Alexi Pappas: On adaptation in winter

Recent winter ice storms and snowfall in Eugene, Oregon forced Olympian Alexi Pappas and her coach, Ian Dobson, to get creative with their workouts. (Photo courtesy of Jeremy Teicher)

EUGENE, Ore. – This winter in Eugene has more resembled the New Hampshire winters of my Dartmouth days than a typical Oregon winter. We’ve had ice storms, snowstorms and freezing rain in all combinations. Eugene is not used to winter and it shows: each day, it’s a roll of the dice whether the roads will be run-able (there are only a few snow plows), whether we will have electricity (wires are falling), or whether too many trees will have toppled across the trails to allow access to runners. I’ve worn hand warmers for the first time since I can remember.

These wintry conditions have introduced unique limits to what we’ve been able to do for practice these past few weeks, but I’ve learned that within those limits there is room for creativity. To go to sleep and not know how or where I will be able to safely run the next day is unusual for me, but not all bad. For one thing, I go to bed knowing that I can’t know what tomorrow brings, nor can I control it. Each morning is a new surprise: what will the world look like today? But with flexibility and creativity, I’ve been able to train as hard as ever and even enjoy the daily changing of expectations.

If anything, this winter has pushed me to focus on what really matters. This is a valuable exercise, which will hopefully become a habit, as my experience has shown me that the ability to not waste energy worrying about things outside of my control (like the weather) is critical when it comes to managing my energy before a race.

There will often be situations that I cannot control, especially in the days surrounding a major competition. What if I’m traveling and don’t have access to a place to get a run in? What if my luggage gets lost or my flight is delayed? In these circumstances where the stakes feel high, keeping a level head and seeing past any stressful circumstances that I might be facing is very important. What really matters isn’t how I accomplish my training, or even that I hit the exact mileage or paces that my coach put down on paper for any given day. Of course, in ideal circumstances I will match my coach’s training plan, but in those moments when circumstances are less than ideal, I focus on staying positive and accomplishing all that I can in the situation I’m in – maintaining the effort despite the conditions. I believe that our bodies sense effort more acutely than they sense where, when or how they are moving.

Olympian Alexi Pappas and her Greek training partner finish a long run last summer. (Photo courtesy of Alexi Pappas)

For me, the true challenge when facing unpredictable and unexpected situations is managing my mind.

For example, this past summer when I trained with Greek teammates in the mountains of Karpenissi, Greece, ahead of the 2016 Rio Olympics, we would run long runs entirely on a track – with the heat and narrow mountain roads, this was sometimes the best option. But the prospect of running for more than 90 minutes on a track made me quite nervous. I turned to ask my teammate, Markos, how they endure so many miles running in circles, and Markos smiled and told me to calm my mind down. He was right. Normally, I take the time during runs to notice my surroundings and enjoy the changing scenery – but this was different. So I embraced this as an exercise in composure. My upcoming race in Rio was, after all, 25 laps. If I could endure 50 laps, I could surely survive 25. I began to think about these track jaunts as time for me to practice being calm and focused yet not asleep. Embracing this temporary change helped me run the subsequent 10k PR I ran in Rio.

A bit over a year ago, I experienced flight delays on the way to an important race. I had an unexpected all-day layover in Dallas. I was supposed to land in Florida a couple days before my race with plenty of time to run my pre-race workout, but that was no longer a possibility. I called my coach. He is never upset when changes like this occur. We both knew I couldn’t do what we had planned. But he asked me over the phone what was possible. Amidst many things that were not possible, it was refreshing to think about the situation in terms of what was.

I assumed correctly that there was a parking garage outside the Dallas airport. I found a kind family to watch my bags (also waiting for the same all-day delayed flight), changed in the bathroom, and headed to my new training facility. I ran mile repeats, by time not by distance, within the Dallas Airport parking lot and managed to get the work in. The effort was there. I even had to turn as I would in my road race to come. And like my experience in Greece, it was a fascinating mental experience. I was, after all, preparing for a road race, so why should it matter so much if these weren’t exact miles? I ran hard at what I perceived race pace effort to be, and I felt tired at the end. The work was there. I got it done.

Alexi Pappas runs sprints on the indoor track beneath the West Grandstand at Hayward Field when a recent winter storm encased Eugene in ice. (Photo courtesy of Stephen Bullard).

Just a few days ago, my teammates and I ran inside a parking garage in downtown Eugene. This was the safest, driest, closest, and least-treadmill option. We created a figure-8 pattern so that our left-turns equaled our right-turns and we would prevent injury from favoring turning all one-way. Last week, when Eugene was encased entirely in ice (beautiful but dangerous), we ran sprints under the Hayward Field grandstands. We were supposed to run 150s but instead ran back and forth with minimal rest to simulate the pace and effort. Again, we learned, running is about effort. For another session, we completed our workout on lanes of the track which one teammate shoveled (snow, this time) and which we had access to for only one hour during the day between ice sheets melting and refreezing again. For that hour, we ran hard.

In all of these instances, I took advantage of the time and facilities available to me in my current circumstances. Normally, the most challenging part of workouts is running fast, but these experiences put athletic pain into perspective. They made me feel grateful for the days when my only concern is simply running hard!

We should not fear the unexpected. Rather, we should be prepared to face the unexpected with a positive outlook and stay true to our perspective on what really matters: putting in the effort.

Previous TTUSA stories by Alexi Pappas

On staying put in TrackTown USA 

On the best women’s 10k race of all-time

The night before my first Olympic Games

Training with the boys at altitude

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 joining 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. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, Alexi set a personal best and Greek national record of 31 minutes, 36 seconds with a 17th-place finish in the 10,000 meters.

As a filmmaker, Alexi co-wrote, co-directed and stars in the feature film, Tracktown, which was produced with support from the Sundance Institute and premiered at the 2016 Los Angeles Film Festival. She contributes poetry regularly to Women’s Running Magazine and most recently she and her partner Jeremy Teicher created a 5-episode short film series entitled “Speed Goggles in partnership with Kodak, published by the New York Times. She is also co-founder of the Portland chapter of the Film Fatales, a nationwide group of female directors.