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ALEXANDRIA, Va. — After Alexi Pappas handily won the NYRR Dash to the Finish Line 5K in New York City last month with a powerful late-race move, she had something of a revelation: she wasn’t afraid to try to win anymore.
“It’s worth it to take a risk and I think this is just another page in my book as I believe in myself,” Pappas told Race Results Weekly immediately after that race. She continued: “But I’m also believing in my speed, and that’s what it takes to win a race: strength and speed, belief, and a smile at the hardest part.”
The Nike-sponsored Pappas, 25, will carry that self-belief to the starting line of Sunday’s .US National Road Racing Championships here, the final event of the 2015 USA Road Circuit which features a $100,000 prize money purse ($20,000 for the winners). Pappas finished a distant eighth last year over the mostly flat 12-kilometer course in Old Town, but after a solid year of development during which she set personal bests from the mile to 10 miles, she’s hoping to do much better.
“I’m excited to be in Alexandria,” Pappas told Race Results Weekly in a telephone interview last night from Flagstaff, Ariz., where she was visiting a former college teammate, Anne Kesselring. “It will be the last race of what I feel has been a really great fall for me. I want to come out and really enjoy it.” She added: “I don’t travel across the country and not show up.”
Pappas’s fall season actually began in August when she indeed “showed up” at both the TD Beach to Beacon 10K and New Balance Falmouth Road Race, New England’s two top-class summer road races. Pappas finished fifth overall (fist American) at the Beach to Beacon in a season’s best 32:57, then came back two weeks later to take seventh (fourth American) at Falmouth. Both of those races were contested on undulating, seaside courses, and Pappas really felt that her road racing chops had reached a new level of refinement.
“It was a really inspiring race, but it was a big challenge for me,” Pappas said of the Beach to Beacon where she got valuable racing tips from Olympic medalist Deena Kastor. “It was a welcome to, like, the adult running world. My goal was to be the top American. I knew it was something that I could do. It meant that I would have to beat women in the race I’d never beaten before.”
Back in Eugene, Ore., where she trains under coach Ian Dobson, Pappas consolidated her fitness gains from the summer and looked ahead to road racing in the fall, including an altitude training stint in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., with Kastor. On Oct. 4, she lined up at the USA 10 Mile Championships, hosted by the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon in Minneapolis, and stuck her nose into what was the longest race of her life. She let eventual winner Molly Huddle go from the gun, but battled accomplished road racers Neely Spence Gracey, Laura Thweatt and Alisha Williams mile after mile. She used new-found patience she had gained from training with Kastor.
“The 10 miles was the longest race of my life,” Pappas explained. “I had the chance to train with Deena Kastor before it in Mammoth. I had this distance inspiration, training with these marathoners.” She continued: “Road racing was like this sweet ride where you hang on as long as you can. I wanted to let my body and mind surprise myself. At mile four-and-a-half, I stopped worrying about mile nine; mile nine will take care of itself.”
Spence would beat her for second by seven seconds, but Pappas finished third in an excellent 53:10, four seconds ahead of national cross country champion Thweatt. The race was deeply satisfying for Pappas, who used to think that a 5K was long.
“I felt strong,” Pappas said. “I’m bigger than I used to be in terms of strength. Ian Dobson, my coach, has worked on me to become a more complete athlete.”
In the weeks that followed, Pappas got two different views of her future self as a marathoner, an event she said she is both “doomed and destined to run.” In Chicago, a week after her race in Minneapolis, she fulfilled a contract she had made with the Bank of America Chicago Marathon to be a pacemaker (before race director Carey Pinkowsky scuttled pacemaking at the end of August), and ran a “respectful distance” behind Deena Kastor so that she could learn more about running the marathon distance from the American record holder. She went halfway with Kastor (1:14:03), taking as many mental notes as possible.
“In Chicago, it was very cool to be so close, tucked in behind Deena and the pack,” Pappas recounted. “This is someone that I know as intimately as getting coffee with her, or sharing a meal with her. To see her perform in Chicago and get that American (masters) record felt very celebratory. She was a joy to run with.”
Three weeks later in New York City after winning The Dash 5K on Halloween, she mounted a lead vehicle at the head of the all-women’s professional race at the TCS New York City Marathon, part of the New York Road Runners’ lead vehicle program for prospective marathoners. She got to see what the independent Association of Road Racing Statisticians said was the most competitive women’s marathon in the world this fall up close.
“In New York sitting on the lead car, it was really wonderful to see women I’ve admired from afar, plus women I know (like Sally Kipyego and Laura Thweatt),” Pappas said. “I felt like this strong connection with Laura (who was making her marathon debut). I was really in awe of Laura taking on this distance.”
She was astonished by eventual winner Mary Keitany’s might in the final miles of the race. Keitany ran the 21st, 22nd and 23rd miles in 5:14, 5:13 and 5:15 respectively, putting the race out of reach. Pappas had never seen such powerful running up close.
“The race was eye-opening to see,” she marveled. “When she made the move… you could blink and miss what was going on.”
Pappas credits some of her success with Coach Dobson with his willingness to allow her to embrace her other passions, most notably film-making. Her original movie, “Tracktown,” is in post-production. She co-wrote, co-directed and co-produced the film—in which she also plays the lead character—with boyfriend Jeremy Teicher. They have submitted the film to several film festivals and hope that it will make its world premiere, soon. She said she runs better when she’s also fully engaging her artistic side, and Dobson gets that.
“I feel like there is a great teammate-ship between me and Ian,” Pappas explained. “He’s really open minded to sharing and learning.”
She continued: “He understands that I have a unique running background and a unique life now. When I’m happy as a whole person I’m running better. Not every coach would allow their athlete to have such a well-rounded life.”