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3 Things I'm Learning from Alexi Pappas
The Olympic runner and author of the new book 'Bravey' on how to come to a 'new understanding' of painful experiences, and the wisdom of the 'rule of thirds'
“We can’t control the engine we’re given. But how we treat our engine is entirely up to us. It will take us to the moon if we let it.”
— Alexi Pappas
Good Sunday morning, my friends! ☀️ I hope you woke up feeling energized to get out there today, as we have a 3-mile run scheduled on our training plan (which you can see at the bottom of this email).
A book I’ve just picked up is the one I want to talk with you about today — Alexi Pappas’s Bravey, a running/personal memoir that tells the story of the Olympic runner, actress, film director (of 2017’s Tracktown) and now writer.
It’s not your typical running book. It doesn’t feature detailed descriptions of races in which she has participated or long recollections of time she spent training. Rather, it’s a personal story of how she has interpreted all the things that happened in her life and her running career — including her mother’s suicide when Pappas was just 4 years old.
I’m not done with the book yet, but I’ve found myself unable to put it down since I picked it up earlier this week. She has a gift for showing us what it was like to grow up dealing with such a traumatic loss, and for how she learned to lean on many other women in her life to play the roles her mother couldn’t.
And, how all of those things together helped her become the competitor she is today. I hope you enjoy it as much as I’m enjoying it — and let me know if you’d like to discuss it.
Here’s what I’m learning so far:
#1) When chasing goals, remember the ‘rule of thirds’
When Pappas was training for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro with guidance from her coach Ian Dobson, she’d occasionally experience a day when she couldn’t hit the speeds she thought she should:
“I thought my slow workout meant that I was failing. But then Coach Ian gave me the best advice I’ve ever gotten: It’s called the Rule of Thirds. When you’re chasing a big goal, you’re supposed to feel good a third of the time, okay a third of the time, and crappy a third of the time. If the ratio is off and you feel good all the time, then you’re not pushing yourself enough. Likewise, if you feel bad all the time, then you might be fatigued and need to dial things back.”
It’s so easy to imagine that accomplished people who tick off their goals one by one, never feel any anxiety or ever feel uncomfortable.
But it’s refreshing to know this isn’t true in the slightest! In fact, it’s normal to feel uncomfortable when you’re aiming for something you’re not quite sure you can reach.
#2) Everyone — everyone! — experiences pain
It’s refreshing to read Pappas’s honest, open account of what it was like to be a collegiate runner. She doesn’t shy away from telling us that when she was a young competitive runner, she dreaded every single race for days ahead of time.
Once she made it to Dartmouth and began running at the Division 1 collegiate level, she slowly began to figure out that she wasn’t the only one having a hard time with it:
“Every morning I woke up dreading the inevitable pain to come and by the time the practice started, I felt mentally drained. It became clear that if I wanted to survive as a college runner, I needed to develop a technique to manage my fears about pain. I could no longer afford to spend the days leading up to workouts and races steeped in anxiety. Negative thinking drains energy, and I needed all the energy I had to keep up with my new teammates. Pain and I had to come to a new understanding.”
Note especially that last sentence: “Pain and I had to come to a new understanding.” Note what Pappas is not saying here — she’s not saying that she defeated pain, or was able to block it out. She has no control over it, or when it shows up in her life.
None of us is so strong (or clever) that we can avoid pain in our lives — physical as well as mental and emotional. What we can learn are more mature responses to it, Pappas writes, so we can learn from what it has to teach us.
She began visualizing the parts of her races where she expected pain to show up — and says this was “my most powerful tool”:
“I learned to anticipate which parts of a race would be the most grueling, either by studying the course beforehand or talking to people who had run the race before. In the days leading up to the race, while jogging, cutting my nails, or scrambling eggs, I’d visualize an Alexi-inside-my-head approaching a specific painful moment along the course and pushing through the rough patch with composure, strength, and even beauty. When I actually faced the challenge in the race, I knew the pain was coming — and, most crucially, I had already made the decision to persevere.”
#3) Anyone you want can be your mentor
(And they don’t even have to know it.)
For me, this is one of the biggest a-ha moments in the book, because I’ve always thought of a mentor-mentee relationship as something like a friendship or a romantic relationship — in order for it to exist, both people in the relationship have to agree to be a part of it.
That doesn’t have to be the case, Pappas writes: “A good mentor is a living example of the type of person you’d like to be, and you can learn from them simply by being in their vicinity and paying attention.”
However, there’s a difference between being inspired by a mentor and trying to become just like them. Pappas recounts how difficult this was to accept when she was a young teenager.
After her mother died, Pappas says her father hired a series of au pairs from Europe to take care of her, each of whom stayed for a single year (due to visa restrictions). Some she loved, some not so much. But one named Petra she came to love more than the rest, admiring the confidence and ease with which she seemed to move through life.
Pappas found herself wanting to be just like her. But Petra discouraged her from that: “Don’t be me. Be a very big Alexi instead.”
Needless to say, Pappas recounts she wasn’t thrilled to hear that. While she knew that she’d be okay, it stung to hear that she was going to have to figure out her own life for herself, that there was no template to follow.
“We should never want to become anyone else, because the greatest fulfillment we can ever get out of life is by becoming the best possible version of ourselves. To magically become someone else would be to skip the journey of becoming our ultimate thing, our very big selves. It might seem easier that way, but it isn’t better. Petra was empowering me rather than sheltering me. She was wise to send me off like this, with honesty and integrity, even if it hurt.”
Pappas doesn’t shy away from the difficult truth of this. Though of course it feels inspiring for a moment to realize there is a “very big self” inside us, just waiting to be realized, it’s also a big responsibility.
She writes it better than I can:
“Sometimes it hurts to know you can do it. It’s an intimidating thing to realize because it means the only person who can really define your growth and happiness is yourself. There is no shortcut to becoming your best self. The responsibility is on you.”
As always, I hope each and every one of you has an amazing day today — write in later and let me know how your running is going. 😃
Great running reads
Is Your Fitness Tracker Having a Negative Effect on Your Mental Health? The advent of smartwatches and social media simultaneously has made it possible to measure more of our physical activity than most of us would’ve thought possible a decade ago. But with the positives, come negatives.
“Users become pressured to perform identities and be a healthy ‘role model’ on Instagram and these traits become addictive, which, in turn, cause users to become highly competitive and comparative to other people they see online.”
Just Move: A Scientists Debunks Myths About Exercise and Sleep. I learned a lot from this conversation with the author of the new book Exercised, in which he shares the results of years of study of the exercise habits of tribal people in Africa, among many others. Among the most surprising are that running can be a skill you can learn how to do better, and that sitting doesn’t have to be so bad for you.
“When I go to these [remote African tribal] villages, I'm the only person who gets up in the morning and goes for a run. And often they laugh at me. They think I'm just absolutely bizarre. ... Why would anybody do something like that?”
You Just Need One Good Song. A beautiful paean of a post about the effect that perfect song can have on your run, or really any workout.
“You can find this song, and this song can find you... I’m insistent that everyone finds this one song. It will be the thing that gets you up. It will be the thing that keeps you going.”
The Pandemic Is a Marathon. Here’s How to Stay Strong. Really good advice on how to get through (what we hope) are the last remaining months of the pandemic at its worst — including reminders on how to keep routines (so we don’t lose track of the days) and staying connected with friends, family and our looser ties.
“The goal is not to spend the next several months despairing. Rather, it’s to hold the good and the bad at the same time.”
This week’s training schedule
If you notice this week, we’re picking up the pace a little in our 16-week training schedule. Last week, we ran 14 miles; this week, we’ll run 20 (if you get in 3 miles today):
Sunday, Jan. 24 (today) — 3 miles (if you want)
Tuesday, Jan. 26 — 4 miles
Thursday, Jan. 28 — 4 miles
Saturday, Jan. 30 — 6 miles
Sunday, Jan. 31 — 3 miles
How is your running going over the past week — I know it’s still frigid cold across a huge swath of the country right now (and in Europe), so running outside may be too tough. If that’s the case where you live, the treadmill is your best friend this week!
A nature break
I always love Sunday morning because it’s a chance to take a break, rest and just breathe. This video from CBS Sunday Morning is perfect for that:
Words to run by
“Don't part with your illusions. When they are gone you may still exist, but you have ceased to live. To live a fulfilled life, we need to keep creating the ‘what is next’ of our lives. Without dreams and goals there is no living, only merely existing, and that is not why we are here.”
— Mark Twain