If you’re a regular Strava user, you’ll have seen them. Sketches, portraits, and words spelled out in city streets.
They are shared widely on social media, traveling far beyond the world of obsessive runners and graphomaniacs. I’ve often wondered how their creators have the time and energy to create their invisible messages and artworks whilst being mildly tempted to try one of my own.
A little research reveals an astonishing array of artworks online, including dinosaurs, inspiring messages, and even a portrait of Frida Kahlo, featured in the online advertising magazine Famous Campaigns.
The latter was created by veteran San Franciscan runner Lenny Maughan and even includes the Mexican painter’s elaborately braided hair and her famous eyebrows.
Talking to the Guardian newspaper in 2019, Maughan explained that he’d loved using Etch-a-Sketch as a child and the sight of someone creating a joke penis on Strava led him to wonder if he could use the exercise-mapping app- to create something a little more elaborate.
Physically challenging, too – the Frida Kahlo portrait required a run of 28.9 miles.
Maughan’s still at it, too – at the time of writing, his most recent masterpiece is a curvaceous, reclining nude created during an ultra-run of 43.13 miles. Surely nobody is as terrified of failing to hit that “Record” button on Strava as Maughan.
He’s not the only one, either.
In fact, there’s a whole community of Strava artists out there, and even a dedicated website for Strava sketchers to share their work, Stravart (be wary, you may lose hours browsing their galleries).
Admittedly, many Strava artists are cyclists, which to this self-avowed runner, feels a bit like cheating.
That said, consider rider Stephen Lund’s epic roaring T-rex on Vancouver Island, and you can’t help but be impressed.
When I decided to have a go at creating a piece of Strava art, my ambitions were somewhat more modest. After all, I’m a writer and a filmmaker, not a visual artist. Perhaps writing a message on the streets of West London would be a little bit more realistic.
Given the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic (this was April 2021), I decided that the word “Hope” was both suitably positive and modest of ambition.
I set to work with Google Maps and Map My Run to try and write it in a continuous line on the streets of West and Central London.
I hit an immediate snag. British streets in ancient towns like London aren’t designed around grids, apart from the occasional Georgian extravagance or recent suburb. Writing anything meaningful and legible would prove a challenge. I quickly abandoned the notion of using block letters with outlines in favour of simple lines.
After a bit of trial and error, I came up with a route that was both legible and, at around nine miles in length, manageable. It mixed upper and lowercase letters in a rather reckless manner but clearly read: HopE.
I’d forgotten that in one of my favourite books, Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, there’s an elderly character, Peter Stillman, who walks the streets of Manhattan, drawing a mysterious maze that reveals a written message to the narrator.
It took a good friend of mine to remind me, once I’d finished, that I was almost re-enacting a scene from a much-loved story from my early twenties.
I decided not to start outside my house.
In part, this was a precautionary measure – it’s probably not a good idea to identify your home on a map you then make public. Mostly though, it was to create a clean first letter H.
I’d designed it, so the verticals were North End Road and Warwick Road, and the horizontal was Cromwell Road. In fact, the whole word would hang off Cromwell Road, much like Sanskrit uses a line, called a shirorekha, to tie its words together and line them up neatly.
With a printed map in my pocket containing a list of every road and turning, I started confidently.
It was fun to run down North End Road, a lively shopping street with a bustling market. I had to concentrate to dodge around the pedestrians and keep a respectable, COVID-friendly distance.
I turned round at Lillie Road, opposite the barber shop I used to visit, which lockdown had prevented me patronising since I moved back to the area.
By the time I crossed Cromwell Road and got back up to Kensington High Street, I was beginning to wonder if I’d chosen the right point size for my lettering. I’d only completed the first vertical of the first letter, and I was feeling it in my legs already.
Fortunately, my muscles loosened up after a while, and I completed the H without incident.
The O proved equally easy – just a quick loop around some side streets north and south of Cromwell Road, then back east through the middle.
Lockdown restrictions had recently been lifted, and it was nice to see people sitting outside restaurants again. I quashed a brief flicker of “pint envy”–a challenging letter lay ahead.
The northernmost vertical of the P was simple enough, Marloes Road offering only minor obstacles (mostly trees and slow-moving pedestrians). However, as I ran with my phone in one hand and a hand-drawn map in another, I quickly became confused.
Where was St Margaret’s Lane?
It was clear on my Google Maps but didn’t seem to exist in my reality. I lined the blue dot up with where the lane was supposed to be and located an imposing metal gate with a keypad; behind it, a private road with some exceptionally expensive-looking courtyards surrounding it.
I’d made a rookie Strava art error.
I jogged on and took the first available right. I had no choice – I had to complete the loop of the P, the most challenging shape in my message.
I soon found myself running around the lanes behind a hotel complex, where they kept their bins. A tall wall separated me from the road I wanted to get to. I briefly considered climbing it, but there were CCTV cameras everywhere, and my actions would be hard to explain to the local constabulary.
Frustration simmering, I backtracked, realising there would now be an irritating spur in the loop of the P.
I headed further north to Kensington High Street and tore past the tube station and the large Wholefoods store. It was way too busy here to be comfortable, so I cut off the top of my now massively distended P and curled back through the backstreets of Kensington.
My frustration was offset by my environs – extremely pretty avenues with blossoming trees, street cafes, and cobbled lanes.
I really couldn’t afford too many wrong turns, or I’d ruin my handwriting (legwriting?)
There followed much stopping and starting, lowering my average speed closer to nine-minute miles, but I didn’t mind. This was not about speed, after all.
With massive relief, I emerged from my maze onto Lexham Gardens, which took me back to Cromwell Road. I didn’t check the results on Strava. I didn’t want to know what Frankenstein P I’d just created.
The E was effortless – Grenville Place and Ashburn Place for the vertical and three sensibly straight roads for the arms, including my main Cromwell Road artery. I even managed to run through the renowned Kynance Mews, a cute, cobbled lane lined with former stables which had become workshops and bijou apartments.
In fact, I’d begun to feel rather smug when I finally ground to an exhausted halt at the junction of Old Brompton Road and Queen’s Gate, after nine miles of urban orienteering.
I clicked Strava off and checked my handiwork. My heart sank. Where was the lower vertical of the P?
I’d somehow forgotten to run/draw it. I’d written HOOE. Hooey, US slang for nonsense. Fitting, I thought.
I was going to have to backtrack along the E, cut back along Cromwell Road and finish the truncated letter. Fortunately, Strava can be resumed even when you’ve hit “stop,” so I set it to recording again and completed my project.
This time I finished on Fulham Road, where people were happily shopping and dining. It was too busy for a sprint finish, and this wasn’t that kind of run in any case. I took another look at Strava and sighed in relief. It wasn’t exactly pretty, and the P looked more like the top of a treble clef or a cartoon ghost, but it clearly spelled “Hope.”
Not bad for a first effort, I thought, with another ten miles under the belt for that week. Ten miles, I’d hardly felt, my concentration fixed on the task at hand. It’d been fun and revealing.
Strava art is not for the dilettante. Roaring dinosaurs and facsimiles of great artworks would have to wait. I’d make do with hope, for now.
Part of this article is adapted from a chapter in my book, Run For the Hell of It: 50 Running Adventures from 5K to 100 Miles. Check it out if you would like to read about some more of my running adventures.