FAIRPLAY, Colo. — On a dirt road, miles away from any sort of civilization, two equally stubborn creatures slowly pushed and pulled their way up toward a mountain pass.
Bryan Shane talked to Margarita with a calm, steady tone. He scratched her back, offered encouraging words and even held a treat in his hand. If only she would take a step forward.
But, for lack of a better phrase, she was one stubborn ass.
“You won’t make a burro move if they don’t want to. You see the typical ‘dragging your ass,’” Shane said, throwing up air quotes. “It’s just not going to work. We gotta work together on this. But it’s a long day. A long day on the hill.”
A long day indeed. Margarita and Shane were trudging uphill on County Road 12 toward the top of Colorado’s Mosquito Pass. They were stuck in a stalemate around mile 10 of the 25-mile annual World Championship Pack Burro Race, which is hosted by the small town of Fairplay.
The population of the town is estimated at just over 700, but on Sunday, more than 10,000 visitors descended on the community to celebrate the race and enjoy other activities that were part of the annual weekend-long event called Burro Days.
The schedule includes a mix of different events, but the pack burro race is the star of the show. The sport has deep roots in Colorado’s history and, after years of small, quiet races, has recently captured the attention of people well beyond the state’s historic mining towns.
And with a tagline like “Get yur ass up the pass,” it’s hard to not feel at least a little curious about Colorado’s summer heritage sport.
'71 years of hauling ass'
To somebody unfamiliar with burro racing, running alongside a donkey for several hours may seem to make as much sense as swimming with a goldfish or digging a deep hole with a dog.
Sure, it’s possible, but certainly strange. So, why do it? And why make it a sport?
In short: Because of what burro racing means to the state of Colorado.
The animals were a favorite for miners because they could carry more weight for their size than a horse or a mule. They were also used to sniff out dangerous gases underground, since their sense of smell is much sharper than that of humans. This earned them the nickname Rocky Mountain Canary, said Bill Lee, who is both a pack burro race director and participant, among other things.
By the 1940s, many mining towns started to dry up. Lee said the idea of burro racing stemmed from a desire to draw visitors to a mountain town that couldn’t reap rewards from tourist traps like a ski slope or river.
And so burro racing, a sport indigenous to Colorado, was born.
On May 29, 2012, pack burro racing became Colorado’s summer heritage sport, thanks to a proposal from Lee. On that day, the Colorado legislature approved a joint resolution to designate it as the summer heritage sport.
That could be the reason behind the recent uptick in pack burro racing participation, Lee said.
The World Championship Pack Burro Race, which held its annual race Sunday, has both a 15-mile and 29-mile race, though the latter was cut a few miles short due to snowy conditions on Mosquito Pass. The shorter races are more attractive to the everyday person who doesn’t want to run an ultramarathon, much less run one with a burro, Lee said.
Runners can either bring their own donkey or rent from somebody in the area. Each animal must carry 33 pounds on its back, including a pick, shovel and gold pan as a nod to the sport’s mining history.
Sunday was the event’s 71st annual race. Around the start line, people sported hats and shirts proudly inked with the phrase “Celebrating 71 years of hauling ass.”
Last year, the world championships had a record-breaking 89 participants, said Julie Bullock.
She is the special events planner for the town of Fairplay and has been involved with the race for the past 15 years.
This year, the number jumped up slightly — 93 people started the race.
It’s become a “very beloved” part of Fairplay, she said, and is the reason the town has flourished.
“Until you actually see it, you don’t get it. It’s just so cool,” she said. “And these runners are so in love with their burros. They’re so kind to their burros. It’s like they’re domestic pets. It is an amazing scene.”
Burros and runners, take your mark
“This is my new buddy, Piper,” Mike Brunette said, his arm slung over the donkey’s neck at the start line.
He scratched her forehead and her eyes closed.
“I’m from Chicago, Illinois. Piper is local,” he said, laughing. “She’s great. She’s really calm. Maybe a little bit stubborn, but so am I.”
Brunette was one of about 20 people who had traveled to Fairplay from out of state to participate in the race.
Sunday was his first pack burro race. While he said he’s an avid runner, he had never spent much time around donkeys or horses. Piper, who had been so relaxed at the start line last year that she actually fell asleep, was his first real experience with one.
He said he hoped to finish in the top eight for the 15-mile race.
“But if it’s not in the cards for Piper, it’s not in the cards,” he said.
Jennifer Poulton, who was one of the first people at the start line Sunday, was a little more in her element. She grew up in Fairplay and has raced in the world championships for the past six years.
She and her husband own her donkey, named Nova, who sported plastic flowers in her mane Sunday morning.
“She only comes to town once a year, so it’s like going to the prom or the dance. She has to get dressed up,” Poulton said.
She said she believes burro racing is going to get more and more popular.
“I don’t know how people find out about it, being from Fairplay,” she said. “That’s how I knew about it. The first year, I ran with a gal from Connecticut and I couldn’t figure out how she knew about a burro race in Fairplay, Colorado.”
Shortly before 10:30 a.m., the racers lined their donkeys on the start line — a simple streak of white paint across the road in front of the Hand Hotel — and waited. A large crowd lined the entire street, cameras and phones at the ready. This strip, the historic district of Fairplay, was suddenly very much alive with anticipation.
On the half hour, an official with a starting gun fired two shots in the air and the participants took off northwest on Front Street into South Park City, where they disappeared around a corner.
Push and pull and repeat
As many of the participants yanked, persuaded and pleaded for their burros to run — or at least walk, in some cases — two runners and their donkeys flew by in the opposite direction. They had already reached the halfway mark and were well on their way back toward the finish line back in Fairplay.
“We work them together and they do a lot better,” Lee said. “A lot of finishes are close because of that.”
As the top frontrunners rushed back into town, other runners, particularly those who chose to do the less-desired longer race, were stuck alone with burros that weren’t quite as motivated to press on.
Like Shane and Margarita.
“You can do a lot of work and it still ends up like this,” Shane said as he walked backward, pulling the halter taut. “Built for comfort, not for speed, today.”
He calls Fairplay home and had been caring for Margarita for about a month, strengthening the trust in their relationship a little every day.
Burro racers know that the best way to head into a race is to hope for the best and prepare for the worst, he said. Even if their burro lives locally and participates in these races often, that doesn’t mean the race will go off without a hitch.
“Having three kids, you kind of get prepped for this,” he said, laughing as he held out the carrot for his burro once more. “It doesn’t matter what you want. I have twin girls, so this is a piece of cake.”
Volunteers along the course get to see runners tackle these challenges from the sidelines.
Mark Skelton and Julia Marschke, both of Firestone, have volunteered together at the world championships for the past three years. On Sunday, they were posted up at the halfway point of the shorter race, where the burros and runners had to curve around an orange traffic cone before they headed back into town.
As the burros came and went, the duo marked times and numbers down on a notepad and Skelton radioed it into race officials.
Skelton is an amateur radio operator and said volunteering with the race not only gives him a chance to practice his skills, but it also provides an additional safety aspect to the race should anybody need help at that checkpoint.
Marschke said she enjoys watching the participants work to persuade their donkeys to round the cone. At another year’s race, one man even tied his donkey to a tree and gave up after it wouldn’t move for a very, very long time, she said.
The well-earned finish line
After hours of wrangling both beast and frustration, in almost Herculean efforts, burro racers ran, walked, pushed and pulled their way back down Front Street and to the finish line.
The first two runners of the 15-mile course finished within two seconds of each other.
Meghan Himschoot of Idledale grinned as she ran over the finish line, her donkey Big Mac in tow. It was her first burro race, and she’d stayed with a friend and her donkey, Sugar Ray. Both donkeys, which were rented for the event, were rescued from a kill pen in Texas and now regularly run the races together.
“Today went really well in the beginning. We had a lot of fun and did so good all the way up to about 10 miles,” she said. “Fell a little off track and slowed down. Otherwise, they did really good.”
As each runner finished, they were greeted by excited spectators who swarmed around them to pet the donkey, hear about the experience and take pictures.
Megan Malherbe, of Berthoud, was stuck pulling her donkey for much of the final stretch. The rope was taut as she walked over the finish line, followed by her donkey Nash.
“If he doesn’t want to run, he’s not going to,” she said and shrugged.
Her family uses Nash as a guard donkey for their goats, but she has started using him more often for the burro races. The sport may test her patience, but she said she knows it’s more fun to relax and just enjoy the day.
“It’s good for both of us,” she said.
It wasn’t until the sun had started to dip behind the mountains that Margarita and Shane, who had struggled going up the pass earlier in the day, finally returned to Front Street. They were the final finishers, crossing the finish line in just under 11 hours.
‘It’ll change who you are’
They’re creatures known worldwide for their stubbornness, and yet burros stole the hearts of Sunday’s racers.
That wasn’t surprising to Brad Wann, who works with the (cheekily named) Western Pack Burro Ass-ociation. His first burro race in 2008 kicked off a deep passion for the sport. On Sunday morning, he was in Fairplay helping racers prepare for the day ahead.
“Once you’ve seen it, you’ll never forget it and once you do it, it’s hard to walk away,” he said. “For 5,000 years or more, we’ve had a connection with animals, and we have less and less of a connection with animals and that’s what’s wrong with our society today.”
A burro will put a person in check, he said. And because they’re somewhat unpredictable, the sport offers a much more level playing field. Wann said anybody — any age, any ability — is welcome to try burro racing, no matter if they want to come to experience the burro culture, check off a bucket list item or challenge their normal running routine.
Among many things, it will teach you patience and forgiveness, he said.
“We’ve lost … that ability to forgive,” he said. “There’s a lot of forgiveness in this sport — the ability to overcome an obstacle with a critter who’s not known for cooperation.”
Pack burro racing, which has a foundation built on top of so much history, strong-willed people and pure grit, has a much softer, almost introspective side to it.
Wann swears that it can change a person, how they think about things and how they treat people.
“It’ll change who you are,” he said. “It’s amazing how it brings you back down to Earth and all of a sudden, we’re a community.”
Burro racing removes a person’s ego and selfishness, he said. That energy and focus must be passed along to the animal on the other end of the halter.
“They want to know that you’re going to be there for ‘em,” Wann said. “They’re like a solider in a trench with another solider. Ya know? Everyone’s got each other’s back and if you have that bond with that animal, you’re going to have a successful time.”
Videography by Denver7's Ryan Osborne.