Portrait

Chasing an elusive athlete known as @nobody. By Simon Webster.

A runner called @nobody

Two months ago, I got a message from my housemate. Someone in Sydney was supposedly running more than 400 kilometres each week, around a single 3.7-kilometre loop in Centennial Park. Online, they were going by the handle “@nobody”. Their profile picture on Strava, a kind of Facebook for runners, was a stylised letter “N”. Among their stated goals: to run one metre for every person living on Earth; to run a marathon in under 99 minutes, against a world record just shy of 123; to run around the moon. I scrolled through their posts. One week in February, @nobody spent 66 hours running. They covered 507 kilometres. My first thought was: imagine the laundry. Closely followed by: is this for real?

I snooped around. In January, @nobody had run 1620 kilometres. That’s 52 kilometres a day. In February, they logged 1859 kilometres – 66 a day. March saw 1804 kilometres, or 58 a day. That’s a shade under a marathon-and-a-half every day, for 90 days. Much of it was completed during the hottest part of the day, and during Sydney’s fifth-warmest summer on record. According to Strava, @nobody was running more than anyone else on Earth.

There was a link on @nobody’s Strava profile to their website. I followed it to a splash page on which lime-green numbers were counting down the years, months, days, hours, minutes and seconds until the website’s launch date – “coming soon” – on April Fools’ Day 2077.

I entered through the backdoor.

The website is made up of 16 pages, each devoted to a different challenge. Many of these are misspelled “chalienge”. An example reads:

The challenge is to run, walk or crawl 1 meter for every person living on the planet Earth. There’re 5 ways to complete this challenge:

1.   Represent the planet Earth in the Solar System.

2.   Represent Earth in the Milky Way Galaxy.

3.   Represent Earth in the Universe

4.   Represent Earth in the Megaverse.

5.   Run 1 meter for every Earthian, or 4691516 miles (7,550,262.101 Km).

Other challenges included Run For Every Country in The World, Run around every planet in the Solar System, Run For Israel, Run around Mars.

Beneath each challenge, a progress report. Day 1 of the Run For Every Country in The World challenge noted the completion of the 22 least populous “countries”, from Vatican City (792) to the Faroe Islands (49,290).

 

Sceptics said @nobody was a bot; that someone was strapping their GPS watch, the method by which Strava gathers its data, to a dog or a drone; that the whole thing was a marketing stunt or performance art; that it was a hoax perpetrated by a collective of bored university students.

There was some dissent in the comments on @nobody’s Strava profile. There were ripostes from @nobody’s loyalists. On Reddit, there was one thread on the topic, inactive since February, which reached few conclusions. Occasionally, and following no apparent pattern, @nobody themselves would respond to a question.

Somehow, @nobody’s peculiar syntax, their odd use of contractions, their strange fixations, miscalculations and fraying resolve, was the most convincing argument in favour of their being legitimate.

It seemed unlikely that money was @nobody’s motivation. Their website had a donations facility, but only $11 had been pledged.

Was it fame? Whether intentional, @nobody’s constructed anonymity fished for and caught attention. Their Strava profile was public, and their website was easily reached. They had created their own hashtags (#iLoveMars) to promote their project. Yet, assuming @nobody received my messages, they were uninterested in being the subject of this story. And their infrequent responses to questions on Strava were often coy, aware of their own deficiency – “It’s hard to explain in a comment… Sorry for that.”

 

And so to Sydney by red-eye I flew. On my way over, I tried to come up with an elegant way to ask somebody whether they were nobody. I ran through an inventory of what I knew about them: they wore black, beaten-up running shoes; they had been referred to as “him”; they had referred to Israel as “my country”; and, every day since January 1, they had been circling Centennial Park.

Two weeks before I left, however, @nobody hit a snag. On Day 109, describing their run, they simply wrote: Breakdown :(

The next week-and-a-bit was spent recovering. Each day, @nobody ran a single lap. Then on Day 118, they ran 37 kilometres. On Day 119 they were back up at 63.

I arrived in Sydney on Day 123. From the airport I went straight to a friend’s place, dropped my bags, drank a coffee and ran to Centennial Park. Every time a lean, older guy would zip by on a bicycle, I’d focus in on them, hoping they’d somehow give themselves away as @nobody. None did.

The morning I arrived was cool and sunny. There was dew on the grass. I walked the first lap of the park clockwise. The second I ran, this time counterclockwise. Then I turned again, and ran the next two as I’d run the first. And repeat. After a few hours of this, I trotted back to my friend’s place for a shower and a nap. I jumped on Strava to see if @nobody had posted the previous day’s run yet, and that’s when I saw it. Ok, this is my last message, @nobody began. They were pulling the pin.

The message, posted as a comment on what would be @nobody’s final run, spoke of injuries, of dwindling funds, depleted resolve. They were mythmaking via epilogue. Was it worth it? they asked. Did I do the right thing? The message, at times, strayed into bumper sticker territory – I would rather try and fail than regret forever that I didn’t even try – and pop Confucianism – Life is [too] short to live someone else’s life. It ended on a perfectly dissatisfying and ultimately meaningless note, at once evasive and inviting: …will see you, maybe or maybe not, or maybe in the other life.

Somewhere in Sydney, for the first time in four months, @nobody was free to just sit.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 16, 2018 as "Longtime running". Subscribe here.

Simon Webster
is a Perth-based lawyer.

Continue reading your one free article for the week