Not long after I met my boyfriend, I put a tracking device on him.
I didn’t quite mean to do that. What I did, really, was follow him on Strava, the GPS-powered social app that maps your workouts.
I was 23, and a nonexerciser who stayed fit with a precarious regimen of genetics. My new boyfriend was a talented triathlete whose values included pain tolerance. So I bought running shoes and joined Strava.
We were a long-distance couple, separated by a bland two-hour bus ride, but Strava was an idyllic eradicator of distance. On it, I followed the contours of his day, mapped around his workouts. When he slowed down for me, so we could run together, he appeared on Strava as my “one other,” in the app’s unintentionally sweet language for exercise partners. Over three years, our running maps came to describe a geography intelligible only to each other, a digital landscape of Strava routes that he’d named for me.
If that sounds like the modern denigration of romance incarnate, I don’t disagree. But back then I was too in love, and too busy exercising, to see that.
On Strava, I exercised with 27 million other people. I recruited my mom, and she lovingly left “kudos” under all my runs. But I suspect that most of what we share on social media is for one person—a deniable missive to someone we hope will choose us. I put runs on Strava for him. When I ran at desolate hours or in dispiriting weather, faster than yesterday, I hoped he would think that I was just as worthy as the other women whose willpower he admired with kudos.
We are all on Strava, I’m pretty sure, to better ourselves with our own data. But on Strava, self-improvement meets social media. There are lots of apps that make living performative and competitive, but Strava overachieves in recreating begrudged necessity—exercise—as enviable experience. A runner’s workout on Strava, with a title and photos, is a declaration of who she is and, maybe, who you should be too.
Everyone on Strava is running and biking and hanging out together without you. Everyone deserves that beer in their Strava title, that creamy coffee in their photo, more than you. Everyone is more virtuous than you, exercising more than you, running faster than you, rising for more sunrises than you, improving themselves more than you.
One morning, lying in bed, I opened Strava and observed that another one other, a cyclist whose profile was set to public, had just burned 2,000 calories with my boyfriend. I had not yet put on pants.
I was curious, and Strava is a joyless data bank for the insecure. When The Washington Post reported in January that US military bases are visible in the GPS shadows of uniformed Stravites, I was not shocked. I had performed equally fastidious forensics on the cyclist’s Strava maps. Tracing her routes on that anxious morning and days to come, I could see where she lived, where she drank beer and got coffee. I knew how many calories she burned working out, and how often. I knew when and where and with whom she spent time (increasingly, my boyfriend).
She appeared to me as a pixelated avatar of who I thought my boyfriend wanted me to be, and I was obsessed. My boyfriend was appalled. “I can’t believe you want to fight about Strava,” he told me when I asked about her, not for the first time.
But we knew we weren’t fighting about Strava. We just were not the people we hoped we were when we met. One summer, his new one other invited him on a weekend bike trip to her parents’ vacation home. I dreaded my inevitable surveillance of the its data, trying to confirm what I already knew to be true. Then we broke up. And after I watched their vacation on Strava, I quit the app.
I didn’t need it anymore. Somewhere in the maps—ours, theirs—I’d lost the one other I’d been on Strava to impress; I found, though, that I like myself far better when I ran unwatched. My mom is still on Strava, tracking her runs and using the app the way it was perhaps intended, and not like someone who’s unreasonable and in love. Recently she asked if I’d come back to Strava, so we could train together. I might, but this time, I’ll change my settings, and it will really just be the two of us.
Elizabeth Barber (@ElizabethKateri) is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York.
This article appears in the April issue. Subscribe now.