Inside the Fascinating Mind of Olympic Runner Alexi Pappas

The filmmaker, poet and olympian on running so hard she 'pooped' her pants

Alexi Pappas is the first American woman to cross the finish line of the TD Beach to Beacon 10K Saturday, August 1, 2015 Credit: Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Getty

On her sweat-stained road to Rio, Greek-American distance runner Alexi Pappas has learned that success can be measured in messy moments. After training with her new Greek Olympic team in Karpenisi, Pappas is spending her final days leading up to the Olympics training in Mammoth Lakes, California. While partaking in a particularly difficult workout a couple of hours before we spoke, Pappas pushed her body to its breaking point— which on that day meant losing control of her bowel movements— and ran straight through it. "When it was about to happen, I was like, 'Do I stop? No, I'm going to keep going,'" she said, sounding slightly embarrassed yet blunt— grit, after all, is a requirement in her line of work. "There's progress in these moments of pooping your pants, you know?"

After graduating from Dartmouth and moving to Eugene, Oregon, to pursue her budding Olympic dream, Pappas and her fiancé, filmmaker Jeremy Teicher, dreamt up Tracktown— a semi-autobiographical film about an Olympic hopeful named Plum, which Pappas starred in, co-wrote, and co-directed. An avid poet even before she immersed herself in the running world, Alexi is particularly well equipped to capture the exhilarating yet agonizing state that runners find themselves in as they test the limits of their strength— and the single-minded dedication to enduring pain required to return to that place again and again, day after day. With Tracktown's June 4th premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival and the recent release of Speed Goggles, a five part film series documenting the daily routines and internal anxieties of elite runners, Pappas' tenacity extends far beyond the track.

Mere weeks from boarding her plane to Rio to become the first Greek woman to run the 10k in the Olympics, Pappas spoke to Rolling Stone about the way her creative endeavors nourish her running career, her mid-race mantra and how sometimes she has to slow down to run fast.

What comes more naturally to you, running or filmmaking?
I think the performance element of both comes most naturally to me. Perhaps like sitting in a dark corner and writing or enduring 20 miles alone doesn't come as naturally to me as being in a race in front of a ton of people or being in front of a camera or directing people. I love being with people in both crafts, and that's why I moved from poetry to filmmaking. I felt like it was more collaborative and had more of an audience and more of that performance element that I love in running.

What's going through your mind when you train?
I feel like most people want to hear that my best creative ideas have come in the middle of a run but actually, running is such an intense commitment that when I'm at practice, I'm really 100 percent in the running world. I think that's been really important. To really get the most out of my body, I think I do need to be a committed athlete when I'm training. On a recovery run with teammates in the woods, we'll definitely talk about the film, or I may think about that kind of stuff if I'm running alone. But when I'm in the middle of a really hard workout, there are other ways that I'm able to get the most out of my body than thinking about my latest script.

And when you're running 25 laps around a track? What are you thinking about then? 
For me, I developed a word mantra that helps me. Just the word, "Stay." Stay. Just stay. With the 10k, I feel like it's as much mental as it is physical. It's less about who has the most heroic lap but it's who's there on the last lap. Who's still there. It's often a race of attrition because it's so long. And so, for me, it's important to find a meditative place for the first 18 to 20 laps out of 25. I can't expend all of my competitive energy in the first 18 to 20 laps because I know during the last five, I'll need that. I need to make sure that I'm there when lap 20 comes, so for the first three-quarters of the race, I'm just telling myself to stay -- with myself, with my body, with the ups and downs that come because there are some painful patches that will come and go. And trust that when a painful patch comes at lap five that I can just be patient with it.


How do you "stay"? What do you do to ground yourself? 
I give myself physical triggers. Rather than saying, "don't feel sorry for yourself," I say, "shake your arms out." They're called playable actions. Or, I force myself to smile during some of those painful parts of the race because I know that will relax me and release positive energy inside my body.

You recently returned to the U.S. after training with the Greek Olympic team. What was it like to run with your new teammates?
Training in Greece, it was really special to visit places where the Olympics began and to know that Greece is where athletics started. Now I'll be the first runner that the country has ever had in the Olympics in the 10k for women.

One experience really stands out to me. In my 10k that I ran in the European championships, I was knocked over along with a couple other runners. A girl was tripped in front of me and she was this very tall athlete, and I went down too. I went down and got up immediately. I was like, "Wow." I was having a really great race, but then I was down and decided that I was going to finish. And I finished pretty well and covered in blood. And my Greek teammates afterwards were like, "Yes, you are definitely a Greek woman." They were like, "Greeks never give up." It was like this amazing bonding moment with my teammates that I know I'll carry with me to Rio.

You're on a world stage as an olympian. What do you want young women and young runners to take away from your public image?
I want these young girls in the U.S. and beyond that I'm hopefully reaching to be proud of their bodies. It’s important to me not just as an athlete, but as a girl growing up in a single parent household trying to figure out how to be a confident woman without a confident woman to look up to. I’m really conscious about not putting a tweet or a message out like, "Just ran 15 miles in this many minutes." I don't feel like that's going to help anyone, and I would rather send out a picture of my frizzy hair after a run— something that's imitable or relatable—because that's what I would have liked to see when I was younger. I don't look like I thought I would look when I was a young girl dressing up like a princess, but I'm happy with how I turned out.

Do you feel like you are able to have this impact on young Greek women as well?
There was this football tournament happening in the mountains in Karpenisi where I was training with the Greek team. I noticed the tournament was all boys. I was like, “Where are the girls teams?” They were like, “Football is for boys.” So the girls that I met there were siblings of the male athletes. When I finished my runs, I would be stretching on the side and watching the games and would end up meeting these girls. They would find out that I'm going to Rio and we'd talk to each other. They had never seen girls as strong as me. They were like, "I like football and running, but that's for boys." So I see that my reach can extend to hopefully inspire a young generation there to know that you can be strong and you can play sports if you're a woman.

How did the people closest to you support you in your athletic and creative pursuits?
Growing up, if there was something that I daydreamed about, my dad never said it wasn't possible. My dad really helped put my brother and me in situations that challenged us and made us uncomfortable, like trying new sports and trying theatre. Things were we might fall down, and we did. That was like exercising a muscle of vulnerability. We were used to putting ourselves in a position where we would maybe fail, but maybe succeed. I still feel like I'm exercising that muscle every day.

Even in practice today I almost... I pushed my body today to the point of basically shitting myself. Like needing to stop. You almost poop your pants in some of these workouts because they're so hard. I know it's almost embarrassing to admit.

No. It's a powerful detail.
Like, I did. That happened today. It doesn't happen a lot but there are some workouts where you're really pushing yourself. I remember when it was about to happen, I was like, "Do I stop? No, I'm going to keep going because there's a coach here who isn't going to laugh at me.” He's going to be like, "Wow, not many people doing this." I think that's a muscle that I learned very young from my dad and that Jeremy really embraces, too.

There's progress. There's progress in these moments of pooping your pants, you know? Afterwards, you're like, "Yeah, I did that and that was my limit, but next time that work will be in me."

Jeremy is definitely supportive too. Our safe space with each other is admitting what we want. We don't say, "no" to each other. We say, "yes,” and, “Yes, how? Yes, what's next?" Whatever is going to be next for us, I know that it'll be fun because we are doing it together. There’s almost an element of amusement about it.

What do you mean when you say, “an element of amusement?”
When I'm like, "Oh my gosh, how old am I to be pooping my pants?" Or like, "How old are we to be trying to convince someone to help us make this movie that's just a seedling of an idea right now?" There's a vulnerability there, where we know that we don't have to be doing this but we want to be. The amusement comes from willingness of choice. I don't feel like it's a sacrifice to stay in on a Friday night the night before a race when I know my friends are out at a bar. It's wonderful. Or when Jeremy and I are up late on a Saturday night writing. There's a level of like, "Yeah, we're doing this and it's not what everyone's doing but it's awesome."

In Speed Goggles, you say, "nerves mean you care." I really like that quote. What role do nerves play in your life?
Nerves are a huge part of my life. Something that Jeremy and I talk about is that we wake up every single day nervous. Like, a little bit. I can't imagine ever not imagine waking up a little bit nervous. To have something to be nervous for- whether it's a film or a race- is the most wonderful thing, and I hope that when it's not the Olympics that I'm nervous for- when it's something else- that I have something to always be nervous for. Something that I love about racing is that it's on me. That's pressure but it's also a privilege. That when the hurt comes, it will be up to me to make a choice to push through it. It's kind of in my control, and there's something simple and wonderful about that. That's something that I love about running— there's something in my control about it, which is also scary. Like, you've just got to be brave.

When you first began running for Dartmouth, you were one of the slowest on your team. Was there a particular race or a moment in your running career when you realized you had the potential to become an exceptional runner?
I think the change was brought about by particular coaches and mentors telling me I could do it which was permission for me to believe in myself. That came for me after college. I know for some people, it comes earlier but I've been a later bloomer in this sport. I started to really believe in myself when I was 22 years old maybe. My coaches at the time told me, "I believe in you too and you can do it." I was like, "Yes, that I believe in myself is a real thing and that I want to commit to this full on is OK."

When did you begin aiming as high as the Olympics?
I think the moment that I committed to my Olympic dream was just after Dartmouth, actually. I ran the steeplechase in the US trials that year and I think I got last. I might have gotten second to last, but I remember I fell in the water pit. I barely qualified for trials. I was just happy to be there as a new college graduate. There were very few college athletes in the Olympic trials. It was like icing on the cake to be there after four years. But it really was the beginning because I was around, and I saw all of the people that were going to the Olympics and I was a part of it. I think at that moment, I was like, "Wow, I'm not done yet." It was really humiliating in a good way to fall in the water pit among the best in the country.

What did fully committing to your Olympic dream entail?
For me, it meant moving to Eugene, Oregon, to train versus trying to make running work in a place where running isn't really the easiest thing to do. Jeremy, my fiancée who I make films with, was based in New York at the time. When I was graduating, the easiest and most obvious choice was to move to New York with him and continue our film work. I knew that I wouldn't be committing 100 percent to running if I was in New York, and it would be tough to become an Olympian there. I felt that by moving to Eugene, I was making a geographical, physical commitment that matched my mental commitment to running. To decide to chase this dream was the bravest thing I've ever done.

Besides your "Stay" mantra, do you have any techniques that you will use after arriving in the Olympic Village to center yourself and zero in on the race ahead of you?
I will consciously turn my attention away from certain things. So, not looking at my email when I don't need to. Turning off my internet, watching TV. I don't really watch a lot of TV when I'm training and working on films. But the day before a race, I indulge in articles I've been wanting to read, or TV shows I don't normally watch. It's very deliberate downtime. It's a conscious decompressing of my mind. I definitely take a lot of time alone in my room. I don't get bored doing nothing because I hardly ever do nothing. I can't remember the last time in my life where I was bored. I don't think I've ever been bored. I'll do a lot of nothing. I'll take a really long time unpacking my bag and putting everything into my drawers. I like creating a home wherever I am.

What are your post-Olympic plans?
I've planned my life, like many Olympic athletes, only until August. But Jeremy and I have feature film and series type projects that we are developing. I think we will be geared up and ready after Rio to see what the next project is. I'm definitely looking forward to continuing to run after Rio and after some downtime as well. Whatever I'm doing, I want to do it at the highest level and be around the greatest minds and bodies because that's going to allow me to find my most elevated self.

Do you think you’ll feel like you’ve reached the highest level possible with regard to your running career by running in the Olympics?
In Rio, I will be exposed to the highest level. I'll be brushing shoulders, I'll be toeing the line with the best in the world. The best. I'll know what it feels like to be among the best. With Rio Olympics, I know that I haven't reached my peak as a runner. I think that one of the steps to getting there is just being among the best. The Olympics gathers that group, so I'm figuring out what it takes to compete with the best, and then, slowly, at my own pace, becoming my best too. I'm as ready as I could be to race in Rio, but as a runner, I don't think I'm done yet.