The Quantified Self
One frigid morning, in early April, I woke up determined to ride to work on the cool new bike my sisters and mom bought me for my 50th birthday. So what if was 27°F outside? The sun was shining! The bike was beckoning! Plus I was feeling guilty about my woeful lack of recent posts on Strava, an app that tracks all of my athletic activity via GPS.
A caveat: when I say, “all of my athletic activity” that’s a bit of a red herring. Most of my friends on Strava — it’s a social media app as well — live in the Bay Area, where Strava has its headquarters, and they’re out there every day in their perfect weather, running and biking and posting their jealous-making routes for all to see. What with New York City winters being what they are, I hadn’t actually been on a bicycle or engaged in any outdoor athletic activity, aside from dog walking, since October, with the exception of a week earlier, when I’d tried to ride the birthday bike home from the store in SoHo, and it had started to thunderstorm, and I’d had to abandon ship and shove the dripping wet birthday bike into the back of a minivan taxi. This turned my potential 12.5 mile ride into a mundane 6.1 miler I posted to Strava with this headline: “Picked up new bike. Then it started to rain.”
Yes, that’s right. I was embarrassed by my less-than-brag-worthy ride, so I had to qualify it with an excuse about the weather. Pathetic, I know, but therein lies one of the main drivers of the app.
“By being connected to the other people on Strava and seeing their posts, you get that extra motivation to get out there and do something to show them you’re part of the community,” said Strava’s President, Co-Founder and Chairman of the Board, Michael Horvath, who started the app with his old friend, CEO Mark Gainey, with whom he rowed crew at college. “When we left Harvard and the crew team, we wanted to build that sense of camaraderie again, that virtual team.”
That virtual team now totals in the tens of millions, with an average of 150,000 new users a week. Horvath says he was surprised by those numbers and by Strava’s global reach, because it “really only grows by word-of-mouth. One friend telling another.”
Exercise tracking apps like Strava, which also work in tandem with devices like FitBit and Garmin, have become, in essence, both our collective exercise superegos and the trainers we don’t want to disappoint. Other apps in the space include Sworkit, which helps you choose a personalized workout, and MapMyRun, which, true to its name, will map your run. But Strava has taken the idea of the quantified self and made it social, and therein lies its strength and poignancy: Strava makes the daily act of exercise less of a lonely endeavor. It’s that hand at our collective backs, pushing us all to get out there and sweat. “That storytelling element — simple things, like being able to upload a photo — that’s what makes the community really strong,” said Horvath.
That being said, my first long bike ride of the season was brutal. My fingers and toes were frozen. I wanted to quit several times. And then somewhere around mile three this song popped up in my earbuds, “The Great Unknown” by the band Jukebox the Ghost. The lyrics were simple but powerful: “Keep your head up/Don’t take your eyes off the road…There’s 1,000 voices saying the time is now…” The words spoke to me, pushed me forward, until suddenly I was flying, riding down that path faster than I’d ever ridden it before.
Strava actually compares the various legs of one ride to your past rides, and I killed it that day. Best of all, the smile that had been missing from my face during so many grim morning slogs on the subway suddenly, like a spring flower, erupted. This, I thought, as my legs pumped the pedals, and the pavement passed beneath me. This is the way to commute. This is why I ride. To remind myself that I’m still heading down a path that might, if I’m lucky, hold a surprise or two.
A cancer scare in my late forties has left me keenly aware of when I’m living well and when I’m not, and Strava feels like my partner on that front. It has forced me out into the world. It reminds me to move and breathe and experience and share and live while I still can.
Horvath is all-too aware of the precarious evanescence of life, especially now. He recently stepped down as CEO of Strava so he could, as he wrote in this beautiful blog post, attend to more pressing matters. “A few months ago,” Horvath wrote, “pain in [my wife] Anna’s abdomen was diagnosed to be metastatic breast cancer in her liver. Her condition is chronic, meaning that with today’s available treatments it cannot be ‘beaten’; however its progression can be managed for an unknown amount of time. With the same choice in front of me now as before, I’m choosing Anna.”
These days, Horvath’s bike rides and runs revolve around Anna, in the woods and roads and paths near their home in Hanover, New Hampshire. I watch his routes and photographs appear every day on my phone, and I try to put myself in his running shoes whenever I see them. How is he doing?, I wonder. What about Anna? I press the like button in support of each difficult path, for lack of anything more constructive to offer. If Strava had a love button, I’d press that instead.
Deborah Copaken, award-winning journalist and Edelman’s deputy editorial director.
Edelman’s Wellness 360 recently unveiled ten “Wellness Trends to Watch” here: http://edl.mn/Wellness_Trends. This post is part of our ongoing content series that focuses on each of the ten trends.