San Francisco

Painting With Footsteps: Meet the San Francisco Runner Whose Workouts Draw GPS Masterpieces

His latest, a portrait of Frida Kahlo, has earned him an avalanche of attention from the farthest reaches of the internet

What to Know

  • Lenny Maughan has been a long distance runner since high school
  • In the earliest days of workout apps, Lenny experimented with drawing shapes on the map using his GPS tracks
  • Running art has become an international phenomenon, with communities on fitness platforms like Strava

In the hours before dawn, Lenny Maughan was among the thousands of runners packed in behind the starting line of the 2019 San Francisco Marathon.

"I never won anything, I never broke any records, but I just love running," he said.

Running 26.2 miles is a feat many spend months preparing to accomplish, but for Maughan, marathon-length runs through San Francisco are at least a monthly affair — often all by himself. The race courses, if you can call them that, are routes he maps out with a highlighter on a printed map of San Francisco, in the shape of everything from a treble clef to a hand holding chopsticks.

Maughan says it all started as an experiment. When using apps like MapMyRun and later Strava to track his workouts, he noticed his runs sometimes formed abstract shapes.

RunningArt frida run
Lenny says this 29-mile portrait of Frida Kahlo, recorded here in the Strava app, is his proudest work yet.

"Like a Rorschach test," he said. "I thought: What if I began with the end in mind?"

Maughan's first piece of "running art" was the Vulcan hand greeting from Star Trek, in memory of actor Leonard Nimoy, who played Spock on the original television series.

"I mapped it out, I ran it, and I pressed 'Finish' and whoa — there you go!" he said. "And I thought: I'm gonna do this again."

And he has: a total of 53 times and counting, about once a month. His latest, a 29-mile portrait of Frida Kahlo he shared on Strava, has gone viral, earning him recognition in magazines and all over Reddit.

Lenny Maughan says he likes to run San Francisco's most iconic features, including the piers on its waterfront and the crooked section of Lombard Street.

"It may be one of the most complex ones," he said. "It's probably the one I'm most proud of."

Maughan said the portrait of Kahlo was months in the making, including numerous sketches and a couple of failed attempts. Much like an Etch-A-Sketch, there's no eraser and no picking up the pencil when you make running art.

"If you look closely, if you zoom in, you'll see it's one continuous line," he said. "Including the lips, the eyes, the nose, and there's connectors connecting everything, but I put 'em in subtle places where it would work."

Maughan is among the elite in what's become a global phenomenon for some endurance athletes, whether on land or on water.

RunningArt lord vader
Strava users in other parts of the world have made detailed artwork on foot, bike and even watercraft, like this picture of Darth Vader created in British Columbia, Canada.

"Strava was created in 2009, and I think there are forms of Strava art dating all the way back to 2010," said Strava communications director Andrew Vontz.

Vontz said there's a Strava art community on the platform that includes fanciful drawings of animals and sci-fi characters made by cyclists, runners and kayakers around the world — including a Japanese relay team that hands off a single phone to paint portraits spanning 100 miles or more.

"They're not just creating a really cool form of artistic expression," he said. "They're inspiring people to get out there and do the activities that they love, or maybe even create Strava art themselves."

Maughan could easily be online royalty in a community of Strava artists, but said he prefers to do it solo.

RunningArt lenny running
Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area
Lenny's long-distance running art projects often take him through numerous neighborhoods, where he says he enjoys the sights, sounds and smells as he swiftly passes by.

"One thing that I wanted to do is to consciously not research this," he said. "Not look at what other people are doing, so that I can be as original as possible."

He said he avoids subjects that are controversial or political, and sticks to those that are whimsical and quintessentially San Franciscan. Routes that take him past scenic streets and landmarks are always a plus.

"What I love about running is I feel like I've taken a vacation through several different cultures," he said, "I could go through Chinatown, or North Beach, or the Mission and experience a totally different feel for the neighborhood just by running into it and passing through it."

And much like the San Francisco Marathon, Maughan said he doesn't run his masterpieces to finish them in record time.

"It doesn't have to be about getting to the finish line as soon as possible," he said. "It's about having fun along the way."

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