From Hauling Asses, Competitor Magazine - http://www.competitor-digital.com
By Brian Mezler
It's been described as a cross between a wild west rodeo, a NASCAR event and a trail running race, but the quirky sportive of pack burro racing is much simpler than that, says veteran racer Curtis Imrie.
"It's a bunch of bull-goose loony athletes running around in the mountains having a good time," says Imrie, a gentleman rancher from Buena Vista, cool., and three-time winner of the World Championship Burro Race that's been held in Colorado for 64 years. "Pack burro racing is serious racing, but it's also about keeping alive the traditions of the old west."
The concept of pack burro racing tends to draw an inquisitive cock-eyed glance in mid-conversation, no matter how easily it rolls of the tongue. That's partly because it only exists on the rugged trails of high-altitude Colorado mountain towns.
The only sport indigenous to Colorado, pack burro racing has it's roots in hard rock mining of the 19th century, a time when donkeys played a key role in hauling ore cars out of mines and carrying prospectors' gear.
As legend would have it, the sport started as a bar bet between two grizzled donkey-toting miners, but the official inception of the sport dates back to 1949. That's when Melville Sutton won $500 for being the first to wrangle his burro 23 miles from the mining hub of Leadville, up and over 13,187-foot Mosquito Pass to the remote outpost of Fairplay. All other finishers reportedly received a case of beer from the bartender at the Hand Hotel.
Nowadays, runners young and old team up with burros and run races that range in length from four to 29 miles. [Some racers own their own steeds, others borrow one from Imrie or Western Pack Burro Racing Association President Bill Lee.] As a way to pay homage to the mining heritage, competitors must pack their burros with a packsaddle and a pick, pan and shovel.
In some sections, donkeys will run faster than seven-minute mile pace, but in others runners have to pull and push to get their burro moving at all. The only rules are that you cannot ride or abuse your donkey in any way.
There are still modest cash prizes put up by the host town, but Lee also offers up locally brewed root beers to finishers.
Imrie and Lee, both in their 60's, are a few of the quirky characters who have not only kept the sport alive over the past 30-plus years, but also helped it thrive by attracting a new generation of competitors for what's known as the triple crown of Pack Burro Racing - a three-race series in Buena Vista, Colo., Leadville and Fairplay.
There's also movement afoot to make it the state's official summer sport.
"Once people see it, they want to try it," says Brad Wann, who has been racing for four years and who coaxed his wife and children into the sport. "And once you do a race, there's a good chance you want to do another. People fall in love with it."
Longtime runner and pig rancher John Vincent stumbled upon a race in a small mining town 10 years ago. Now he has a few burros on his 25-acre ranch, including Crazy Horse, with whom he's won several races. To prep for the season, he starts training with Crazy Horse in late winter, running a couple of times a week between six and 15 miles, while also adding intervals.
"It's not about how fast you are as a runner or how fast your burro is," says Vincent, 54. "It's truly a team race. You've got to figure out how to work with your animal. I'm not a great runner, but I have a great burro that allows me to compete with some of the best burro racers."