Burro racing may be the antithesis to Colorado’s sprawling suburbs and glitzy ski resorts. It requires grit, patience and a sense of adventure — just like life in the high mountains where it was born and the miners who inspired it. By Jen Dziuvenis
It’s a warm late summer day and my running partner and I are standing in the middle of Fairplay, Colorado’s dusty main drag. The thin air is thick with anticipation. I stretch my legs and check our equipment one last time. My teammate, a little grey donkey named Guinness, prances nervously, his enormous ears swiveling to absorb the strange sounds.
A shotgun fires and all hell breaks loose. It’s the Pack Burro Racing World Championships — and it begins, literally, with a bang.
Pack burro racing began in 1949 as a nod to Colorado’s mining history, and it’s been drawing small but committed fields of racers ever since. A handful of pack burro races take place each summer in Colorado’s central mountains, but the Triple Crown races — held on consecutive weekends in Fairplay, Leadville and Buena Vista — are the sport’s marquee events.
Burro races take human runners and their donkey teammates on rugged courses ranging from 5 to 29 miles in the high mountains. The rules are simple. Each burro must carry 33 pounds of traditional mining equipment, including a gold pan, pick, and shovel. You must never drop the rope connecting you to your animal. You may run with, drag or carry your burro, but your burro may never carry you.
If you think this is easy, you’ve never tried running a marathon while tethered to a 500-pound animal with sharp hooves and a reputation for being difficult.
So what draws people to such an endeavor? “It’s the wildness in the spirit of the sport.” says Hal Walter, a burro-racing veteran and seven-time world champion. “It’s the animals themselves, the backcounty where these races are held, and the opportunity to combine all of this with an endurance competition where you are a team with another living, breathing being.”
The Triple Crown races typically attract fields of around 50 teams. This doesn’t sound like a lot until you consider that the start of a burro race often turns into a stampede. Sometimes your donkey darts off the start line and you’re running faster than you ever thought possible, hanging on for dear life. That’s if you’re lucky. Sometimes your burro refuses to move, and your race is over before it began.
Burro racing is only partly about competition. It’s also about community and the spirit of the West. “What a crazy range of people we have, from creative types to executives and super fit athletes to casual participants,” Walter says. I think the most defining thing about the burro racing crowd is that most of us are very independent. We don’t run with the crowd — though we may run with the herd if it’s a herd of long-ears.”