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This article originally appeared in the July, 2017 issue of Trail Runner magazine.
When David TenEyck’s donkey fell ill in 1996, days before Leadville, Colorado’s Boom Days Pack Burro Race, he borrowed one named Dakota. He knew Dakota had a tendency to make spontaneous right turns, but was confident in his donkey-racing abilities.
True to his reputation, almost immediately after the gun, Dakota made a hard right turn, dragging TenEyck into a dusty, darkly lit saloon.
“The two [patrons] at the bar took one look at us, put out their cigarettes, set down their beers and pushed away from the bar,” says Ten Eyck. “All I could think to say was, ‘This was his idea.’”
TenEyck slowly coaxed the reluctant donkey back through the saloon doors and out onto the main street. Moments later, Dakota dragged TenEyck off course again, trotting between two houses into a backyard barbecue. TenEyck took several minutes to get the burro back between the houses, struggling while the partygoers watched in silence. By the time the pair got back on course, TenEyck realized they were sitting squarely in last place.
TenEyck decided to change his approach. “I realized I was pushing the burro too hard,” he says. “I decided to take what he would give me for the rest of the race.”
Over the course of the next 20 miles, the pair slowly picked off 18 teams and finished third. TenEyck had learned the lesson every pack-burro racer learns: No matter what you think, the burro is in charge.
Seriously, This Is a Thing
Pack-burro racing harkens back to 19th-century silver-mining days, when prospectors loaded their donkeys with tools and hiked through the Rocky Mountains in search of silver and gold. Legend has it two miners struck gold in the same spot and raced back to town to make their claim. Hence, the sport of pack-burro racing was born.
Colorado is the only place in the world that offers pack-burro racing, and, in 2012, the Western Pack Burro Ass-ociation (burro racers can’t get enough of ass puns) and a group of community members petitioned to have the sport officially recognized. Pack-burro racing is now the Summer State Heritage Sport of Colorado, and its history is even required curriculum in certain counties in Colorado.
Today the pack-burro-racing series constitutes seven events in seven towns. And it’s growing. “Until recently, we were lucky to have 20 to 40 teams [human and quadruped make a team] show up for a race,” says Brad Wann, 46, of Highlands Ranch, Colorado, who coordinates media relations for WPBA. “Last year, we had 69 for one race!”
Burros are notoriously stubborn and make for predictably unpredictable races, yet core racers enjoy the challenge and the relationship they develop with their four-legged partners. And the rules of burro racing are as quirky as the people and animals that participate. Each burro must be equipped with a regulation packsaddle loaded with prospector’s paraphernalia including a pick, shovel and gold pan.
The burro’s nose crossing the finish line constitutes the winner, regardless of where the runner is. Racers are tethered to the burro with a 15-foot rope, and they may push, pull, drag or carry the burro; however the runner can never ride the burro.
Get Ready for an Ass Kicking
The pack-burro-racing series takes place spring through fall in Colorado’s high country. Races, which range four miles to 29 miles, begin in the town center and head out into the high country via pavement, Jeep roads and singletrack trails. Many gain significant elevation over technical, exposed terrain.
In addition to the vertical gain and altitude, racers can get kicked, dragged and tangled in the lead rope. “Some very good runners grab a donkey and they don’t win. They get really frustrated,” says Richard Emond, president of the Western Pack Burro Association. “It’s very different [from normal trail races].”
Wrote the late Curtis Imrie (see Making Tracks, page 14), on the Western Pack Burro Association website, “Over time, one develops cues and a body language to manage the animal … It’s this odd dance of hazing, tapping and cajoling the critter down race courses that makes our sport semi-comical yet very athletic.”
Three races in the series make up the “Triple Crown” of pack-burro racing: The World Championship race in Fairplay (29 miles, July 30, 2017), the Boom Days race in Leadville (21 miles or 15 miles, August 6, 2017) and Buena Vista Gold Rush Days race in Buena Vista (14 miles, August 13, 2017).
Think You Have What It Takes? Participate in a Burro Race!
Historic Georgetown Railroad and Mining Days Pack-Burro Race
Where: Georgetown, CO
Distance: 8-9 miles
Vertical gain: 240 feet
Creede Donkey Dash
Where: Creede, CO
Distance: 10 miles
Vertical gain: 1,800 feet
Idaho Springs TommyKnockers Mining Days Festival and Pack-Burro Race
Where: Idaho Springs, CO
Distance: 4-6 miles
Vertical gain: 909 feet
World Championship Pack-Burro Race—Burro Days
Where: Fairplay, CO
Distance: 29 miles or 15 miles
Vertical gain: 3,232 feet
Boom Days Pack-Burro Race
Where: Leadville, CO
Distance: 21 miles or 15 miles
Vertical gain: 3,038 feet
Buena Vista Gold Rush Days
Where: Buena Vista, CO
Distance: 13 miles
Vertical gain: 700 feet
Victor Burro Racing Gold Rush Challenge
Where: Victor, CO
Distance: 12 miles
Vertical gain: 1,600 feet