Competing in Colorado’s Six-Legged Race

Article by Columbine Quillen

Pack-Burro Racing – August 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

I HAVE NEVER considered myself an athlete. Athletic yes, athlete no. My only dream to be an athlete was demolished when I was a little girl and dreamt of being a gymnast. Every day, I cart-wheeled, flipped, and somersaulted in Alpine Park, waiting for Bella Karolyi to find me — just like he found Nadia. But he never did. And eventually I found out that Olympic gymnasts often broke bones and had to perform with painful injuries.

So what made me want to risk athletic pain by competing with high-altitude trail runners who also happened to be the world’s finest pack-burro racers?

Some may claim that it was for the experience or to understand why people do things out of passion. But, in truth, I did it more because I thought I had a good chance at placing in the money. Everyone wants to be a winner.

Thus, on Sunday, June 27, I woke up at 6:30 after six hours of sleep to drive from Salida to Victor, the starting line of my first burro race. The race was at 10 a.m. and I arrived at 9 a.m. after eating a bowl of oatmeal and passing enough RV’s to drain my energy. (Mostly because I foolishly indulged in a regimen of instinctive swearing and cursing exercises.)

And soon, I saw just how hard it would be to be a winner when running with a burro at 10,000 feet. In order to get the animals ready, we made a few practice runs. Up one hill, and back down. Up another hill, and back down.

About then, I was starting to have qualms at the thought of running. When I arrived in Victor I expected to run a six-mile race to Cripple Creek. But an hour later I learned we would be running a nine-mile race. Everyone seemed excited about that, except for me. Amid the burro-racer shop-talk about how the scales were wrong at every race, I held a poker face about my lack of excitement about the new race length.

The scales are important because all burros must carry a packsaddle with a load of at least 33 pounds. The pack must contain a gold pan, a shovel, and a pick to commemorate pioneer prospectors. The racers then add dumbbell weights or rocks to make weight, and also pack water, sunscreen, trail food, clothes, and the like.

The race started when all the burro racers had grouped behind an intersection and the master of ceremonies dropped his baseball cap. Donkeys went every which way, many of them kicking their equine competitors — more out of annoyance than for any competitive advantage. But fortunately, no one let go of their donkey, so there were no loose burros and no unhappy runners. (According to the rules, if a runner was more than 100 yards from his or her donkey, he or she was automatically out of the race.)

Jogging with a donkey is not like jogging with another person. I used to run a lot with my ex-boyfriend. Maybe if we had been tied together, I would have noticed his idiosyncrasies. But for the most part I just noticed that he usually ran faster than I did. My boyfriend never seemed to run into the bushes, or head down the wrong road, or stop for no known reason. My donkey partner, however, did.

I ran with Virgil, Hal and Mary Walter’s gentle eight-year-old burro. Hal is the World Champion Pack-burro Racer, and let’s just say that Virgil isn’t the burro that Hal won that title with.

MAYBE THAT’S BECAUSE Virgil doesn’t like going uphill, and is “calorically challenged” — a medical condition that many suburban Americans also suffer from. At almost every hill, Virgil stopped and bent over to graze.

Usually I was sort of pleased when Virgil didn’t want to go, because I really didn’t want to go either. Uphill at 10,000 feet feels a lot different than uphill at 7,000 feet, where I usually run a few miles each day.

But in spite of my reservations, the race itself was rather uneventful. For the most part, I ran until Virgil decided it was time to stop. Then I’d either walk with him or swat him, hoping this maneuver would cause him to run. (But usually, I’d just swat myself every time I tried to belt Virgil’s rump, due to my lack of rope skills. And thus Virgil merely plodded along at the same pace.)

However, at other points, I did find myself moving at a good pace and getting into the swing of things — until Virgil pulled me to a dead stop. Each time that happened, I felt the adrenaline drain from my body, and my ambition disappear.

People on the course were nice, and although I could feel the competition, it certainly wasn’t anything of the Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding sort. Many fellow racers recognized Virgil (to me he looked like almost any other brown donkey, but many runners said hi to Virge along the way).

When I fell almost to the very back of the race, a woman running alongside me talked about how she was breaking in a new burro and how it was doing. All in all, other than Virgil’s occasional lack of motivation, the race was going pretty well, except for my dehydration.

My race plan had been for six miles — about an hour. So I’d figured if I took it easy on water before the start, I wouldn’t have to worry about urinating on the way, and I’d make better time without such stops. But the course was nine miles.

Since I’d never been around farm animals much, I didn’t realize that Virgil would make several pit stops, allowing me time to drink. So this worked out, and Virgil didn’t seem to mind toting the two liters of water that I packed on his back.

The best part about burro racing was the finish. When I came into Cripple Creek, the streets were lined with people clapping and hollering. Virgil and I went the wrong direction for a bit, but the local firemen pointed us the right way. And when I got to the end, I got all the credit, and could blame my sixth-place finish in the women’s division (fifth would have been in the money) on the burro and not on any lack of training on my behalf.

As partners go, though, Virgil was pretty damned good. His gentle, plodding nature may not make him a world champion, but as I watched donkeys stampeding into meadows and heard them braying uphill and down, I knew I was with an experienced competitor who would make it possible for me to finish the race.

So I will most likely race again. You may think that training involves just running and speed drills at high altitude, but actually my new training routine includes rigorous arm strength exercises. So next time the burro doesn’t want to go, maybe I’ll be able to tug it along with me.

Columbine Quillen recently graduated from Western State College in Gunnison, and now uses her degree to wait tables in Salida and train harder on the trails around town.