When you work at a running store, you inevitably get asked about the races that you are training for. When I would respond, “a pack burro race,” I’d often get confused looks, which is understandable. So let me explain.
The not-so-ancient sport of burro racing is an homage to 19th century prospecting, when miners used burros to schlep their equipment through the Rockies. As legend has it, two miners found gold in the same location. Before they could dig, they needed to stake claim, so they raced one another back to town to declare their find.
Since their burros were weighed down with tools, the miners couldn’t ride their burros, so they ran them back. A reasonable person may wonder why they wouldn’t leave the burro at the site and just run down alone, but then we wouldn’t have this fun event.
The Western Pack Burro Ass-ociation (real organization and real spelling) is “celebrating 70 years of hauling ass” this summer. So, I thought to myself, why not tow an animal, one that I’ve only petted from behind a fence, up and over a mountain pass? In that spirit, I registered for a 10-mile pack burro race in Creede, Colorado.
With a graduating high-school class of three in the town of Creede, I didn’t anticipate a crowd on race day. It became clear, however, that when there’s an event in Creede, everyone shows up! All 290 residents, an influx of burro enthusiasts, their four legged friends, and other people who had just stumbled into this surreal scene lined Main Street, the only street in Creede.
“My friends will never believe this!” everyone said as they snapped pictures.
Before I get to the race itself, let’s talk about the rules. The pack burro racing circuit comprises about 10 of these races that are between seven and 30 miles long and usually involve going up and over a pass.
Race registration costs $50, and burro rental is $100. Each human entrant is paired with a burro (donkey), creating a team. The burros are assigned based on the human team member’s experience level. A novice pack burro racer gets a reliable plodder. A veteran racer might get a faster, but more rambunctious or temperamental animal.
Most of the animals are rescues belonging to one or two (human) families. They make the circuit, trucked around to different events.
Each burro picked to race is tied to its human teammate via harness and rope. The person must stay attached to their burro for the whole race.
The burro must be equipped with a pack saddle and prospector’s paraphernalia, because let’s make this as authentic as possible, right? The burro also must carry at least 33 pounds in their pack. No assistance is allowed to any team. The runner may, and I quote the rule book, “push, pull, drag or carry the burro” along the course.
That’s right. You can carry your ass if you want to and have the superhuman strength that would require.
Your finish time is the moment when the burro’s nose crosses the line. Because burros like to move in packs, finishers are often separated by just seconds or fractions thereof, as seen in this video. My race in Creede would be no different.
Those are the basic rules. Stay attached to your burro, push your ass, pull your ass, just don’t hurt your ass.
The rules really matter because there’s prize money at the Creede race, like many of the other burro races during the summer. Creede pays eight deep, with $500 for the win. Surely someone reading this will think to themselves, “I can easily run 94 minutes for 10 miles,” and decide to take up burro racing next summer. Easy money, right?
Well, you’re wrong.
You’ve probably never run with a burro. It’s up to the burro where you place because they are more stubborn than you are. Moreover, whatever prize money you do win from the race has to be split with your burro. Suffice to say, pack burro racing is not a gold rush.
Back to Creede. The race began at 1 PM, so the morning was spent preparing the burros for the adventure to come. This started with brushing your buddy clean to remove any thorns or burrs that could irritate them under the saddle.
Many burros do a mischievous thing right before they are saddled up: They suck in a bunch of air to puff their bellies, making it more difficult to rope the saddle on. It also means that once the burro is done with this fun game and they exhale the excess air, the saddle is too loose, forcing you to adjust it.
To reach the requisite 33 lbs. of payload you have to augment the contents of your burro’s pack by scavenging rocks. You wouldn’t want to be DQ’ed for improper weight, would you?
Once the prep was done, I dragged my burro, Piper, towards the starting line with a drove of other teams ready to ascend the pass. The street was packed with spectators.
Piper and I picked a spot in the middle of the field and awaited the starting gun. The gun went off—at least five times—because burros need as much motivation as possible. The stampede began.
We found ourselves mid-to-back of the pack, but running consistently. The course snaked up old mining roads, gaining roughly 2,500 feet in 5 miles, before shooting back down the other side of the mountain.
Piper was consistent, slowly moving up, passing burros more stubborn than herself, who were more interested in the small creek next to the road, eating every little flower they saw, or deciding they’d rather go back the way they came.
That’s what makes this so fun: It’s wildly unpredictable when you have a crazy animal in tow. Piper was good to me, though, and continued to move up.
Towards the top of the pass, Piper was leading a charge of 8 teams, nose-to-butt. We summited the peak and were immediately passed by all of the asses we just dragged up the hill, because burros are much better at descending than they are at climbing.
Piper and I, though, are both a bit clumsy, so we maneuvered carefully and slowly down the near 20% grades on the far side of the mountain.
The strategy for running downhill with a burro is to stay in front of your donkey. If your burro begins to pick up too much steam behind you, all you have to do is spread your arms out wide and the burro will stay behind. This was a shockingly easy intervention given the burros’ otherwise strong-headedness.
We didn’t have to worry about going too fast, though, because Piper was cautious. She’s aware of her clumsiness and didn’t want to turn an ankle or take a tumble.
I was at the end of my lead-rope, dragging my ass through the final five miles. But we had the advantage of focus; Piper wasn’t interested in much else than doing the job she came to do.
We slowly begin to pass more distracted burros, building a little momentum. First we passed Apache, then Cheeto, Banjo Boog, Action Jackson, Einstein, and Little Jonah. Rolling downhill I thought we had a chance to be in the top half of the finishers, which was our discussed goal, and something Piper had never done before.
We crossed the finish line and were handed a popsicle stick marked “20,” denoting our place in the top half of the 47-team race. My boyfriend, Scott, ran over to us, with a bag of carrots and a beer; our respective treats.
“Great job!” Scott proclaimed. “That was much faster than I thought you guys would run!”
Just to the right of us, a man proposed to his girlfriend as she crossed the finish line. Typically this would have generated a lot of fanfare, but when you’ve just seen 50 humans drag burros for 10 miles, engagements don’t feel very noteworthy.
We stood around for a while feeding Piper and her competitors carrots and apples, not wanting to accept that this magical event was over. Once we were out of carrots, we tried to meander back to the corral where we met Piper that morning, but it turns out that once you give a burro a treat they anchor their hooves to the spot. We finally broke Piper’s immobility spell through repeated pushes, pulls, and smacks on the rear.
We walked the two blocks back to the corral. We unsaddled Piper and slipped her into the pen where she was greeted by her BFF, Burrito (22nd place). We gave Piper a few final scratches behind the ears and said our goodbyes.
Scott and I drove away from Creede, sad to be putting our burro-related activities behind us for the time being. Despite having run for more than two decades, this was the most fun race I have ever run. The burros brought everyone so much joy, and the tiny town of Creede conferred intimacy and personality to an already charming event.
It’s safe to say, I will be burro racing again next year, because there’s nothing more fun than getting your ass over a pass.
[Editor’s note: Hayley and Piper completed the second annual Creede Donkey Dash in 2 hours, six minutes, and 52 seconds. The winner, by just half a second, covered the 10 miles in 1:33. Here are the full race results.]