In November of 2019 my wife Maura and I chose our goal races for 2020: the Montreal Half Marathon in April and the Chicago Marathon in October. We had figured out a routine that allowed us to work full-time, raise a pair of four-year-olds, and still commit to the training required to run “parenthood PB’s.” This was going to be our year.

Fast forward a few months — those plans obviously went out the window. We had to find new ways to motivate ourselves. I tried a few virtual races in March and early April and drastically underperformed — it wasn’t enough to fuel the fire.

One day, my friend posted a video on his YouTube channel about earning four Strava crowns on one particularly challenging stretch in the suburbs of Halifax, Nova Scotia, where I also live. I had previously never paid attention to Strava segments, but this video inspired me to plan a few routes for myself and claim a few crowns. Partway through May, I had accumulated around 50. From there, my new 2020 goal was set: Win 100 Strava Crowns.

Here I share the tips and strategies I used to top local leaderboards and pad my stats. As you read, you’ll see that it’s not all about speed.

The author running with Erin MacLean (left) Maura Wieczorek (centre)

The Pre-Requisites

1. Be locally fast

Strava crown hunting does, unfortunately, discriminate against the slow. But you don’t necessarily have to be Canadian track and field superstar Moh Ahmed to rack up a bunch of them. As long as you don’t live in a running mecca, where national and international-calibre athletes are picking off crowns left and right, there’s plenty of opportunity out there. To put things into perspective, if you’re man who can knock off a set of kilometre repeats in 3:20ish or faster, or a woman who can sail comfortably at 3:50s, then you stand a good chance at topping some lists.

2. Live in a segment-rich environment

Peninsular Halifax is rife with Strava segments. I have no idea who created them all or when, but they’re everywhere. To check out your area, look at Strava’s “Segment Explore” menu. If you don’t have access to dozens of segments within a few miles of your front door, then I suggest you move to a more urban area.

Important: The Segment Explore tab of your Strava page only shows you a fraction of the segments that are out there — sometimes you have to figure out what is out there for yourself.

The video that inspired this piece

3. Have a good memory

Even if you’re fast and live in a segment-rich environment, your brain needs to maintain a database of these virtual race courses if you’re going to have a fruitful chase. As you scroll through your feed before your run, make mental notes of the segments your friends travelled, and of how fast you must run to overtake them.

Important: you must recall exactly where the segment starts and finishes. It will save you the crushing disappointment of finding out you surged too late or stopped too soon. I learned that the hard way by starting to hammer a segment too late, and trying to compensate over the 2.6km that were left, all to no avail.

The Strategy

4. Creep on fast people’s XOMs (King and Queen of the Mountain)

Just because someone can leave you in their dust in every race distance from 100m to the marathon, it doesn’t mean they achieved all of their crowns at top speed. Perhaps they were completing a fast-finish long run or covered a shorter segment during a marathon-pace workout. Whatever the reason, fast people often acquire a lot of crowns without making a conscious effort to obtain them. Perhaps someone else’s “casual jaunt” pace is your “about to puke” pace — either way, fair game.

Case in point:

Note: Reid Coolsaet is a two-time Olympian

But beware: You also have to be cautious about taking a soft crown from someone much faster than you and poking the bear. Then, you might win one crown at the expense of losing four others later in the week.

5. Pick your battles

There are numerous segments within a few miles of my front door that appear to have been run at 800m pace, and that are simply out of reach for me. Well played, college kid and grizzled track veteran. Don’t waste your Maurten on these segments and conquer elsewhere.

6. Pace doesn’t seem legit? Flag that shit

Did you drive away from your run without turning your Garmin off? Are you a cyclist who set their activity to “run” and picked off a few segments at 2:12/km pace? Well, guess what, I’m going to flag your activity! There’s no shame in it. In the interest of fair play, I have also flagged my own runs due to a poor GPS signal — I’m not sure what my Garmin was doing on one morning last fall, but there’s no way I made it up Halifax’s steep, 150m Citadel Hill in 15 seconds.

7. Don’t draw attention to yourself

Nothing puts a target on your back like flaunting your crowns. There’s almost inevitably someone out there who could take them from you if you started to annoy them. Just upload your activity as “Morning Run” and go about the rest of your day — no hilarious captions. While you’re at it, erase me from memory when you are done reading this piece.

8. Get a bang for your buck

If you’re an astute segment creeper, you’ll know that many routes contain a segment within a segment, segments that follow each other, or mirroring out-and-back segments. On one of my recent runs, four crowns were available inside eight minutes of hard running. Use your memory to plan to hammer segment-rich routes.

9. Get creative with your available resources

Got a friend or family member who lives close to a batch of crowns that you’re after? Don’t be shy about leaving your “fast shoes” and fuel at their place overnight, jog over in the morning, and go to work. My wife’s 93-year-old grandmother has gotten used to my weird and obscure running tendencies over the years, so she thought nothing of it when I asked if I could leave my Vaporflys and Maurten at her house to retrieve in the morning. It sure beat hauling shoes and fuelling all across town on foot.

There's nothing like Strava to you keep in touch with your in-laws.

10. Chase segments during low-traffic times

If the COVID-19 lockdown brought one blessing, it was the reduction in traffic in its early months. Segment chasing at V02max pace is exponentially easier and safer when you don’t have to be aware of as many cars, cyclists, or pedestrians. Now that traffic looks closer to normal, I plan my segment workouts early on Friday and Sunday mornings, when there is much less traffic to contend with.

11. Be safe! You don’t win crowns from a hospital bed

This should really be the first rule of segment chasing. Don’t take unnecessary risks by charging through an intersection or crossing the road without yielding to traffic. As my university coach once said, “even if you have the right of way, you will never win a fight with a car.” Be sure to make it home in one piece to savour the serotonin squirt that comes with uploading your run.

Greg Wieczorek is a 39-year-old Chartered Professional Accountant living in Halifax.  His fastest race times are behind him, but he still enjoys logging the early morning miles. His eccentric quest for crowns started as a way to stay motivated throughout the pandemic, and ended with him running faster splits than he has in years. Now, he waits for races to come back to see if these 100 crowns translate to meaningful results.