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The future of pack-burro racing will come from its roots

Column by Hal Walter

Pack-Burro Racing – July 2003 – Colorado Central Magazine

It was late June and snow banks still lingered in the trees and along the stream bank. The young burro peered into the high mountain stream, then snorted, turned his neck, and yanked me back through the water. This was not the first time I had been in the creek. In fact my feet were pretty much numb. Around and around we went. I pushed. I pulled. And finally I managed to get one of his hooves into the edge of the water. The burro thought about it for a couple of seconds. Then with a great leap he launched himself over the full width of the stream, nearly snatching me out of my wet shoes. I swore this was the last one of these critters I would ever train. But then I’ve lied to myself numerous times and not just about jackasses. Besides, what sort of life would it be if I couldn’t reserve the right to change my mind at any time?

LATER THAT SUMMER I won my first World Championship with that young burro, named Spike. He learned to cross water and other tricks as well, but he was never particularly fast or dependable. Now five years later I found myself training another young burro — this one much bigger and stronger — and heading to a race in I-25 traffic that was not at all amenable to hauling livestock. In fact, I was in fear — not only of the insane Front Strange drivers weaving around my stock trailer at 80 mph, with one hand on the wheel and the other on the cell phone, but also over what this jack would do in his first race, an event being held as a part of a Grand Opening ceremony for the Greenland Trail between Monument and Castle Rock. A few days earlier while rigging our gear for this race, my wife Mary had asked in a blue-sky sort of fashion: “So … do you have some sort of plan for how you’re going to keep that animal under control?”

The truth is, I didn’t have any such plan. Redbo is 14 hands tall, and probably pushes 800 pounds. His adolescent brain is poisoned by dangerously high levels of testosterone. And he is a lot faster than I am. The only reason I even wanted to go to this race in Greenland was to see what he would do around other burros in a race situation. And there would be a lot of other animals in this race — 22 had entered.

Pack-burro racing, Colorado’s only indigenous sport, has been described as a combination between a footrace, wrestling match and a rodeo. However, despite its burley nature, participation has been waning in recent years. The basic gist is a race with a burro (which you are not allowed to ride) that must carry 33 pounds including a pick, gold pan and shovel. This race in Greenland, a short sprint by other standards, was 7 or 8 miles, depending on whom you ask. By comparison, the World Championship in Fairplay is 29 or 30 miles depending on whom you ask. Last year only five participants finished that race. But here in Greenland, with I-25 traffic roaring in the background, 22 competitors turned out.

[From the photo album of Helen McGraw Tatum, about growing up in Bailey: “In 1917, burros wandered around the mountains. When a big storm was coming, they would come to town. We kids would catch the tamer ones. This one we called Jenny. Mother would let me ride her and she was sweet and gentle. The others were pretty wild and the boys would ride them The burros would trot along for a space and then would plant all four feet at one time and the boys would go sailing through the air. When the storm passed the burros would disappear until the next storm.” Above are Helen McGraw, Lucille Snow, Charles McGraw, and Carl Snow.]

I BECAME INVOLVED with pack-burro racing when I was still drinking 3.2 beer. It started at Leadville where they have a 22-mile (or 20-mile, depending upon whom you ask) race every summer. I was merely curious but the adventure turned out to be more than I had ever imagined, requiring endurance, strength, speed, and agility. Additional challenges were presented by the elements — weather that could turn from heat to a snowstorm at the blink of an eye, altitude that made me feel like I was breathing through a sock stuffed in my mouth, and miles of extremely rocky road.

Oddly, I have never really considered myself much of an athlete. I mostly rode the bench as a high-school football player, and was cut from the baseball team though the coach did suggest I try track. In college I took up weight-lifting and bulked up to 190 pounds in order to bench press 240 pounds. I took up distance running in order to lose the 30 pounds of bulk from the resistance training, and years later I still have stretch marks. Running became something of an obsession, I think partly to help me forget my poor career choice of journalism. I ran the Boston Marathon twice, and even actually won a small regional marathon. After winning the Fairplay pack-burro race in 2000, Montrail began sponsoring me with running shoes, but I’m still not sure that really makes me an athlete.

Pack-burro racing started in 1949 with a 23-mile race from Leadville over 13,187-foot Mosquito Pass to Fairplay. Twenty-one men and burros ran for a first place prize of $500, a tidy sum in those days. After four years it was decided to alternate the starting line between the towns every other year. For years participation grew, with 36 entrants starting the race in 1954. However, in the 1960s a conflict between Leadville and Fairplay ended the point-to-point concept, and each town opted to hold its own race each summer. And since then many other small towns have dabbled unsuccessfully in pack-burro racing.

In the 23 years I have been involved with the sport I have run races in Breckenridge, Dillon, Frisco, Silverthorne, Copper Mountain, Eagle, Lake Vallecito, Platoro, Golden, Blackhawk, Cripple Creek, Central City, Salida, Westcliffe, Antonito, and Losauces. In New Mexico we raced in Chama and Winston, and in Arizona we raced in Safford for three years straight. All these races are now defunct.

BESIDES LEADVILLE AND FAIRPLAY, only Buena Vista has managed to keep a pack-burro race as an annual event, though that race has had some shaky years, including several course changes and one year when the race was off the calendar. For Fairplay and Leadville, however, the annual races have become part of the local legend and tradition. When you drive into Fairplay from the direction of Summit County, where five towns have failed with pack-burro racing even though they actually have the money to back it, there’s a sign proclaiming “Home of the World Championship Pack-Burro Race … always the last Sunday in July.”

Aside from offering experienced racers like me the opportunity to try out an unpredictable jack in a race that doesn’t really matter, an event like Greenland gives newcomers the opportunity to try the sport in a shorter format without the vagaries of the high-altitude elements. It also exposes the sport to smaller groups of new spectators. It’s an “exhibition” race of sorts. But I wonder if these short races do the sport a disservice. For me, short races seem more difficult than long ones because of the speed involved over these courses.

WHAT’S MORE, since the short races are not held in the high-altitude environment, I think tyros miss the mystique that really made the sport appeal to me when I ran my first pack-burro race. And if you look statistically at the numbers of participants, you might easily draw the conclusion these short races actually detract from the sport’s popularity, with fewer and fewer entrants turning out for the longer races, and fewer and fewer regular racers. Then again, proponents of short courses will say the Fairplay race is just too long. After running it 20-something times, and winning it twice, I have to agree the 30-mile course really is just too long for man and beast.

So what’s the answer? I think the sport’s founders had it right from the start. The mythology, history, and lore are on Mosquito Pass. It made sense to have the race as a point-to-point event over the pass between two towns that were literally built upon the backs of burros. The race was long at 23 miles but it wasn’t so long as to seem impossible; after all, Father Dyer, preacher-athlete, regularly made that journey on snowshoes. And the founders also had something else right — a decent purse. You could buy a car with the money from the first race in 1949, but you can barely pay your insurance bill with the first-place prizes from races these days. If pack-burro racing is going to survive, I think it needs to get back to basics, back to its roots — an annual town-to-town race over Mosquito Pass with a decent purse.

Meanwhile, back in Greenland, Redbo went ballistic for the first two miles of the race trying to attack other burros, and I did find a way to keep him under control. I also found us way behind before he finally settled down. But we managed to catch up to the leaders and trotted in just seconds behind the winning time. I never pushed him and I learned what I came to find out. This burro is fast and he already crosses water without jumping. If ever he had the chance to run from Leadville to Fairplay, or vice versa, I’m sure he’d do well.

Hal Walter races burros in many places, but raises them in the Wet Mountains, where he also produces prose.