Alexi Pappas: Training with the boys at altitude

Oregon Track Club Elite distance runner Alexi Pappas learned some valuable lessons during a recent training session at altitude in Flagstaff, Arizone with eight teammates - all male. (Photo courtesy of Eric Finan)

I grew up in a house of boys: it was my dad, my brother and me. I shared my Jack-and-Jill bathroom with my brother, Louis, and since he was four years older, I learned to accept his music choices, him showering first, and him telling my middle-school self that my body mist did not smell good. It actually smelled like a bad flower garden so I stopped wearing it which is why I will never (thankfully) smell like a Plumeria again.

Even the television at home was full of boys. I remember distinctly Chris Berman or Jerry Seinfeld’s voice on the television echoing through my childhood home like I imagined a mother’s might. Whether it was morning or dinnertime, Jerry or Chris would talk at my brother and me, or sometimes, to no audience all. (We didn’t like a quiet house, and Jerry and Chris always had something interesting to say.) And if Chris or Jerry or my brother had something on their mind, they said it – straightforward, candid and honest. This is the nature of comedians, sportscasters and big brothers.

You can imagine what a shock it was when I moved to New Hampshire for college and experienced shared living spaces with women for the first time: nine of them to be exact, all of us runners. We had one bathroom to share. I learned to distinguish my deodorant from all others even though they were all exactly the same and I learned to be alert when entering the bathroom because the hair straightener was likely on (and quite hot.) I enjoyed the late night debriefings about running, school and boys, and I appreciated never running out of outfits to wear because there were nine wardrobes we shared between us. There were dozens of running shoes by the front door.

There, I entered a new kind of jungle where there were many strange new things and I loved it in a different way. It was also very challenging for me to navigate this new landscape – I found that with girls, when it came to discussing our running, much was left unsaid. If, after practice one of us girls said we were fine, it often meant we were not fine. If we said we were not fine, it meant we were really-super-not-fine. Sometimes it was wise to pry and help each other pick through the issue, but other times it was best to leave things alone that felt beyond the reach of words. It was like we spoke a secret language that we all knew and also did not fully understand. This was definitely not the Chris Berman and Jerry Seinfeld language I grew up with.

DCIM110GOPRO

OTC Elite’s Alexi Pappas discovered some key differences between males and females when discussing their workouts. (Photo courtesy of Eric Finan)

Last month, I trained and lived with eight – eight! – boys at altitude training camp in Flagstaff, Arizona. I was the only girl in the house. One thing was the same as my experience living with the girls in college: the huge pile of running shoes by the front door. All else was different. After the first run together, it hit me: we were all sitting around the kitchen eating and discussing our first runs at altitude. “I felt like dog crap,” said one boy. It was so honest. Another boy burst through the door and announced that it was the best run of his life. They threw out big bold statements like confetti. The extreme descriptiveness by which the boys recounted their fantastic or terrible workouts was a creative triumph. Their expansive language was more vulgar, evocative, expressive, vivid, colorful, illustrative and narrative than anything I had experienced among teammates before.

For some reason, such extreme proclamations felt characteristically male to me. Perhaps it is because they reminded me of Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Berman and my brother. Sitting at the kitchen table with the boys, I thought about my own reviews of workouts and runs – I realized that I will have a spectacular or a terrible run and the review will generally be the same: “it was fine.” This broad application of the word “fine” feels distinctly female to me. Perhaps this is a phenomenon unique to my experiences with the teammates I have lived and trained with during my career. Perhaps it is because growing up, I did not want to discuss certain things with my dad or brother and told them I was fine even though I did not fully understand what was happening to my evolving alien body.

DCIM110GOPRO

A group training run at altitude in Flagstaff, Arizona. (Photo courtesy of Eric Finan) 

No, the workout was not fine – I told myself to reconsider – it was spectacular or it was terrible. My workout was the best thing since the invention of sliced bread or it was horse manure covered in moldy peaches and flies. It felt weird to say it the first time, but when I did share my experience in a larger-than-life way like the boys did, it felt really good. It felt extreme and dramatic but also like a fun emotional release that matched the energy output I had exerted in my workout. These catharses differed from one day to the next, mirroring the day-to-day journey of training. It felt like confidence.

However, I noticed that there was also a downside to this approach – like when one boy let his proclamation of feeling like dog crap overshadow (and hurt) the next day’s workout. Yes, the boys were making statements that seemed bold and confident – but then sometimes their entire realities and training plans would shift with each new proclamation. So I found myself wondering, was this behavior productive?

I have always considered my training as a series of boxes, all equal in value – we tick a box each day – this is actually something that one of my role models, Olympic silver medalist Sally Kipyego, taught me. The hard workout day is just as important as the recovery day, and it is crucial, she told me, to not place too much emphasis on any one good or bad moment. It is not one day of training that makes or breaks a season – our athletic achievement is a long-term body of work. Being able to approach training with this long-term perspective takes a different kind of confidence.

In this vein, when I had tough days during training camp, I made it a goal to show up all the same. As one coach called it, I gave 100% of what I had that day, even if it was 100% of crap. And this is something that I have distinctly learned from the female role models in my life (although, again, this may only be my own unique experience). Some of the most painful and challenging moments in my running life I’ve experienced alongside female teammates, and it has been thanks to them telling me in the middle of a rough workout, “we’re fine,” even when I wasn’t, that I was able to grow as a runner.

Dan Kremske and Alexi Pappas cool off in a nearby river after a long run at training camp, (Photo courtesy of Eric Finan)

Dan Kremske and Alexi Pappas cool off in a nearby river after a long run at training camp, (Photo courtesy of Eric Finan)

Managing the emotional impact of an athletic experience is super tough. It is like going through puberty all the time, constantly. I have learned from all of my teammates how to cope and grow as a runner, and I am the product of all the people I have gratefully spent time with throughout my running career. As an athlete, my goal is to be mature enough to know when to embrace a feeling-moment and emote it boldly (which does feel good and is significant), and also when to push forward and tell myself that everything is just fine. I will be happy and successful if I can embrace the day-to-day ups and downs of running while also respecting the long-term journey. It’s important to have a balance of both – and it is a powerful, positive thing to be able to make a choice between the two.

Previous TTUSA stories by Alexi Pappas

How I spend my Sundays

The longest run

Run like your best 12-year-old selves

On being happy to compete

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.