Alexi Pappas: On being happy to compete

Oregon Track Club Elite's Alexi Pappas raises her arms in triumph after winning the New York Road Runners Dash to Finish Line 5K the day before she rode in the lead car at the 2015 New York City Marathon. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Morris)

EUGENE, Ore. – I was never the homecoming queen who got to ride front-row on the parade float. Rather, I ran straight from our cross-country team bus to the homecoming dance.

But 10 days ago, I felt as queenly as ever, as I had the honor of riding in the lead vehicle ahead of the elite female athletes at the 2015 New York City Marathon. I watched in awe as we drove just ahead of the women leading the forty-thousand-strong foot parade.

Check out this New York Daily News article for more details about my lead car experience!

As a recent convert to the 10K from the 3K steeplechase, I can only marvel at how these women stay focused and push their bodies for such a great distance. I will definitely draw on the strength and endurance I witnessed during the marathon for my own training and competition.

However, what I will remember most from my time at the New York City Marathon was actually what I saw later that evening, hours after the sun had set and the elite athletes, media and spectators had cleared away from the finish line in Central Park.

It was just about 9 p.m., and I was walking home from the elite athlete banquet at the historic Tavern on the Green, situated adjacent to the finish line. The lights were still on at the race finish, but I figured that the marathon had come to a close.

Suddenly, I heard a distant shout. I jogged over to see what the commotion was and I arrived just in time to watch as a lone woman charged through the moonlight across the finish line towards a small crowd of cheering marathon volunteers.

She looked exhausted, relieved, and proud. The huge race timer was still ticking above the finish – it read over 11 hours and counting.

Alexi Pappas gets the ride of a lifetime in the lead car of the 2015 New York City Marathon. (Photo courtesy of Jeremy Teicher)

Alexi Pappas gets the ride of a lifetime in the lead car of the 2015 New York City Marathon. (Photo courtesy of Jeremy Teicher)

While the elite race had concluded nearly 12 hours earlier, the woman I watched cross the finish line in the 9 p.m. darkness looked every bit as radiant as Stanley Biwott and Mary Keitany had earlier that day in winning their respective New York City Marathon men’s and women’s titles.

It reminded me of my experience at the Chicago Marathon earlier last month. After speaking at the Marathon Expo, and also witnessing my role model, Deena Kastor, break the U.S. master’s marathon record, I cheered at the finish as I watched Amanda, my best friend from childhood whose running journey had only begun a few months earlier, complete her very first marathon.

I was in awe of both Deena and Amanda for equal but different reasons.

What makes the marathon (and any road race) so special is that there are thousands of people across all capability and experience levels embarking on the same journey with the same finish line. The marathon, in particular, holds a special place in the road racing community as it represents such an awe-inspiring achievement for anyone who takes part, regardless of their finishing time.

Being around this amazing energy in New York and Chicago made me think about my home in TrackTown USA. Most people in the running industry are aware of the tremendous efforts being made in TrackTown USA to increase the profile of our sport in our country. It is inspiring to live at the epicenter of this effort – Hayward Field, the track I use for many of my weekly workouts, is the same place where the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials will be held in July, where the NCAA Championships are held each June, and where the 2014 IAAF World Junior Championships made its U.S. debut. It’s also where the 2021 IAAF World Championships will be held, the first time ever in the U.S.

But equally inspiring is showing up to Hayward Field every Sunday morning for TrackTown Fitness – a new program started  by TrackTown USA President and Olympic men’s head track and field coach Vin Lananna, who welcomes runners and walkers of all backgrounds, some who have never trained a day in their life, and helps them achieve better fitness.

Coach Lananna says to the citizens of TrackTown USA, “Come out and bring someone with you,” which is exactly what the marathon atmosphere felt like in New York and Chicago. It felt like a celebration that was open to all and braved by many. In one lane, you might see Oregon Track Club Elite athletes finishing a hard 800m, while in another lane, a mom and daughter round the Bowerman curve on their first lap of the day.

In this way, I feel a strong connection between the historic New York City and Chicago Marathons and the grassroots Tracktown Fitness program.

For some, completing their first marathon, or simply taking their first step towards a healthier lifestyle, will be the ultimate achievement. For others, they will not be satisfied until they’ve taken home gold.

Taking a bite out of the Big Apple are NY Road Runners Dash to Finish Line 5K champions Donn Cabral and Alexi Pappas (Photo courtesy of Kevin Morris)

Taking a bite out of the Big Apple are NY Road Runners Dash to Finish Line 5K champions Donn Cabral and Alexi Pappas (Photo courtesy of Kevin Morris)

I was reminded of this as I raced the New York Road Runners Dash to Finish Line 5K the day before I rode in the New York City Marathon lead car. Two years ago, this was one of my first races as a post-collegiate runner. I was overwhelmed by the city and the stimulation of such a competitive race. I stood on the start line with Shalane Flanagan, Emily Infeld, Molly Huddle, and fellow OTC Elite teammate Sally Kipyego.

I was nervous and happy to be there. My goal was to hang on as long as I could and run as gritty as possible – I felt more like the 9-hour marathoner than Mary Keitany. The race was as hard as ever, and I finished in 13th place. This year, I returned to the race with more fitness and experience under my belt, and with the desire to win – and I won.

While marathon winners have inspired the competitive side of me to one day compete in a marathon of my own, the woman I saw cross the finish line alone at 9 p.m. made me remember the feeling of gratitude and grit of just getting to the start line and being happy to compete.

For me, both of these things matter.

It is not enough to just have the desire to win – I also need the foundation of gratitude and grit that will get me to the start line and keep me smiling through the finish.

Previous TTUSA stories by Alexi Pappas

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 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.