Strava Slut

My newfound but short-lived running obsession

8-min read

Leveraging data to hit new personal records.

A Fresh Start

I started properly running around three years back when I registered for the JFK Runway Run organized by the Rotary Club. I’d honestly signed up for the 5k event solely for the location — the ‘race’ was taking place on a runway, specifically at John F. Kennedy. Five kilometers is peanuts in the world of distance running, but for a novice who had never placed prior, I wanted to see if I’d be able to clock a decent time.

Using the Nike Run Club, I trained somewhat religiously, starting the stopwatch at 200 Water St (my previous residence) and ending in the vicinity of the World Trade Center. I would pick up my pace around FDR Drive, overlooking the East River, cross Battery Park, the Clinton National Monument, continue my trail to the Hudson River stretch and then stop, out of breath, at the foot of the 9/11 Memorial.

Now, this entire route barely touched 4km, but I used to go once in the morning, and then run again on the treadmill in my building gym at night — for three weeks straight. In hindsight, I should have pushed myself further during my runs (for endurance) but I didn’t have the discipline nor the time. On top of that, my partner dropped out at the last moment, due to the predicted race day weather turning for the worse. On the day of, it was raining, cold, and there was a certain air of despair. Not one soul looked happy to be there on the runway, but I was gleaming — I love planes. For security reasons, the runway had been cordoned (coned) off, but I could still see multiple A380s (and his variants) and a single Queen of the Sky in the hangar. I ended up clocking a time of 00:28:08.43 and called it quits. A truly abysmal 9-minute mile pace. I was also out of breath and completely unfit and I didn’t end up racing or training for a race after that dreadful day. I look back on this experience rather distastefully — I should have continued, or at least hit newer personal bests.

2020 Vision

I have a problem — when I obsess over a certain hobby I go all in, whether that’s writing, chess, or (now) running. I utilize data to push myself to the absolute limit in whatever masochistic way possible. I follow relevant subreddits, research for hours, and surround myself in the literature — complete domination is the only goal. This infatuation usually lasts three months and dwindles off when I find the next big thing. Realizing this predicament and working around these restrictions has greatly benefitted my lifestyle — I barely get bored and can devote a solid ninety days to being the absolute best version of myself. Or the worst. I’ve been known on multiple counts to go on month-long benders. But I usually bounce back. After my last break up, I flew back to India and spent my entire time at the gym. Morning runs and evening training workouts. My breakfast consisted of boiled eggs without the yolk and lunch was dal and some chapatis. I hated myself but I was at my peak fitness.

Anyway, I was back in Hong Kong mid-pandemic and a desk job was causing me to be complacent. My week was filled with client work and calls, and weekends were brief moments where I could relax: or aggressively drink. I came across an SCMP article that mentioned a refurbished cycling trail opening up in Sha Tin. I forwarded the link to Julia who had recently learned how to cycle during the summer and she insisted on trying it out. On the last Saturday of November, we jumped on the MTR and rented cycles, cracking a solid 22km at a very reasonable pace. We talked, chatted about life, and caught up. I noticed she had turned on an app to track her segments and the route.

I remember opening up a Strava profile a long time back when I was in Delhi — I was engrossed testing the limits of my new iPhone. I tried breathing life into the old account, to no avail. They’d wiped out my sad runs, with good reason. I registered, signed up for the trial, and slipped down the fascinating lifestyle of distance running.

No one actually smiles while running. Never have words rung truer. The geography of HK Island complements this hypothesis. With residential areas being built on the side of a steep mountain, you’re essentially gaining ~250m of elevation for every 4km. Combine this with a surgical N95 (thanks COVID) you’re looking at a twisted DIY altitude training mask. At least I improve my Respiratory Compensation Threshold:

RCT is the boundary between high intensity activity and severe intensity exertion. Under normal conditions the bodies drive to breathe is based on carbon dioxide levels in the blood. When RCT is reached, the bodies drive to breathe is driven by lactate levels. This causes very heavy respiration and signifies a transition point in which fatigue starts to overcome the body’s ability to sustain exercise intensity. TrainingMask® increases RCT which allows the body to generate incrementally more effort before the point of exhaustion is reached.

Run through the pain they said. You’ll achieve runner’s high soon enough, burning off the holiday pounds is just icing on the cake.

Back to the actual content. I started off slow, with a couch to 5K mentality, but in my mind, the goal was already set. By the end of the month, I wanted to knock out 21.0975 kilometers. Now, the average half marathon training schedule requires 12 weeks, which includes running between 15-25 miles per week over 3-5 days. According to Road Runners, if one’s strapped for time, it’s possible to crash train and safely get into shape within 2 months. If you’re not working/ unemployed. My schedule didn't allow for this kind of flexibility, which meant all my runs were achieved post-twilight. I religiously followed McMillan Running’s Half-Marathon Training Plan but morphed the schedule according to working hours and Relative Effort. RE tracks one’s fitness trend to prevent injury and I habitually noted down progress in activity descriptions.

I set a goal of 30km a week, which quickly devolved, culminating in me setting the bar lower to fifteen kilometers. Now that might not seem like much, especially if I was seriously training for my race, but I was combining this with 45km cycling sessions on the weekend and 10km every single day, whether this trekking or jogging (I don’t count jogging as running). Hong Kong is blessed with multiple treks and trails, and I was knocking one out every week. Last year, Strava moved most if not all of their comprehensive features behind a paywall. Now, if one would like to view their month-on-month growth, visualize their route heatmaps, compare segment leaderboards or take a look at their training log, they will have to fork over the $5 a month. I’ve provided some examples of the locked content below —

Running circles around my ‘colony’ provides two benefits — a constant shift in elevation gain and enough paved paths which ended up leading to hikes/ trails.
I know that I’ve started running more for the sole reason that I can come up with creative unhinged titles for each of my runs. The week-long bender before the start of the new year also tells a tale.

Reaching the Mountains

There was also another milestone I wanted to touch. The concept of Everesting is fiendishly simple: Pick any hill, anywhere in the world, and complete repeats of it in a single activity until you climb 8,848m – the equivalent height of Mt Everest. Complete the challenge on a bike, on foot, or online, and you’ll find your name in the Hall of Fame, alongside the best climbers in the world.

Fiendishly simple, yet brutally hard. Everesting is the most difficult climbing challenge ever.

For context, for January, I’d barely even crossed the two base camps — South Base Camp is in Nepal at an altitude of 5,364m, while North’s in Tibet at 5,150m — let alone summit the entire Everest. And this is across 19+ activities, not just a single session. I have no doubt in my mind I’ll be able to cross the elusive peak in the next week since I end up targeting an elevation gain of ~250m++ per activity, but this is definitely some food for thought. I wonder when (and if) I’ll be able to do it one go.

Race Day

The last weekend of January was like any other, Friday meant drinks at Peak — the cafe, not Victoria Peak where I finished most of my uphill runs — wrapping up with poker at night with the boys and the girls joining shortly after. They had no interest in our degenerate gambling tendencies. Saturday was a solid drunch at MEATS, and we closed off the night with a few drinks at a friend’s apartment. I’d told everyone about my plans for Sunday morning and my want to complete a half marathon, and I’d slowly weened myself off alcohol and had switched to plain orange juice by 10pm.

6am, and I didn’t want to get out of bed. I’d barely slept the entire night, but I knew I wouldn’t forgive myself if I called it quits right at the finish line. In my pocket was HKD 100 (to get back home), my mask (I wore it only on public transport and didn’t intend to run with it), my phone (Strava + DND), and my earphones (I don’t like Airpods and had handed my last pair to my sister). With great apprehension, I took the #6 to the pier and stretching as much as humanly possible in the bus to avoid any early muscle pulls. The air was crisp, and I took the first running step at 7.14am.

I finished my first half-marathon 2 hours, 6 minutes, and 42 seconds later.

I was crying for the last two kilometers and was in pretty bad shape. The old ladies performing their early morning Tai Chi definitely thought I was crazy. The picture I clicked mid-run pretty much sums up my experience. And of course, I had to nonchalantly put ‘Morning Run’ instead of an unhinged title. I also rightly got called out for this egregious behavior.

I’d roughly calculated I’d have to do run two laps from Instagram Pier to Wan Chai, but by starting off at Pier 3 and miscalculating the actual distance, I ended up running three circuits and a bit more. I passed the same people a few times, and they looked in infinitely better shape than I did. In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have burnt myself out in the first half but that’s who I am as a person.

I’ll end this write-up with my current favorite metric of 2021.

I don’t think I ever achieved the coveted Runner’s High at any moment during the entire ordeal, but maybe I was just doing it all wrong.

You can check out my Strava profile here, and listen to my running playlist below.

Onwards and upwards, quite literally.