On Saturday April 16, 2022, the 8th running of Niwot’s Challenge commenced. I ran it for the fourth time and finished for the third time.
What is Niwot’s Challenge? Niwot’s Challenge (aka “Niwot’s”) is a footrace inspired by the Barkley Marathons. Competitors must navigate an off-trail, bushwhacking, difficult, vert-intense course using map and compass alone. See the Official Course Website.
Fitness: I came into the race with some good fitness from a Dec-Feb training cycle, but I never got a chance to test that fitness. This being my fourth attempt, I was pretty confident with the navigation, even on sections I hadn’t seen in a couple years.
Navigation: During the leadup, I attended (and organized) booksettings to place the books and show the virgins the course. (This is a noticeable difference from other Barkley-style races, because training on-course is encouraged at Niwot’s.) I didn’t see every part of the course, but I definitely made sure I got out to difficult to navigate sections.
Gear: The last 3 attempts all saw some sort of gear failure (losing map and pages, ripping pants wide open, injuring my foot due to plastic bags), so this year I started from scratch and found the right gear for everything I needed. I contacted others who do this stuff; I watched Barkley documentaries; I tried multiples of everything. In the end, I found a setup that worked for me.
Stress: My stress levels were quite high in the week leading up to the race. I need to work on not letting race-day uncertainty interfere with my life.
Injuries: Unfortunately, I injured myself (pulled quad) the weekend prior to the race. It seemed to be healing, and I hoped it wouldn’t affect my race negatively. In addition, the nagging posterior tibialis injury was still causing discomfort, especially when hiking uphill hard.
Nutrition: I did an alcohol and caffeine cleanse for the 3 weeks leading up to the race.
Race Intentions: I wanted to go out relatively hard, hold the pace for as long as possible, and shoot for a sub-12 hour Burn loop (more than 2 hours faster than I did last year). Then, I would try to continue overnight at a good clip and and finish the 50-miler in under 24 hours. If both Brandt and I felt good enough to continue, I’d try to make the choice to attempt the deity.
As usual, I car-camped Friday night at the trailhead and enjoyed the company of other nitwits. I avoided drinking beers offered to me and went to bed around 9. I woke up, got dressed, and checked in; got number 6 (this is the page I must tear out of each book). I still had 5 minutes to spare after getting everything ready to go, so I zenned out in the car before heading to the bridge.
Sherpa lit the ceremonial pipe, and I started running. This surprised most of the others, but I wanted to set my intentions publicly. My buddy Nate ran faster to catch me, and we chugged along to the first turn. Unfortunately, I missed the new turn for the first book, but turned at the old location, and climbed to nab it. By then, two others who took the correct turn caught us.
This would set a precedent for my day: anytime I pushed hard, I would get careless and make a mistake. The next two books had new sections I had neglected to scout, so I relied on Brandt to guide us through. At the third book, people started sitting down, so I just left and took off down the hill. I looked up and realized I had forgotten which drainage to shoot for on the descent. By the time I had consulted my map, the others had caught me again.
Alex dropped back on the long climb to the fourth book, so it was just the three of us: Brandt, Nate, and I. They decided to take a scrambling “shortcut,” which cost them 5 minutes. I decided to stick to the main route and made it to book 5 ahead of them. I took a moment to down a burrito and decided to continue on my own ahead of the others.
I continued at a good clip until making another mistake climbing the wrong ridge to book 6. After I corrected, Brandt and Nate had caught me. At this point, I admitted that I wasn’t in the right headspace to do this alone, so I accepted the group for the day.
Despite our strong pace, we saw Justin (a Niwot’s virgin) before book 6, meaning he was on pace for 2 hours ahead of us! Incredible!
The next few hours weren’t too eventful. We stuck together and kept a good, but not hard, pace. We chatted with nitwits going the other direction. We kept stopping to a minimum, ate a lot, and generally had a good time.
We got back to the trail above book 14 at 5:49, so I booked it down to the trailhead trying to beat 12 hours. I crossed the bridge at 6:01! Just missed the 12 hour mark!
Justin had indeed finished in under 10 hours and was already out on the Chief’s loop. That put us in second and on good pace for 24-25 hours. I was happy with that. Obviously, Justin is in a different weight class. We refueled, took care of our feet, and packed our night gear. At 6:45, we headed out on the Chief’s loop.
Our group walked the road to the first turn into Chief’s, a sign of our collective waning energy. We hit the first climb, and I wasn’t keeping pace. My breathing had gotten quite labored. I panted my way up to the first book, where Brandt and Nate waited for me. Brandt asked me how I was. “Slow,” I said.
Darkness was coming, so we got out our lamps and hiked the road to the second book. My stomach was roiling after eating a burger in the aid station. Luckily, I wasn’t nauseous. We passed some turkey hunters and wished them luck.
As I climbed to the height of the road, I looked back across the valley to the first book location and thought I saw a headlamp. Perhaps someone was behind us after all. I caught up with the other two and we nabbed the second book.
Now the real challenge begins. Brandt has a supernatural feel for this gnarly descent so we just followed him following his nose. And again, the wizard guided us directly to the grass field next to the trail, 1000 feet below the second book.
We refilled water at the crossing and headed up into the power lines. This was the most testing section for me. Nate had started going quiet after book 2. Brandt had started getting tired when he wasn’t navigating. I, tired and slow, started getting sad and lonely and scared. I didn’t want to be here. I wanted to be in my bed. I never voiced it aloud, for fear of it being real, I simply told myself something that was told to me on my first Niwot’s Challenge: “Don’t worry about that right now.” It sounds so dumb, but it really helped me push aside the desires for comfort and home and just push through up the steep hills and through the thick scrub oak.
Eventually we made it to the other side. By this point, Brandt’s tight knee was getting tighter and he was slowing down. Nate’s stomach was slowly going sour. Energized by finishing the tough power lines section, I tried to keep our spirits up as we entered the Bermuda Triangle. We navigated slowly, watching our compasses and keeping the ridgeline. A couple times we realized we were slightly off and recalculated our position. Our compasses picked up a nearby ore deposit and got us turned around in the darkness. We climbed back to the high point and started off again in the right direction. Eventually we found ourselves on a southwest facing ridge, which is what we were looking for. But, it wasn’t the correct ridge. We analyzed the topo, found the ridge we were on, and corrected to the right ridge. Even then, we weren’t out of the woods just yet as finding the final turn eluded us in the dark. Finally, after (only) an hour, I walked right past the One Tree that held the fifth book. Brandt and Nate found it and called me back. We had navigated the Bermuda Triangle!
With the large navigational challenge complete, we calculated the time we had left and realized that we didn’t have much breathing room, given how uncertain we were about how long it would take to complete the 4 more climbs left. At this point, Nate couldn’t eat any more. We couldn’t stop for very long to rest; we had to keep moving. I led us over scrub oak hill, then Brandt took us down the other side. (I infamously messed this up two years ago.)
Trying to get Nate back into a better mood, I encouraged him to take the lead up to book six. We were both quickly stifled as Brandt took better lines that we followed. We nailed the descent and hiked down to the base of the climb to book seven. This is a new climb to me, and wow, it never ends. I pride myself on being a patient hiker and runner, not getting impatient at long climbs, but this one got to me. I wanted it to end so badly… and eventually it did, but not before 25 false summits. Brandt led us up, watching the compass to not go off the ridge. We got the book and headed down the drainage.
In the drainage off book seven, we saw two eyes watching us. Oh fuck. We quickly turned our lights on the mountain lion and started making noise. It decided to leave and disappeared into the night. All we heard was thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump as it bounded through the forest. Must have been a big cat.
We schwacked it down the choked drainage, making sure to keep close to one another after the mountain lion scare. Eventually, it ended and we started up another climb. I led us to the top. Luckily, this climb was shorter than the last. I got turned around at the top and started walking the wrong way. Brandt corrected me and we grabbed the eighth book.
Only one hellish descent and climb left. Time to go. Sunrise was starting as we descended into the drainage. We found the little “trail” (Imagine the biggest airquotes hand gesture around “trail”) that ran along the drainage for the middle third of the descent, which made our lives easier. Even along the “trail,” this drainage is choked and loose and wet. 1000 feet and 1.5 miles of willows in the face, feet slipping, downed trees left and right, and steep walls on either side. Honestly, this place should just be called “hell.”
We finally made it to the reservoir and grabbed the second to last book. Brandt’s leg had locked up, and he wasn’t sure how it would feel coming out. I offered some vitamin I, and he took it. I offered Nate a burrito for some real food on his stomach, but he couldn’t concieve of that working. We had made good time on the last few books and had plenty of time to make it out of this drainage.
I led us out of hell. I hiked patiently and consistently. Not much talking. I said to Brandt, I never want to go down this drainage ever again. Eventually, finally, somehow, we made it out. We chatted with some campers who were wondering what people were doing first thing in the morning on Easter hiking down a random drainage with no trails. /Shrug, we just went for a night bushwhack. Thats something normal people do, right?
One final climb left, and it was quickly over (or, at least quicker than the last climb). It was windy at the final book, so I didn’t hang out much. It was time to get this thing over with. We made the last few turns and found the trail. As we had done all night, we hiked it out. I was spent. Brandt’s leg was feeling better only thanks to drugs. Nate had probably said 15 words since midnight. But we hiked it out. And finished in 28:01.
Justin destroyed the course in less than 22 hours. Super impressive dude. Check out his race report.
Lauren was the one headlamp I saw starting the Chief’s loop a couple hours after us. I never saw her again, but she completed the course in 33:15, missing the cutoff for the race, but finishing in our hearts.
I’m happy with this result. I haven’t completed an overnight race in almost 2 years (since 2020 Niwot’s actually). This is absolutely the toughest course Niwot’s has ever had. I solved a lot of issues that I had last year and the year before, but there’s still more to solve. I think my training could use some tweaking, and I need to do full course runthroughs two weeks prior to the race.
I said to Brandt that I need to take a year off this race when we were hiking the power lines. But now, sitting here a few days later… not sure that’s going to happen.
- Burn time: 12:01
- Aid time: 0:44
- Chief’s time: 15:16
- Number of Niwot’s Challenge completions: 3
- Poops on course: 2
- Number of times actually considering quitting: 0
- Number of times actually considering the deity attempt: 0
- Nav mistakes: a lot
- Burritos ate: 5
- Oat milk lattes drank: 2
- Beers consumed before falling asleep at home: 0.5