Stanford’s beautiful campus and close access to open spaces were a huge draw for me. Growing up in the mountains of Colorado caused me to appreciate the value of nature. I knew that I needed places to escape campus, to hike and to run. Open space brings vitality to my soul and helps me mentally reset and process my thoughts. I am not the only one to feel this way; there is scientific evidence that simply walking in nature, surrounded by trees, dirt and natural light, improves mood and mental health.
Fortunately at Stanford it has been easy to find people to partake in these activities with me. Especially my junior year, when I returned from abroad and lived in Outdoor House, I was overwhelmed and ecstatic to meet so many great humans who were so willing to go on planned or spontaneous outdoor excursions any day of the week. At any given time, someone was always headed out for a run, hike, bike, climb or swim. Spending time outside and sharing activities that you love is a great way to meet people. I had never felt so fully myself or easily welcomed into a community. I was so happy to find people who love to do what I love.
However, this constant frenzy of outside activity can also swing into negative territory. Stanford students often operate in extremes, and athletic activity sometimes shifts into overdrive. I found myself filled with guilt if I saw someone return from a bike or run when I had been sitting in class or studying, even if I had already exercised that day. This was illogical, but I felt like I should always be outside or else I was not embracing my identity and the culture of the community. Somehow, people always seemed to be able to do more than I was doing.
I am a strong advocate for exercise and maximizing time outside, but being constantly surrounded by incredibly fit, beautiful humans can take its toll. Sometimes, especially at Stanford, it can be hard to find a balance between doing what is healthy and pushing your body past its limits. Every person has different needs, schedules and capabilities, but it can be difficult not to compare yourself to others.
And then came Strava. For those who do not know, Strava is an app that allows users to track athletic activity — predominantly biking and running. It records distances, routes and times. Users can upload their activities, and users can see people’s routes and activities. Similar to many other social media apps, users can follow each other and give likes in the form of “kudos” to different activities.
For the most part, I love Strava. It is the main way I track mileage on long runs, and it is a helpful tool to track progress and compare different times on the same routes. I can see which times of day I perform the best, and it alerts you every time you break a personal or course record. It can be a great marker of personal growth and success. However, the followers feed can be problematic.
I am lucky to have some incredibly athletic friends. Some of my favorite memories this year have been group outdoor adventures: summiting Mount Whitney, kayaking in Tomales Bay, hiking the Dish for sunrise and running a 30k trail race in Tahoe. However, following many of my athletically gifted friends on Strava is not always a great confidence boost. One such friend this fall went to the gym in the morning, ran 18 miles in the afternoon and did a five-mile full moon run with me at night. His “rest day” the next day consisted of an eight-mile run. Thanks Strava.
I do not want this article to be a call-out, though. Aside from a devoted training plan, his running abilities are also a bit of a genetic anomaly, I think. I do like to tease him, though. This friend is a very wonderful and modest person who would never brag about any of these athletic endeavors to anyone. He truly runs for the sake of running, simply because he loves it. The only reason I know so much about his exercise activities is really because of Strava.
In today’s world of technology, it becomes increasingly difficult not to compare oneself to others, especially on social media. Earlier this year, Marc Peruzzi published an article in Outside Magazine about the dangers of normalizing extreme athletic activities and constantly pushing limits. In his article, Peruzzi suggests that social media has detracted from people’s inherent enjoyment of outdoor activities.
He writes, “Increasingly, what we do outside is less about enjoying the activity itself as an intrinsic good and more about planning ways to go bigger, faster and farther, often for our selfie-stick mounted cameras. And so it went that once healthy outdoor pursuits devolved into suicide clubs.”
Between the years of 2007 and 2013, there has been a 47 percent rise in emergency room visits. Peruzzi reports that many brain surgeons and ER personnel in mountain towns with whom he spoke think that this growth can be largely attributed to action sports. Colorado’s air medical transport service, Flight for Life, has recorded a 12 percent increase in rescues annually.
My mountain hometown is an example. There’s an endurance ski race from Crested Butte to Aspen at night and another where racers summit and ski all four mountains as quickly as possible. In April, a veteran skier was killed in an avalanche in my hometown. This skier had volunteered with Mountain Rescue Aspen for 30 years and was very experienced in avalanche conditions. The avalanche occurred in the backcountry just off the side of Aspen Highlands ski resort. Ski patrol had closed the nearby section of the mountain due to avalanche conditions, but two skiers decided to go up and ski off the resort. They were familiar with the slope and confident in their skills. Unfortunately, it ended in tragedy.
Peruzzi writes, “In nearly all these tragedies, some element of the progression mindset played a role. Elite athletes and adventurers charging, pushing the limits of their skills, the snowpack or the mountains, and suddenly running out of room for error.”
Social media can perpetuate this dangerous quest to test one’s athletic capabilities, mental toughness and endurance. However, running, skiing, biking or hiking for the sake of a social media update is incredibly unhealthy. No Instagram photo or Strava record should come at the cost of one’s mental or physical health. Especially when sometimes a moment of bad luck can cost someone’s life. Social media creates unrealistic expectations, and outdoor activities are no exception.
Today, I ran Russian Ridge with some friends. Skyline was encased in fog and, staring off the grassy hill on either side, looked like dropping into an endless gray abyss. From the fog in front of us, we saw a pack of four coyotes emerge and bound off into the hills. One paused and watched us. It was eerie and surreal and inexplicable. The emotion of this experience, the raw beauty of the hills, and the cool dew that coated my hair and dripped down my shirt can never be captured by social media. Neither can the pure elation and rejuvenation that I feel finishing a run with my best friends. In today’s hyper-connected reality, it is important to take a step back and remember why we choose to exercise and spend time outdoors.