When I was in eighth grade, to earn the Presidential Physical Fitness Award, I had to run one mile in 6 minutes 50 seconds, a time that would make me faster than 85 percent of all American kids. I ran my mile in 4:44.
Nine years later, I signed up for a marathon and began taking notes on my training runs: “8 miles 53 minutes.” Or “4 x 800s; 1 min rest in between; 2:16, 2:30, 2:38, 2:35.” I filled notebooks.
I ran that first marathon along 26.2 miles of jagged Big Sur coast, south of where I grew up, in 3 hours 29 minutes 34 seconds. My first half marathon, six months later, took 1:47:50. The next, from sea level to the top of a 4,000-foot peak, took 1:47:49—third place, only three minutes behind the winner.
A year ago, I moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, for a job at Outside magazine. My new co-workers were ultrarunners, former pro kayakers, Everest mountaineers. We spent lunchtime running trails through the foothills of the 12,000-foot Sangre de Cristo Mountains. To measure myself against these Übermenschen, I downloaded a smartphone app called Strava that tracked the distance, time, average pace, and elevation change of my runs. The app also let me compete virtually against other users.
It’s a funny goal; "cracking the three" won’t get you in the top 10 of most races. The only reward is the little number next to your name in the timekeeper’s log.
My first Strava-timed run was a 4.4-mile trail run along the Rio Grande. Average pace: 6 minutes 37 seconds per mile. Total moving time: 29:09. Four other Strava users had run the course. I didn’t know James V. or Andre O., but it didn’t matter. I beat them, and set a course record. Six days later, I ran the course again. Average pace: 6:26 per mile. Total moving time: 28:24. An improvement of 45 seconds—a huge leap—and another new course record. Every run had become a race, not against the clock or my own limits, but against invisible strangers.
Strava takes advantage of a fact social psychologists have long understood: Humans try harder when we’re being watched (even if it’s only digitally). Social facilitation, as the theory is known, was first observed in the late 19th century, when psychologist Norman Triplett dug through the archives of early cycling races. (Running is eclipsed perhaps only by cycling in its devout adherence to the numbers.) Triplett noticed that riders competing against other riders consistently rode faster than riders competing against the clock. Which is why runners set personal records during races, not training. And why, as my Strava use increased, my times fell.
I ran a half marathon at an elevation of 5,000 feet in 1 hour 21 minutes 19 seconds. Fully 26 minutes faster than my first race over that distance. Exercise physiologist Jack Daniels watched the 1984 Olympics and found that in races longer than 800 meters, every runner except one took more than 180 strides a minute. Average runners take between 150 and 170. I downloaded a metronome and began using it to supplement my Strava data. A run was only a success, I thought, if I ran at my predetermined pace, my heart rate stayed low, and my stride rate stayed high. I began to ditch friends on training runs.
I decided I wanted to run a marathon in less than three hours. Fewer than two percent of all marathoners ever do so. It’s a funny goal; “cracking the three” won’t get you in the top 10 of most races. The only reward is the little number next to your name in the timekeeper’s log. I bought a watch equipped with a GPS to track my distance and pace, so I wouldn’t have to carry my phone. I ran alone. I filled up more notebooks. I signed up for a marathon at sea level, and trained at 7,000 feet.
Moments after the race began, my watch malfunctioned. I had no way of knowing how fast I was running or how long it had been since the start, and I became so focused on the absence of those numbers that I didn’t take advantage of the energy drinks, gels, and bananas at the aid stations along the race route. By mile 23, I had such a caloric deficit that my body started consuming the muscle in my legs. For the last two miles, each step was pain.
I finished in 2:52:07. But I was so physically depleted that there was no joy in the accomplishment. I stared blankly at the clock showing my time, and felt nothing. When I got home, I put Strava, the metronome, and the GPS-equipped watch aside, and, for the first time in half a decade, stopped running.
Then, a few months later, I headed for the hills east of town. It was a warm day, and I wore only my shoes and shorts. I steadily jogged up and around ridges dotted with juniper, piñon, and granite. When I reached the highest peak on my route, I stopped. I sat on a rock as thunderheads grew in the distance and felt the sun slowly start to burn my shoulders. The only sound was the steadily decreasing thump of my heart. Hours passed. Or maybe only minutes.
The next evening I got an email from Strava. “Uh-oh!” it read, “You just lost your Course Record on East Ridge Road Climb to Ryan V. by 1 minute 7 seconds.” I didn’t care. That run I took the day before was the best run I had been on in years.