How Strava shapes our racing stories

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Conditions were far from ideal at this year’s Chicago and Boston marathons. It was hot. It was damp. For many attendees, it was one of those days when the inevitable suffering began far too soon, portending the worst, like an obnoxious party guest who shows up early and starts drinking all the expensive liquor. Like any self-respecting Strava ranger, I have read and enjoyed the autopsies of runners whose runs seemed to be much longer than 26.2 miles. I would like to believe that the pleasure I take from reading this stuff does not come from the schadenfreude, but rather from an empathy for those who have had a miserable experience that I know too well. In the same way that there is little good fictionalization about the characters who go through life without conflict or pain, articles on perfect separations and soft refueling are generally not as interesting as tales of exploding. at mile 15 and trying to hang on. Or maybe it’s just me.

Of course, the fact that we can now read everyone’s race days online is a relatively new phenomenon, but one that is already so ubiquitous that it’s easy to underestimate how much Strava is shaping race culture. wider. It wasn’t that long ago that the only runners who had to tell a story about their races were professional athletes who were contractually obligated to attend press conferences. Nowadays, anyone with a Strava account has access to a publishing platform whose format encourages framing of sporting achievements in narrative terms. Strava users are encouraged to give their races a “title” and add a synopsis and photos. These details may seem rather mundane, but that’s precisely why it’s easy to overlook their impact.

In 1964, Canadian philosopher and media theorist Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “the medium is the message.” Basically his argument was that new technologies are shaping the way we see the world in ways that we are often oblivious to. To use the contemporary example of Twitter, McLuhan could have argued that the platform’s impact on our psyche has less to do with the substance of individual posts than how the media prompts us to express ourselves in sentences. concise and easy to digest, designed for consumption and public approval. I’ve heard more than one writer complain that they often catch themselves “thinking in tweets”.

Strava, meanwhile, functions as a weird hybrid between a personal training journal and an explicitly social medium for sharing photos, workout tips, segment ranking rivalries, and words of encouragement. Like other social media, it is also very addicting. In a 2017 essay for Outside, Sam Robinson wrote that it was only after temporarily quitting the app that he realized how much the community element of Strava had become “an extension of his running experience,” one that provided him with a “constant assertion” and without which, for better or worse, the sport felt “thinner” and “slightly sterile.”

So how does Strava shape the way we run? It seems safe to assume that knowing that others are watching your daily miles may cause you to occasionally choose a more interesting route or run a little faster than you should on recovery days. On the other hand, one of the great advantages of Strava is the ability to steal training ideas from other runners, including some top professionals. On a more subliminal level, there is the Strava equivalent of “photos or it didn’t happen” – a growing need to digitally document every effort for external validation. As Robinson puts it, Strava’s implicit message is that “running only matters if it’s networked”.

In this hyper-connected age, running a marathon is no longer just running a marathon, but an opportunity to share a personal story of returning from injury, overcoming grief, reaching physical climax in old age, and more. Now that the once private and lonely pursuit of long-distance running is an increasingly public exercise, there is more incentive than ever to chronicle our successes and failures for a waiting readership.

All of this could make the sport more interesting, more living only when the story of what happened on race day is limited to finish times and split times. However, a potential downside to Strava’s open journal format is the subconscious need to make everything more palatable to an invisible audience. One thing that struck me during my voyeuristic reading of the various stories of carnage from last week’s marathons was how many people who had had a rough day nonetheless seemed reassuring and optimistic. Since I tend to do the traditional thing of getting depressed after a crappy run, I wondered how some people can be so even after a bad day. Had they all discovered their inner Buddha, which enabled them to deal with disappointment with enviable grace and poise? Or is it rather that exclamations of despair play better on Strava if they also carry a glimmer of optimism? “A man who sucks, but I’m proud to finish. Learning Experience! ”Is more inspiring from Kudos than“ Man that suck. Nothing good about it. I’m going to go cry on a park bench.

But not all disappointment needs to be backed up by the promise of redemption. Sometimes things don’t go well and it sucks and that’s really all there is to it. It is also a sacred part of long distance running; you are investing obscene time in the pursuit of an arbitrary goal with no guarantee of success. When it doesn’t turn out the way you expected, you get a little disappointed for a while and eventually start training again. ‘Cause what else are you supposed to do?

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