The Strava Track Club

“Each of these athletes is basically like their own startup,” explains Dena Evans, the head coach of the Strava Track Club. “It’s okay to believe in yourself and go for that dream.”

I first meet Dena, and the rest of the members of the Strava Track Club, an elite development group based near Palo Alto, California, at the Pacific Association Cross Country Championships. It’s a bright and crisp Saturday morning in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park and the grass is steaming as the dew evaporates off it, lending the scene a misty, ethereal quality. The club have their reputation, and a record of success, to defend, the women’s team having won the title for the past seven years. A few tents are being assembled and two women sit behind a fold up table handing out race numbers. Dena strides across the grass carrying boxes and tent poles, while a few members of the team who have hitched a ride in her car, trail behind with bags of oranges and paper towels. Hardly the scene you’d envisage when you imagine high performance running.

But, as Dena emphasizes, “Running, unless you are very, very good at it, doesn’t make you a lot of money.” For members of the Strava Track Club that means asking,

“Can you creatively figure out ways to have dual objectives be successful; your career, your education and your running. Is that possible?” Dena says.

Slowly more members of the club emerge out of the dissipating morning mist. They dump their contributions to the growing food selection on the picnic bench, leave their bags on the tarp then look around for some way to take their mind off the upcoming race. Many of the team settle on checking and rechecking the spikes in their shoes or joining the ever growing line for the toilets.While the runners fiddle with their kit, Dena’s constant stream of jokes and stories keep them relaxed and distracted from the task ahead.

Natalie Tanner is one of the first athletes to arrive, cradling a huge box of bagels. With her long blond hair and sunny smile Natalie looks cool and collected, nerves kept under control thanks to a pre-race routine honed by years of competitive running. Natalie was a successful collegiate runner, but like most members of the Strava Track Club she now works full time. “I am working in the memory lab [at Stanford] and we coordinate with the department of neurology to do Alzheimers research. So, I run MRI scans as well as nuero-psychological testing,” says Natalie.

When asked about fitting in her running around work Natalie explains, “Yeah, it’s definitely a balancing act. Working full time is not easy to balance with running…. If I am doubling [running twice in a day] I would get up around 6:30 a.m. and do a thirty minute run. And then I would go to work around 8:30 or 9 a.m. and I would be at work until around 5 p.m. We’re now meeting for practice at 5:45 p.m. So I go home, change really quick, grab a snack and come to the workout.”

As the start of the races draw closer more members of the Strava Track Club arrive, acknowledging their teammates quietly. Few words need to be said at this point as the work is already done; hundreds of runs uploaded to Strava, the hard rubber soles of dozens of pairs of trainers worn away.

Matt Leach arrives relatively late, looking as if he just rolled out of bed, hair sticking up at slightly odd angles. Like Natalie, Matt balances the competing demands of running and a full-time job. “I’m a software engineer [at Google],” says Matt. “Probably half the time I run to work with my rucksack and my laptop. Then I would drop my rucksack at work and do a little bit more…. Recently we’ve been training Friday mornings as well so I try and get up early and wake the body up for a tempo. Get a tempo done then go into work and try not to be too tired... It’s hard!”

For most people having a full-time job is tiring enough so the thought of also training at an elite level is hard to imagine. Natalie explains that having her teammates to keep her accountable and motivated is vital. “We kind of like to joke that a lot of the time we feel tired or not ready to do a workout at 6 p.m. – 8 p.m. in the evening,” says Natalie “So just joking around about our condition is nice and makes us all feel better.”

“They have a sense of team,” says Dena. “Even if it is just a vest you wear which is the same as the other people on the starting line. I think it is having people of a like-minded mindset. Just to have people to show up to. People to connect with, who have a shared experience, a shared background, or a shared set of goals.”

Pre-race rituals and routines completed the female members of the Strava Track Club form a huddle, gathering strength in the final moments from the physical presence of their teammates around them. As a heavy silence settles over the scene, the final few seconds before the start of the race seem to stretch on painfully. Although a slight breeze rustles the leaves the figures on the startline are like statues; frozen in space and time.

Bang, the gun fires and they’re off.

The pre-race tension immediately evaporates as the crowd erupts into sound and movement, rushing after the runners as they stream towards the first bend, a mesmerizing combination of chaos and control. I see Natalie whoosh past me as I break into a jog, trying to keep up with the action. She flows across the grass, eating up the ground with her elegant stride, long blond ponytail swinging behind her. Up ahead of me, I also see Dena, shouting advice to her athletes as they start to settle into a rhythm.

Like the runners the crowd move as a pack, waiting eagerly on the other side of the treeline for the athletes to come past. Natalie is the first to emerge, sweeping around the bend alongside two other athletes, looking calm and controlled; hours of training allowing her to click into autopilot. Behind her the Strava Track Club race as a pack, black vest after black vest streaming past me.

The second time the runners come past Natalie is away from the field. Exuding strength she strides powerfully up a slight hill before dropping down towards the finish. Flooding into the finishing pen one after another, the Strava Track Club have lived up to their pre-race billing, as six of Strava’s women finish in the top ten. High-fiving and hugging the athletes are flushed with adrenaline, cheering each other across the line and breathlessly reliving the primal emotions that come with racing.

The women of the Strava Track Club pose for photos before ambling back to the tent to put on some warm clothes and support the men's team.

“It’s super important to be part of a team,” says Matt. “That’s one of the main things I like about running. While it is an individual sport, there’s such a big team aspect as well.”

In the men’s race Matt finishes a valiant third, battling all the way to the finish. Right behind him in fourth and fifth are two of his teammates, helping the team secure a second place finish overall.

After their cooldown they hang around the tent together, reliving the race and eating homemade granola bars. Although these runners have work on Monday mornings and research papers to write there is no eagerness to leave.

As Dena and the team finally pack up the food, disassemble the tent and roll up the tarp it’s apparent that Dena’s belief in the power of being part of a team is working. The Strava Track Club have enjoyed a successful few years. Kaitlin Goodman was one of only two women to compete in all three Olympic trials distance events in 2016, the 5000m, the 10,000m and the marathon and at the 2017 New York City Marathon the club placed two men in the top-ten US runners. Combine these results with Matt’s debut for Great Britain on the track last year, and exciting new additions to the team like Natalie, and it is apparent the Strava Track Club are, like any good Silicon Valley startup dreaming big, working hard and balancing multiple ambitions.

“I think that work and academic pursuits is a dual objective that helps people be the most productive version of themselves,” says Dena. “They are complementary and it is definitely a little bit of a secret sauce around here.”

The flavour of the Strava Track Club’s sauce seems to be a complementary mix of discipline, ambition and teamwork, a factor that is often missing in running once the ready-made team that surrounds collegiate athletes disappears. Getting out to train after work in the dark and the cold is half the battle, but for members of the Strava Track Club it’s made that bit easier. “It will be better because you can get through it with your friends,” says Matt.

Keep up with the Strava track Club's progress this year, and give Natalie and Matt some kudos!

Related Posts:

Conversation:

Join Strava for Free:

By signing up for Strava, you agree to the Terms of Service. View our Privacy Policy.