Niwot's Challenge 2023 Race Report
On Saturday May 6, 2022, the 10th running of Niwot’s Challenge commenced. I ran it for the 5th consecutive year and finished for the fourth 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: After running the Barkley Marathons two months ago, I basically relaxed into a maintenance cycle, recouping some mental energy while trying to maintain the excellent fitness I had achieved.
Navigation: This being my fifth time at Niwots, I have intimate knowledge of the course. It didn’t change at all this year, so all I did in preparation is go out on the course enough to see (almost) all the book locations and routes.
Gear: I used pretty much the same gear as I did for Barkley. (Note to self: write about my Barkley/Niwot’s gear.) I did switch up my shoes at the last minute and go with the new Speedland GS:TAMs. They aren’t really built for this kind of race, but they are very comfortable, and I figured what the heck. They ended up holding up well. The drawback was that they aren’t tight enough around the midfoot for sidehilling, but I overcame that difficulty easily enough.
Stress: I really, really tried to not stress about Niwots this year, and I was successful in that. Low expectations coming in always helps me.
Injuries: My ankles were a bit tight and bothersome since I rolled them in the lead-up to Barkley and re-rolled about a month before Niwot’s. So I finally decided to try Leukotape to strengthen my bad ankle against a possible roll. My PT had previously suggested it, and one time I met Max King, who also does this. Here’s a link to Max explaining how to tape your ankle. Incredibly, this worked super well, and I’ll be doing it for every long technical run I do.
Nutrition: In the week leading up to the race, I kept coffee to ~10oz a day and only had one alcoholic beverage in the week. I learned from my failed nutrition at Barkley and adapted into many varied and easy-to-eat snacks totaling ~3000 calories per lap. In addition to my usual allotment of Spring Energy Awesome Sauce and Wolf Packs, I included gouda cheese cubes, plantain chips (very calorically dense!), Oreos, and Twix bars.
Race Intentions: My intentions for this race were simple: have fun. After all the stress of Barkley, I didn’t want any big stressors this year. So even after I decided to run Niwots, it wasn’t with any pressure. In the back of my mind, I was considering (and prepared for) an attempt at the 100-mile version of Niwot’s (the “Deity” loops), but that was not a primary intention.
Day Before: I prepared most of my gear Wednesday evening and shopped for food Friday morning. For as many logistics as Niwot’s requires, I was quite lackadaisical compared to most races. I drove down after work and attended the new Cinco de Mayo pre-Niwot’s taco party. I even did a half shot of tequila (Remember, fun is the intention!). I went to bed at 8:30, sleepy from half an edible I took to make sure I slept well.
Ritual: Niwot’s always starts with the drawing of lots to see which direction you will run. This year, Sherpa threw in a curveball and sent a quarter of the field into the Chief’s Loop first (which is normally reserved as the second loop). I drew Burn clockwise (along with the other two strongest runners, Brandt Ketterrer and Wesley Sandoval). I didn’t care much for which way I went, so I traded with some eager Nitwits who wanted that direction. I ended up going Burn counter-clockwise.
Burn Loop (CCW)
Sherpa lit the new mushroom-laden ceremonial pipe, and 12 runners took off: 3 on Chiefs, 4 on Burn counter-clockwise, and 5 on Burn clockwise. I led the Burn-destined pack out at a slow jog. Last year, I sprinted up the first hill. This year, I set the pace nice and easy and made sure to tell everyone good luck and have fun before we split off onto our respective looped directions.
Through the first few books, I moved efficiently and didn’t stop much. Abram Balloga and the brothers Jordan and Andrew Veal kept pace with me. Every time we arrived at a book, it seemed that they wanted to stop and take a break. I just kept on moving. Efficiency is key at Niwots. Then they would pack up quick and hurry and catch up. I didn’t want to be rude, but I also wanted to run my own race. It was still pretty early, and I like to move as efficiently as possible. So I would keep moving and they would keep up with me. This kept going for a while.
As we left book 2, there was a question of which drainage at a small confluence to ascend. I went to take out my map and realized it wasn’t in my pocket. Somehow, I had lost my map already. Luckily, I know the Burn loop inside and out, and just decided to trust my instincts the rest of the loop. We chose the correct drainage and continued through Never Never Land perfectly.
We reached book 5 where two Chiefs (i.e. Niwot’s 50-miler past finishers), JC and Justin, met us with beers and snacks at the summit book. This is the first time we’ve had an aid station on the race! It was awesome to see and chat with them. As my intention was to have fun, I even drank most of a beer, although I did know it wasn’t a good idea. After a short break we headed out.
As we were crossing the burn scar (which takes like an hour+), it was getting really hot. We refilled water in the creek and kept going. I was navigating in the lead, and Abram and the Veals were following. It was around here last year that I accepted traveling with Brandt and Nate instead of trying to drop them. And similarly this year, I accepted that my efficient movement was not going to drop Abram and the Veals.
After grabbing book 7 (out of 14), we saw 4 runners from the clockwise direction. It was about 5:45 into the race. After seeing the results from the burn loop, I think it’s safe to say that this point (in the lowest point on the saddle ridge between the Attic and the ridge to Quantum Rock Gulch) is the halfway mark of Burn. Which means both teams were about on a 11:30 pace, which would be the fastest Burn loops run by people not named Justin Swantek.
As we dropped off the mountain from book 8, I slipped on a loose rock and fell hard on my outside thigh. I took a moment to recover; evaluated the damage. I had hit my adductor/quad/hamstring pretty hard, but it wasn’t structurally damaged (i.e. tendon, joint or bone). It hurt to hike on, but there’s nothing to do about that now. If I had hit my knee or hip though, I coulda been hurt bad. Just lucky this time I guess.
Abram and the Veals filled water again in the long road to Key West (book 9). I just grabbed a quick liter in my soft flask. Later, I would regret not filling my bladder. Movement had slowed due to heat, but that was OK. I developed a new beta since I walked past book 9 last year. This time, I made sure to notice the small waterfall in the creek, just 100 yards upstream from the book. I found the book easily using this method.
We moved through the contouring section towards book 10 seemingly well. As we arrived in the book 10 drainage, I noticed the drainage was too narrow. According to my previous knowledge of this drainage, narrowing meant being too high. So I started descending. Here, Jordan Veal pointed out that the topography matches the creek below the book more than above the book. At first, I believed him. I didn’t have a map on me to double check. I thought our nav to book 10 was really good, so I didn’t think we were that far from the book anyway. We hiked up the drainage and came to a difficult traversal section. I started getting worried. Abram hiked over the steep wall to see if the drainage widened out any around the corner. I was talking with Jordan. As the minutes ticked by, I started getting a bit antsy. I told Jordan, “I just gotta trust my instincts, and they’re telling me we’re too high.” (This goes back to just two months ago at Barkley when I didn’t trust my instincts over two other people’s decisions and regretted it. I didn’t want to make the same mistake again.) I was about to walk down when word from Abram came back that the drainge was wide and looked reasonable. I wasn’t convinced, but I decided it was worth a look.
I hiked up over the steep wall between us and Abram’s scouting and sure enough, the drainage widened out and the creek went underground. I recognized the piles of dead trees the forest service had gathered in a fuel reduction effort. This was starting to look like the drainage to book 10. Sure enough a few minutes later, I spotted the black rocks where the book hides. Book 10 is a known difficult navigation on the counter-clockwise loop, so I’m not upset that I messed up the nav. I’m more upset that my intuition pointed me in the wrong direction to fix my mistake. But, I now know more about what that drainage looks like way way way below the book. All in all, we lost about 45 minutes on the book.
I was convinced this threw away a chance at a good Burn time, but it didn’t stress me (because a good time wasn’t my goal for the race). I just kept moving. The next few books weren’t a problem to navigate to. But, my legs and lungs were starting to be affected by the heat. My climbing speed was slowing. Even though I felt slow, Andrew and Jordan dropped back on the last big-ish climb, and I didn’t see them again til camp.
As Abram and I climbed the last pitch, I told him if he wanted to continue to the Chiefs Loop, I’d go with him. Most people are scared of navigating their first Chiefs loop alone at night. I knew Abram wanted to go onto Chiefs. I also knew that I could probably travel through Chiefs slightly faster without him. But, on the other hand, I would have a lower chance of mistakes with another person around. I checked in with my intention and decided to play tour guide on Chiefs tonight.
We arrived at 6:27 into camp. I was surprised that even with our 40+ minute mistake, we finished at 12:27. Brandt and the clockwise group had finished just before 12 hours after taking an extended break at the book 5 aid station (which they arrived to exhausted from the heat). The Chiefs loop 1 group had yet to arrive back.
On Burn, I had drank almost 6 liters of water, plus most of a beer (which didn’t help lol). It was so hot! I felt really zapped and had lower lung capacity than normal on the last few climbs.
I told Abram 15-20 minutes, then we’re out. Brandt was heading out with Wesley. He decided to wait the 15 minutes for us to make the group a foursome and reduce the possibility of mistakes. I quickly took care of my needs and left 21 minutes after I had arrived. (Much better than my 90 minute interloopal at Barkley!)
While we were discussing leaving on Chiefs Loop, Brandt asked me what time I’d like to leave on a possible third loop (Deity attempt). I told him 27 hours, and he agreed. I’ve never actually finished the Chiefs Loop before 27 hours, but in my mind, I needed those 15 hours to make the cutoff to leave on loop 4 at 42 hours.
I caught up with Brandt and Wesley on the road. Abram caught up with us. I wasn’t sure if Abram and I would be able to hang with them. Brandt said we’d hit the first climb and see. We hit the turnoff onto the trail. By the time we hit the first real climb, Brandt and Wesley were so far ahead, we couldn’t see them. So it was just Abram and I.
I was still feeling wrecked from the Burn loop. But luckily, Abram and I seemed similarly paced. I was hoping that the latte and burger I had at the aid would kick in soon. But, in reality, I had to wait for my body to recover from the heat of the day. We chilled all the way up to book A and around to book B. Neither of us was in a rush, and I had promised Abram I’d stay with him.
Aside: Chief’s books are labeled by letters because one year I complained to Sherpa that calling Chief’s Loops books “Book 14” and “Book 15” didn’t make sense because changing the number of books on the Burn loop would affect the numbering of books on Chiefs. He decided to change it to letters just to mess with our heads.
After Chiefs book B, things get real, and my navigation would be tested. Our descent from Book B was excellent. We nailed the trail. We didn’t even run down the trail between B and C. Our ascent to book C along the power line climb got off course a bit. It cost us a few minutes to find our way back to the power line cut.
The rest of the power line climb continued in the same manner, as we kept losing the cut and having to reset back to the cut. I estimate we lost 15-30 minutes wandering around finding the right sized scrub oak patches. At one point, we stood at a high point, about 45 minutes from finishing the power lines, and we could see the headlamps of Brandt and Wes at the end of the section. They had gained nearly an hour on us in just 4 books.
Finally we got to the end of the power lines. We couldn’t take too long of a break, as I would start getting cold. So we walked down into the Bermuda Triangle, munching on some food. We call this area the Triangle because people always get lost here. And some people tell stories of their compasses getting messed up by iron deposits.
We took the triangle slowly, but methodically. I had my (replacement) map out and was tracing my finger along it as the ridge snaked left and right. Eventually, we reached the end. Abram took the lead here, as he zenned his way directly to the correct turnoff ridge. We followed this ridge as it snaked left and right. Finally we came to the last ridge split we had to navigate. Abram wasn’t sure if it was right. I didn’t think so either. We decided to continue down the main ridge for a bit longer. We kind of wandered a bit, but eventually I noticed where the ridge ended, found the turnoff going the correct direction, and called Abram over to confirm. It was right, and we nailed Book E. Halfway done on Chiefs.
(Unbeknownst to us, Brandt and Wes were hopelessly lost on this section. So lost in fact, we didn’t see or hear them at all. We thought they had rolled through hours before.)
The descent from the dead tree that Book E is hidden in is quite tricky as well. We had some trouble measuring our bearing. But eventually corrected to the right bearing and found ourselves on a good looking ridge. Abram quickly realized that this was not in fact the correct ridge, and the one in question was slightly to our right. I didn’t know for sure, but figured all the ridges here are OK, just some are better than others. Everything dumps out onto a trail and we can reset any mistakes later. Turns out he was right though and we nailed the descent. I even mistook the tree that points to the turnoff ridge, and Abram found the correct one.
We hit the trail, ate some food, and took off over scrub oak hill. God that hill is terrible. We forced our way through, found the ridge leading north off the west end, and turned down the cacti-laden face toward the creek and the trail. A few years ago, I had led a group (with Wes in it ironically) way off course here. I made sure not to make the same mistake again.
Our descent was pretty good and we nailed the right spot at the creek. Abram took a while to filter water. I filled up a couple bottles and waited for him. When he was done, I made sure to check in with him. I learned this was his first full ultramarathon, and he did not have any experience on overnights after being out all day. I decided to start acting like a pacer towards him. I made sure he ate, gave him some advice (“Eating is your job now; it’s not for pleasure.”). I personally took a caffeine pill and some advil to propel me through the night. When we were ready, we headed up to book F.
The next few books went well. Navigation was accurate. Movement was slow but efficient. I made sure Abram was eating enough. I made sure I was eating enough. We nailed book F, jogged down to the trail, and climbed to book G. Descending from G, I made sure to talk a lot with Abram. Last year we had encountered a large animal here, and I didn’t want another run-in. We filtered some water at the creek, then climbed to book H.
We arrived at book H around 5:30 in the morning. Light would come soon. My headlamp batteries were running out, but it wasn’t an issue now. We finally headed down the dreaded drainage to book I: “Hell and back.” I had expected this to take about an hour to descend. But we found it dry and manageable. I found that the “trail” on the left of the drainage even reached most of the way to the reservoir. We made it down in 30 minutes. Wow!
I had reached the book first. Abram was a few minutes behind. As he was taking time to get ready, I started up the drainage back out. But, after a few minutes, I realized I didn’t want to leave him behind, so I waited for him to catch up.
After he caught up and we had started up the drainage, I saw Brandt and Wes coming down. I was flabbergasted! They must be on loop 3! That’s so fast! They would be at least 3 hours ahead of us! It was here I learned of their unfortunate time in the Bermuda Triangle. Brandt told me he didn’t intend on continuing to the deity attempt. We left them to continue down in, probably 20-30 minutes ahead of them.
After what seemed like not as much time as it should have, we made our way out of the Hell drainage. We casually started hiking the ridge system up to the high point of the Chiefs loop and the final book, Book J. After that, we just had the long deadfall-laden descent to the trail. We walked. As we reached the trail, I told Abram we were jogging down the 1500 foot descent. It was 24 switchbacks to camp. I counted them aloud and jogged ahead. Abram ran the whole trail descent.
As we climbed to book J and descended to camp, thoughts of the deity loop filled my head.
Would I continue? It was past my personal cutoff time of 27 hours. But then again, we were about to complete a Chiefs loop of 14:something. Perhaps I could do that again. Brandt had said he wasn’t going to go out. Did I want to go out by myself? I did kind of. But mostly, I wanted to have fun. Perhaps loop 3 would be more fun than loop 2? But it doesn’t seem that way right now. What if I didn’t finish in time to leave on loop 4? All I really want right now is some pizza and to see my wife. If I leave on loop 3, I won’t be around to see the other finishers finish. I don’t know…
When I arrived at camp, I saw my wife had surprised me by driving out to see me finish. Immediately, this answered the questions in my head. I would quit here and hang out at camp. Physically, I knew I could continue. But today wasn’t about pushing my limits; it was about having fun. My friend Kevin was still out on course, and I wanted to see him finish. My wife had driven all the way here to see me. I didn’t want to go leave her.
Chillness. Niwots this year really wasn’t a big deal. I didn’t stress out about it. I didn’t put a ton of pressure on myself. I scouted the course 3 times for a total of less than 30 hours out on course (that’s low for me lol). And race day became less of a big deal. It was just me and the woods I know very well.
Happiness. I’m happy that I completed Niwot’s in PR time. I’m also happy that I know I could have done it faster. I’m happy that I navigated very well. There’s a lot to be proud of from this attempt.
Regret. I do feel regret about not continuing on the deity attempt. I certainly could have left by 27:40 and had another 14:20 to get back to camp to leave on Burn. I regret the lost glory of the day.
Frustration at Regret. I’m frustrated that I regret not continuing. I did such a good job on that Niwots that I’m frustrated at my psyche for not just being happy at a run well done.
Satisfaction. Overall, I have to be satisfied. My goal was to have fun and I did that. My fitness showed through and things are looking up for future attempts.
- Burn time: 12:27
- Aid time: 0:21
- Chief’s time: 14:22
- Number of times actually considering quitting: many
- Number of times actually considering the deity attempt: many
- Nav mistakes: one major, a few minor
- Number of Niwot’s Challenge 50-miler completions: 4
- Mylar baloons collected on Race Day: 6
- Ratio of first-time finishers who have been guided by me in the last 4 years: 5 out of 6
Addendum: How does Barkley compare to Niwots?
I get this question a lot. So here’s my answer:
- Time: I believe Barkley’s cutoffs are harder than Niwot’s cutoffs. I can imagine finishing Niwots, whereas finishing Barkley seems a nigh impossibility to me.
- Course: Barkley is more vert (13k per loop compared to Niwot’s 10k). But Niwot’s brush is much harder than the Barkley course I ran. For the most part, Barkley sticks to ridges and trails, whereas Niwots forces you down into some awful willow-chocked drainages and scrub oak patches 10 feet high.
- Navigation: Niwots is 45+ unique miles, where Barkley is just 20-25 unique miles. This means you have to learn more to be good at Niwots navigation. I found book locations at Barkley to be mostly clear, whereas book locations at Niwots can be less clear sometimes (although not a problem if you attend book settings).
- Community: The community of Barkley is full of people intensely pushing themselves trying to get to that elusive finish. This has the advantage of helping push you to your limits. Niwots, on the other hand, is small and local and has a more relaxed feel with everyone helping others out, which is the main reasons I fell in love with the race.
- Format: Niwots allows and encourages scouting on the course. This is forbidden at Barkley, which makes Barkley much much harder.
- Overall: With the more difficult cutoffs and limited pre-race scouting, Barkley is definitely harder to finish. But, Niwot’s course beat me and my body up more than Barkley and takes a similar time to complete similar distances, so it’s not easy.
In conclusion, they are both very difficult races.
I have now guided five of the six first-time finishers to their finish in the last four years. I am truly one of Niwots’ ambassadors. If anyone reading this wishes to push their limits and find out what the meaning of toughness is, please apply to the race next year. Feel free to contact me, I’d be happy to bring you into the fold.
Next year, Sherpa and Miguel are going to run it. Brandt and I will man the aid station. It will be a fun role-reversal. (And give me a one-year break from a winter training cycle!)