Pappas: My growth as a runner

Oregon Track Club Elite's Alexi Pappas won the women's open 10K at the Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta on the Fourth of July.

When I reflect on my growth as a runner, I often find myself thinking about my work as a filmmaker. Often, an actor will need to repeat a scene many times before he or she gets the performance just right. The director’s job is to guide the actor from take to take, observing the performance and then offering directions that will lead to the desired outcome. The way a director communicates with actors is extremely important – some directions can lead to fear and anxiety, whereas the right directions can empower actors and set them free to surprise themselves with their performances.

A film director is, in many ways, just like a coach.

At the end of June, I competed in the second track 10k of my life, which was also the most competitive race I’ve ever been in. This was not just any race; it was the USATF Outdoor Track & Field Championship race where the top three women would earn a World Championships team spot. It was not a race to be shy.

So, I went for it.

I put myself up front with five other women, many of them Olympians and all of them women I admire for their running prowess. I hung in there for as long as I could, but a little over halfway, I could not maintain the pace. As I stated in my post-race interview, “I ran a beautiful race and I died a beautiful death.”

The truth was, though, I slowed down quite a bit. The moment I couldn’t hang onto the front pack anymore, I lost composure. I sat down with Coach Ian Dobson after the race and we discussed what happened. I realized that after I felt myself falling off the front women, I began to feel sorry for myself – I forgot about the other women in the race behind me because I was so focused on the women ahead, that as a result, even with a top-10 finish in the country, I don’t think I finished the race with the same bravery and determination as I had on the starting line.

I never wanted to feel sorry for myself in a race again.

Oregon Track Club Elite's Alexi Pappas is all smiles and ready to devour a peach after winning the women's 10k at the annual Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta on July 4.

Oregon Track Club Elite’s Alexi Pappas is all smiles and ready to devour a peach after winning the women’s 10k at the annual Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta on July 4.

I knew I had another shot at a 10k a week later at the historic Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta – the biggest 10k road race in the world with 60,000 registered runners and walkers. The course is 3 miles downhill, 3.1 miles uphill – so I anticipated that just like my 10k track race a week earlier, the second half of the race would feel very challenging. My goal was to not feel sorry for myself when the race got tough.

As a director and actor, one of the major concepts that we learn is the idea of playable actions. (There is an amazing book, ‘A Sense of Direction’ by Bill Ball, which explains this idea most clearly). A “playable action” is a specific verb-based note that a director can give an actor to cut the intellectual clutter out of a performance. For example, there’s a huge difference between telling an actor to “be more mad” versus telling an actor to “throw a book across the room.”

The idea is that by giving your actor a playable action – something they can actually do in the physical world – the emotional response will follow. The actor isn’t thinking about being mad, she’s thinking about throwing the book! Since the director picked a good playable action, the desired emotion – anger – will follow naturally.

Looking ahead to the Peachtree, I knew my desired outcome: I did not want to feel sorry for myself. But telling someone, “don’t feel sorry for yourself” is not a very playable action. It’s entirely cerebral and emotional. You can’t do that. So I needed to think about what simple playable actions I could do that would lead to my desired response. After much thought with Coach Dobson here is what we came up with:

1. When it hurts, pump your arms harder.

2. When I get to the halfway point, drop your arms, pretend the race is beginning again and give 100% effort of what I have in that moment.

3. Repeat to myself that I am not the only one who feels pain.

Sure enough, the Peachtree race came with a side of rainstorm and a whole serving of hills. I ran the first third of the race with other women in the lead pack and then began to pull away. But the race wasn’t even halfway done and I’d need to push on to hold the lead.

Oregon Track Club Elite's Alexi Pappas and coach Ian Dobson came up with a winning strategy at the 2015 Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta.

Oregon Track Club Elite’s Alexi Pappas and coach Ian Dobson came up with a winning strategy at the 2015 Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta.

When the halfway point came and the going got tough, instead of telling myself “not to feel sorry,” I pulled myself out of my head and just focused on my simple playable action of dropping my arms and pumping them harder. I pretended it was the beginning of a new race – the second half of the race. I also reminded myself that all the women behind me were probably also feeling pain. Silly to think I was the only one.

By giving myself simple playable actions for the most difficult moments in my race, I gave myself the tools I needed to succeed. I used positive actions to overcome overwhelming negative emotions.

I won the open women’s Peachtree Road Race. I accomplished the goal of my scene.

I have since made myself the goal of coming away from each race with a new playable action to take into the next race and beyond. This is how my coach and I best work together – it allows me to both honor the race I ran before and also look ahead to the next one.

By giving myself a simple and direct objective, racing feels less elusive and emotional, and more like a craft that I can hone and develop. Changing what I am physically doing in a race is much simpler than trying to change how I am feeling during a race. And by giving myself small, achievable tasks to work at during the most difficult moments in a race, I equip myself to overcome things much larger than I may have thought possible.

Previous TTUSA stories by Alexi Pappas:

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.