Alexi Pappas: When role models exceed expectations

Alexi Pappas (second from left) toes the starting line with one of her running idols – Shalane Flanagan (far right).

There’s a saying that you should never meet your idols in person because they can never live up to your expectations.

I’ve found that to be true sometimes: when I met Serena Williams in Rio, she spent our whole interaction complaining about the food in the Village dining hall. I was disappointed – I wanted to get some morsel of advice for my upcoming Olympic debut, but instead, I thought twice about the quality of the chicken I ate in the dining hall that night.

Alexi Pappas will be cheering on her idol, Shalane Flanagan, at the New York City Marathon on Sunday.

Or, sometimes, you outgrow your idols: in middle school I idolized one of my friend’s big sister because she was an incredible writer, but then I grew up and had a moment of truth where I realized that I can also be a capable writer. But then there are some idols that are truly special, that you never outgrow and that when you meet them, you look up to them even more. Those are the real keepers. For me, one such idol is Shalane Flanagan.

I learned about Shalane in college, when I first began to understand the drastic gap between my personal bests and hers. From a distance she was poised, disciplined and talented. She worked hard and her hard work paid off: she was dominant and a force to watch compete. I only ever had the chance to watch her on television, but even from afar, I could see her laser sharp focus driving towards the things that she wanted. Shalane was everything I hoped I would become, but I felt silly hoping because the Shalane-in-me felt so far away. She was fast, she was confident, and she was capable. At the moment, I felt none of those things. I was still the worst on my college team, chipping away each day at the team point I so wanted to score.

My first time actually speaking with Shalane was during my fifth year at the University of Oregon. I met her when she was eating pizza with Kara Goucher after their races at the Payton Jordan invitational at Stanford. Jordan Hasay and I had also just competed: it was Jordan’s first ever 10k and my first big win in the 3,000m steeplechase, my event at the time. This was the night when someone recorded me cheering for Jordan and put it on YouTube. I remember walking into Pizza My Heart with Jordan and seeing Kara and Shalane there – they were eating pizza too, just like us! It was late so the pizza place was clearing out. Jordan and I finally got the courage to ask Shalane and Kara for a picture – I think it turned out blurry but I cherish it all the same.

I was incredibly nervous and even a bit intimated, but Shalane was disarmingly down to earth. This was around the same time that I would transition from being a college runner to a post-collegiate runner. I felt overwhelmed with this new professional world and all the choices ahead of me. Shalane smiled and gave me advice that I latched on to like a little kid clutching an ice cream cone. She said that all roads should point towards performance. Running fast should be the lowest common denominator in any choice that I make. Shalane explained that this meant a number of things, from the coach to the location to most important, my happiness as a person.

Former Oregon teammates Jordan Hasay and Alexi Pappas were inspired on and off the track by Shalane Flanagan and Kara Goucher.

I carried Shalane’s advice in my back pocket as I progressed through the start of my professional running career. When I faced decisions about where to train and with whom, I thought of what she said. Shalane’s advice, along with bits of wisdom from other mentors, became my secret stash of glittering gold I could look at when I needed a boost.

Shalane has encouraged me to value intangibles – coach, team, training location, and overall happiness – over tangible assets. Following her advice is the reason I am where I am today and I am so grateful she took the time to talk to me. I don’t even know if Shalane knows how grateful I am to her.

Soon, idols like Shalane became more within my grasp – I was no longer only seeing her in interviews and from the stands. I was in the same elite athlete warm-up rooms as her, at the same events, and sometimes even on the same starting line. She was always incredibly warm and nice to me, but our interactions still felt fundamentally like an “athlete-fan” relationship – which was completely appropriate.

Then, Shalane came to my movie premiere in Portland and everything felt different. I remember sending her and Steve the invite but not expecting them to come. Sure enough, Shalane, Steve, and Shalane’s coach Jerry Schumacher (with his entire family) came to watch my movie in theaters. It meant so much to me to have someone I admired so much support me in that way. When I bought Shalane’s book, it only felt like a small slice of what she had given me.

“I felt nervous in the good way – I didn’t want to let her down!”

Just last month, Shalane and I happened to both be in Mammoth (Calif.) for altitude training at the same time. We saw each other on the trails and at a dinner party, and it started to feel like we were becoming peers. But then I got a text from her that made my heart beat just as fast as when I saw her compete in real life for the first time: she had a track workout coming up, her last major workout before the New York City Marathon on Nov. 5, and she asked for me to be there trackside because her coach, teammates and husband were not able to support her in this final workout. The workout was 800m repeats and if I didn’t join her, she’d be all alone. This was a request that transcended our prior relationship level. Of course, I wasn’t ready to actually do the workout with Shalane, because my season is just beginning and she was at her workout peak, but I told her that I’d be there to warm her up and cheer her on. I felt nervous in the good way – I didn’t want to let her down!

During the workout, I made up a game where we assigned an ingredient to a recipe for each rep completed – and sure enough, one by one, she completed the task: salt, bananas, flour, eggs … and by the end of the workout, she had “baked” banana bread. During her reps, Shalane was super focused and laser sharp, but she still laughed every lap when I shouted out the next ingredient to our bread. She even took a breath to call out that no, we can’t have nuts in our recipe because “I HATE NUTS!” It reminded me of the time I had the chance to run alongside Deena Kastor in the Chicago Marathon when she broke the U.S. master’s marathon record in an epic 2 hours, 27 minutes, 47 seconds. In the middle of the race there was a strong smell of cookies baking and she cracked a joke that made everyone around us laugh. I realized that Deena and Shalane both have the same quality – they can be in the middle of a great challenge and still be present in the world around them, smiling and lifting other people up while pushing themselves to their outermost limits.

By the end of Shalane’s workout, I looked up to her more than ever. That’s the thing with great role models: they get more inspiring the closer you become. I will watch and cheer for Shalane at the NYC Marathon with gratitude and admiration.

PREVIOUS TTUSA STORIES BY ALEXI PAPPAS

I’ll see you at practice
On adaptation in winter
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.