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Coogan’s Crew: Alexi Pappas

This is an excerpt from Personal Best Running by Mark Coogan & Scott M. Douglas.

Alexi Pappas. Photo credit: Hyosub Shin/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

Personal Bests: 31:36 10,000 meters; 53:10 10 miles

Career Highlights: Olympian, Greek national-record holder at 10,000 meters

Years With Coach Coogan: 2010-12

I had the pleasure of coaching Alexi in her final two years at Dartmouth. She’s a great example of how you can thrive in running while living a full life outside of running. That’s probably your reality—pursuing ambitious running in conjunction with personal and professional responsibilities and other interests. Alexi graduated magna cum laude in 2012 while being a two-time All-American, an Ivy League champion, and almost certainly the only one on the starting line who was submitting entries to film festivals.

When I got to Dartmouth in 2010, I could tell that Alexi could be a much better runner. I could also tell how important her other interests were to her. It’s so healthy for runners at any level to have more in their lives than training and racing. So I didn’t want Alexi to give up those interests. I just wanted her to rethink her relationship with running.

“Mark told me I could take my running dreams more seriously,” Alexi says. “Hearing that made it easier to give myself permission to take those steps. It made me see my running as a choice, rather than a sacrifice. I started to make choices towards my running goals, such as sleeping more, drinking less, and doing the little things that would allow me to handle the 50 to 60 miles a week that we were running with composure.

“I didn’t really change any of my activities,” Alexi says about her filmmaking and other passions. “Those all served to help me, and Mark was really encouraging of me being that well-rounded person. It was a bigger mental shift than a physical shift.”

Alexi had athletic eligibility left when she graduated from Dartmouth. She went to the University of Oregon to get her masters in creative writing. While there, she earned three more All-American honors and helped Oregon win the 2012 NCAA cross-country title. While at Oregon, and then as a pro runner, she continued to seriously pursue filmmaking and writing. She wrote, directed, and starred in movies, including Tracktown and Olympic Dreams, that played at prestigious festivals and had widespread release. Her memoir, Bravey, was published in 2021 to widespread acclaim. All that occurred while, competing for Greece, she ran the 10K in the 2016 Rio Olympics and competed well on the roads, including a 2:34 marathon PR in 2020.

“I never had the thought [that] that would make me better,” Alexi says about setting her other interests aside to concentrate solely on running. “I think for the athletes who are so focused on just running, it’s challenging for them to not put those results on a pedestal and not need the success. You have to be a thriving person to do well in athletics.

“My time went to running first,” Alexi says. “I think the misconception is that I was doing many things at once. The truth is that there was a priority list and running was the priority. I was running 125 miles a week before Rio. I was doing it as much as you can do it. I was just using the time in between differently than many athletes.”

One really important film Alexi made is only five and a half minutes long. She created an autobiographical video for the New York Times about her post-Olympic depression, when she found herself wondering what to do next athletically. Feeling adrift like that led to her overtraining and ignoring signs of injury. In her Times video, Alexi made the case that athletes should be as vigilant about monitoring and treating their mental health as they are their physical health. That’s a great message for everyone, not just runners.

More Excerpts From Personal Best Running