If you’re a runner residing on planet Earth right now, it’s likely that all of your races are canceled or postponed for the foreseeable future due to Covid-19. With those cancellations comes a sense of loss.
Personally, I was training for a PR-effort in my spring marathon, so when that race was postponed, I took a few days to mentally regroup. After the initial reflection period, I transitioned to base building with no plans to do anything beyond speed maintenance workouts for a while.
For many runners like myself, things we took for granted are now on an indeterminate pause– the thrill of competition, the adrenaline rush of running hard for the express purpose of getting the best out of ourselves and besting our competitors.
Yet while traditional organized races have ground to a halt, the virtual world is just hitting its stride. If you’ve been on Strava (the social media platform designed primarily for bikers and runners) recently, you may have noticed the avalanche of virtual race series gaining prominence, whether it’s a global event or a local club challenge. These virtual events, previously the butt of jokes in much of the running community, have risen to the forefront as an alternative to racing.
And while many runners have latched onto virtual events, there’s an even smaller subset of runners who are looking for a harder challenge– one involving bursts of speed, attack plans, and a little bit of assholery.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the golden age of Strava sniping.
If you’re one of the 42 million users on Strava, you’ve probably seen the user-designed segments that keep track of all performances for specific stretches of road or trail. Segments are essentially sections of a Strava map/activity that are created by users for the purpose of making a route competitive.
These segments allow you to track your own progress and best times on segments, as well as compete against all others who have traversed them. The top performance is given a crown, known as the Course Record (CR), and its performer is bestowed the title of King/Queen of the Mountain (KOM/QOM). Crowns have been a source of fun and competition for years for some athletes, but now, with no real competitive alternatives, they have become even more exciting and a welcome distraction for runners. Experience or distance doesn’t matter– the snipers range from beginners to locally competitive athletes to even elite runners.
One day on Strava, I saw a friend of mine post an activity. Adam Driscoll is known in the Baltimore area as a competitive cyclist and runner, but he’s also infamous on Strava for his love of collecting CRs. Like myself, he had his spring marathon canceled. But he wasn’t going to let that fitness and a fresh pair of Nike Vaporfly NEXT% go to waste. Instead, he went hunting. The prey? Local segment crowns.
On this particular run, he ran a 4:21 mile to reclaim a hotly contested segment in his neighborhood. Along the way, he picked up a bunch of other segment crowns, adding to his already-extensive list of 700 course records.
Like me, he’s noticed a definitive switch in recent weeks. Previously, bikers were the big segment sprinters, but that has changed to majority-runners in competition over these virtual stretches of land. And while Driscoll certainly enjoys adding to his pile of CRs, he likewise relishes the Strava notification that pops up on his phone when someone takes down one of his titles. The challenge begins again and gives him extra motivation to get out the door and “race.”
“The moment you get outside of the house to run/bike you forget all about your other problems and just have fun,” says Driscoll. “What’s more fun than gunning after segments with reckless abandon, with no training plan or workouts to worry about?”
These routes are often premeditated. He’ll typically include “hot” segments, specific segments that his nemesis, an old college teammate from his track days, currently holds the top position on. Those particular segments are essentially an all-out race (hence, the necessity of the hot-pink Vaporflys).
Like anything involving running and competition, Strava sniping isn’t without its controversies. Some feel that it’s not fair to go out and sprint short distances to get a segment crown– that segment crowns should be gained naturally, during a typical workout. Disgruntled users have said as much on LetsRun.com message boards, even complaining about runners using Vaporflys to take down segments.
However, many Strava snipers, including Driscoll, are keeping to the true spirit of segment hunting– essentially throwing in fast intervals into a long-mileage workout. Sub-elite and elite runners are getting in on the action as well, and none of them may be more exciting than CJ Albertson.
From World Records to Course Records
Albertson, who set the indoor marathon World Record last year and in February placed 7th at the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in 2:11:49, is a must-follow on Strava. During one recent workout, he dropped a 25-crown haul over the course of 26 miles while averaging a 6-minute/mile pace. Afterward, he self-proclaimed himself “CJ Exotic: Strava King.”
I was intrigued by CJ Exotic’s thought and planning process for his Strava segment hunts and wanted to know how he stays motivated without any races on the schedule in the near future. He took the time to answer some of my questions; below is our exchange:
JA: With all racing canceled or postponed for the near future, are you altering your training plans?
CJA: I’m somewhat altering training plans. I’m still trying to get good mileage in with a mix of speed and aerobic work, but with no races in the immediate future, nothing needs to be race-specific so I can just have fun running a lot, and running hard.
JA: Do runs focused on Strava segments motivate you similarly to real races or workouts?
CJA: I’ve always loved Strava segments. There’s no stress; going after a segment is just pure fun. Nothing can replace a real race, but working in segments definitely makes workouts more fun. Some people may think that going after segments isn’t ‘serious’ training, but I disagree; you can mix in KOM’s and get a great workout in- no matter what level you’re at. I do it a lot, especially when I’m a few months out from a race and need extra motivation. (It’s also a great way to track personal progress as the segments keep track of your PRs even if you don’t get the segment record)
JA: Any advice for all other runners out there on how to stay motivated during these uncertain times?
CJA: I love racing, but racing is only one of the many reasons I love running. So I would just focus on all of the other reasons why you run. I would also use this time to do runs you wouldn’t normally do. Maybe it’s a new route, running without a watch, chasing segments, doing weird workouts, creating time trials at a distance you’ve never raced at, coming up with song lyrics as you run, etc.
JA: You had a run with 25 crowns recently, can you talk about that run- how difficult was this effort? How much planning was involved?
CJA: I’ve always chased crowns, but this particular run came about because Curly Guillen (another US marathon Olympic trials qualifier) started a crown challenge where you try to get as many crowns as you can in one run. I’m not even sure if it was an official challenge or how he phrased it, but I saw something about ‘crowns’ and ‘challenge’ so I had to take it to the extreme.
It took a little bit of planning using the ‘segment search’ in Strava to find all segments in the area. It seems simple, but when you’re memorizing 30 routes, it’s slightly more challenging. I tried to identify the challenging segment records so I knew which to go full throttle on.
Next, I planned the route I could hit all of the segments as efficiently as possible. My route ended up being pretty good as I hit all the segments I wanted to with very little ‘wasted’ running. I filled up a water bottle with 7 SIS (Science in Sport) isotonic gels to fuel with. These have a more liquid consistency, so it was perfect.
The effort was pretty hard. I’m not in peak shape and I ended up running 112 miles in just 6 runs this week. Two days prior I had run a shorter Crown challenge so I had some fatigue from that as well. At first, I felt pretty good, but there’s just so much pace change it wears on you. Some segments were basically sprints, some were uphill, some were downhill, some were tempo efforts…and the run ended up being just short of 26 miles. It was definitely a lot of fun!
So if you find yourself lacking motivation in running and are looking for a competitive outlet (or just a little distraction), my suggestion is to try out some virtual competition with friends on your own specific segments.