Everybody loves a donkey tale

Article by Laurel Mchargue

Pack-Burro Racing – January 2006 – Colorado Central Magazine

“He’s looking for a nice ass. Not just any ass. A wild ass won’t do. Neither will a wise-ass. Really what he’s dreaming about is a healthy little burro that won’t mind hauling his equipment for him while he’s trotting around doing adventure races…”

THIS IS A TALE OF Mike’s dream and an event unlike any other I have experienced. Merely a spectator, I nevertheless ended up completely immersed in the curious world of pack burro racing; and I must attempt to write something noble from three days of activities that scream to be made fun of.

The 22-mile Leadville International Pack Burro race in August was hosted by the Western Pack Burro ASS-ociation (hyphenation not mine); and I am still trying to ass-imilate the whole weekend. The diversity of ages and sizes — of both competitors and their furry partners — was ass-tounding; and, well, you see how I could start to get ridiculous with this whole donkey tale. But I don’t want to write a silly-ass story.

Mike and Dotty on the west side of Mosquito Pass (Laurel McHargue)
Mike and Dotty on the west side of Mosquito Pass (Laurel McHargue)

I want to write a story that will explain why I had tears in my eyes at the award ceremony.

I won’t bore you with the details of the miscommunication between two political and pack burro race rivals, legends in both life and in burro racing — Curtis Imrie, the piercing blue-eyed not- quite-60-year-old “declassed gentleman” from whom we rented Mike’s racing partner, and Ken Chlouber, who on May 5, 2004 retired from the Colorado General Assembly as “One of the Senate’s most colorful members.” I will tell you that Mike had arranged to rent a burro from Curtis a few weeks before the race, exchanging fax and phone messages, most of which came back with a “You’re crazy to be jumping into this race cold turkey” overtone; and Curtis had sent Mike’s burro to Leadville with another for Ken to race with.

So when I called Ken to arrange a meeting, and his first question was, “So when are you picking her up” (and I quickly tried to assess if the dog-friendly Leadville Hostel might be able to squeeze a nine hundred pound burro in one of the larger common-rooms), I really began to have some concerns about this crazy-ass weekend.

Although Ken tried very hard to be a “grouchy old man,” he soon realized that I was simply following instructions, and promised not to open up the gates and smack Mike’s ass. Whew! At that point, we did not know that the reason Ken was racing with one of Curtis’s burros was because he had just lost his buddy and racing partner of 28 years — his burro, Mork.

We arrived at the Leadville 100 Race office and saw the burro-filled trailer outside, and entered the office in time to see Ken descending the stairway, wild hair escaping his baseball cap, tanned muscular legs and arms hanging out of short shorts and a cut-off tee-shirt, wielding a King Henry VIIIth-sized turkey leg (did I mention “colorful”?). And the fun began.

Helping to feed and water the donkeys gave us our first hands-on experience with the animals, and our first real glimpse of both their power and their gentleness. “What’s her name?” I asked, wanting to ensure that Mike had all the tools he needed to bond with his new racing partner. “Oh, I don’t know, it’s Erin or Dotty or something like that, but the only name you’ll be calling her during the race is ‘you son-of-a-bi…’!” Turns out her name was Arundhatti, but Ken’s name was easier to remember. Ken then decided that he would show Mike “the ropes” by having him run with his partner in the Leadville Boom Days kick-off 10k race the next morning.

Meeting the burro (Laurel McHargue)
Meeting the burro (Laurel McHargue)

A bit concerned, I asked Ken, “Are you sure it’s O.K. to be running that race with burros?” Seemed like a reasonable concern; after all, the pack burro race wasn’t until Sunday; but lessons were aplenty, and we soon learned that “This is Leadville; we can do whatever the hell we want to do.” All righty then.

The race began amidst cheers, pointing, and laughter, and when it ended, I heard how Mike’s partner was a great out-front runner, but she’d then wait for the others to catch up. We hoped it wasn’t an omen for the big race the next day, a day which arrived with no time for parades or petulant race partners. This was when it all had to come together, the hours of research, the months of dreaming, the half day of actually practicing with your animal! By now I was agreeing with Curtis…Mike was crazy.

MIKE HAD TO REGISTER at 9 a.m., but the race didn’t start until 11 a.m.; and while two hours might sound like lots of time to throw a saddle on a donkey and get moving, it wasn’t all that easy. The mellow donkey from the day before became hulk-like in both size and attitude when tied up among over a dozen other pre-race burros, half of them braying their horniness for the world to hear, the other half braying in (fear? come-hither response? how the hell could I know?). All we knew was that Dotty (our new name for Mike’s partner) was not the same sweet ass we had handled before.

We finally met Curtis Imrie who arrived with a jack whose back reached the top of his head. He shook Mike’s hand, then shook his head, reemphasizing–with a twinkle in his eye–how crazy it was to be jumping into a 22-mile race with a borrowed burro. I think he may have recognized a kindred spirit. Having to prepare himself for the race, he wished Mike good luck and arranged for someone to help him with harnessing the saddle.

Along with saddle assistance, Mike was given more advice. He learned that when passing another burro, he should position himself between the two and keep on going, particularly if the other animal happened to be one of the aforementioned randy beasts. And under NO circumstances was he to let any hanky-panky happen along the trail, especially between any of the burros.

So after saddle prep and countless photo shoots with roaming tourists and timid children, it was time. The anticipation of the racers at the start line was palpable for all but one. I watched as Ken moved quietly to the sideline with his animal and knelt in prayer, invisible, I think, to all but me. And I was in the perfect position for the perfect picture. But the moment was over before I discovered why my camera wouldn’t work. After removing the lens cap, I was ready for some great action shots; and I reminded myself that some moments deserve more respect than we are willing to give them.

The blast from the starting rifle deafened all but the oldest onlookers, and in a flurry of fur the man/beast teams began their run through town and on to Mosquito Pass. Amazingly, Mike was in the lead as the wild pack rounded the corner to head out of town.

Ken Chlouber (left) and Curtis Imrie on Mosqito Pass (Laurel McHargue)
Ken Chlouber (left) and Curtis Imrie on Mosqito Pass (Laurel McHargue)

I ran up the street to get the perfect picture of the pack as they ran back before heading out of sight. The lead pack was fast and tight…but where was Mike? Mike was re-saddling Dotty. Evidently, when your partner’s saddle falls off, you go from first place to last in two trots. But Dotty looked like she was ready to catch up with her burro buddies, and Mike was prepared to accommodate her.

They made good on their mission to rejoin the racers, and by about mile 8, were running with Ken and looking strong. I knew they were not in the lead at this point, but I also knew that we were in Leadville, and anything could happen.

I listened with excitement as aid station radios called in race numbers along the way. The leaders came back from the pass astonishingly ahead of all the rest, and for the first time, I knew that my rent-a-burro rookie wouldn’t be bringing home any gold.

As racers became increasingly spread out, I watched as two teams came back from the pass together. When they got close enough, I smiled at seeing two men I will always think of as both legends and rivals, talking and trotting together. Ken and Curtis, their furry partners finally behaving fairly well, were on their way back to town.

BUT WHERE WAS Mike? When he finally made it back from the pass, it was clear that Dotty had lost her trotty, and no amount of cajoling would get her moving any faster than a nonchalant saunter. So yes, Mike had to drag his ass back to town. I have pictures.

I made it back to the Boom Days celebration in time to see several racers cross the finish line, and when I thought Leadville would shut down and roll up its streets, I spotted my crazy husband. He was in surprisingly good spirits–having lived a moment of his dream–but was happy to part with his partner after persuading her across the finish line. My rookie was now an official ass-racer.

In the dinner hall waiting for the award ceremony to begin, Curtis walked by our table and, shaking his head at Mike, said, “You’re a maniac.” I knew Mike took it as a compliment.

So why the tears?

The McHargue family gathers after the race.
The McHargue family gathers after the race.

Winners were announced, award money and burro-faced belt buckles were handed out, and a few people actually took the time to speak. Two men, and what they had to say, will remain in my memory. Ken could not finish what he wanted to express. He tried to thank Curtis for helping him in his time of loss, but after telling the group that Heaven must have needed a good donkey, there was no more he could say. I thought back to his silent moment at the start line, and knew that it was not for a win that he was praying. I could not presume to understand what he was feeling, but it was real, and it was raw, and it wrenched at my heart.

Then it was Curtis’s turn, and after talking about how the small pack burro race community has had its disagreements and personality clashes, he came back to the fact that when you get right down to it, “We all drink at the same watering hole.” There was no rivalry here. There was respect and an understanding that can only come from a brotherhood of like-spirited individuals.

These were men who lived hard, who laughed and cursed and didn’t care who they offended, who inspired other men to say “Wow!” out loud, who put themselves second to those who could be first, who cried and knelt in prayer in public and were no less men for doing so. These were men who gave me the gift of being part of an experience that opened my eyes to a whole new world…one with old-world ideals and an unbridled passion for life.

Laurel McHargue runs in many places, but writes from Colorado Springs.