The Best Place Online Is a Race within the Middle of Denver’s Airport

It was 2 am at Denver International Airport, and Jared Murphy was only a few hours into a planned 17-hour layover. His options at this quiet hour, in the expansive halls of the concourse, were pretty much nil. There would be no nibbling on ahi tartare at the Crú Food & Wine Bar for at least another seven hours, and the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory’s signature caramel apples had long since been cached for the night.

Some may have looked upon this overnight interval as a welter of halogen-lit misery. But Murphy, a competitive runner since high school, was an avid user of the exercise app Strava, and frequently checked the app while traveling to see where locals liked to run. In particular, he looked for segments: user-generated pathways, often with notable features—a particularly hairy climb, for instance—where you can compete to have the best time and be crowned king or queen of the mountain.

Sitting in Terminal B, Murphy opened up Strava on his phone and searched for a segment at the airport. “Sure enough,” he recalls, the map showed a few of the telltale orange icons.

Even better: He was stoked to find a segment right where he was. It was called “Gate Change Gnar,” a straightaway sprint of nearly 500 feet past the aforementioned fine-dining options and eight gates. Murphy could see the current record holder had a time of 22 seconds. Respectable, but not blindingly fast. Of course, the nation’s third-busiest airport is normally full of shuffling travelers; sprinting carries a significant risk of a high-speed pileup with some frazzled traveler towing a rollaboard the size of an Airstream.

But given the hour—and that it was June 2020—Murphy was literally the only person in all of Terminal B. “I can’t resist a good segment when it’s there,” he says. Even though he was taking some time off with a lingering calf injury, he headed to the starting line.

Strava serves as a communal hub for more than 100 million users. About 250 of them have run Gate Change Gnar. It started as part of someone’s “airport walk” on October 10, 2012, a leisurely 86-second stroll. The leaderboard has gotten faster since then. Now someone gives the segment a go every few days. The chance to win king of the mountain makes Strava a handy conduit for an athlete’s amphetaminic energy output—even in the unlikeliest circumstances.

That night in the dark Denver terminal, Murphy, who happened to be wearing a pair of Hokas at the time, claimed the course record in 19 seconds. Then he bagged a couple of others before heading to the couches in Terminal A for some sleep.

Tyler Swartz is another Strava user who tackled the gnar. He’s the founder of Endorphins Running, a startup that organizes group runs in a handful of American cities. During a March snowstorm, at about 9:30 in the evening, he sprinted the segment half a dozen times after he missed a connecting flight. It was impromptu entertainment for an otherwise grumpy crowd. “I was high-fiving people,” he says. “There were little kids running with me. Some people recognized me from TikTok.” He has more than 43,000 followers. An Instagram reel of his sprints has 380,000 views.