Central Colorado’s only indigenous sport

Article by Hal Walter

Pack-Burro Racing – July 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine

Rain, sleet, and snow fell in sheets. Thunder rocked the talus roadbed of Mosquito Pass. Lightning blazed like God’s own black light. The fog-shrouded bolts painted the intensely gray scene with purple snowflakes against a sky darker than death itself. Darker than death itself.

The electricity glanced off the boulders somewhere in the grayness and the flinty smell of high voltage striking hard granite wafted high on the gale and then vanished forever.

Read carefully, Bubba. You’ll never see this on ESPN. And if you don’t learn anything else, know now to be leery of places where small stupid birds like the ptarmigan are pretty much tops in the food chain.

I know this. Yet there I was, half way to finishing my 14th consecutive Leadville International Pack-Burro race. I was soaking wet, my hands gripping a rope that was icy stiff. The leather on my burro’s pack saddle was so damp it no longer creaked, thawed by the next-to-the-hide warmth of the animal. The smell of equine sweat mixed with my own sour adrenaline stench. Steam rose from the exposed chest and neck of the burro. Every so often, he blew two perfect white plumes out of flared nostrils like a locomotive gone crazy. The original locomotive. The locomotive with a heart.

The Nez Percé warriors had a pre-battle motto: “Take courage, this is a good day to die.” Ever the procrastinator, I thought better: “Why do today what you can always put off for tomorrow?” Or next decade, maybe. Hell, maybe not then either.

Likewise, pack-burro racing. Legends never die, so when in doubt, write up the legend.

This sport — the only sport indigenous to Central Colorado — can be taken seriously only by those who actually do it. To anyone else, it might as well be donkey basketball without a ball or hoops.

The concept seems simple, especially to the casual onlooker. Human and burro, loaded with 33 pounds of mining gear, run from a starting line and return to a finish line, the idea being to get there first. In between, the onlooker drinks a cup of what most Americans think is beer and eats a hot dog.

What the spectatorr has no clue about is distance, vertical gain, burro-wrangling, and mountaineering. You hear a lot about events like the Ironman Triathalon, a rather namby-pamby affair compared to the World Championship Pack-Burro Race in Fairplay. You hear very little about pack-burro racing.

Pack-burro racing demands a high level of fitness from both human and beast, as well as some peculiar skills — these animals see little glory in running 20 to 30 miles, and require skilled persuasion. If you want to see what really happens in a burro race, get out of town and on the course.

From Fairplay, drive north on Colo. 9 to Mosquito Gulch, where racers battle neck-to-neck for position on the way out, and struggle for each step in the haze of a competition-induced lactic acid trip on the way back. Try to not leave them gasping for breath in a plume of dust from your vehicle.

From Leadville, head east on Seventh Street for a few miles to a mine called “The Resurrection,” a place so crucial in this race that I’ll let the name speak for itself. Bring binoculars.

CONTRARY TO an understandable local notion, pack-burro racing has nothing to do with politics, though frankly I think meeting God in person on one of these courses should be prerequisite for any candidate for office. Then we would have far fewer politicians, these people to whom we pay salaries and give free parking in order that they may legislate away our hard-earned money and constitutional rights.

Fewer than 20, to be exact.

That’s right. Fewer than 20 competitors — men and women — can be expected to show up for one of these annual rites of summer, born of mining history, a rough-hewn history slaked with human blood and toil.

Today, pack-burro racing has little to do with mining. It’s more like a horse race. The entrants in the real mining contests — jack-leg drilling, mucking, hand-steeling — look at burro racers like we must be crazy. Rest assured, we are. Independent as hell, too.

But what we’re doing is not a contest so much as it is a sport. One difference is that you train for a sport. Another is that a sport evolves. Old timers gnash their teeth at our generation of burro racers — marathon runners with animals prepped by hours and hours of specialized training, race-horse diets, and tiny horseshoes. Things have changed.

But despite pack-burro racing’s evolution to sports status, its popularity remains the same — almost nil — despite articles in local, regional, and national publications.

While doing a little art for commerce for a retail magazine for in-line skate dealers recently, I interviewed a marketing type who said that a sport’s success was dependent upon three factors: accessibility, affordability, and attractiveness. That’s why in-line skating, a/k/a roller-blading, had more than 12 million participants last year and is the fastest growing sport nationwide.

Pack-burro racing is none of the above. But how has the only sport indigenous to this region survived nearly 50 years without these qualities? Oddly enough, burro races draw just about as many entrants now as they did then.

Pack-burro racing requires that participants live in or near a rural area where they can keep and train equine animals. Access to trails and high altitude are necessary in order to excel. So the sport is accessible to only a few.

Affordable? Like the goat, the burro is an emblem of rural poverty, but if you’ve priced hay, which hit $5 a bale last winter, you know different. Tack, pasture, grain, running shoes, entry fees, trucks, trailers, farriers, veterinarians, and gasoline aren’t bought with mere pocket change these days either.

Attractive meant that it was “cool and participants are made to feel at ease when they do the sport.” This is where it really gets funny. It made me think of people I encountered during training runs. Their ludicrous comments: “Why don’t you ride ’em?” “Who’s running who?” And the more intelligent, but ever-diminishing, “Just what are you doing?” For pack-burro racers, humility comes with the spectacular territory.

If people could have seen me and my animal battling the storm on Mosquito Pass last year, would they have thought it “cool?” Would their acceptance of my sport have made me feel more at ease? I think not.

No, I’m afraid that pack-burro racing will never be a successful sport — not by those criteria. It will never appeal to the masses, never be featured in a Mountain Dew commercial. Not enough neon.

Besides, when you get right down to it, burro racing is not clean, safe, or easy. In some races, you still have to possess a great number of skills just to survive. Winning, or even finishing…well that comes second.

What it comes down to is a handful of rough-and-tumble men and women, some very tough critters, and a battle against the vagaries of altitude, weather, physical fitness, the rocky trails of this region — and, of course, working with, not against, this animal, the burro.

Hal Walter, who lives near Westcliffe, supports his burro-racing habit by free-lance writing.