How Strava fame became a burden for Molly Seidel


In January 2018, fitness app Strava received unwanted publicity when its heatmap feature allegedly revealed the locations of secret military bases. Although there is no evidence that the safety of military personnel was compromised, media coverage at the time was overwhelming. A Guardian The article noted that the platform was potentially leaking “extremely sensitive information” about troops stationed in Syria and Afghanistan. During this time, a Wired The article suggested that the app made it easier to track the intelligence community’s so-called “life patterns”. The Pentagon finally issued a memo limiting the use of GPS-enabled fitness apps in sensitive locations.

Needless to say, it’s not just soldiers and illegal immigrants who have an interest in keeping their “way of life” discreet. Ask Molly Seidel. Last month, the Olympic bronze medalist and longtime Strava user announced on Instagram that she would be making most of her runs private “to be more respectful of my own mental health.” It was news, in part because Seidel is the epitome of a successful distance runner in the age of social media. Since her surprise second-place finish at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials, she’s racked up a massive following on Instagram and Strava – 220,000 followers on Instagram and 68,000 on Strava – complementing her superhuman athletic feats with an affable, speed-racing internet persona. ‘to the side. . When Seidel posted her Olympic bronze medal-winning performance on Strava (headline: “Sapporo full send-off”), she received the most “kudos” for a female activity in the app’s history. Canadian running proclaimed Seidel to be “the new queen of Strava”.

Sometimes, however, such prestige comes at a price. Seidel says she started using Strava years ago, when she was still undecided about her future as a professional runner, as a way for her to connect with Boston’s running community. After rising to overnight fame as a new Olympian who worked as a babysitter and barista, it became harder for her to maintain a low profile on the app. “Over the past two years, it’s changed so much,” Seidel says. “I think I’ve always been a very open and honest person about my training and my life, but it’s easier to do that when not many people pay attention. It’s nothing against Strava, but the number of people has been pretty overwhelming, so it’s lost some of it fun.”

For one, it could be part of the deal when you acquire a large public platform. As a Puma-sponsored Olympian, Seidel inevitably became a bit more self-conscious about what she posted. Was the occasional profanity still acceptable? But while such concerns apply to all social media, Strava poses a unique challenge. The stakes of putting oneself forward are different when it comes to sharing one’s geographical position with the world. Once you have tens of thousands of followers, you might be less inclined to have your daily running route become public. When I asked if there were any specific incidents that ultimately caused her to go dark on the app, Seidel said there were, but declined to go into detail. “I’ve had a few people who really overstepped their bounds and kind of ruined it,” she says. “I would still share my training publicly if I could. It’s just that it becomes a safety issue at times and it only takes one person who doesn’t understand those limitations for it to suddenly become dangerous. .

When she first announced that she would be making her account less public, Seidel also noted that Strava could become “too competitive” and “glorify overtraining.” It was interesting coming from an Olympic medalist who logged weeks of 130-mile training, but also a testament to Seidel’s appeal. After all, what Strava-addicted amateur athlete isn’t at least somewhat familiar with the relentless one-upmanship spawned by segment leaderboards. Amelia Boone, the Colorado attorney whose weekend warrior exploits in obstacle racing and ultrarunning turned her into a niche celebrity genre, says she toyed with the idea of ​​hiding her Strava profile, but her concerns were less about privacy and more, as she told me, “falling into the comparison trap.” Indeed, Boone says that when she started using Strava, she had a private profile and used a pseudonym to protect her ego. She started sharing her workout two years ago and now uses the app primarily as a tool to find new routes and track her workouts. “I was lucky that I didn’t have any creepy encounters through Strava,” Boone says. “Honestly, I’ve met a ton of great people since we’ve shared similar running and biking routes, so I think it’s all about risk tolerance.

In response to a request for comment on Seidel’s decision, a representative for Strava issued the following statement, “We fully support Molly and are impressed with how she uses her voice to raise awareness of the importance of controlling information and data you share publicly… We care deeply about athlete safety and fully support athletes in using privacy and map visibility controls to personalize how they share information and tell their story. To that end, Strava offers an extensive menu of privacy features, such as allowing users to hide the start and end points of activities or prevent specific addresses from appearing on maps. the most foolproof measure, short of quitting the app altogether, is to simply make most activities private, q At what point Strava is becoming more of a personal training diary than a social network.

Indeed, Seidel’s decision to recall his presence on Strava suggests an inherent tension in the ever-changing model of what it means to be a professional endurance athlete in our hyper-connected age. Since elite marathon runners only compete a few times a year, they have an incentive to maintain and grow their social media fanbases. Those like Seidel, who can do this in a sincere way and not burdened with constant shouting from sponsors and product promotion, are rewarded with large audiences and, presumably, better economic prospects. But being good at this stuff also means sacrificing some degree of privacy, whether it’s sharing very specific GPS data from your long run or feeling compelled to be publicly introspective after a shitty run. Whenever I see an extremely raw and emotional post from a well-known athlete, I can’t help but wonder why that person felt the need to share something so intimate with thousands of anonymous prowlers.

But, I’m going to read it anyway. It’s hard to deny that greater access to an athlete’s inner life enriches the experience of being a sports fan in 2022. Seidel knows that as well as anyone. “I actually don’t want to be this cloistered athlete who only runs twice a year and you never know what’s going on with her,” she says. “I think the greater accessibility and openness is cool, but at the same time we have to protect ourselves. And it’s not just us as professional athletes. I think for anyone using social media, there’s this pressure to have a very public face and the feeling that you owe people to explain every aspect of your life. It wasn’t like this before.

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