If You Didn't Quantify a Run, Did It Even Happen?

Runkeeper is keeping my half marathon data hostage.
November 17, 2015, 12:00pm

In August of this year, I decided somewhat impulsively to run a half marathon. A couple friends had signed up for the Brooklyn Rock 'n' Roll race and I thought joining them in a concrete goal (and a paying a hefty registration fee) would force me to keep up with my running and stay in shape.

After finding a free 12 week training program online and condensing it into the 10 weeks I had left before the race, I started tracking my daily runs with the Nike+ Running app. At the suggestion of a friend I was training with, I soon switched to Runkeeper. The app was a huge improvement: much more detailed than other free services, it broke down my pace by minutes per mile and by steps per minute, and showed how my pace corresponded with different elevations. I used it to track my remaining 51 miles of training.

A main selling point for Runkeeper, according to its page in the app store, is allowing users to "never run alone," with options to track and share workouts in the app, including live tracking. I thought this would be great way to send information on the day of the half marathon to my parents who wanted to follow my race, so after more than a hundred miles of training, 51 of which was stored on the app, I tried to sync the app with Facebook a few days before the main event. I got a series of error messages.

If only it could be saved forever.

I quickly realized none of my runs had ever synced to my account, let alone to Facebook. The data was essentially stuck inside the app, which was becoming increasingly glitchy and unusable. Runkeeper's support team said my problems were being caused by a corrupted install, and suggested I uninstall the app and download it again. Because none of my runs had synced, doing so would delete them all forever, effectively erasing 10 weeks of progress the day before the race.

It has now been more than a month and a 20+ email thread between me and a friendly support team member at Runkeeper who seems just as helpless as I am. A spokesperson from Runkeeper told me the app has a support team of three full time employees for its 50 million users, so the response has been great all things considered, but I still don't have my data. The app remains on my phone, completely useless and holding a chunk of my half marathon training, but I can't bring myself to delete it. As my battle to save my runs continues, I have to wonder, why do I care so much?

At the core of my frustration is a sense of entitlement to something that, up until a few years ago, would have been extremely difficult to track. Runkeeper launched in 2008, the app's co-founder and CEO Jason Jacobs told me, and it was one of the first apps in the iPhone App store. Before the advent of services like Runkeeper, people who wanted to measure the distances of their runs had to quantify their workouts in much more tedious and costly manners, from expensive GPS watches, to pedometers, or the less-reliable method of driving a car along the route before running it. Jacobs said one of the biggest draws of Runkeeper is that anyone can use it.

"While our competitors tend to focus on more serious athletes, we help people of all ability levels enjoy the magic of the sport," he said. "Our main area of differentiation is around guidance/motivation. This ranges from the ability to set various goals to following adaptive training plans that adjust based on how things go as you follow them."

Setting those goals is one of the biggest motivating factors of running. When I first began to run on my high school cross country team, my coaches would stand at different mile markers of the course with stopwatches, meticulously writing down runners' times as they passed by. Runners who beat their fastest 5K time would get a shout out at the next practice for their personal record (PR). The walls of my high school bedroom are covered in race bibs with my PR penciled in. The numbers are an emotional investment as much as a physical one. If you ran your fastest time ever, but you didn't quantify it, did it even happen?

Without tracking your progress, the activity loses much of its meaning. The rise of FitBit and similar fitness trackers is a testament to that sentiment. Jacobs said the quantification is a major draw, but even more so is how the data allows runners to personalize their training, making it more effective and enjoyable.

"The tracking is getting easier and more invisible, which opens the door to more effective, personalized experiences," he said.

I've realized my emotional attachment to this now useless data is somewhat irrational. Knowing that I ran 8 miles at a certain pace in September has no bearing on my training in the future, necessarily, even if I decide to run another half marathon. But for the time being I'm holding onto the app, because even though I ran the race, I have the medal and the photos to prove it, having my work leading up to it is important, and I'm not ready to delete it yet.