SA joggers run routes that create pictures - take a look at their cool GPS art

Business Insider SA
A gun-shaped run in the Cape Town city bowl. Pete Calitz/Strava
  • During their lockdown jogs, South African runners have turned to making pictures with their routes, tracked by GPS.
  • This is called 'Strava Art' - and there are very intricate examples overseas.  
  • Locally, runners have "painted" animals, a gun and - inevitably - a penis.
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South Africa has imposed some of the strictest lockdown conditions in the world, which include restrictions on when its citizens are allowed to exercise outdoors. 

Even under its more relaxed Level 4 conditions, which allows exercise between 06:00 and 09:00 daily, within a 5km radius from your house, conditions are still more restricted than many other countries around the world.

But these limitations haven’t stopped South Africans from heading out for their once-daily outdoor exercise opportunity en masse - nor has it dampened their spirit when they do.

READ | Should you wear a mask while you run? Your lockdown exercise questions answered

This is most apparent in the strange and burgeoning world of Strava Art, which entails runners, walkers, and cyclists tracing a specific pre-planned route through their city, tracked by the GPS exercise app Strava, to resemble a vaguely recognisable image that displays on their Strava profile.

Like a virtual scrawl in a bathroom cubicle, Strava Art’s primary purpose is one of humour and light-hearted entertainment, which is the primary motivation for the trend during South Africa’s lockdown period.

Few have captured this quite as succinctly as otherwise acclaimed artist Michael Chandler, who decided to use his artistic instincts to draw a giant penis in the heart of the Cape Town city centre.

“I’d never create an image like that in the physical world. I don’t see the point, because it’s actually so childish, and I’m the first one to admit that. It reminds me of being in high school. But I really enjoyed doing it - it was like creating an image, which is what I love, but usually with a pen or a brush,” Chandler says, “So I thought that was quite a fun idea.”

Chandler shared a screenshot of the penis-shaped running route to his 15,000 strong Instagram following, whom he says reacted positively. 

“I have an audience, and a lot of people like the way I see the world,” he says. “So it was also intended to create a little bit of joy in lockdown, because everything was so grim after the first four or five weeks into lockdown. That was the main purpose - to create an image that’s temporary, and spreads a bit of joy, or laughter, or humour.”

For Chandler it was less about the exercise than it was the statement - and he says the running process didn’t quite keep up. “I was more excited to make a giant phallus route than actually get exercise,” he says.

But for other more passionate athletes, and less established artists, Strava Art still serves a similar purpose. 

Some of the country’s most frustrated trail and long-distance runners have also pounded their local pavements to create eye-catching, light-hearted imagery.

Running groups around the country have come up with Strava Art challenges - the results of which are a mixed bag of average to wholly unrecognisable creations:

A mouse, from a run in the southern suburbs in Cape Town. Megan Beckett /Strava
An elephant on the Atlantic Seaboard. Russell Lund/Strava
An expressionist impression of a lion, from a run near Wynberg in Cape Town.
An ice cream cone, from a Johannesburg run. Carla Molinaro/Strava
A dog: Nic De Beer/Strava
A bull.

But for accomplished ultra runner Dane Sweet, who co-owns the Ultra Running SA brand, it’s less about producing high-quality art, and more about keeping people used to running hundreds of kilometres a week, inspired during this time. His company has organised several running-based challenges - including a Strava Art section - to try and achieve this.

“We’re really passionate about ultra running, and the brand itself is still very young,” says Sweet. “The lockdown had been very negative, and we’re just trying to add some positivity.”

The company ran a social distancing running challenge for fourteen days, open only between 6:00 and 9:00, with five different categories. It started by asking how far their followers could run within the lockdown time and distance restrictions, and expanded to include several other categories, including a Strava Art component.

“It was a way to inspire people, get them running, and have a good time,” says Sweet.

International Strava Art attempts, many of them immortalised on website and Instagram account are somewhat more accomplished. 

Athletes featured on the site have clocked dozens of kilometres just to draw surfers riding waves through the heart of Munich, a surprisingly intricate portrait of Joe Exotic, from hit lockdown television show Tiger King, in Detroit, and a massive cat staring down a mouse along the Thames.

One of the best-known “running artists” is the American Lenny Maughan, who created this Frida Kahlo while on a 46.5km run in San Francisco:

A Frida Kahlo portrait by Lenny Maughan on Strava.

Runners less enamoured by art, and more in it for the physical challenge, have found other ways to keep busy within the confines of lockdown.

Alpine runner and photographer Damien Schuman has also been instrumental in running various challenges during the lockdown period - and is currently aiming to run every single street in the Cape Town City Centre, which he’s logging on his Strava account.

After entering Level 4 of South Africa’s lockdown, which for the first time allowed some exercise, weekly trail running group Tuesday Trails, of which Schuman is a part, quickly started a “#between6and9” challenge. 

“It was primarily to encourage people to make the most of their three hours out, even though they weren’t allowed on the mountain,” says Schuman.

Apparel brand Salomon South Africa realised that this would be the perfect time to get behind a new campaign, and they put their weight behind Every Single Street - a replica of San Francisco runner Rickey Gates’s #everysinglestreet concept, during which he ran every road in the city - and tracked it all on Strava.

READ | Here are our favourite South African online exercise programmes for lockdown

“At first I wasn’t enthralled, but took new streets to change my routine up a bit. Then I saw [fellow athletes] Kane Reilly and Luke Powers putting in a few 20-30km back-to-back sessions and was inspired to pull myself out of my pity party,” says Schuman.

Like many athletes now taking part in these hyper local running challenges, Schuman was due to be taking part in real-world running events that covered many more kilometres than the lockdown conditions allowed, and challenges like Every Single Street are serving as a substitute. 

“I was meant to be running the 9,600km from London to Kigali, Rwanda at the moment, for an advocacy campaign for neglected tropical diseases, so was itching for some distance runs,” he says. “But running every single street has actually been really tough. Most mornings we put in 25 to 30km, and Cape Town’s not flat! There have been a numerous days with over 700m of elevation, which is uncommon for road running, and the longest day was 35km, with the most climbing was 968m.”

All of these activities have been with strict adherence to the country’s 6:00 to 9:00 exercise restriction.

“It’s been an incredible way to experience my neighbourhood and find places I never knew existed, and it’s left me pretty tired for the rest of the day, which helps when one is stuck at home,” says Schuman. “It’s also amazing what a little project and a touch of purpose can do to raise one's spirits during a tough time.”

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