Former 2:24 marathoner, now in my late 40s and hoping to maximally flatten the curve of my slide into senescence and mediocrity • Magazine writer, book editor and author, and commentator on the sport of distance running since 1999 • Adviser and confidant of other perambulators • Paradoxical hater of exercise fanatics • Chihuahua whisperer Sentence-fragment impresario

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Gimme gimme gimme

On the first day of summer in 2015, long after human life should have been relegated to God's drunken memory by a massive meteoroid or triumphant supervirus, someone started a thread on the Strava forums to complain that the mobile app displays distances to only a tenth of a mile or km, which is an order of magnitude less precise than the website offers.

First, in the event you just awakened from a multi-year coma, Strava is a service that integrates data from a GPS watch or even a mobile phone to tell you how much distance you have covered in a given time. Those who received advanced math degrees from Trump University will recall that if one knows the distance of a trip and the time taken to complete it, one may invoke a complex algebraic expression to compute average speed. Runners are often concerned with all of these, which is why so many of them now have GPS watches and corresponding online accounts. (Garmin, the company that is synonymous with the term "GPS watch," has its own mobile app and web interface, but you can import your data from these into Strava and proceed do a lot of fun, pointless things with it, like show it to people who don't give a shit because they're busy showing you theirs.)

When you upload a run -- or, if you're even more of a social leper, a bike ride -- to your account, the distance is given to the hundredth of a mile (or km). I would say "to the nearest hundredth of a mile (or km)," but this isn't precisely true because the distance shown is rounded down. If, according to the satellites that should be shot out of the heavens to shut everyone up, you have covered anywhere from 7.320 to 7.329999... miles, this is displayed as 7.32 miles. If getting to within at most 16 meters of the "true" measured distance -- roughly five seconds at 8:00-per-mile pace -- isn't close enough for you, you can always find a new hobby instead of littering the Internet with trivial grievances like I do.

The watch, on the other hand, only displays distances to within a tenth of a mile or kilometer (that's 0.1 instead of 0.01 for you Americans). Same with the mobile app, should you choose to run with an Android in your hand rather than spring for a watch. This means that when you look down and see, say, 2.7 miles, this actually indicates somewhere between 2.70 and 2.7999999... miles. The massive real-time error bars this introduces is what has thrown, at last count, about 155 separate Strava forum users into psychological turmoil.

There is no call for any reasonable person to complain about this arrangement. The bulk of the gripes seem to be not so much "This uncertainty is fucking up my workouts" (through there is certainly a modicum of that noise) but "You could do this, as the website proves, so why don't you?"

Here's the part I haven't mentioned yet, and it's important: Everything I have just described, Strava offers for free. There is Premium option available for about $7 a month that allows for more granular analysis of training -- and why wouldn't there be? The minds behind it should be able to monetize their expertise -- but you can register an account and upload as many runs as you want and for no charge at all, you get maps of your runs and more data than anyone not functioning at the level of John Nash should really need.

If you need to know how much ground you have covered in real time to a precision of 16 meters (or even 10 meters, if you're not a patriot and have been subverted by the communist metric system), then the problem is not with Strava or technology in general. The trouble rests solely in the squishy shit encased in your skull. If you want to run repeats of, I dunno, exactly 0.25 miles and the fact that your watch doesn't offer anything between 0.2 and 0.3 miles, I would suggest looking into one of two options. The first is to construct a rubberized loop, kind of like a rectangle with semicircles at the ends, and run there instead. Make one circuit exactly 400 meters and paint lines on it to minimize your own confusion. If you don't have the time, money or equipment to build one of these yourself, I bet your local government can advise you where to find one. The second option is to measure off a strip of road or path using one of the traditional measuring wheels that still exist in abundance and do your hard workouts there.

Or, you could just fling plaintive shit like this into cyberspace to see if anyone agrees with you:

"Missed a 10k pr by .01 miles because the mobile app still only shows to one decimal place. Changing it on the website doesn't help people who rely on their apple watch display to determine when their run is over."

My response to this would be:

The  timing company at the race didn't handle this for you? (I assume you did this in a race, not a solo run, since few people count distances logged by GPS devices as PRs given the significant potential for measurement error.)

If you were truly off by a hundredth of a mile, I suggest adding three to five seconds (the former if you were close to five-minute pace, the latter if closer to 8:20) to you time and calling at a 10K time. I don't think anyone will rat you out.

I would bet that this would not be well received. In fact, I don't have to bet, because this is exactly what I wrote on the forum, and couple of people downvoted it, which I think is rare on Strava. I like being downvoted in online environments by stubbornly whiny people like this. Such responses are like the sour-faced scowls of small children whose minds aren't equipped to inform them why they can't have all of the goddamn stupid shit they want, and at no charge at that. When I frame humankind as one giant stupid suppurating boil of discontent and infantile screeching, it makes it easier for me to root for the ICBMs to start flying.

Finally, as a couple of people on Strava were heroic enough to note, once you are down to within 0.01 miles or so per GPS data, there is little point in treating this data as unassailable. It is unlikely to be as accurate as you want it to be (that is, repeated measurements of the same route will deviate around the true distance value by some amount). It is also unlikely to be perfectly precise (that is, your watch might slightly underestimate the distance one day and slightly exaggerate it the next, with no underlying pattern to the deviations from perfection).

You know all those assholes that said they were voting for Donald Trump in 2016 because they wanted to "shake things up" and were dissatisfied with "politics as usual"? This is my attitude about modern running technology. The simple fact is that you have no sound reason for knowing whether that 30-minute run you just did was really 4.0000 miles at 7:30 pace or 4.002 miles at 7:29 point something. If you're that much of a mess, chances are pretty good you'll be taken out by a car or train soon because you're looking at your fucking watch every five seconds instead of at your surroundings. I think it would be great if all satellites set aside for civilian use went down simultaneously. (I'm not sure if I want to include car navigation systems in this, but yeah, let's do that too.) If you are a newer-generation runner who derives less enjoyment from your running if you can't masturbate to nineteen significant figures every day, you probably need to be on anxiolytics.

But the more ridiculous thing is the idiots in that forum announcing that they are going back to some other (also free) app because Strava won't give them what they need. If I were the guys behind the company -- and I actually raced against one of them in high school -- I would be laughing at these indignant douchebags. Strava should immediately announce that it is charging $5 a month for an absolutely minimal membership. The roars would be deafening, endless, and, if posted on Letsrun, indecipherable. But a slew of people would still sign up because they are as addicted to their data as most fifth-degree sots are to their evening round of cocktails.


  1. Brilliant Paper!! Projectiles From The Nasal Passage When I Read Math Degrees from Trump University. Well Done


  2. Replies
    1. Aw, now I'm blushing!

      Wait...that's just me being irate and florid over something. Never mind -- praise away.