ASHLAND — Trever Niestrath hurtles the 70-pound sandbag he's carried along a trail, then bursts into a quick quarter-mile run before dropping his bow and breaking into a series of pushups and jumps that send his heart rate through the roof.
Niestrath then grabs his bow and steadies his breathing before letting loose an arrow that hits the kill zone on a 3-D deer target 45 yards away. He immediately dashes off to the next station in this ultimate workout for bowhunting junkies looking to get the best out of themselves in the backwoods.
He does it all with a 70-pound pack on his back, because this is how champions train.
"It's almost disgusting, isn't it?" laughs Alistair Andre, one of a half-dozen workout partners during this Tuesday session at the Ashland Gun Club. "He's like the Energizer Bunny with a bow. He'd be dead tired but he won't stop going."
This combination of an archer's eye and dogged determination has catapulted Niestrath to the peak of a new outdoor niche sport that tests the mettle of bowhunters with extreme variations of the hunting challenges they face in the woods.
Welcome to the Train to Hunt Challenge, a biathlon for bowhunters. Niestrath is the national champion and poster boy for this new sport, which is gaining traction among woodsmen and women looking to get into elk-hunting shape year-round.
Niestrath won the second annual men's open challenge Aug. 1-2 at a course outside Denver.
"The hardest part is all mental, talking yourself into pushing harder, keeping going," says Niestrath, a 33-year-old Ashland native. "And when it comes to shooting, you have to catch your breath, focus and make a nice, steady shot."
The challenge is the brainchild of Kenton Clairmont, the former owner of a Spokane-area Crossfit gym who was frustrated by hunting clients who quit working out once hunting season ended.
"I figured I needed to give these guys something to train for in April, May and June and not just work out a month or two before hunting season," Clairmont says.
The challenges happen over two days, with the first day consisting of a series of physical challenges that imitate what bowhunters might find in the woods, such as running a shooting course, firing at targets from various positions in rapid succession and finishing with a mile run while carrying a 100-pound pack, which simulates a fast hike out of the woods to preserve freshly killed elk meat.
"Your best tool in hunting is your body," Niestrath says. "It's what you use to get in and out of the woods."
Some of the shots entail jumping up and getting off a kill shot in fewer than five seconds.
"Real-life situations can be shorter than that," Niestrath says. "But five seconds is enough to mess with your head."
The second day entails a series of shots around a charge up a mountain as if competitors are trying to get in front of a moving elk herd. The runs are timed, with seconds added or subtracted based on how good, or bad, the bow shots are.
Clairmont held his first competition in 2011 in Boise, eventually branching out to state competitions in Oregon and five other states.
Niestrath saw an ad for the Train to Hunt website in a bowhunting magazine last year, then trained for the state event and finished second, qualifying him for the first national competition but he did not compete. He finished second in this year's state competition, and this time decided to compete in the national event.
This year, he knew he needed to focus better on his shots, and he did, besting the crowd and showing Clairmont his package of being in great shape with a great eye can lead to great things.
"Two years in a row, he's flown under the radar," Clairmont says. "That's not going to happen anymore. He's so consistent and so tough that he's going to be the guy to beat for years to come."
The Oregon qualifying competition and the national challenge will be shown on The Sportsmen Channel at some point this year, and Clairmont hopes to add another half-dozen state qualifiers next year.
"Nothing ever happens as fast as you want it to, but I knew from the get-go this was a good idea," Clairmont says. "It's really starting to catch traction."
The local Train to Hunt crew is up to nine members now, alternating gym workouts with grueling runs up Grizzly Peak and Tuesday challenge sessions at the gun club.
"This all pays off in the long run," says Drew Baily, who at 50 is the crew's eldest. "It sure makes elk season easy."