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There’s always another jackass out there

Column by Hal Walter

Pack-Burro Racing – July 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

THE OWNER OF A COMPANY that is a major editing client of mine recently joked that he had fired me because he can’t employ anyone who actually owns a jackass. Actually, I don’t know this information firsthand. I was told by someone on “the inside,” a remarkable term when you consider that for me living anywhere east of the Front Range’s angle of repose, having a “real job,” and not owning jackasses, would be sort of like a jail sentence.

Even more remarkable is the irony that I have at this point in my life worked for many more jackasses than I have owned.

The fact of the matter is, I own four jackasses. There’s Spike, Clyde, Jumpin’ Jack the geriatric patient, and Redbo the 18-month-old future draft choice. So why do I risk losing lucrative business deals and not being taken seriously by people in “the real world” just to own jackasses?

That’s a question I usually laugh off as some sort of “genetic” defect.

But the truth is it’s much more complicated than that and requires a bit of explaining. It all started back in 1980 when I was introduced to the sport of pack-burro racing. I was a University of Colorado student who had taken up running to lose the extra bulk that I put on both in the CU weight room and the dormitory dining hall. When I started running at the end of my freshman year I weighed a bulky 190 pounds and could bench press 240. By my sophomore year I was down to a more slim 160 pounds and could run a respectable marathon, but could only bench my own weight. On a trip to Buena Vista I was introduced to pack-burro-racing legend Curtis Imrie and he suggested I give the sport a try with one of his burros. I had never heard of pack-burro racing and had no idea what it involved.

Pack-burro racing is the only sport indigenous to this geographic and psychocultural anomaly known as Central Colorado. It has been going on for 52 years since the first race from Leadville to Fairplay in 1949. The world championship in this sport is a 30-mile odyssey of dirt road, icy stream crossings, snowfields and loose talus at altitudes between 10,000 and 13,000 feet. To compete involves long-distance running, mountaineering skills and an ability to cope with the high-altitude environment.

BUT MORE IMPORTANTLY it also requires a knack for dealing with equus assinus, a critter not exactly known for being overzealous when it comes to co√∂peration. Basically here is the deal: Get your ass up the pass! Run if you can, but don’t ride.

After one training run with Curtis, I entered my first race at Leadville with a burro named “Moose.” Though I finished dead last and have the “Last Ass over the Pass” plaque to prove it, I also won something else — a sense of belonging to something. I had earned entry into a unique group of people, not only other racers but also folks who know how tough it is to finish one of these races, and what sort of cajones and sense of humility a person needs to even try this sport. Though it took me almost 7 hours to cover the 22-mile course with Moose, and the tourists had all gone home for the weekend, dozens of people poured out of The Leadville Elks Club and other bars to cheer my finish. I knew I would be back. I just didn’t know then how many times. This year will be No. 22.

In that time I have also run more than a dozen marathons, including the Boston Marathon twice. I won the Pueblo River Trail Marathon in 1984.

I finished the Leadville Trail 100-mile ultramarathon in 1988. I have also competed at cross-country skiing, mountain biking and in a number of multisport races, including several top-10 finishes at the Mount Taylor Quadrathlon in New Mexico, a race that involves cycling, running, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. I am not supplying this information to brag about my athletic accomplishments, but rather as a framework for saying that pack-burro racing offers a unique physical and mental challenge that these other sports and events can’t equal. Another thing pack-burro racing has that these sports lack is real soul.

ONE OF THE great things about coming into the sport in the early 1980s was that I had the chance to see so many of the greatest pack-burro racers of all time in action, and to get to know these characters. There was all-time great Joe Glavinick of Leadville. Ardel Boes the Colorado School of Mines Professor was just coming into his prime. Curtis Imrie was always a threat on any course. Still later, mountain runner Tom Sobal took up the sport and set records on every course on the circuit. There were some great women burro racers, too, including Susan Applegate, Mary Gorman, Kelly Palmer, Diane Makris, Kendra Cowhey, Mary Walter and later Barbara Dolan. And these are just some of the people who I saw win championships. For each one of them I could name five other pack-burro racers who have exceptional human qualities. This sport has a way of bringing to the surface and revealing hidden weaknesses in people. I can say that most pack-burro racers don’t have that many weaknesses, and are not afraid to address the ones they do have.

BUT FOR EVERY ONE OF THESE great runners, I realized that there was also a great burro. Blackjack, Billy Carter, Hayduke, Oscar, Maynard, Jasper, Lucky Boy, and Sailor are the names of some of the animals that made champions out of many of these racers.

As I evolved as a pack-burro racer I realized that having the right animal as a running partner was just as important as the right skill set and abilities. I raced with Moose my second season and learned a lot. Then I bought Jumpin’ Jack, a wild, rank unhandled burro, and spent the next couple of years in intensive study. I bought Clyde and put everything I learned from Moose and Jumpin’ Jack to work with him. Clyde took me to my first win in the Leadville race, but also left me with the heartbreak of six second-place finishes in the World Championship at Fairplay. In 1995, weary of looking for the right burro that might take me to the top, I bought a yearling named Spike. I swore Spike would be the last burro I trained in this life. Three years and a lot of work later, Spike and I finally reached what had begun to seem to me like an unattainable goal, winning the 50th running of the Fairplay World Championship. It had taken me 18 years. Then at 40, I won the race a second time.

Late in the first January of the new millennium, with Mars hanging in the evening sky, I went to a pasture southeast of Westcliffe where a jack burro colt had been born to a wild jenny. “Creedance” had been bred to a mammoth jack, and I knew her to be exceptional in size and conformation, and to have an excellent “way of going.” Her baby was reddish in color, and had longer legs than any baby burro I had ever seen. Like his mother, he seemed to float as he ran by her side. He would become the second “last” burro I would ever train in this life. I named him Redbo, after the horse owned by the main character in Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. It’s a literary thing, but it was an epiphany for me when I reached the point in this epic tale when John Grady Cole, having lost nearly everything but his soul in Old Mexico, said: “The hell with it. I ain’t leavin my horse down here.”

Redbo is now 18 months old. He is halter broken, has an aptitude for co√∂peration that I have never seen in a burro, and can also blaze a three-mile course faster than any burro I have ever known. He’s years away from making a run at a world championship, and maybe by then I will be too. But the point is he’ll keep me connected to that sense of belonging that I found back in 1980 when I finished my first pack-burro race at Leadville.

As for my client, he hasn’t fired me yet. He lives on a different planet and it’s a far reach that he would ever read about his joke and recognize it in this little magazine. Even if he does, I’m sure he can take a joke just as well as I can. And if he can’t, well, I suppose one thing I’ve learned in all of this is that there’s always another jackass out there, just waiting to be trained.

The Western Pack-Burro ASSociation’s schedule of events can be found at Hal Walter’s book Pack-Burro Stories can be found everywhere books are sold. The World Championship Pack-Burro Race is always held in Fairplay on the last Sunday in July.