“Are you ok? Do you need a beer? You’ve got a really nice looking ass!”
Those words came from some well-meaning passersby as my teammate and I plodded slowly up the road. My legs were fresh and ready to run. My partner was fit and healthy but his heart was just not in it. I was seven miles into the Leadville Boom Days Pack Burro Race, and I was quite literally dragging ass.
Leadville holds a special place in my heart. When we moved to Colorado’s bustling Front Range many years ago, Leadville became our home away from home. In a place rich with glitzy ski resorts and polished mountain towns, this gritty little outpost nestled among the highest peaks in the state is our refuge. It’s 20 miles from Vail, as the crow flies, but it feels like it’s a world away. It’s also the place where I saw my first burro race and the dream was born.
Pack Burro Racing is the only sport that is indigenous to Colorado. What started as a tribute to the state’s mining history has become an annual spectacle in which, every summer, super fit athletes and their hopefully well-trained and willing equine counterparts run long distances over Rocky Mountain passes. It’s as crazy as it sounds.
Burro races are anywhere from 5 to 29 miles long and the rules are simple: You may run or walk with your donkey. Donkeys must carry a packsaddle equipped with a pick, gold pan, and shovel, and the whole thing must weigh at least 33 pounds. You must have control of your donkey at all times and in the event that you drop the lead rope you must go back to where you lost it and start again. You may carry your donkey but under no circumstances is your donkey allowed to carry you.
It seems straightforward enough until you consider the fact that donkeys are not known for being especially compliant.
If you had told me two years ago that I’d be spending my summers running around in the mountains with a donkey I would have told you that you were crazy. Looking back, none of this should have been a surprise. I was an animal lover who was obsessed with ultra endurance sports. I revel in obscure and ridiculous challenges and relish any excuse to play in the mountains. I love nothing more than high altitude adventures, cuddly critters, and a little friendly competition.
Burro racing was clearly the perfect sport for me but there was just one minor problem: I knew absolutely nothing about donkeys.
Before last summer my equine experience consisted almost entirely of a couple pony rides at the state fair. I knew which end of the donkey was the front end and which was the back end but my knowledge stopped there. If I was going to do this, I was going to have to leave my comfort zone far behind. And I was going to need some help.
Seeking advice and a willing burro, I rang up a donkey trainer and explained the situation. A few days later I sheepishly showed up at his door to learn the ropes of burro wrangling. He showed me how to put on a halter and packsaddle. I learned how to avoid getting kicked and how scratching the inside of those enormous ears will win you a donkey’s undying love. And I met a little grey guy named Guinness.
The morning of the Leadville race had started out okay. Guinness and I lined up on Harrison Street with the small women’s field and when the shotgun (this is Leadville, after all) went off we went trotting out of town at a manageable pace. It was a beautiful day and we had 15 miles of high mountain trails ahead of us in my favorite place on the planet. Life was looking pretty damn good.
And then it all went downhill. Fast.
A few miles into the race Guinness and I were near the back of the pack but chasing down a group that was a little ways ahead of us when we had a bit of a disagreement about whether or not to cut a switchback. In an instant the group was gone. The women behind us were so far back that we couldn’t see them. Unbeknownst to me, they would later drop out of the race, turn their burros around, and head back to town. We were suddenly alone on the trail with no other teams in sight.
Here’s the thing about donkeys: they are pack animals and they don’t like running alone. They’re also really smart. They will take advantage of you if they sense that you don’t know what you’re doing or that you can be taken advantage of. Unfortunately, I fall into both of these categories.
Guinness is a great little runner. He’s not the fastest donkey in the world but when he wants to, he can hold a nice steady pace all day long. At 17-years young he’s a veteran of the sport. He knows these courses inside and out and he’ll run really well for someone who can keep him motivated. I am not that someone.
When we suddenly found ourselves alone on the trail he threw in the towel. He refused to walk, much less run, and he decided that the wildflowers along the remaining ten miles of trail would be his personal buffet. He was done.
But Guinness wasn’t the only stubborn animal on the mountain that day. There was no way that I was going to bend to the will of a 450-pound donkey so I did the only thing that I knew how to do with a large quadruped that refused to budge.
I threw the rope over my shoulder and I pulled.
It was slow, exhausting work and I fought for every inch of forward progress we made. It took us almost an hour and a half to cover the next two miles and when we rolled into the next checkpoint the volunteer looked relieved. Unbeknownst to me the race directors, concerned that I hadn’t shown up earlier, had called my family to the announcer’s booth. They told them that they were pretty sure that I was okay … but that they didn’t know exactly where I was.
I assured the checkpoint volunteer that I was fine, thanked him for the bottle of water that he handed me, turned my donkey towards the trail, and soldiered on. We had a long way to go and at this rate it was going to take a while.
It would have been easy to get frustrated or want to quit but all I had to do was take one look around me and it was hard to be too mad. Everything about this situation was absurd and I had to just shake my head and laugh. I was hiking, however slowly, at 12,000 feet above sea level on a beautiful summer day with an adorable and sweet if not entirely willing donkey. Life could be a lot worse.
That’s how adventures go. Sometimes you’re trotting along at a fine clip and trying to get from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible. Sometimes you’re forced to walk at a snail’s pace because life has other ideas on how fast you should be moving. Both situations are okay. I can tell you that on that long, slow walk I had an awful lot of time to take in the wildflowers, gaze at the surrounding mountains, and breathe in that cool, thin air.
Several hours later we made our way back into town where we crossed the finish line almost an hour and a half behind the team in front of us. Our last place finish earned us a six-pack of beer and a trophy prominently featuring the back end of a donkey and the words “Last Ass Up the Avenue”. Again, all I could do was laugh.
It’s a performance that I hope to not repeat in the coming year but it’s also not one that I regret. It may have been one of the worst races in the history of the sport but it was still one of the best days I’ve had in the mountains. Sometimes the only thing to do is let go of your expectations and take what the day gives you. Sometimes that old cliché is right and it really is all about the journey.
Jen Dziuvenis is a writer, photography enthusiast, mountain biker, burro racer, recovering lawyer, and all around lover of playing outside. She is also a mom to a human, two dogs, and three chickens. She blogs at Chasing My Trail.