Sure, the fitness app makes training and racing more social, but running is meant to be isolating. The question is: Can we run without it?
I ran so hard up the mountain that I saw stars. It was late fall of 2015, and after climbing uphill for nearly an hour, I was approaching the summit of Mount Diablo, perched above the Bay Area suburbs, 20 miles east of San Francisco. The wind was blustery, whipping up the bluffs and knocking me off balance. The sun was rising, and I had the entire trail—perhaps the entire mountain—to myself. But I wasn’t really alone.
Two weeks earlier, my phone chirped and a stream of emails informed me that I had lost my entire set of Strava course records on the climb up Mount Diablo to my friend David. Strava has digitized running and cycling by allowing users to create “segments”—series of GPS waypoints over which athletes can compete. Athletes upload their rides and runs to compete for the fastest ranking: course records (CRs) for runners, queen/king of the mountain for cyclists. I’d worked hard for those CRs and wasn’t about to hand them over to David without fighting back.
As I redlined the entire climb up Mount Diablo, I envisioned David running ahead of me, in ghost form, growing more distant as I struggled over the steeper pitches. David’s shadow hovered over the trail—a pixilated veneer that obscured the dirt, rocks, and plants. I had no time to take in the view, no energy to spare on any thoughts other than to urge myself onward and keep up with the apparition. I went bug-eyed as I flailed over the last few hundred meters, hunched over and audibly rasping. I reached the door at the mountain’s lookout and rapped it with my fist. “Summit!” I wheezed out to an invisible audience. I looked down at my watch, saw the time, and deflated.
David’s digital ghost had won.
Running, once a space apart, is increasingly folded into the wider ecosystem of digital spaces. In late 2015, that frightened me a bit. So I tried to take a break from Strava. I deleted the app from my phone and stopped uploading the GPS data from my watch.
One evening, sans Strava, I grabbed my old stopwatch and headed for the hills. I ran up the trails out of Berkeley into the parkland beyond town. A dusky orange glow settled over the singletrack. As I reached the ridgeline, I could just see the shimmer of the San Francisco Bay as the sun fell over the Golden Gate. It felt ethereal and sad and wonderful.
Running is a fundamentally solitary affair. If you take up this sport, you will spend an incredible amount of time by yourself. Very few people want to wake before sunrise to log miles in the rain. Even fewer are compelled to pound out intervals or hill repeats after work. The English novelist Alan Sillitoe famously described this solitude as “the loneliness of the long-distance runner,” suggesting that the activity was uniquely isolating and transgressive. Runners skip happy hours, social dinners, and work-related schmoozing for training sessions. Success in this sport is necessarily centered on the self. Running is sublimely lonely.
But Strava has dissolved this loneliness. I joined in early 2014, and suddenly every run became a space for connection, sharing, and encouragement. When I run with Strava, I run with my digital rivals, anyone who has trod the ground before me. Their previous runs, immortalized as GPS routes, haunt the roads and trails. There is an inherent comparison of effort and fitness on every step of a run, which changes how we understand our training. When I upload a run, Strava’s algorithms weave it into the wider connective fabric of the site. The run is immediately contextualized, socialized, ranked. In 2014, Strava launched a campaign called “Prove It,” implying that a run or ride isn’t truly real until it has been authenticated on social media. Running only counts if it’s networked.
With Strava, we also run for an audience; the site provides constant affirmation. Users leave kudos, as they’re called, on your activities, and encouraging comments push you through the midweek slump. You can take solace during heavy training blocks through weekly mileage standings. These elements are useful tools, creating digital spaces for distant people with similar interests. When someone from across the world leaves a nice comment on my run, I feel energized. Someone I don’t even know has taken a moment to recognize my struggle to become better at this sport.
What I lost with this connectivity was my propensity for introspection—that deep, mournful wonder about ourselves in the world. Solitude gives new perspective to approach an ever-changing society. For most of my life, running has provided a distance with which I can better see the world around me, in all its messy irregularity. It’s only when I run in the hills and the forests that the problems of the city present themselves.
Once I’d used Strava, the “real world” felt flat and slightly sterile. I began to realize that the site augments reality: it rebuilds hills, roads, and stretches of trail into a world teeming with virtual interaction and competition. Every bit of terrain is a realm for kudos, CRs, and orange-tinted interfaces. I realized I didn’t always want to be left alone with just my own thoughts. Running without Strava feels thinner.
When I left the app, I noticed an absence. It wasn’t so much the ritual of uploading my runs, and it wasn’t even the dopamine rush of giving and receiving kudos. But I felt the slight, itching awareness that something larger and collective was happening beyond my solo runs.
After a few weeks of cold turkey, I realized that I couldn’t just unplug. Strava had become an extension of my running experience. Running is evolving into something new, and I was too curious about what it was becoming to simply abstain from its online component. And so, perplexed and perhaps more than a little resigned, I crawled back to the app again. The memory of my first run back with Strava is vivid: It was winter and the sun had set beyond the California hills. My phone glowed, a cipher containing the running world’s seething vitality. I looked down the dark trail, started my watch, and began to run. Whether I like it or not, I will never run alone again.