Five weeks out from the race, Thompson injured her hamstring during a speed workout and was forced to take time off. In March, Pappas missed several training sessions while supporting a friend through a mental health crisis. For different reasons, both runners navigated moments of self-doubt, questioning whether they’d be able to finish the 26.2 together.
But with encouragement, mutual support, and a few songs along the way, the runners teamed up to help each other overcome their respective battles and reach the finish line together. On Patriots’ Day, April 18, Thompson won the T13 (vision impairment) Division by completing the race in 3:47:25. And Pappas exceeded her own self-imposed limitations by supporting a new friend in her marathon effort.
“That’s the thing that’s great about running, it’s all these hours that you spend with people from different walks of life,” Thompson told Runner’s World. “I would’ve never met Alexi Pappas but for this whole guiding thing, and yet we click. We’re very similar, we’re positive, and we like to see people succeed.”
Thompson, 54, started running at a young age as a way to cope with having impaired vision. The Houston-based real estate agent and bed and breakfast owner has no sight in her left eye and very little in her right eye. She can see the ground, but she has no depth perception. For this reason, she can’t drive a car or ride a bicycle. Since junior high, she’s used running and walking as her primary mode of transportation.
When she turned 40, Thompson experienced a devastating setback when she and her husband separated. To cope with the loss, Thompson’s friend encouraged her to join the Bayou City Road Runners (BCRR) and compete in a race.
In 2008, she completed her first half marathon and hasn’t slowed down since. In 2014, she ran a personal best of 3:16:50 at the Houston Marathon. Now she’s the president of BCRR and has run 27 marathons. This year’s Boston Marathon was her ninth time competing in the prestigious race.
Thanks to Houston’s large running community, Thompson says she’s experienced a tremendous amount of support as a visually impaired runner. “I can’t run by myself because I can’t cross streets. So, the Bayou City Road Runners is like 230 members and there’s always somebody for me to run with,” she says, explaining that she doesn’t need a tether, but she does need someone running next to her.
Heading into the Boston Marathon, Thompson and Pappas were introduced through a mutual friend. Prior to the hamstring injury, Thompson hoped to run around 3:20 in Boston, but she wasn’t sure how her body would respond, especially on a notoriously hilly course. When she informed Pappas of the setback, her guide reassured her. “[Pappas] texted me back and said, ‘No pressure. We’re gonna run this slow. We’re not gonna worry about it,’” Thompson said. “It was nice.”
After competing in SciaccheTrail, a 30-mile ultra in Cinque Terre, Italy, and the Speed Project—an unsanctioned relay race that takes runners from Santa Monica to Las Vegas—Pappas encountered a setback when someone close to her experienced a mental health crisis. Pappas, who has been open about her own experience with depression, took some time off to support her friend and later recover.
While her body wasn’t in a position to train for a competitive performance this spring, Pappas still wanted to be involved in the Boston Marathon. So, she partnered with Team With a Vision to fundraise for the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired. To date, the fundraiser has collected almost $230,000 in donations. Throughout the week of the Boston Marathon, $2 was also donated for every bottle of Pappas’s wine that was purchased.
Support that goes both ways
While Pappas has run 2:34 for 26.2 and competed at the Rio Olympic Games in the 10,000 meters, she hadn’t raced the Boston Marathon before, and she enjoyed witnessing Thompson and the rest of the para athletes show support for each other in the prerace holding area. “I just felt really joyful to experience that because I know what it is to be an elite athlete and this was like that. It was its own community,” Pappas says.
With thousands of runners taking off together at the same time, the start proved to be an unexpected challenge for Pappas, who was guiding a visually impaired runner for the first time. “I found myself kind of like hovering my arms around her, but not touching her,” Pappas said, explaining that she was trying to protect Thompson from the runners who sprinted past them off the line. “I felt like I was trying to be a supportive fairy because I didn’t want anybody to obstruct her.”
Throughout the race, Pappas used metaphors to help Thompson visualize key moments and remain steadfast in her goals for the race. For example, instead of getting pulled into running other peoples’ paces, Pappas encouraged Thompson to run a pace that worked best for her while taking her injury into account. “I kept telling her they’re the ocean and they’re passing us by and we are on our own boat,” Pappas said. “We need the waves. They’re wonderful, but we’re not going to go with every wave.”
Pappas also pointed out people and sights along the course that motivated Thompson, like fellow female competitors they could cheer on during the race.
Meanwhile, Thompson dedicated every mile to someone in her life who passed away. Sharing those moments also helped build a bond with Pappas, who felt grateful to experience Boston with her in this capacity.
“I think Alexi has a positive message that is really good for the community,” Thompson says. “And I like that she’s crossing over. If elites every once in a while guided differently-abled athletes, they would get a different perspective (Thompson was guided by Jordan Hasay during the 2021 Houston Half Marathon).”
Pushing past self-doubt
Throughout the race, Pappas never asked Thompson how her body was feeling. She didn’t want her to focus on the hamstring injury. Instead, she asked, “How is your soul?” Eventually, Thompson’s initial self-doubt shifted to belief as the pair progressed along the course. The cheers from the Wellesley College “scream tunnel” also helped Thompson move past her own negative thoughts.
“I was freaking out, [I had told her] I’m not going to finish this thing, like I am that injured,” Thompson says. “But you know, you can run on anything if you just set your mind to it.”
By the time they reached Boylston Street, Thompson was well on pace to win the T13 Division. With the crowds roaring, she finished in 3:47:25, almost 20 minutes ahead of the runner-up.
After they crossed the finish line and 2014 Boston winner Meb Keflezighi placed medals around their necks, Pappas started to cry and finally told Thompson about her own battle heading into the race. The guide told Thompson that she was also unsure about her ability to finish given how difficult the last few months have been for her.
“You can do so much when it’s not just about yourself, and I think the more people can make running more than just their individual needs and goals, the better they’re going to feel and the better they’re going to do,” Pappas said, “and the more the world is going to feel that too.”