In early August, just before the first faculty meeting of the new school year, I went to Leadville for one last training weekend. With the Leadville 100 two weeks away, this was a final chance to do a Hope Pass double crossing before tapering. On Saturday, I returned, sweaty and exhilarated, from twenty mountain miles in the late afternoon to a downtown filled with fiddle music and gun fighters. Time travel? Post-run hallucinations because of oxygen deprivation? Neither. As I found out, Leadville celebrates its Boom Days every August. I stayed at the hostel, which is a) cheap and b) lots of fun, because you get to meet such an interesting mix of people. The conversation around the communal dining room table that evening soon shifted to the Burro races, scheduled for Sunday as the final highlight of Boom Day festivities. I learned that pack burro racing is the Colorado State Sport, like “Red or green?” is the NewMexico State question. It involves running with an ass in tow on mountain trails, for distances between 10 and 30 miles. The rules are specific: burros (not mules, not ponies – asses only!) must wear a pack saddle with 33 pounds of mining gear, including a pick, shovel, and gold pan. Runner and burro must work as a team and cross the finish line together. Runners may push, pull, drag, or carry their ass, but can’t ride it.
Katy, an ultra runner from Sydney, Australia, found this particularly fascinating. She had heard that Burro Racing is not a strictly BYOB sport. She said it might be possible to rent a burro at the last minute and was planning to mosey over there in the morning to investigate. I was curious. I am a cowgirl at heart and used to train horses for a living, but had never worked with a donkey.
Intrigued though I was, I planned to leave by noon at the latest. I am, after all, a responsible middle-aged adult with a teaching job and a faculty meeting scheduled for 8 a.m. Monday morning at a school six hours away. I would, of course, resist any temptation to run a burro race all day, then drive back to New Mexico really late. No way. I kept telling myself this as Katy and I walked the few blocks to the pack saddle weigh-in on Harrison street at 8 a.m. Sunday morning, she to look for a rent-a-burro and I just to check things out. Really.
Downtown Leadville was teeming with burros of all colors and sizes, tied to horse trailers, trees, and lamp posts. The ratio of cowboy hats to sun visors, like that of cowboy boots to running shoes, was about 50/50. Regardless of their outfits, most humans were busy with brushes, hoof picks, ropes and packs. Donkeys were braying, pawing, circling. Two silver grey burros caught my eye. They stood like islands in a storm, while a grey-haired man and a boy who looked about twelve fed them hay and brushed their sleek coats. I complimented the man on the excellent condition of his animals, and their calm demeanor. I patted the donkeys, who turned out to be a nine-year old brother-sister pair named SilverJack and Bella, clearly the pride and joy of their owner, who is named “Maple, like the tree.” He couldn’t run today because of an injury, but his friend Nathalie was going to race Silver Jack. I mentioned my background in the horse world, then expressed my interest in Burro racing. Maple looked at me thoughtfully.
“No one is running with Bella today. Would you like to?”
He didn’t know, couldn’t know, that he had just offered the equivalent of a whiskey shot to a recovering horse-a-holic. I bit back the enthusiastic “Yes!” that wanted to escape my lips. What was I thinking? The race didn’t start until 11 a.m. and would easily go on until late afternoon, depending on the burro’s mood. I am a responsible middle-aged teacher. I wanted to get home in time to have dinner with my husband, and to get ready for the new school year.
” I would love to, but I can’t. I have to be at work in the morning.”
Maple’s grandson looked disappointed. So did Maple.
“Well, we’re going to find some breakfast. You think about it.”
Bella, tied to a fence post, munched on some grass. I stroked her exquisite ears. I scratched her neck. She nudged me, which I took to mean “Come on, run with me!” I walked down the block to the cardboard table that served as burro race headquarters, where Katy was signing up for the 15-mile women’s race. She had found a burro. Her excitement felt contagious. Before I knew it, there was a pen in my hand and a registration form in front of me. Forty dollars and a signature later, Bella and I were signed up as team number 19. The whole process had taken about five minutes.
Maple looked pleased, though not surprised. He introduced me to Nathalie, and we proceeded to saddle our race partners. Silver Jack and Bella are inseparable, so our strategy was to keep the four of us together and moving at a steady pace. Maple expertly tied our numbers and all our gear securely to the saddle, then it was time to line up on Harrison street.
The starting gun (true to the Boom Day spirit it was an actual gun) went off at 11:15. Twenty-five women and their cute asses took off down Harrison Street at breakneck speed. Bella and Silver Jack were excited. They trotted so fast we could barely keep up. We turned onto a dirt road and headed up into the mountains. Nathalie showed me how to use an energetic burro for more efficient uphill running: loop the lead rope around your waist, and allow the donkey to pull you. Silver Jack is a great racing burro: he likes being in the lead, and he gets competitive with other animals. He was feeling fresh, and Bella likes to follow him, so we kept running, and we kept passing other runners whose asses showed less enthusiasm.
Burro racing can be frustrating for speedy runners because you will only be as fast as your ass wants to go. If the burro decides to slow down, so will you. A good donkey-human relationship is crucial for success. Yelling, crying, pulling, dragging, or excessive pushing will do no good. Burros have strong personalities. You might be able to intimidate a horse or a dog into running, but never a donkey. The more pressure you apply, the more resistance you create. I have a similar pattern in responding to authority, which makes me appreciate this character trait.
Horse people have a saying: “You tell a gelding, you ask a stallion, you discuss it with a mare.” As a horse trainer, I have always gotten along with difficult mares, and with mules. They have taught me patience, and persistence – useful skills in a burro race. Nathalie, silver Jack, Bella and I were holding our own somewhere in the middle of the pack.
That changed once we could see no more burros in front of us, or behind us. Silver Jack lost his drive. He slowed to a walk. We tried to persuade him to trot. No success. Nathalie hugged him. I pushed from the back. We told him what a good boy he was. We told him there’d be lots of carrots at the finish. We begged. We pleaded. I pleaded with Bella to show some initiative. She did not see the point. We shuffled for a bit, then walked again. Bella went ahead for about ten feet at a time, then stopped to let her brother pass her until he stopped again. We kept moving slowly in this leapfrog fashion for several miles, until a group of runners and their burros we had passed earlier caught up to us on the narrow trail around Bald Mountain. Silver Jack pricked up his ears. His ambition returned. We stayed ahead of the pack and soon pulled away, but woman named Kiki and her adorable miniature burro Jacob stayed with us. Jacob, like Bella, prefers following other burros, much to Kiki’s disappointment. She tried to break away from us, but Jacob would have none of it, so we continued on together.
When we came to a wooden bridge across a river, Silver Jack refused to cross it. Donkeys are prey animals. They have evolved to be cautious. It’s impossible to blame them for it, but while trying to convince our two scaredy-asses that the bridge was safe and solid, we lost the lead we had built. The group behind us caught up again. Horses and donkeys are pack animals. The instinct to follow one another will override everything else, including fear. Lucky for us, one of the donkeys was brave enough to step on the bridge. The others, including Silver Jack and Bella, soon joined him.
Once they had crossed the scary contraption, Silver Jack and Bella realized they were moving toward home. They, and we, started running again, with Jacob and Kiki close behind us but further and further ahead of their buddies from the bridge episode. On the long downhill stretch back into Leadville, we had to tell Silver Jack and Bella to slow down so we could keep up. Little Jacob, measuring about 38 inches at the withers, followed at an all-out gallop with Kiki in tow. The six of us turned onto Harrison street, where cheers and cow bells welcomed us across the finish line. Silver jack, Bella, and Jacob placed 5th, 6th, and 7th respectively. Not bad, not bad at all in a competitive field of 25-plus. Maple and his grandson were beaming. We hugged our donkeys, and each other. What a way to end the summer!
I made it to the Monday morning meeting, unprepared and very tired but still basking in the burro race afterglow. This experience was so worth every minute of the grueling drive home. As a horsewoman and ultra runner, pack burro racing is my new favorite sport. It allows me to indulge in my two passions simultaneously. What a beautiful day it was! Thank you, Maple, for your generous offer to share your donkeys. Thank you, Nathalie, for the crash course in burro racing etiquette and a fun day out on the trails. Thank you, Bella, for being such a trooper out on that mountain. I feel so very grateful to have met all of you, and hope sincerely it wasn’t the last time.