Hundreds of miles away, Alexi Pappas’ voice broke up on her cellphone. It sounded like she said as a young girl, she wanted to be like Britney Spears.
Pappas is an elite American distance runner. She was invited to race in Saturday’s TD Beach to Beach 10K, to match strides with American Olympian Deena Kastor; Linet Masai, an Olympian from Kenya; and Aheza Kiros of Ethiopia, the 2011 female Beach to Beacon winner, among others.
For 15 years, some of the best elite distance runners in the world have come to Cape Elizabeth to compete in Joan Benoit Samuelson’s race. They run into our lives for a day or two, and just as quickly run out. Their host families get the chance to know them. The rest of us are left with fleeting memories.
Alexi Pappas should be one to remember, although where she finishes Saturday may have nothing to do with her impact.
Pappas was a 3,000-meter steeplechase champ at the Stanford Invitational this spring, and a lead runner for the University of Oregon’s national championship cross country and indoor track teams in 2012. She has the lithe build of a female distance runner, and the competitiveness to run for the lead and keep it.
Britney Spears? “I always wanted to be a girly girl,” said Pappas. “I like nail polish. I like dressing up.”
She first went to Dartmouth. Students there who packed a small campus venue to watch the one-act play she wrote: “The Lonely Boy Eats Lunch with his Lunch” won’t forget the performance. Tired of eating lunch alone, a grade-school student uses his imagination to bring his lunch to life. That the sandwich and pickle might have wished to be eaten by someone more important than a mere boy is the fun in Pappas’ script.
The Dartmouth community didn’t have to pay admission, so maybe that’s why seats were at a premium, Pappas says, laughing. “We gave everyone a pickle on a stick. That went over well.”
She helped write the story behind her boyfriend’s film, “Tall as the Baobob Tree” which was screened at several festivals, including the San Francisco International Film Festival and the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York. The actors were Senegalese villagers, speaking their native dialect.
The film received favorable reviews. It’s the story of two sisters in rural Senegal and the coming to terms with their family’s traditions, such as the arranged marriage of the 11-year-old younger sister. Pappas was competing and missed many of the screenings. “I got to first watch people watch the movie in San Francisco. They seemed to like it.”
She grew up in Alameda, Calif., and took a year off from Dartmouth to live in Los Angeles. She joined improv comedy companies, including The Second City, which expanded from its roots in Chicago. She joined an elite women’s running team called The Janes, who balance running with full-time jobs and families.
Pappas returned to Dartmouth. The former high school soccer player was now a committed distance runner and still a free spirit. No one truly knows what to expect when she opens her mouth. She is stream-of-consciousness accompanied sometimes by other-world grunts or exhortations.
In fact, Pappas’ life seems to be one big exclamation point. “The way she cheers or acts may be unorthodox to an outside observer,” says Ethan Shaw of Falmouth, who ran cross country and track at Dartmouth. “When she would yell some of her raucous sayings it was motivating, fun, and I wouldn’t expect anything less.”
Shaw couldn’t give any examples for a family newspaper. “She wanted you to have fun and race hard, and she would set an excellent example.”
Pappas graduated with a degree in creative writing with honors. She also had one season of NCAA eligibility left and enrolled at the University of Oregon, where she became a teammate of Abbey Leonardi, the four-time high school cross country champion from Kennebunk.
Pappas, 23, and her boyfriend, Jeremy Teicher, have a couple more ideas for films. No surprise, female distance running is one. “It’s a world people don’t necessarily know about,” said Pappas. The sacrifices or the choices each runner makes can be astonishing.
She does have fun. A recent ESPN.com story cited her homemade singlets with polka dot stripes, black, lace-trimmed shoulders and a picture of a flying horse drawn by her brother. She’s also competed in a Spider-Man shirt.
“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,” she told ESPN.
And help the rest of us see the joy.
Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at [email protected]