On Saturday May 4, 2024, the 11th running of Niwot’s Challenge commenced. I ran it for the 6th consecutive year and accomplished my goal, which was to run a fast Burn loop, but not to complete the race.

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.

Race Preparedness and Intentions

At last year’s race, I made an agreement with John and Miguel that Brandt and I would man the aid station while they could run the race. So, coming into Niwot’s training season this year, I was never intending to run the race. In late March, at one of the book settings, John informed me that because of Todd’s injury, he would man the camp, and all four of us could run. Brandt was very excited, but I was less so. I was training hard for San Diego 100 in early June, and running a full Niwot’s would certainly throw a wrench into those plans. However, not running Niwot’s didn’t sit well with me, so I decided to make a compromise, I would run the Burn loop as fast as I could, but not continue onto Chiefs, so that I could participate in Niwot’s, but also train through the race.

I did attend a few book settings, but all were on the Chief’s Loop, so I would be doing the entire Burn loop based purely on memory, with no scouting this year. My goal would be to PR the Burn loop, which meant 12 hours or better, as 12:01 was my previous best.

Race Day

In the week leading up to the race, I was very stressed from work and training hard. It seemed quite overwhelming just to get down to the campground. Eventually, I got down to the campground and hung out with other nitwits preparing for the race. Weather was nice and some good laughs and conversations were had. I was still quite stressed, and I didn’t know how the next day would go. In fact, I didn’t even really know my mentality, whether I would take it easy because I was pretty spent or go for a fast time as I had previously intended.

There was a lot of talk in camp about the new river crossing we had to do right after the start. Lots of people were planning on crossing in sandals or boat shoes and changing on the other side. I went to bed undecided on how I would cross the river. When I woke, I just decided to be simple about it: cross in my race shoes (Speedland GS:PDX), which had drainage holes cut in the bottom. The morning went fine. I had everything packed ready to go. I just did all my normal things: coffee, eat, lube feet and other places, use the restroom, and eat some more.

We gathered for the race start at 5:55am. This year, Todd was starting us. When he picked up the weed pipe, ready to light it, signifying the start, I found myself fully ready to push myself through this loop. I was ready to run this at my best pace possible. It wasn’t until that moment that I decided to really go.

In the minute before we started, most people were milling around. But I was standing closest to the river, staring at Todd. Our eyes met. He later told me that I was the only one staring at him. Maybe it’s my Barkley experience affecting how I treat Niwot’s, but the race was about to start, and I wanted to be off as soon as it was.

The lighter touched the weed stuffed into the end of the pipe, and I was off, charging through the river. As soon as I was onto the other side, I was moving as best as I could, legs still very cold from the water. I never even looked back at everyone else. I would be alone for the next 12 hours.

Burn Loop (CW)

With the new start location farther South than the previously, the clockwise loop started with the contouring (i.e. side-hilling) section. I took a slight optimization up to the course route, and I was off. I was feeling very good and was even jogging some uphills, which is pretty unusual for Niwots. I navigated cleanly to the Key West book, which gave me a bit of a boost in confidence, as I hadn’t found a book on Burn all year until now.

I headed up Cougar Canyon, just trying to keep moving forward. Moving up this drainage (or down it for that matter) is an exercise in making a decision and ignoring the other options. You are constantly trying to make a decision that allows clean brush-less travel and constantly being wrong. You just have to accept that sometimes and keep moving forward. Eventually, I made it through, and aimed my climb up the mountain for the saddle. I took a bearing to the saddle and held it for the first 500 feet or so. I then found myself in rockier terrain than expected. Having been here before, I knew that I must be too far to the right, so I angled left and eventually found the correct chute to climb. I summited the chute, took the lower trail over to the summit, grabbed my second book, and returned via the high trail to the chute.

Here I saw Lauren and Kevin summiting the chute themselves, meaning I was 15 or so minutes ahead of them. I had expected to see Brandt or Nate as well, but clearly they were a bit more behind. I ran down through Quantum Rock Gulch and down to the Attic, off the Attic to Drew’s Neighborhood. I took a slightly wrong line off the Attic (more East than North), but noticed it quickly and adjusted easily. I kept running down to Chicken Wire Rock, grabbed my fourth book page, then after a bite to eat, kept the running up all the way down to the creek.

It was starting to get hot. I thought about filling water here, but decided to keep moving, up to the next peak. It was a long hot climb, and I was slowing down now. After what seemed like an eternity, I finally made the saddle and grabbed my sixth book. I was on Burn North now, probably about half way through the loop, and still no one from the other direction. I made my way down to and around the rock outcropping, taking my favorite (also fastest) high and left line around it. I hit the road and tried to keep the speed as I jogged down it.

I turned off to the rock formation and my next ook, taking the line around the rocks instead of scrambling up them,a s I think the timing is similar and I don’t know the scramble as well. After grabbing the book, I headed up to the top of the nearby peak and started down the Chair Rocks Express. It was really hot now, but luckily I was heading downhill, keeping my speed up.

I finally saw two runners in the opposite direction, Carlo and Joseph. I said hi and kept running downhill. After I finished CRE and then up and over the small summit, then down the gulch with no name and a lot of deadfall to quitter’s creek, apparently two other runners saw me from somewhere, but I never was clear on where they saw me from. I filled a 500ml filter bottle with some After I got up the Yucca Farm climb (it was super hot!) and headed up to Never Never Land, I saw Miguel and Nicci on the way.

I made Never Never Land fine, crossed it, and chose what I thought was the correct gulch. Spoilers: it wasn’t. I had inklings that this was incorrect pretty early in the gulch, but kept moving. It was harder than the correct gulch. I got to a confluence (that Aaron and Greg also got to in his Burn attempt a week earlier). It had the right directionality of the creeks, but it wasn’t gnarly enough to be the confluence with the book in it. I took out my map (for the first time) and found I was in the drainage to the North, paralleling the correct drainage (with the motorbike in it). Luckily the book was at the end of the drainage I was in, so I continued until I got to the next confluence and snagged the book.

The bottom of Ramona Gulch is super gnarly, so I fought the scrub oak, steep walls, and willows in my face to ascend out of the drainage and around the waterfall. I was moving kinda slow, but moving at this point. After getting around cliffs, I lost the direction, but I knew that if I aimed off left, I’d find the ridge that used to be in the route and I knew how to take that to the CT.

Once I reached the CT, I started running. I was out of water in my bladder and only had a sip of electrolyte mixed juice left. The water filter on my 500ml bottle was a little clogged too. So that meant I had six more books to get, and I would only have a partially clogged filter bottle to get water from. I was already on the border of heat exhaustion. It was going to be rough. But all I could do was keep moving. I ran as well as I could down to the Teepee climb, climbed up and grabbed the book, descended down all the way to the creek.

Fully out of water, but not wanting to stop, I traversed the creek to the Bone Valley book location before stopping and getting water. I drank a full bottle at the creek, filled another, got my hat and armsleeves wet, and started up the first of the three stooges. I was rejuvenated and climbed well.

The three stooges are well known for their difficult navigation, as you have to nail three steep (but not long) descents, one after another, with book hiding locations that are not obvious. I hadn’t trained on the course in this direction in over a year and my brain was starting to work less optimally from the heat exhaustion. At the top, I still hadn’t checked my time all day, but I started to use my shadow and wondered what time it was (2? 3?). How much time did I have to finish in my goal?

The first stooge descent, I turned off early twice, eventually ending up high in the drainage. I descended to the confluence where the book should be and found the lone aspen tree, with teh book hiding on a nearby tree. The next climb is super steep, and I was not doing well. I had to stop for breaks multiple times. Finally making the top, I actually found the correct descent (over the ridge crest at first, then off left down the scree to the book).

Only two books left now… My brain’s ability to think was diminishing. Up the last stooge, climbing slowly. I had to ration water at this stage, only 150ml left. Down the other side. There’s water in this creek, refill, but don’t stop. One climb left. Up up up, try not to stop. Finally up to the point, second to last book done. Now, just a bit of climbing left. Down from the point. Up the rocky ridge. One rock outcropping, two, three, four, and five. Now just cross the top of a drainage and drop into the one on the other side…

Then I’m there and I’m dropping in. It looks right enough, but I can’t think too hard right now. At the bottom, I can’t find the black wall with the book. I go up the drainage, then down. I’m panicking now. I can’t survive long term in my state. I consider taking out my phone, which would disqualify me. But before that, I get my head together, I sit down and take out my map. Where did I go wrong? Then I realize, I needed to find six rock outcroppings before crossing! I cut the course line and I’m in the wrong drainage. I’ve got to climb out and up and then drop in the next one. I double check. Yes, just climb and you’ll be done soon Jon. I climb out. Where should I drop in? Where am I in the drainage? Above or below the book? I must be below, given I cut the course to the East. I decide to just drop in there and climb up inside the drainage so I don’t miss the book.

I dropped into the drainage and start climbing. All sorts of terrible thoughts are going through my head right now. What if I never find the book? What if my fix was wrong? Am I in the right drainage? Finally I see a promising drainage off to the right, but no book. This is the sucker drainage. The book should be a half mile up from here. Keep climbing. There it is! I think… yes! The last book is in sight. I set my poles aside, grab my last page, and breath the largest sigh of relief. All downhill from here.

This whole run, I’ve avoided looking at the time… until now. I finally pull out my phone and look at the time: 5:23, or 11:23 into the race. I’m going to make sub-12! My 12:01 from two years ago will be beat. I run as best I can down the drainage. It takes longer than I expected, but finally I see the camp, and I stomp right into the deep river. Across and I’m finally done!

Todd didn’t even write down my time when I got across. I had to remind him to take it down. Officially 11:35.

I was really bad off at this point. It took me a couple hours to return to normal. I couldn’t even hold a conversation or eat anything substantial. But, after a few bowls of broth and a couple seltzers, I felt better.

Personal Thoughts

Honestly, I’m pretty happy with the effort. I really left it all out there. It was great heat training for SD100 and my memory was pretty good, minus the big mistake. It could have been closer to 11 without the heat exhaustion and major mistake on the final book, but we’ll have to see that next year. Maybe next time I go for the Deity, I can use this experience to get off a great start.

Other Runners

Five runners came in after me and left on the Chiefs Loop:

  • Kevin and Lauren came in about an hour after me, stayed 45m in camp, then left off on the Chiefs loop. Lauren seemed stronger, but I was confident in Kevin.
  • Joseph and Carlo finished Burn 25m later, with Carlo stopping there and Joseph spending 40 or so minutes in camp before leaving with Mike as a pacer.
  • Nate and Brandt came in 30 minutes later. The normally stout Brandt was visibly shaken from a difficult mental loop. He wasn’t sure if he would leave on Chiefs. I hoped he would make the decision to go, if only to keep his streak up (pretty sure he’s never not started Chiefs loop since it’s inception 8 years ago). He eventually decided to go and both of them started off on Chiefs an hour after Kevin and Lauren.
  • Another runner, Laura finished Burn with her brother later and wanted to go out on Chiefs but couldn’t find a partner and didn’t feel confident in a solo attempt, so she never left, much to her chagrin.
  • Miguel and Nicci finished Burn very late in the evening, around 1am. I’m glad they got it done.
  • Everyone else failed to finish Burn and hiked or hitched their way back to camp.

Of the five (six with Mike as a pacer) out on Chiefs, all but one came back early. They apparently grouped up somewhere around the power lines as Brandt and Nate showed their impressive climbing speed. Kevin got separated on the final power line climb, and in his tiredness, lost the power lines above, found himself off the course. After wandering for a while, he finally found his way up, but too much time had been wasted, and he made his way back to camp. I think he hitched, but I’m not sure cause I was out running when he got back to camp.

Joseph and Mike returned around 9am, having dropped after the Middle Finger book, and taken a ride back to camp. Brandt and Nate soon followed, also dropping at the same book. Apparently they felt the increased difficulty of the Chiefs loop and the waning clock reached a breaking point, and they decided to call it a few books short.

Camp eagerly awaited Lauren’s return. Two years ago, she finished the course three hours over time. This year, it would be closer. Brandt and Nate and Joseph told stories of how she disappeared at Bear Creek, strongly hiking ahead of the group. Would she finish in time?

At 11:25, everyone staring down the road, we spotted her running along the road. She had done it! Lauren is the sole finisher of Niwot’s Challenge in 2024, and is our newest Chief. She sat down and started bawling. She had pushed so hard to finish! And so John gave her a Chiefs name: Chief Many Tears. Her performance was very impressive on such a difficult course.