After Post-Olympic Depression, Alexi Pappas Finds New Purpose in Guiding Visually Impaired Marathoner

Alexi guides Lisa during the 2022 London Marathon.

After the 2016 Rio Olympics, 10K runner Alexi Pappas should have felt on top of the world. She had just achieved a lifelong goal of becoming an Olympian, and had set a new Greek 10K record while doing so. But Pappas, like so many other elite athletes, struggled with post-Olympic depression. Athletes train hard for years working towards one singular goal, and once that’s over it often leaves athletes feeling lost and unsure of what’s next. If you’ve ever experienced the post-race blues after a goal race, you’re likely familiar with the feeling.

But once Pappas signed with Altra in the fall of 2021, things began to change. She was finally being supported and encouraged to try new things. She was able to experience running from a different vantage point, separate from the rigid and demanding schedule of an elite athlete. When the opportunity to guide a visually impaired runner through two World Major Marathons presented itself, she couldn’t say no.

We sat down with Pappas to learn more about her experience as a guide runner, her partnership with Altra and her goals for the future.

FF: How did the opportunity to become a guide runner present itself? Did you ever picture yourself doing anything like this when you first got into competitive running?

Alexi smiles after the race.

AP: One of my best friends from college is a guide runner. I would alway have motivational phone calls with her and her teammate that she guided through Achilles International. So, I was aware of the guide programs and I had seen those runners at marathons I was competing at.

The opportunity came about when I was navigating my way back into competitive running and wanted to be a part of the marathon in a different way. I was connected with Team With a Vision, who was in need of guide runners for the 2022 Boston Marathon. They presented me with a roster of athletes who had different pace ranges, and I noticed that there was only one woman on the list – Lisa Thompson. I was made aware that Lisa had very rarely had a female guide because she's quite fast, and in order to be a guide the pace needs to feel comfortable. For example, if Lisa wants to run a 3:20 marathon, the guide needs to be able to run about a 2:50 marathon so they can navigate the safety, the water stop dynamics, and be an audiobook for this person. If you're really pushing yourself, you can't do that kind of communicating or even thinking.

It was easier for Lisa to find male guide runners for her pace range than to find a female guide. I was excited to be her first full marathon female guide. We had some mutual friends, and we got along. I guided her through both the Boston and London marathons this year.

I was really nervous in Boston because Lisa wanted to win her division – the divisions are based on how visually imapired the athletes are. I was excited, but I also felt nervous because I knew she was depending on me. You really want to be there for your teammates almost more than you would be if you were on your own.

FF: How did your training to run as a guide differ from your training to run a personal record or national record?

Alexi Pappas guides Lisa during the 2022 London Marathon.

AP: The training to run as a guide is part physical, but also mental because you have to be ready to do whatever the athlete is going to do that day. But there's also preparation for how you can best help this person.

Lisa wanted me to run on her left, she did not want to wear a tether and she wanted me to hold her hand when we were going over train tracks or making sharp turns. She guided me through how to handle the water stops, which was really challenging to do. I needed to be fit enough to run whatever pace she might be capable of that day and even more, because I needed to be there as a support.

My training wasn't super strict, I just needed to be really healthy and be able to run smoothly. The biggest difference was the time spent on my feet. Even if the pace was easier for me, I’ve never been on my feet for 4 hours during a race. I have a lot of respect for people who take longer to finish a marathon because they're out there on their feet for longer than an elite athlete. I wore different shoes for the Boston and London marathons because I knew I wasn’t going to be running at my top speed. Comfort was the most important thing. In London I wore the Altra Via Olympus, which was great because it has a lot more support.

Lisa wore the Altra Vanish Carbon because she was racing, but she wanted me to tie her shoes in a special way using the marathon loop. I’ve never known how to do that – I felt like how my dad probably felt when I asked him to braid my hair growing up. We were in the holding tent and I walked around asking other runners if they knew how to tie the marathon loop. Another woman volunteered, which was so kind because she was preparing for her own marathon. Sometimes you have to ask for help when you're trying to help people.

FF: You ran Boston with Lisa, and then London with her. How did these two experiences differ? Were there discrepancies between the courses that you needed to account for?

Alexi Pappas smiles with Lisa

AP: There was no competitive field for London, which meant I could accept help grabbing water for Lisa. In Boston, I wasn’t able to accept help since Lisa was competing to win her division. No one could hand me a water cup to hand to her, which was really challenging. I had to leave Lisa to go out and grab the water cup for her, because the water stops are so chaotic with everyone stopping and cups all over the ground. It was easier for her to continue to run straight for a few moments. Every time I left her, I felt like a parent who had lost their kid at Disneyland. I would dash out and try to grab the cups as fast as I could.

In London, some of the other runners would go out and grab the bottles so I didn't have to leave her. That was so kind, especially since they were in the middle of their own races. I also had to kick all of the bottles that were on the ground out of the way so she wouldn’t step on them. Sometimes the other runners, whom I called angels, would kick the bottles out of the way for us.

Something special about the marathon is that you are truly in the community. That gives us the opportunity to support each other as teammates, even in a non-traditional way.

FF: Is there anything that surprised you about being a guide runner? Anything that you didn't expect?

AP: Something that happened in London that made me smile so big was this man in an elephant costume behind us. Usually it was my job to tell Lisa what was around us, but in this case the kids on the sidelines were screaming so loud, “There’s an elephant!” Lisa said, “I think there’s an elephant approaching us.” I looked back and there was a man in an elephant costume coming up behind us. We ran with him for a little bit – that was a really fun moment.

Lisa really wanted to win in Boston, and she did. She is very competitive and insisted on taking the tangents [running the shortest distance possible]. This was hard in Boston because I was new to guiding, but I think we did a better job of this in London.

I also learned a lot about predicting the topography. If there’s a hill coming up, I have to tell her it’s there and how long it’s going to be…but I can’t say “Oh, this hill looks awful!” I had to learn how to commentate things in a way that's empowering and fun. It was a delicate balance between being honest and helping her suspend her disbelief about what she's capable of.

Alexi and Lisa sitting on a city bench laughing with bags of running gear

FF: You’ve run in a lot of different shoes over the years. What drew you to Altra and why is this an important partnership for you?

AP: I only partner with teams where I can stand behind the product and the ethos of the company. Altra is the first shoe brand I’ve ever run in where I can run in more than two of the shoes they make. This is something I’ve discovered over time as they've come out with so many new shoes since I've been on the team. I’m very tickled by the fact that I can wear so many of their shoes and love them.

I had this post-olympic depression and, after that, I tore my hamstring which required surgery. In coming back, my physios were really adamant about the way that I relearned how to walk and run. The way they wanted me to run was in line with the way Altra shoes allow me to run.

When I put my first pair of Altras on, the biggest thing I noticed is that I didn't notice them, which is the biggest compliment I can give a running shoe.

The company values the idea of moving naturally, which to me means embracing who I am. I used to segment off the parts of me that were a runner, a person and an artist. What I've found on the Altra team is that it's cool to just be Alexi. I’m at ease with who I am here. When I ran with other brands, I felt like I had to perform for the company rather than the company gathering a mix of people as a team.

I've had so many cool opportunities through Altra. I had never been asked to do anything non-olympic in my other sponsorships. The Olympics are cool, but it’s not the only way to experience our sport. I've done things with Altra that expose a different vantage point of the sport. When I told them about this opportunity to be a guide runner, not only were they okay with it but they said, “Great, how can we support you?”

FF: What’s next for you?

AP: Right now, I’m doing the research to become a guide runner in the Paralympics in Paris. I think I can make a big difference there. I know what it's like to be next to someone in a race and share the responsibility, share the pain with them. Running is a team sport masked as an individual sport, and guiding is a really great example of that.

I definitely want to keep working with Lisa and continue to guide at major marathons with her, but that Olympic dream is something that I'm endlessly curious about. If I'm invited to do it, I'm going to do it. I was always the team-captain type, so I like the idea of doing that. Getting in shape for someone else's goals is fun.

Follow Alexi on Instagram at @alexipappas and check out her bestselling memoir, Bravey.

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