It’s nearly golden hour at Carolyn Holmberg Preserve, an urban oasis at the northern edge of Broomfield, Colorado, as Amber Wann gives a group of runners her safety spiel. Tonight’s route is fairly simple, she says, a three-mile jaunt through dry prairie grasses surrounding scenic Stearns Lake. The first leg of the stunning out-and-back heads westward toward Boulder with the shadowy outline of the Rocky Mountains on the horizon.

Just don’t let your ass drag you, she warns.

“That’s why we don’t tie the donkey to us, because you can trip and fall, and they will drag you if they hear your body fall,” Wann says. She and her husband, Brad Wann, have brought 13 animals from their Redonkulous Ranch Sanctuary & Rescue in Highlands Ranch, about 40 miles south, to pair with humans for the early evening run. “If they hear you dragging, they will run faster.”

Tim Scaturro leads his burro Charlie
Tim Scaturro leads his burro Charlie around some water in the road as the duo head towards Mosquito Pass during Fairplay's 2019 race. Helen H. Richardson/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

A self-professed donkey matchmaker, Wann recruits runners through her private Facebook group “Colorado Burro Rentals ~ Runners and Training Ops” to attend year-round outings along Colorado’s Front Range. Open to anyone interested in hitting the trail with a donkey, participants need only fill out an online questionnaire ahead of a scheduled run and she’ll show up with the right burro. The rental fee amounts to roughly $20 per person to cover transportation.

Sensing restlessness in the group, Wann wraps up with some running tips, like staying on the burro’s left side for consistency and making sure to look forward instead of turning around in “a tug of war.”

“That’s about it,” she says before dismissing the athletes, many of them in training for the quintessentially Coloradan high-altitude endurance sport of pack burro racing, now approaching its 75th season.

The origins of pack burro racing

The state’s official summer heritage sport since 2012, pack burro racing first began in 1949 with the World Championship Pack Burro Race, running from Leadville (about 100 miles southwest of Denver) to Fairplay. The original competition featured a grueling 23-mile trek over Mosquito Pass (elevation 13,185 feet) between the two towns, a nod to the route miners and their surefooted pack animals used to access some of the area’s most remote mines before the Denver, South Park & Pacific Railroad, or “South Park Line,” was built in the 1870s.

The contest harks back to mining days when prospectors and their burros raced back to the town courthouse to stake a legal claim for gold, silver and other precious metals ahead of their competitors. Race organizers from the Fairplay Chamber of Commerce and other civic organizations hoped it would kick-start their local economies, says Leadville resident and retired racer Dave TenEyck, which were slowed by a post-World War II mining decline.

“They were trying to figure out a way to get tourists, so they invented this race,” TenEyck adds.

The inaugural event drew 21 teams of two runners: one human and one donkey. The human held a lead rope no more than 15 feet long connected to the donkey’s halter, and the donkey wore a pack saddle loaded with 33 pounds of traditional mining gear, including a pick, gold pan and shovel. Current rules still require prospector’s paraphernalia be stored in the pack saddle but without the weight requirement, allowing real or faux tools. Riding the burro is never permitted.

Pack burro with pick, gold pan and shovel
Current rules still require prospector’s paraphernalia, like a pick, gold pan and shovel, be stored in the burro's pack saddle. Helen H. Richardson/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Only eight teams completed the 1949 race, including first-place finishers Melville Sutton and his partner, Whitey, who won a coveted $500 prize (roughly $6,500 today) by finishing in 5 hours, 10 minutes and 41.2 seconds, or about 4.4 miles per hour. The race’s popularity continued to grow in the following years, nearly doubling by 1955 to 40 entrants. Race organizers followed the same format for two decades, alternating start and end points for most years until 1970, when Leadville hosted its first separate event.

“Whoever had the finish line of the race got all the tourists,” TenEyck says. “And that’s when Fairplay and Leadville started their own races.”

The state of the sport

Today, Colorado boasts a Triple Crown of pack burro racing, consisting of annual races in Fairplay, Leadville and Buena Vista, covering about 63 miles in all. The state offers ten total races from Memorial Day weekend through September. Several other states have hosted their own races since the 1950s and ’60s, primarily California, Arizona and New Mexico. But Nevada, Massachusetts, Tennessee and even France have also gotten in the game.

Runners 16 years or older can race with their own donkey or a rented one from organizations like Redonkulous Ranch, as well as other providers listed on the Western Pack Burro Ass-ociation’s website. (Season rentals total around $100 to $150.) Scientifically named Equus asinus, the “ass” comes in three sizes, all of them allowed to race: mammoth, standard and miniature. In 2019, Buttercup became the first miniature burro to claim the Triple Crown, alongside her human, Marvin Sandoval, an achievement they repeated in 2020.

Marvin Sandoval and his miniature burro Buttercup
Marvin Sandoval and his miniature burro Buttercup get ready to win Fairplay's race in 2019. Helen H. Richardson/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

There are all types of racers, Wann says, from first-timers and “bucket listers” to seasoned duos like 2022 Triple Crown winners Tracy Laughlin and her burro Mary Margaret. (The pair also won this season’s first race on May 25 in Georgetown, Colorado, running about 9 miles at a clip of 7.5 miles per hour for a finishing time of 1 hour, 12 minutes and 26 seconds.) Athletes can enter just one race or several each season, like Roland Brodeur, who runs a dozen races with buddy Tin Cup, an eager runner who thrills at inching ever closer to the front of the pack.

Interest in pack burro racing is on the rise, particularly in the years since the Covid-19 pandemic began in 2020, says Brodeur, volunteer media contact for the Western Pack Burro Ass-ociation, an organization that preserves the sport’s history, serves as an industry resource and ensures humane treatment of the animals. Some events, like the May 4 race in Cerrillos, New Mexico, draw 70 teams; Triple Crown races can reach 120.

“It’s certainly a sport that’s still growing,” Brodeur says, adding that women make up 60 to 70 percent of participants. “Social media is a huge influence on some of that, and I believe a big part of it is runners are looking for the next ‘thing.’ To do those courses by yourself is challenging, and then to pair it with a donkey is just absurd.”

The Triple Crown series starts in Fairplay during Burro Days, happening July 26-28 this year. The three-day festival featuring a parade, food vendors, live entertainment and an outhouse race celebrates all things pack burro. The aim, and race motto, is to “Get Yur Ass Up the Pass,” whether it be on the 15-mile “lower altitude” short course or the 29-mile long course to the top of Mosquito Pass. The ultramarathon route delivers a punishing 3,200-foot elevation change.

The second race follows a week later in Leadville. Hosted the first weekend in August, the three-day Leadville Boom Days includes a car show and themed parade, pie-eating contests, mining-skills competitions, and more than 100 craft and food booths. Sunday’s race also offers a short or long course: a 15-mile loop around Ball Mountain, or a 21-mile route following four-wheel-drive roads to the summit of Mosquito Pass, with some 3,000 feet of climbing.

A third race was added in 1978 to Gold Rush Days, the signature Old West celebration of Buena Vista, 40 miles southwest of Fairplay. The two-day celebration, held the second weekend in August, offers live music; historic re-enactments; toilet-seat races (in which participants sit on wheeled toilet seats propelling themselves only by a plunger held in each hand); and a 13-mile pack burro race along a variety of terrain, from pavement to bridges, single-track trails and jeep roads.

1980 pack burro race
A runner urges her running mate to jump a stream during a 1980 race. Denver Post via Getty Images

Running with a donkey takes skill

It’s possible to show up for a competition without any prior training, but managing a donkey while running isn’t exactly easy.

“It’s like patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time,” Wann says. “My donkeys know what they’re doing on the trail, but it still requires the person to have skills.”

Capable of carrying 20 to 30 percent of their body weight over treacherous terrain, donkeys enjoy having a job, TenEyck says. The challenge lies in convincing the animal to race.

“When you work with them and they understand that what you’re trying to get them to do is not going to kill them, they actually develop a likeness for racing,” he says. “And they will work really hard for you if they think that you’re worth working for.”

The sport requires handling animals known for their extreme caution, often mistaken for stubbornness or a lack of intelligence. Training ahead of race day is key.

“It’s a partnership between a human and a burro, and the burro has veto power,” says TenEyck, who has served for 15 years on the volunteer planning committee for Leadville Boom Days and boasts 26 years of “hauling ass.” “Getting an animal noted for its lack of cooperation to run in the right direction for 21 miles is quite a skill.”

Wann’s runner meet-ups are the perfect training ground for racers to learn how to work with, not against, their donkeys. Yelling is discouraged, she says, and abusing the animal (punching, kicking, etc.) will result in disqualification. The Western Pack Burro Ass-ociation does allow gentle swats with the lead rope applied “only as hard as you would on yourself.”

The training runs are also ideal for educating the public about pack burro racing.

“This is not like a rodeo where we are riding the animals,” Wann says. “It’s about a relationship with the animal. We’re not asking them to do anything that we’re not willing to do on our own feet as well.”

Occasionally she’ll hear a passer-by on the trail saying, “Oh, poor donkey!”

“And I say, ‘This is actually healthy for the animal. It’s keeping them fit and helping their mind, because they do like a change of scenery,’” she says.

George Zack shares a carrot with his burro Jack
George Zack shares a carrot with his burro Jack after completing Fairplay's race in 2019. Helen H. Richardson/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Running is the primary mechanism she and her husband use to rehabilitate feral and scared donkeys that come to the sanctuary. The new donkeys quickly learn from the resident ones that running is productive and fun, she says.

Donkeys can cover 60 miles in a day on their own, Brodeur says, nearly double the length of Fairplay’s 29-mile course. In other words, humans will tire out long before the burro.

“After they finish a race, sometimes they’re gunning to keep going,” he says.

Most donkeys enjoy running, especially with other donkeys, but not everyone cares about winning.

That includes racer David Carner’s ass Ellroy, who likes to compete but prefers greeting his adoring fans at the finish line over physically walking through it. “He’s a lover not a fighter,” Carner says.

Ellroy is perfectly suited for the pack burro picnics Carner offers hikers at Climax Revival, his private recreational property near Leadville. On a five-mile, half-day trek to the top of Chalk Mountain and back, Ellroy carries a picnic lunch for up to eight guests as they learn about the area’s mining history and enjoy mountain landscapes with “ASS-tounding” views.

“He definitely enjoys working and carrying people’s loads up the mountain at a reasonable pace,” Carner says. “He’s interacting with people. He’s just the star of the show.”

For newcomers to the sport, Wann suggests setting aside expectations for success in the beginning. Too often, she says, rookie racers will tell her they want a fast donkey, because they’ve got to win.

“And I’ll smile and think: ‘Well, let’s see what your donkey thinks about that,’” Wann says.

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