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A time and a place: Strava for fell runners

I am a fell runner. I have tried other forms of running: road, trail, and treadmill, and disliked every one of them. It was not that I did not like them as much, I simply did not enjoy them at all. I saw them as a chore, a task, something I had to do. A tedious obligation that often went by the wayside as I came up with excuses not to do it. Not so with fell running. On occasion, while safe and warm indoors, looking out at a dark wet night, I wonder if I actually want to go to the fells, but, once out, I always enjoy it. I choose to run on the fells because I appreciate their beauty and how precious time is in them. Exploration of the fells gives me a sense of peace and joy that could not be replicated by thrashing out miles on road or trail.

Like many runners, I choose to record my activities on a watch, being able to look at my speed, distance, time taken and ascent climbed at just a quick glance at my wrist. On returning from a run, I am greeted by the results of my efforts, laid out before me on my phone. Each Sunday evening, the cumulative amount of running I have done this week is presented to me, with a handy comparison given to compare to previous weeks. While Strava (and other similar apps) are incredibly helpful for training, recovering from injury and general running motivation, they can have detrimental effects both on and off the fells. 

Strava, and other apps that record your running, have a wide range of applications depending on why you run. The ability to track the amount of running you are doing is not only important if you want to improve your running, but it also allows you to check if you are increasing your training load gradually and not overtraining. Coming back from injury, I found this feature especially important to ensure I do not do more miles than the physio has prescribed and, when upping my training, do so gradually, at around 5-10% per week. Secondly, for those who want to improve their performance in races, rounds or just in their general running, the ability to see both your training load and pace is important to see if your capacity to run further has increased and if you can run routes faster. Finally, the mapping functionality on Strava can help with route planning, suggesting routes people have used and inspiring you to go to new places. For these reasons, and many more, apps like Strava are excellent tools for the fell runner.

Having your runs tracked and all the metrics available to see is a double-edged sword, and has been the reason I have decided to dip on and off the app in the past. While there is no doubt it helps with accountability, it can make you act differently than if your runs were not being tracked. Each week, a new point is plotted on a line graph to show how much mileage you have done. Should you have a period of time free from obligations, you could imagine a week of running involving shorter routes during the week and longer routes at the weekend. Life, however, often does not work like that. Work, social and general life commitments often get in the way, meaning a planned run cannot go ahead. What is the effect of this? On your fitness, very little. On your position on the line graph, possibly quite a lot. What then is the runner's response to this? To shrug and accept that your week's mileage will be lower, knowing that other commitments do get in the way and you will be able to return to the fells next week? Or do you try to cram your training in your now more limited time, just to try to satisfy the graph? I would like to say I would do the former, but, in the past, I have been guilty of doing the latter. 

While you may think these issues are contained within those times at home, when you have time to peruse and scrutinise every aspect of your activity, or lack thereof, it is also an issue while out on the fells. As I have discussed in previous pieces, the joy of fell running for me is freedom. Freedom to explore, to roam and to enjoy the varied landscapes I feel most at home at. While out on the fells, I run. But I also pause to admire the view, stop to enjoy the scenery, take photos and generally enjoy being out in the fells. While these activities have made up a plethora of happy memories, they count for nought on Strava’s metrics. After the first lockdown, where you could go to the fells, but not see people, I spent my time running in the high fells, completing a route in a day which I could run in half the time. While I ran at a good pace, the pauses and reflections are what provide my precious memories from that time, not the time on my Strava feed.  On occasions, I have succumbed to the pressures of the Strava countdown clock, pushing myself to run faster on the fells, aiming to complete a route as fast as possible. Doing known routes with no room for deviation or exploration to maximise efficiency. In those times, my Strava feed was healthier, my runs faster. The mileage and ascent was the same, but the times were much quicker. I was a quicker runner, but I wasn’t happier. My hobby, the thing I loved had turned into a task; something to rush through, but to what end? I was not training for anything, I never have ambitions to do well in races, merely finish them. Why did I do it then? It was, simply, for Strava. 

I am running past the summit of Sour Howes, at what would be the end of my latest Strava obsession. I have pushed hard up the fell. I have pushed hard up all the fells I have done during the week. The prior runs, done after work in the rain, had been conducive to this type of running. Today, I was in the sun. In fact, the first period of sun for quite some time. I dropped down to Capple Howe, crossed the fence and looked across. Ahead of me, Windermere glinted in the soft light like a great long ribbon. The sun was warm on my back and only a faint breeze stirred me. I sat on a rock and looked around. I did not pause my watch, I did not think of it. Had I, the emotion may well have been shame. Not shame at stopping, but shame that I may not have stopped to appreciate and just run straight on merely for the Kudos.

And if you want to read more of what I have written, you can see all my posts here:

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