Elite runners rarely step up to the starting line of a race if they don’t think they can run a personal best. Too much is at stake for their careers and sponsorships if they’re not going to have a great performance.
But instead of pulling out of last year’s New York City Marathon after hamstring surgery, Olympian Alexi Pappas came up with a creative solution: glitter.
Doctors had told her that while her recovery was going well enough for her to run 26.2 miles, it wasn’t a great idea to race that far. “I was like, okay, if I’m gonna do this, I just wanna make sure that I indicate to myself and also to fans that this is just supposed to be for fun,” she says. So she hired a makeup designer to come to her hotel the night before the race and paint a giant glittery star on her face. (A fitting symbol for a track star—Pappas competed in the 10K at the 2016 Summer Olympics.)
Pappas started with the elite women, but they quickly lost her. She soon caught up to a group of runners with a Mastercard program that had started half an hour earlier, and ended up running with a 70-year-old Italian man named Vito. “I started to feel like I wanted to support him some way besides just jogging with him,” she says. “So I was like, I’ll just be a hype woman. I started to kind of rev the crowd up at every intersection and was like, Wow, this is really fun.” The spectators—and even the race directors—loved it.
This lighthearted approach was a revelation for Pappas: It was possible to express herself however she wanted and still have integrity as an athlete. And she could run with joy. “It’s a pretty gritty sport,” she says. “But I think you can have grit and joy at the same time.”
Pappas is returning to the NYC Marathon this Sunday, and this time she’s leaning all the way in to that joy: She’ll be wearing a custom bedazzled costume by crystal artist Kerin Rose Gold while running alongside her Mastercard friends.
What her unconventional marathon prep has looked like
Pappas hasn’t exactly followed a typical training plan. She ran the London Marathon just last month as a guide for a visually-impaired runner, where she says she cast herself as an “audiobook,” describing the neighborhoods and signs and costumes they ran by together in order to share the delights of all the sights along the course.
She took a week off to recover in Paris, then focused on easy jogs in New York between work projects (Pappas is also a writer, actor, and filmmaker), and did a bunch of hilly trail runs in Los Angeles where she lives. “[Training] was just basically recovering from London, utilizing the body, and doing a little bit of hill work on soft surfaces,” she says.
Embrace the highs and lows of hills workouts with this 15-minute run:
How she stays fueled on the go
Throughout all her travels, Pappas has kept herself fueled with Lupii bars, for which she’s a brand ambassador. She finds her body digests them well before runs, and even during long trail runs. “If I’m not sitting down for a full normal meal, I know that I’m having protein and fiber, nutrients, all the things that I’ve deduced ahead of time I feel good about,” she says. Case in point: She was eating one during our interview for this story because she didn’t have time for lunch.
She’s leaning into joy to set an example
When asked why an elite athlete is taking such a playful approach to the sport, Pappas talks about the younger girls who may be looking up to her. “Girls quit sports at twice the rate of boys by the age of 14. And I think part of that statistic is due to the fact that it’s common to see men doing recreational pickup sports, but there isn’t as much presence of older women enjoying sports throughout their life,” she says. “To see an adult woman running with joy, I mean, I personally would’ve enjoyed seeing that when I was a kid.”
But it’s not just about younger generations. She wants to give runners of all ages permission to bring more whimsy to their own running. “It’s a sport where it’s best to be kind to yourself, to be smiling,” she says. “In this time in the world, I think especially post-COVID, people really want a wonderful, peaceful, happy, joyful life.”
Her two biggest pieces of marathon advice
On race day, there’s a lot of factors that are out of your hands, from the weather to the runners around you to that niggle in your ankle. “Just control what you can control,” says Pappas. “That means laying your clothes out the night before, having your nutrition arranged as best you can.” (Pro tip: Skip the fiber the night before.)
More than anything, she says, embrace whatever is going to be useful for you. “For somebody, glitter might make them smile and if it happens to feel useful to you, then wear it,” she suggests. “The races are—hopefully—not life or death. So we should just enjoy them every time.”