Saturday, March 29, 2014

Strava Scores with Latest Mobile Upgrade

I’ll be honest – I’ve wanted to blog about Strava ever since I joined the online athlete community over nine months ago, but have always hesitated to hit the “publish” button on my review. It’s not that I eschew the digital invasion of my nature-soaked trail runs; on the spectrum of no-electronics-purist to near-cyborg, my Silicon Valley roots definitely pull me towards the latter, quantifying my life with bpm’s, vertical feet, digital red lines scribbled across Google maps, and playlist soundscapes. The hesitation came instead from an unwillingness to expose my critical internal voice of a mobile app designer (my trade for the last decade) that is direct and intent by definition, and ruthless by nature in its relentless pursuit of simplicity and perfection. Unless you’re in a similar vocation, my well-intended words will sound mean and tort to the lovers of Strava, a community so passionate I would likely catch one or two snot rockets on every group ride for the rest of my life should I breach insult. But Strava’s latest March update to their mobile app is marvelous in a few simple ways, and approaching that Holy Grail that both trail runners and mobile app designers desire - unexpected daily delight. That, my friends, is worthy of mention.

(This pretty much sums up most Strava addicts I know)
For those not familiar with Strava (based on the Swedish word for "to strive"), the company was created by two endurance athletes (Michael Horvath and Mark Gainey) in 2006 as an online community of cyclists who could upload their GPS records of rides and keep score of the fastest ascents/descents, even declaring a King Of The Mountain (KOM) for the fastest recorded ascent times. It quickly became a haven for the craziest, most dedicated, and data-hungry athletes in the cycling world, pros and amateurs alike. The pursuit of a coveted KOM even led to a publicized death (and lawsuit, later dismissed), which along with their Tour de France advertising in the Armstrong era heyday, made it more popular than ever. Strava clearly isn’t for the cycling masses – you’re not going to find couch-to-first-century-ride plans on here – it’s for only the truly passionate and dedicated.

(Strava cyclist Chris P. gets creative on his 60-miler to kick off the Giants baseball season)
This is why I was fascinated when Strava expanded into the running in 2011. Would the running community have the same faction of obsessed speedsters that would sprint on command to top a leaderboard? Unlike my cycling buddies who love nothing more than go balls-out to the next street light until the tunnel vision seeps in, my running pals prefer to keep an even tempo for most runs, so I wasn’t sure. But it didn’t take long to find out that even running has its KOM moments (dubbed CR's for runners), whether it was competing in Hawaii for the fastest run up Diamond Head Crater (and having all the locals come out the next day to beat whatever time I posted), or finding that kick when I knew I was on a timed segment and hoping I could take down Leor Pantilat, Gary Gellin, or the other speedsters who seem to own every top slot in my Woodside stomping grounds. Although it never became an obsession at the cyclist levels, it did mix up my usual trail runs on fartlek and tempo days, encouraging me to run harder than I normally would.

The real “hook” of Strava came once I connected with a bunch of ultrarunners from around the globe. I’m not one to post training runs to Facebook and confuse/pseudo-brag to all my non-runner friends, but here in Strava, it’s all running, all the time (and me likey!). On rest days, I was captivated by epic runs of friends, soaring through mountain ranges that brought back memories or urged me to add new locations to my bucket list. When I found myself in a new town (which happens often), runners would find me and steer me to routes I would never have found, and the kudos would pour in from people back home, giving me that comforting sense of a global community. There were no ads in the app, no coupons or level-up buy ins, and the purity of the experience helped me stick to Strava while my Fitbits, Nike Fuelbands, Jawbone UP’s, RunKeepers, and other experiments ended up back on the shelf or last page of my iPhone within 60 days.

(Bruce Lee would have made an excellent mobile app designer)
But the app was…how should I say it as nice as I can…clunky. There’s one app for cyclists and another app for runners (wha?). Giving kudos to other runners took lots of steps, and my fingers would tire of swiping long before I reached all my friends activities (which is a bit sad, really). I would forget where the timed segments were on a route, and sometimes a hard effort wouldn’t count because of “GPS drift”. The mobile app designer in me would count how many finger motions it would take to do my normal daily things…10, 15, 20, inexcusable. This cognitive overload would cause me to flame up on any other minor detail, and God forbid something like my PR at Boston didn’t count as a marathon PR because it’s a “net descent course” (which did happen), it would take significant restraint not to unload my rage on the nearest social network. It’s a testament to Strava that I could build up this much emotion over a free app, but also shows what a high bar committed people will set for anything touching their passions. Endurance athletes have got to be some of the toughest critics out there.

The new upgrade to Strava turned the corner for me by doing a lot of small things that help give the app a touch of elegance and fun. No mobile designer is ever 100% happy with a design, but like an artist who never finishes and only abandons their work at some point, I feel this version of Strava has finally met a minimum delight threshold I have been holding it to (unfairly) for months. Here are a few of the upgrades that really caught my eye:

First, there’s finally one app for both running and cycling. Check.

Upon looking at your feed of other runners now, the maps are huge, and it puts the imagery right in your face. The previous feed was a bit too clinical for me (miles, time, etc.) when the truly inspiring parts of my fellow trail runners’ exploits are the maps, the attached photos (auto-sync with Instagram), and the things that make me feel like I was there. Now you get that front and center.

It’s also easier to scroll down the feed and give lots of kudos and comments. Giving kudos, of course, is not a requirement in Strava, but I’m big on it. It reminds me of that high five/hug that you get after a great run with a friend. Speaking of friends, Strava now links together the maps when your friends run together, making me endlessly jealous of the San Francisco Running Co’s weekly Mt. Tam adventures.

Strava added some great little features for knowing where timed segments are (Premium members only, which does require a paid annual subscription of about half the cost of a race entry). You can now turn on an audio voice to tell you (1) when a segment is approaching, (2) your halfway split, and (3) your finish time. I’ve enjoyed how the French female voice (one of a dozen languages to choose from) interrupts my playlist to get me revved up to sprint, even throwing in mile markers too. I also like seeing who is else is out running at the same time – not a new feature, but a Premium feature I have come to enjoy.

I can now add run descriptions and my shoe choice for each run (among inov-8 models, natch), which previously required going online to modify after you posted a run (a serious no-no in the mobile app world). The shoe choice may sound superfluous, but I’ve found it helps me keep tabs on shoe mileage and replacement schedules slightly better than my default method – how bad they smell. ;-)

All in all, the app is quite fun to use now and flows considerably smoother. The uber-critical designer in me would love to see the new look and feel spread to the feed detail pages and emails, and I think features like “give kudos live to other runners out running at the same time, and they get an audio message” could completely redefine what is possible here and enable Strava to growth hack their way to higher percentage penetration of Premium members…see? That mobile app designer voice just won’t shut up. But that’s because there is delight to amplify, which is the designer equivalent of an eight-year-old with a big box of crayons, a table-sized blank sheet of paper, and a grand story to tell.

So maybe it’s just best for me to say thank you Strava, for staying on that relentless journey of mobile app consumer delight. This Strava user gives it two thumbs up! And to my fellow runners, if you haven’t checked out Strava yet, it’s time to do so. I hope to see you pop up on my feed!

 - SD

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Fun Video from Team inov-8 Retreat

Team inov-8 had their first US retreat last month in Big Sur, CA, to test out some new products, share tips and secrets, and enjoy the eclectic group of trail runners, CrossFitters, and triathletes that make up the 2014 team. My roomy for the weekend, 2013 Barkley Marathon winner (and finisher, for that matter) Nickademus Hollon, put together this unofficial video which captured a lot of the fun moments.

A few of my favorite highlights from the retreat:

  • Showing up with Bryon Powell in Big Sur just as Alex Nichols, Peter Maksimow, and Joe Grant return from a one-hour-turned-into-six-hours run across the Big Sur wild. ("we decided to run to a peak we could see...we didn't see any poison oak, I'm sure we'll be fine")
  • Night hikes to just the right spot on a cliff at 5am, then sprinting like crazy up and down in all the new gear while the light was good. 
  • The hilarious back-and-forth "you're crazy" between trail runners who would rather run 10 miles before breakfast and CrossFitters who would rather bench press a small truck 40 times in 2 minutes. 
  • Seeing the faces of inov-8 employees as they rolled out their latest shoes, jackets, packs, and more, and knowing they rock. 
  • Watching Shona Stephenson (from Australia) take a selfie with every dog she passed on the trail to Sykes Hot Springs. 
  • Teaming up with Dan Bailey to learn about CrossFit rowing, only to realize later he's currently the #1 CrossFitter in the world. To my right? Anna Tunnicliffe, #4 in the world. And believe me, they look the part! 
  • Being able to share California with all these great international athletes! 
(Joe Grant and Peter Maksimow at the early morning photo shoot)

(Anna Tunnicliffe, Shane Farmer, Stuart Trees, and Dan Bailey doing lifts under the redwoods)

(inov-8 takes over the remote beaches)

(Runners and Crossfitters, all goofs)
(Amber Reece-Young and Ashley Moyer tackle the cliffs)
Good fun. Thank you, inov-8!


Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Five Questions with Scott Dunlap (per This Running Life)

My new runner/blogger pal Gordon Harvey sent me "five questions" to post on his blog, This Running Life. I always find it fun to both send and respond to these...always thoughtful questions, and the answers seem to change over time.

Be sure to click through to Gordon's blog and give him a shout out!

And for the few who haven't seen me get the smack down at the completely awesome WhatIsUltra tumblr's called "When Scott Dunlap Totally Schools Everyone In The Local 50k And We Find Out He Stopped To Take 84 Photos". May be my jump the shark moment. ;-)

Thx, SD

Monday, March 03, 2014

Frozen Fun at the Caumsett 50k USATF Road Championships

The temperature just crested the freezing point as ~200 runners counted down the start of the Caumsett Park 50k in Lloyd Harbor, NY, last Sunday. It was once again time for the USATF 50k National Road Championships, and I was back for the second time after my breakthrough PR here four years ago (3:20:48). I'm a bit older now, but also more experienced, and like most Masters runners I was curious if the equilibrium state of age and wisdom was still net positive and PR-worthy. It was going to be a fast race for sure, and just ten weeks off my broken collarbone, it would guarantee what we all hope for in a race - an epic result or an epic blow up, and a trip to the pain cave either way. Mother Nature gave us a nod by parting the snowy skies for a few hours, just enough time to enjoy the speedy 10x5k loop course.
(Me and Jean Pommier, bundled up like a couple of West coasters, photo courtesy of Max Pommier)
East coast runners were thrilled with the conditions, with many of them donning singlets and shorts and singing praises for a break in their insane winter to date (NY is already three feet of snow ahead of the usual, and it's only March 2nd!), while West coast visitors scrambled for as many layers as possible. My confused body couldn't make sense of the last two weeks, which included Pittsburgh, Hawaii, Big Sur, Woodside, and now NY. I suspect I was the only one at the starting line with a sunburn, surfing chafe, poison oak, and frozen nose hair. ;-)

(Michael Wardian and I do the selfie)
I found some familiar faces in the ready tent, including the always-encouraging Michael Wardian (4-time winner, and course record holder in 2:55:05), Joe Gray (defending champion, coming off his NACAC Cross Country victory last week), Jean Pommier (who celebrated his 50th birthday the day before, and had his eyes on the 3:19:13 American Age Group record), Ian Torrence (here to run and coach Women's front-runner Emily Harrison), and met many new faces too from the Greater Long Island Running Club (GLIRC) putting on the race. I shared my goals for the day - shoot for my PR of 3:20:45 that I did here in 2010, and hope my collarbone didn't scream bloody murder. Although I've been running well the last month, my 2-3x weekly plank and core workouts have been nonexistent as I work on fundamental range of motion for my left shoulder...only one way to find out where it stands, and that's to toe the line!

(Michael Wardian, Ethan Coffey, and Alex Hetherington stay warm at the start)

(Jean Pommier, Ian Torrence, and Emily Harrison are ready to roll)

(And we're off!)
As the gun went off at 8:30am, Michael Wardian, Joe Gray, and Tennessee's Ethan Coffey took it out at a 5:35 min/mile pace and left the rest of us in the snow dust. Emily Harrison (who had told me "I'm going for 6:10 pace" at the start...ummm, see you at the finish!) was next with the lead Master Boyd Carrington, and 36-year-old Josh Ferenc. I snuggled up next to Jean Pommier, knowing how great he is at pacing in the early stages of the race. Our math was straight forward - 20 minutes per loop would get me to 3:20, and Jean within reach of the 50-54 AR, freezing cold be damned. Within two miles, we found ourselves with 46-year-old Alex Hetherington, a retired Lt. Colonel and former pilot for the Marines who has clocked plenty of 2:30'ish finish times at the Marine Corp Marathon, who was also on the same pace.

(Lots of snow, but the path is clear)

(The amazing Jean Pommier v5.0)

(The new counter-clockwise course direction had plenty of slight descents)
(Didn't take long for the front pack to peel off, photo courtesy of Max Pommier)
We shared few words as the three of us clinically made our way through the first seven laps, now run in the counterclockwise direction (which felt easier to me). The lap times were very consistent - 20:23, 19:30, 19:33, 19:51, 19:58, 20:06, 20:47 - and I was impressed that Jean was doing so well given he had just come off an injury. Alex did a fair share of pacing with his long 6'5" strides, and had his eyes set on Boyd Carrington, who remained just 40 seconds up on us the whole time. The course had a one-mile out and back section that made it easy to see where your competition was, and I enjoyed how we all corrected our posture and smiled so as not to broadcast any weaknesses. By the time we started lap 7, the Masters competition was the four of us - Boyd, Alex, Jean, and me - with everyone else a solid 7-8 minutes back.

(Michael, Ethan and Joe pacing early on)

(Boyd Harrington demonstrates the turnaround)
(Jean, Alex, and I pacing together, photo courtesy of Max Pommier)
Up front, Ethan Coffey had broken off the lead pack with Michael Wardian still going strong a minute back, while Joe Gray dropped at mile 22 (kinda tired after that NACAC victory). I watched Ethan go through the start/finish on lap 7, a minute under the course record time. Emily Harrison was all by herself now, and only getting faster. By lap 8, she was so far ahead we couldn't see her. That means she was on track for the $1,000 bonus for a CR, and maybe even another $1,000 for an AR. GO, EMILY!!!

(Runners cruise by the old farm house in the Park)

As lap 8 continued on, I started to have some issues as my collarbone began exposing its unique fatigue. The titanium plate was frozen (it felt like heartburn in my shoulder...not too bad, but awkward), and the muscles around it soon started to tighten and pull at my neck like a frustrated octopus. Crap, not quite healed. I started doing a limited T-Rex swing with my left arm, which slowed me down about 10-15 seconds per mile. Jean was also slowing, citing some dizziness, so Alex dropped us both and pressed forward to catch Boyd.

(The out-and-back gave us all a chance to size up the competition)
(Fun had by all! Photo courtesy of James Carbone)

I hit the marathon mark in 2:50:57 (BQ!), and walked a few aid stations to catch up on liquids and beat back my twitchy calves. Each rest allowed my neck to loosen up, surprisingly, so I kept taking 5-second walks and hoped Jean "The Closer" Pommier wouldn't catch me. The last out and back showed me my standings - Alex was catching Boyd, but they were three minutes up now, and Jean was nowhere behind me. If I kept at it, I would be in the Top 10 and Top 3 for Masters. Michael Wardian gave me one last word of encouragement as he cruised by for his finish (that means I would be lapped AND chicked today), and I leaned forward for the last lap.

Lap 10, in true last lap form, was a blur of this-is-why-we-do-speedwork mantras, whimpers, and the soundtrack of the Pharrell Williams song "Happy" which had been stuck in my head for most of the past week. I distracted myself by cheering on the other runners (one of the great advantages of a loop course), and they were happy to return the favor. As I got to the out-and-back section, Boyd and Alex were shoulder to shoulder in the last 800m! Inspired, I kicked and cruised to the finish in 3:25:49, good enough for 7th place, 2nd AG, and third Master. Phew! I'll take it. I started to ice my shoulder, only to laugh that it was still colder under my skin than on top of it. Such a strange new factor!

(Emily Harrison with her course record check!)

(Ethan Coffey is the new course record holder!)
Course records fell left and right on the day. Ethan Coffey (2:53:32) had set a blazing new course record, with Michael Wardian (2:59:31) coming in second, and Josh Ferenc (3:04:16) taking third. Emily Harrison (3:15:00) also set a course record, taking fourth overall, and coming within 69 seconds of the American Record. Local star Boyd Harrington (3:20:47) took fifth and the Masters win, with Alex Hetherington (3:21:23 - no idea how a 40 second gap appeared in 800m) just behind him. (all results)

(Bringing home the shwag! And $100 for bar tabs)
Jean Pommier (3:37:12) had held on through a tough last lap to get the 10th overall slot and a win in the 50-54 age group, and Taryn Giumento Thomas (3:48:25) and Tracey Meder (3:49:05) filling out the Women's podium. Ian Torrence (3:38:04) stayed solid, enough to get the third M40-44 slot. Asking around, there were quite a few PR's today so apparently the cold was just fine. We all enjoyed snacks and congratulated the winners on their big paydays, commenting that this cold day was likely harder for the volunteers than the runners, and they did an amazing job. As the clouds closed in, we all hustled out to catch our planes or get back to the city, frozen smiles still on our faces.

My thanks to the GLIRC and the many volunteers that helped make the 2014 Caumsett 50k a big success, and sealed their fate as one of the fastest courses around. It was great to be back! And congrats to all finishers who braved the cold to have a little fun. I will see you again soon.

- SD

Gear checklist:

inov-8 Race Elite 140 Trail Short
inov-8 Race Elite 230 Tight
inov-8 185 ThermoMid Jacket
Injinji Compression OTC socks
VitargoS2 Energy
Custom Road Running Shoes
$2 gloves

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