The Olympic Runner Who Gained a Cult Following by Writing Movies and Eating Steak

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Alexi Pappas directing "Tracktown."
Alexi Pappas directing "Tracktown."Photo: Shawn Kim

Ready to be jealous? Alexi Pappas gets to call her naps “practice.”

The long-distance runner, who qualified for the Olympics in May to compete for Greece’s national team, has begun using the term practice to describe a lot of what she does in her daily life — running, eating, taking naps in her altitude tent. “It’s about taking it on as a choice rather than a sacrifice,” she says. “I love socializing, but I will be fully present when I’m there, and I will be entirely asleep or running really fast when I’m not.”

Where else could she possibly be besides the track? Isn’t that where an Olympic runner should spend 99 percent of her time? Not Pappas: The soon-to-be Olympian is also a writer, a poet, a director, and an actor — the latter two hats are the ones she’ll be donning in the next few days at the L.A. Film Festival. Pappas’s acting and writing debut comes in the movie Tracktown, a film she and her boyfriend, Jeremy Teicher, made about a young runner named Plumb Marigold, whose dream is to make it to the Olympics. Sound familiar? Eh, only a little bit.

“Plumb is definitely fictional,” she says. “I was sort of a late bloomer in running. She was sort of laser-focused on the running from the start, and I had a little bit of distraction and other things in my life early on: soccer, theater. But she is very real to me. That’s something that I hope will speak to anyone who watches the film, but I know will uniquely speak to the young runners that I engage with.”

Tracktown centers around Eugene, Oregon — the birthplace of Nike, a city fanatically devoted to running, and a place where Pappas went to grad school and ran competitively. Pappas attended Dartmouth for undergrad, where she says she was very serious about running but, because she wasn’t there on an athletic scholarship, she also got to focus on poetry and writing and improv and filmmaking. Eugene, by contrast, is almost cartoonish in its commitment to track. “People on the trails there really do shout out you, ‘Nice race!’ or ‘Good luck this weekend!’” she says. Feeling that enthusiasm pushed her and Teicher to base their next project there. The result, a few years in the making, became Tracktown, an indie film akin to Juno or Superbad — suburbanesque landscapes, twinkling homemade soundtrack, and a character who comes of age both in response to and in rebellion against the sport she loves so much. 

A big focus in the film is Plumb’s reckoning with her own body: She’s muscular and slightly flat-chested. During a sexual encounter, she tells a guy she has a crush on, “I look like a boy.” Pappas wanted to show the real issues elite athletes are constantly quarreling with, she says. She tells me about the time she spent on a research grant in L.A. during her sophomore year of college. “I was becoming more focused on the running and my body was transitioning a lot during that time, and I ran with a group of women there, an adult club called the Janes,” she says. “They were women who were working full-time but also woke up at 7 a.m. and met at the Santa Monica Pier to do a really hard workout. I felt like I was meeting women who were so excited and proud and hardworking and gritty in a way that I hadn’t met before in the athletic world. I had had a poetry adviser and I definitely admired her but she didn’t look like me. These women looked like someone I imagined I might look like one day.”

How does Pappas handle being a cult figure for young female runners in an era of body positivity? Steak, of course. “I have a sponsorship with the local butcher where I get a pound of ground beef or a steak whenever I need it,” she says. “Runners often tweet out, ‘Just ran 10 miles!’ and [I think], well that’s not healthy for these young girls. Why not a picture of the bun or a steak?”

That bun, which has become Pappas’s calling card — and the subject of a parody Twitter account — is part of what makes young female runners love Pappas. She’s something different.

Does she see herself adding another signifier to her body soon? Perhaps an Olympic tattoo? “I don’t want to curse myself!” she says, laughing. “I have to go to the Olympics before I can get an Olympic tattoo. But I wonder now how many actors and filmmakers have the tattoo. It will be a total honor to be a part of that group.” But first, more practice. Like a nap.