She’s as far from a self-absorbed professional athlete as you can imagine and that’s the allure of Alexei Pappas, 26, of Eugene, OR: a world-class 5,000 and 10,000-meter runner who will compete for Greece in the Olympics but is adored just as much by her young fans for her unconventional and literate life – along with the “Alexi bun” on the back of her hair.
She’s a track star with rock star appeal, an athlete who quotes Faulkner from memory, Tweets poetry about her workouts, writes poetry and a monthly poetry column for Women’s Running magazine, essays, a play, a film and will appear in a semi-autobiographical movie, Tracktown at the Los Angeles Film Festival on June 4.
She’s only among the seven best American women runners at her distance yet the most recognizable for a personality so alluring it was the subject of a feature in the New York Times by writer Sam McManis, rhapsodizing her life’s bio-rhythms and running for space and time, no moral to this story and yet there is a finish line.
“I didn’t start it, by the way,” she said of the interest in her hairstyle. “A high school team in Oregon had tweeted me a picture of all of them wearing the ‘Alexi Bun.’ I retweeted it. It took off from there,” she told The Times.
Her grandmother was born in Greece, earning Pappas dual citizenship, her celebrity making it a lot easier likelier than for other Greeks of the Diaspora who find it an arduous task despite their kinship with their homeland.
To her teen fans and teen runners she’s the Lady Gagagagagaaga of the sport, a magnet for idolatry and emulation and a hair fashion trend. Girl runners want a bun too and love the sport’s hippie, a kind of 1960’s throwback to free thinking.
One young runner and fan who came to watch her, Rachael Reiter, was too shy to approach her at a meet but told the Times: “Love the bun. Love that about her. The bun almost has its own fan club on, like, Twitter. I tried to run in a bun once. It totally fell apart. She can pull it off.”
She’s as smart as she is athletic, and turned down scholarships to pursue a Master’s Degree in writing from Columbia, USC and UCalifornia-Irvine because she wanted to run, baby, run.
She’s also done stand-up comedy – showing fearlessness as anyone who’s tried it will attest – and understand enough about herself to advise her followers to be themselves.
“Whatever I am to these girls, I’m happy to be,” Pappas said. “The bun is something that, if your hair is long enough, anyone can do. That’s a connection to make with young runners. Rather than tweeting out, ‘Just ran 100 miles this week’ — not healthy for them, anyway — why not a picture of my hair?”
She has a hard serious side too. “I’m not a cartoon character,” she said. “People read my poetry and this and that, and when they meet me at the track, they think there’ll be a — ta-da! — a show or something. At home, I’m mostly quiet and often asleep.”
LOSING A MOTHER
She was raised in Alameda, California, between Oakland and San Francisco in a life that didn’t begin easy. Her mother, Roberta, committed suicide when her daughter was only four years old, leaving the girl to be raised by her father, John, and older brother, Louis.
When she got old enough, Pappas talked to her father of her mother and sought out her mom’s friends, trying to find some answers and understanding about what had happened.
“How can someone be so sad that they’d want to leave?” Pappas told The Times. “What I think it was, maybe she didn’t have someone to share what she was going through. Her close friends told me she didn’t talk or emote, at least not like I do.”
Her boyfriend, Jeremy Teicher, who co-directed Tracktown said there’s many sides to her and that she’s not insular or thinking only of self.
“Alexi tries to be open and talk honestly with people,” said Teicher, who met Pappas at Dartmouth when they were studying film and theater. “She talks about her fears and how hard things can be. That’s why people are drawn to her. That’s also something I, as the boyfriend, actually admire.”
Pappas has to emote as much as run, especially when she gets inside herself about what happened to her mom without knowing why really.
“When I think of my mom, it makes me … I don’t know, let’s just say that’s why at least somebody knows everything about me,” she said. “I mean, if I have a bad sandwich, I’ll tell Jeremy. If I see a weird leaf on a run, maybe it’ll become a poetry tweet. I’m making it so that people hold on to the things going on inside me.”
There are those who question whether being so multi-faceted has hurt her running, that marginalizing herself with too many activities makes her take her eye off the track even if it’s watching the road.
“She gets criticized from all angles — the film and the track and field,” said Jordan Hasay, an elite distance runner who was Pappas’s teammate on the University of Oregon cross-country team that won the 2012 NCAA title. Pappas was granted a fifth year of eligibility after graduating from Dartmouth and ran for Oregon while completing a Master’s Degree.
“But that’s what works for her,” Hasay said. “You find happiness in different areas. It wouldn’t be enough for her to focus on just one thing. It doesn’t hinder her, only enhances her.”
Pappas’s coach, the Olympian Ian Dobson, gives her a lot of slack, unlike some coaches who won’t suffer a lack of attention and focus on the sport. She missed three weeks of training last year to film Tracktown and Dobson said her coming late to the sport has made it tough.
said he not only accepted but also embraced her choices. When “Tracktown” was filming last year in Eugene, forcing Pappas to miss three weeks of training, Dobson did not object, he said.
She was one of the top prep distance runners in California as a freshman at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland but fell out of favor with coaches who thought she wasn’t focused.
“I was 16, with frizzy hair and braces, and wanted to explore soccer, student government, theater and boys,” Pappas said.
At Dartmouth, she was the “slowest runner on the team” her first year because she wanted to “go to parties and explore the full college experience,” she said. Now she trains hard with the Oregon Track Club Elite in a state which reveres the sport.
She still fits in all her other activities. “The film and creative work have kept me healthy,” Pappas said. “On an average day, I’ll finish my workout, my post-workout fuel, and come back here excited to work on the film. I’ll bring my bowl of mush down for breakfast into Jeremy’s office and look at what he’s editing.
She’ll spend some time now doing high-altitude training with the Greek Olympic track team in Font Romeu, on the border of France and Spain; competing in the European Championships; and then returning to Mammoth, Calif., for more altitude training with her mentor, Deena Kastor, before heading to Rio de Janeiro in August for the Olympics.
“This might open up a whole new world for me and my running scope,” Pappas said. “I’m officially on the team, and I’m now the national record holder in the 10K, after my time at Stanford. There’s already been a bunch of articles about me in Greece. It’s very exciting.”
Now she’s added learning Greek to her repertoire but in a life with so many swirling choices made simultaneously said she has one hard and fast rule: “You cannot run 24 hours a day. There’s a mental and physical benefit to having something else in your life.”