If you didn't know Alexi Pappas before the 3,000-meter steeplechase at March's Stanford Invitational Meet, you'd be hard-pressed to forget her after the race's close.
Not only did the 23-year-old Dartmouth graduate come in first place, she did so in spectacular style. While the other runners in the race sported standard-issue kits, Pappas smoked the field in a homemade singlet with polka-dot stripes, black, lace-trimmed shoulders and a picture her brother had drawn of a flying horse pinned on the front.
"A race will always hurt whether it's slow or fast or good or bad, so if I can, I like to think about little things that make me smile," Pappas said of her peculiar fashion choice. "It's amusing to me when I'm in so much pain and racing such elite women -- like, I can't believe I'm racing this amazing woman, and I also can't believe I have Spider-Man [her emblem of choice for a later meet] on my chest."
Although the outfits may be amusing, they're not exactly a joke. Because Pappas was racing unattached this spring (without a sponsor or an affiliated school), she had the freedom to wear whatever she liked. "But I wasn't trying to be a clown out there," she said. Instead, her outfit choices were an expression of joy for the sport she loves -- and of Pappas herself.
Just like her singlets, Pappas' choices haven't followed the standard elite-runner blueprint (high school star is recruited by track-focused college and goes pro after graduation). Instead, the native of Alameda, Calif., focused on soccer through much of high school, taking her junior and senior years off from competitive running completely. She attended Dartmouth for the academics (not the athletics) and joined the cross-country team her freshman year "even though I couldn't really contribute to the score."
Pappas' racing improved in the team setting, but she still decided to take a short break from school in the winter of her sophomore year to "live under my friend's beds and couches at USC and UCLA -- and sort of out my car." While in Los Angeles, Pappas split her focus between improv comedy, studying with renowned troupes Upright Citizens Brigade and Second City, and cross-country, training with local elite team The Janes.
For Pappas, her brief stint in California was a turning point. The Janes, a group of adult women who balance racing with full-time jobs and families, proved to the young runner that competing at a high level could be a piece of the puzzle -- not your entire life. As a student who aspired to be both a creative soul and an athlete, this was an eye-opening relief. Pappas says she realized, "It's important to feel happy and confident outside of the sport," and that only when you find this will you truly flourish.
Pappas proved her theory right after returning to Dartmouth, where she "made a lot of progress." She capped off her senior year with a third-place finish at NCAAs and a laudable performance at the Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore. A few months later, Pappas returned to the Northwest to redshirt at the University of Oregon, where she helped the Ducks clinch the NCAA cross-country and indoor team championships.
Today, Pappas is racing faster than ever but continues to maintain the run-life balance that helped her to achieve success in the first place. "Tall as the Baobab Tree," a movie Pappas co-wrote with boyfriend Jeremy Teicher that centered on family dynamics in rural Senegal, recently debuted at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival, Rotterdam International Film Festival, San Francisco International Film Festival and the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York.
Pappas explains, "I'm a runner and a performer-writer-filmmaker. I would like to be taken seriously as both." Her running career will become all the more serious in the fall, when she begins racing professionally as part of the Oregon Track Club.
Her induction into the highly regarded elite group will mean that Pappas must trade her Spider-Man costumes for a black-and-green uniform -- but it doesn't mean that she'll forgo her creative passions. Pappas and Teicher plan on making the most of their time in Eugene to create a feature film focused on women's distance running set in the small town. "It's a world I'm fascinated by," she said.
While there is not a long history of performer-athletes, Pappas says her two passions carry striking similarities. They are disciplines that require both talent and a high level of commitment. And, she says, at the end of the day, whether you're dressed in an elaborate costume or a simple singlet, "Running is a kind of performance."
Follow Pappas on Twitter @AlexiPappas.