Toughest Race In The West? Welcome To ‘Niwot’s Challenge’

Ultra runners know about the Barkley Marathons, a near-impossible event through Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee. A new race in Colorado offers a mountainous version of the Barkley, including far-flung checkpoints and off-trail travel stretching for miles through the day and night.

Mountain Runner

It’s called Niwot’s Challenge, and the organizers tout the event as a “very difficult, grass-roots ultramarathon in Colorado’s Front Range” that’s “NOT a run for beginners or whiners.”

You use a map and compass to traverse 50 miles and nearly 17,000 feet of elevation gain. No GPS is allowed on the course.

Founded in 2013, the instructions for completing the course are simple: “Each racer navigates to books at specified locations, shown on the map, and tears out a page corresponding to your bib number arriving at a book. To finish you need 14 book pages, for the 14 books on course.”

The books are a nod to the Barkley, which invented the system of check-ins back in 1986.

Map of Niwot's Challenge course
Map of Niwot’s Challenge course

This year, the event was held on May 7th, its start and finish area at Indian Creek Trailhead, west of Sedalia, Colo. GearJunkie correspondent Erik Sanders toed the start line to give Niwot’s a try, and the experienced runner and adventure racer ended up setting a new course record. This is his race report.


Niwot’s Challenge Ultra Mountain Race

6 a.m….click…click. I look over to see the race director with a pipe like something you would see from Bilbo Baggins, lighting a bowl. Yep, that’s how this went down, another nod to Barkley, which starts when the race director lights a cigarette. Well, this is Colorado. OK, let’s go!

I bolt off the line with my fellow racer friends Ryan and Katie, with whom I’d run much of the course. Within the first 15 minutes our feet are soaking wet and we have our first navigation test leaving the trail.

The field immediately splits up, as some stare at their maps, in wonder. Leading the race early on, we get to the summit of Bennett Mountain, rip the necessary page out and continue on bushwhacking down a densely vegetated creek.

racer in mountain run
The author shoots a mid-race selfie on the run

Splashing, jumping over, under, around logs, sticks and thicket. We make quick work of the first couple books and are feeling great, making only a minor navigation mistake costing about 15 minutes. Small potatoes in a 30-hour navigation race in this terrain.

We bag a couple more peaks on our way to book four when the trail dead ends and leaves us to the business. A peak, 3 km off in the distance, there is a trail on the ridge going exactly where we need, but it is off limits due to the race rules.

Mountain Peaks As Checkpoints

A sadistic ploy to try and break you mentally. Instead the prescribed route is a forced gauntlet of gnarly sharp and thick scrub oak, going up and over a number of descending ridge lines. We put our heads down and rage through the dense scrub oak averaging only about 1.5 km/hr.

The weather is deteriorating with the impending storm moving in. We cannot even see the peak as everything around gets lost in a foggy mist.

The slog is exhausting but we reach Book four in high spirits. And we’ll need that high energy for the long awaited South Platte River crossing.

racers who did not finish the event
Non-finishers are forced to hold a sign of shame

At the current river stage is a serious swim across swift moving water (and the race director recommended against it). Splashing in, the water is frigid, probably just over 45 degrees. Adrenaline flowing, BREATHE, I yell as we are wheezing from the shock of the water.

Reaching shore, we scamper quickly on, trying to build heat. Soon we are thousands of feet above the Waterton reservoir, until — Rumble, Boom, Crack! — a thunderstorm spraying sleet with high winds makes us shiver and suffer on the most exposed part of the course.

We collect books five, six, seven, and eight, moving quickly to keep what little heat we have left. Finally reaching the safety of the aid station at mile 22.

From here, only a marathon is left! Feeling fatigued but with ample will power, we press on.

Sleepmonsters, Strange Songs

More trail / off-trail mix, up mountains, down mountains… Our minds get tired and I start loudly signing any song that pops into my head: “And we can’t stop… and we won’t stop! Can’t you see it’s me who owns the night…” Uhhh, yep that’s Miley Cyrus. Things get interesting out there when fatigued, moving for hours on end, and you’re left in the dark woods climbing yet another mountain.

Grinding it out, our legs are deteriorating, so fatigued, every part of my body is telling me to rest, stop. But only one more long bushwhack and we will be on a trail to the finish – come on, we got this!

The last miles take so long but we manage to hold off a couple people hot on our heels trying to chase us down. Running the final road, my Tacoma comes into view – we won The Niwot’s Challenge!

In previous years only two other competitors finished the full course, proving to its difficulty. Ryan rallied hard and we ended up finishing in the same time, and a new course record of 22 hours, 59 minutes. Katie eventually finished as well and became the first woman finisher that Niwot’s has seen so far. We’re already talking about next year.

–Niwot’s Challenge is organized by Human Potential Race Series (HPRS) based out of Colorado and run by John “Sherpa” Lacroix. See the HPRS site for info on next year’s find-a-book mountain challenge.

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