Pack burro racing is not about the fastest burro, or the fastest human. It’s about the team – and, really, mostly about the burro.
“A burro race starts in the pasture,” said Brad Wann, spokesman for the Western Pack Burro Association and a burro owner and racer. “Trust is important with burros; they need to know you.
“You’ve got to train with that donkey and have a relationship with your ass.”
The animals are interchangeably called burros, donkeys or asses, with plenty of wordplay on the latter. But hey, if you run up to 29 miles and over 13,000-foot mountain passes with a burro, you’re probably entitled to a few silly puns.
For those unfamiliar with Colorado’s Summer Heritage Sport, so-designated by the state Legislature in 2012, here are the basics: The burro carries a 33-pound pack that includes a miner’s pick, shovel and pan, and the human part of the team runs alongside (or sometimes in front or behind the burro, depending on how things are going), holding a lead rope. No riding is allowed. And that 33 pounds, by the way, doesn’t include water for the run because it must weigh at least 33 pounds when you return to the finish line.
This summer, spectators can catch one of eight races around the state, with the season beginning May 26 in Georgetown and concluding Sept. 15 in Frederick – a new race on the circuit. Often, the races are part of larger town heritage celebrations, but even if it’s just the race, onlookers have plenty of opportunities to hear about mining and burro lore and explore the areas where the races are held. Many aficionados of the sport hike to watch the race from their favorite scenic overlooks.
The courses range from about 5 miles (great for beginners) to the granddaddy of them all – a 29-mile ultra-marathon and world championship race in Fairplay. That’s also the first leg of the Triple Crown, which includes a 21-mile course in Leadville and a 13-mile course in Buena Vista. The Fairplay and Leadville long-course races include the 13,185-foot summit of Mosquito Pass, which sit between them on a rugged trail road; both towns offer shorter 15-mile courses as well.
Colorado’s sportThis year marks the 70th anniversary of pack burro racing, which began in 1949 with a race from Leadville to Fairplay. The races celebrate the state’s mining heritage, and burro racing is the only sport indigenous to Colorado, Wann said.
Some of that history will be on display during Fairplay’s 70th annual Burro Days, July 27-29, where a tiny house museum will showcase pack burro racing, said Shelley Hall, the WPBA historian and a burro racer. Burro Days draws thousands of people and culminates with the pack burro race on Sunday.
After the burros take off at 10:30 a.m., spectators at the starting line have about 5½ hours to take in other Burro Days events, sightsee and grab lunch, before the teams return to the finish line. You’ll have less time during the shorter races – the winner of last year’s 10-mile race in Creede finished in 1:37:23 – but there’s time before and after to take in other activities at each of the locales.
Creede joined the circuit in 2017, and will have its second event this year, said Erin Yurkinas, co-director of this year’s Donkey Dash on June 9. Last year was Creede’s 125th anniversary and the town wanted some special events for the celebration.
“It’s so much fun and people loved it,” she said. “So, we wanted to do it again.”
Wann said the WPBA is happy to add races around the state and keep the races smaller.
“It’s good to have smaller venues for people to work up to the 29-mile race,” he said, noting that the bigger races are getting crowded, and the WPBA might someday have to consider capping registrations. The association has tried to keep things simple with race-day registration, but that leaves some uncertainty in the number of racers.
Human, burro dynamicsThe sport’s popularity is increasing, and he said he expects more than 70 teams to race in Fairplay this year. More racers are coming from other states, he said, and much of the attraction is because of the burros.
“What’s enticing about the sport is you’re not running by yourself,” he said. “And the dynamics between the human and the burro are important.”
Racers range in age from their 20s to their 70s, including some who remember when many of the racers were miners. Women have competed since 1951 and have taken the Triple Crown championship more than a few times.
Some racers own their burro and others rent them, working with WPBA burro matchmaker Amber Wann. Those who don’t own burros usually try to spend some time hiking or running with them, but some have only a few hours before a race to get to know their animal partner.
Hall, the association historian, has been racing since 2004 and rents her burros.
“That means I have to travel to hike and train with donkeys,” she said, noting that she’d spent a recent afternoon hiking near Buena Vista with a burro. But that’s not really a hardship, she said, because she loves the animals.
“Oh, the donkeys,” she said when asked what attracts her to burro racing. “They are so full of personality. I don’t run for the love of running, I run for them.”
Hooked on racingMany of the burros are adopted through the Bureau of Land Management, and racers who want to own a burro are encouraged to adopt from the BLM.
When Dave Edwards, 67, of Monte Vista adopted his burro last April, he had never heard of burro racing. He likes to camp in the backcountry and was looking for a pack animal to carry equipment. About a month after he adopted Taz, he struck up a conversation with a couple from South Fork who suggested he try racing.
The nearby town of Creede was sponsoring its first pack burro race on June 10, so he checked it out.
“I thought, this is fun. I’ve got to do this,” he said. The next race was a 6-mile course in Idaho Springs on July 23, and Edwards was there.
“I didn’t know what my little guy would do,” he said. “But he took off like a shot.”
Edwards said he’s run all his life and enjoys hiking and horseback riding in the wilderness around his ranch, but burro racing “takes the starch out of you.” Still, after the first race, he was hooked. He did the remaining four races in 2017, and plans to do most, if not all, of this year’s races.
He and Taz travel to the venue the day before a race and camp near the course so Taz can relax after several hours in the trailer. Taz, he says, could probably be a champion if he had a faster human partner.
“When we go to a race, that’s the only time he brays,” Edwards said. “And when they shoot that gun, he’s just gone. It’s harder to get him to run around here.”
‘As fun as it looks’Jack Lohmann of Frisco also started burro racing last year at age 66 – doing all seven races, including the long courses at Fairplay and Leadville. But he had long known about the sport.
“I’d been watching burro races since I was a kid,” he said, explaining that his family owned property in Frisco and he spent many a summer exploring old mining towns and the high country. He retired to Frisco in 2012 and took notice of the diversity of runners in the burro races. He was a longtime jogger and enjoyed hiking.
“I thought, maybe I could do this,” he said. “So, I talked to some of the runners, and I said, ‘Yeah, I can do this.’”
He arranged to rent a burro for the 2017 races and participated in a few fun runs to get the hang of things.
“I did all of them last year, that was my goal,” he said. “That’s my goal again this year.
“It’s been a hoot. It’s a very good group of people.”
He ran with Doc, a burro from the Laughing Valley Ranch in Idaho Springs. Initially, Lohmann thought he’d run the shorter courses at Fairplay and Leadville, but after the first couple of races, he decided to do the long courses, and he’s glad he did. His favorite was the Fairplay race.
“It’s as fun as it looks,” he said. “I’d encourage anyone interested to give it a try. You don’t really run. You jog about half the time and fast walk the other half. Somewhere, there’s a race for you.”
Sue McMillin, a longtime journalist and former city editor at The Durango Herald, is a freelance writer and editor living in Victor, Colorado.