In marathon running — a different beast compared to competing on the track — she has a relatively new event to train for, and away from the roads and trails her filmmaking career is also taking a step into the unknown with a “top secret” TV project in the works.
“Trying something in a television world is almost like moving from the track to the marathon — it’s like the same sport but a different event,” Pappas tells CNN Sport.
“It’s like we’re learning new rules and that’s what’s fun about the running and the creative worlds — you can try new mediums and new events … similar muscles but different.”
Pappas’ wide-sweeping interests have seen her become something of a cult figure in running circles and beyond having been identified by Runner’s World as an influential personality among a “new boom” of athletes helping to make running “bigger and better.”
She has gradually developed into a role model for young athletes. On her social media pages — where photos are captioned with pithy poems and quirky observations — Pappas gives guidance to followers who come to her for advice on running, injuries, diet or body image.
Her desire and willingness to be a role model can be partly explained by her mother’s suicide when she was four years old.
“That impacted me in two major ways,” says Pappas. “The first was that I felt I didn’t matter enough for her to stay and the second was that I suddenly had this huge vacuum in the female role model department and I needed to fill the gap of: what am I becoming and what can I look up to?
“I latched onto athletes, I latched onto anything to imitate and I really absorbed and ran with anything I saw that I liked, or what I didn’t like I would steer away from.
“When somebody is looking up to me now, I’m very aware of just how much that can matter and just how much people need those mentors sometimes.”
Pappas is finalizing her memoir in essays, “Bravey,” which is to be released in January next year and grapples with her experience of mentorship.
The title originates from a poem she wrote on social media and has turned into a term of endearment she uses to describe her followers; her message is that “it’s okay to be confused or to need help … it’s okay to not feel great all the time.
“Most of all, you’re trying to give someone the gift of confidence, right?” Pappas continues.
“That’s the toughest thing to give yourself and it’s the one thing I think we can give each other and that’s the one thing I’m trying to do.”
Juggling training, writing and filming for a new TV show is nothing new for Pappas, who at the age of 30 has already accumulated a showreel of accomplishments on and off the running track.
Alongside her partner Jeremy Teicher, she co-wrote and co-directed “Tracktown” in 2017, an indie sports drama depicting a talented runner, played by Pappas, who prepares for Olympics trials.
That premiered the year after Pappas had competed at the Olympics herself, setting a Greek national record of 31:36 in the 10,000m in Rio in 2016.
Last year saw the release of “Olympic Dreams,” Pappas and Teicher’s second film set during the 2018 Winter Olympics — the first fictional movie ever shot in an Olympic village. It also stars Pappas, as well as American actor, writer and comedian Nick Kroll and freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy.
Having turned down Masters offers for English and creative writing programs at some of the top schools in the US to pursue a running career, Pappas has made a conscious decision to embrace her double life.
“When people give the advice of ‘do one thing right now,’ what they’re really saying is give a 100% to this goal that’s perfectly worthy and I buy into that, I think that’s true,” she says.
“But your 100% might look different to mine and I think for me, my 100% is feeling like the complete person is happening.
“Honestly, I think it’s helped me to have these other pursuits because it makes running this precious time in the day that I really value … I think I’ve made the most of my time because there’s two things asking for my time.”
This week would have marked the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics where Pappas was hoping to toe the start line of the marathon in Sapporo.
Having competed on the track for most of her career, she says switching to marathon running — an event inspired by Pheidippides, who is credited with running 26.2 miles to deliver news of the ancient Greeks’ victory over the Persians — was always in her blood.
“To join that tradition felt like a rite of passage and something that I was genuinely curious about,” says Pappas.
“Being Greek, it’s also one of those traditions that’s deeply rooted in my background and I think everyone runs a marathon out of curiosity for what their mind or bodies might be able to do.
“It feels like a different sport to track running, it feels like a completely different system, a different mentality.”
Having run a personal best of 2:34.26 in Houston, Texas, earlier this year, Pappas is now faced with a raceless schedule and no definitive goals to train towards.
“In distance running in particular, fitness is like a pencil,” says Pappas.
“You sharpen yourself to a point for the race, called peaking, and it’s something you time very carefully with the coach.
“If you stay sharp for too long, you’ll break — if you think about the tip of a pencil. With these races around the world still an uncertainty, my goal now is to stay fit and healthy without over-sharpening myself now before I know exactly when I’ll be able to race.”
She adds, too, that creative pursuits have always “sheltered me a little bit from overtraining.”
The first barrier for Pappas is to break the Greek national record for the marathon — a time she was 46 seconds shy of in Houston — and then achieve the qualification time for Tokyo, which has recently dropped to 2:29.30 ahead of next year’s event.
“For marathoners I think this Olympic shift has been particularly impactful because there’s only so many marathons you can run in a year and so the whole fall has been taken off the table for good reason,” says Pappas.
“Training safely, doing my gym workout at home, only running with my quarantine pod — there’s only certain runners that I’m running with right now — that’s been the mentality during coronavirus.”
With racing on pause, Pappas can enjoy the benefits of having what she calls a “spectrum of life going on.”
It could even be a taste of what lies ahead when she eventually chooses to hang up her running shoes.
“The cliff at the end of athletics can feel really daunting,” says Pappas.
“That cliff doesn’t feel like it will be a cliff for me — I’m not so afraid of it because I know there’s this career I’m growing at the same time.”