If you know anything about me, you know I love dogs and tacos, in that order. But close behind are goats, donkeys and lambs. Maybe I was a Mexican shepherdess in my last life. The point is, that a donkey race is something that might not thrill everyone, but it gives me the chills.
Full disclosure: I read a book, “Running with Sherman” by Christopher McDougall, and I learned a lot about burros and burro racing. I’ve even contemplated doing one of these races, but that would require running and I am not a runner. Let’s just say, I have a more than average interest in burro racing.
We’ve been attending the burro race in Fairplay for a number of years. After experiencing my first burro race start, in the early 2000s, I decided that it is an experience everyone should have at least once in their lifetime. This year, I learned that the race finish line is something a spectator should witness too.
By the way, burro is the Spanish word for donkey and frequently used in burro racing circles so I will use it here.
It’s easy to see both the start and finish in Georgetown and Idaho Springs in late May. These two races, the Clear Creek Pack Burro Race Series are part of the West Pack Burro ASS-ociation’s flight of summer races. The “Triple Crown” races are held in Fairplay, Leadville and Buena Vista and are much longer than these two, which are approximately eight miles (Georgetown) and six miles (Idaho Springs).
Shorter, however, does not mean less competitors. This year, these races each hosted 80 plus teams on each day.
We’d come to Idaho Springs for a bit of a throwback weekend, way back. Back to the time when Idaho Springs attracted miners with expectations of riches instead of today’s tourists with expectations of great breweries. The latter expectation is met, the miners were usually not as successful.
Idaho Springs looks like a quintessential western mining town with attractive architecture and colorful buildings. It’s a lot more than just a stop for gas along I70, as it has been many times for us. I will write more about the town later this week, but the burro race had a starring role in our weekend’s festivities.
Did you know that burro racing is the state sport of Colorado? And it should be. The burro played a big part in western expansion and the discovery of gold and silver in the Rocky Mountains. No one knows exactly when burro racing started, but we do know that it comes from history. It’s the reenactment of a miner, racing with his trusty burro back to the assay’s office to weigh his gold or silver find and stake his claim on the land where he found said gold or silver.
The race course length changes depending on which town is hosting the race, but the granddaddy of all courses is the 29-mile ultra-marathon burro race held in Fairplay at the end of July. Participants run with their burro up Mosquito Pass and back, a 3,000 foot elevation gain. The tagline of the race is Get Your Ass Up the Pass.
Believe me, there are lots of ass jokes on the weekend of a burro race and lots of asses. And that’s the best part. We walked the short distance from downtown Idaho Springs to the staging area at the high school football field. Everywhere I looked, a furry face was munching on spring grass, an excited racer, rope in hand, following the burro from grassy patch to grassy patch. It honestly looked like the burros were in charge.
That changed, kind of, as the racers marched through the picturesque downtown. We stayed ahead of this gang of rascally burros and serious runners in order to take photos and video. For the most part, the burros obeyed their human, walking through town to City Hall where the race would start.
The race starts happens fast. As soon as everyone arrives, the gun goes off and they are off.
Teams were now racing up the mountain and piles of burro poop left on the roadway were the only sign that they had been there. We made our way to Westdown & Bound to enjoy a beer as we waited for the teams to arrive at the finish line, just a block and a half away.
The rules of burro racing are simple. A burro must carry a pickax, a shovel, and a gold mining pan. The human competitor may carry his or her burro but the burro cannot carry the human. The burro must be under control at all times, and may not be mistreated. In my opinion, most of these burros appear to be well-loved as there was a lot of human/burro hugging happening in Idaho Springs when we were there, especially at the end of the race.
The Idaho Springs race ends on a downhill road beside Elks Lodge #607, built in 1907. It’s a magnificent building and stately ending for this less than solemn race.
The sky was threatening rain, as it had all morning, although now it seemed imminent as teams of racers ran, jogged, walked and pleaded with their burros to run as they crossed the finish line.
Some burros, like Pepsi, a mini-donkey from Arvada, were not fans of the white stripe on the ground that marked the finish line.
Eventually, Pepsi, with some coaxing by his human teammate Carol, jumped over the offending line of paint, and he was not the only burro to make that jump. Some burros jumped it at a full run eliciting a hail of laughter from the spectators.
Burros are worried about anything they deem as unknown because who knows? That line is potentially dangerous. Better safe than sorry is a burro’s mantra.
Turns out, the finish line at a burro race is a fairly entertaining place, in addition to the starting line. It is a very good reason to drink a beer or two and wait around until the teams start arriving at the finish.
The first rain drops began to fall around the time when about three quarters of the teams had finished. I got to meet happy human racers who chugged water while their furry counterparts ate apples and carrots and anything else they could devour.
Bob Sweeney and teammate Yukon won the race. Neither are strangers to this sport. Yukon even makes an appearance in “Running with Sherman,” and Sweeney is an ultra-marathoner and burro racer from Leadville.
It should be noted that despite the cuteness of fuzzy faces or smiles and laughter of the burros’ human teammates, this is a real competition. These humans and burros are real athletes. How do I know this? In part, I know that only a real athlete can run at this elevation. Like every sport. this one requires dedication and practice and something else.
Burro racing requires a lot of patience, and I mean A LOT, and that’s where I think it is different from other sports. At the end of the day, these teams are recreating history and enjoying the comradery of a race, but they are also getting the opportunity to connect with an animal and that, in my illustrious opinion, is rather magical.
Heading to the race in Idaho Springs over Memorial Day Weekend is quick and easy for people from Colorado’s Front Range, as the town is just 35 minutes west of Denver. However, pack burro races take place all over the state, and I think they are a rather good reason to take a Colorado road trip.
Go to the Western Pack Burro ASS-ociation website to see a list of dates and places races will take place in 2021.
Thank you to Visit Clear Creek County for hosting our visit to Idaho Springs.