(CNN) — Consider the glorious but humble donkey. According to the Bible, Jesus rode one, not a horse, into Jerusalem.
The significance was that it was a common man’s animal for the common man’s king, rather than a more traditionally royal steed. And its Sunday school lore that his mother rode one from Nazareth while pregnant, though that’s not in the official canon. I checked.
Domesticated for about 5,000 years, donkeys have been put to work for humanity’s historically changing needs. They’ve been the family car, our U-Haul vans, engines pulling barges in canals and wagons out West, and they’ve been our workmates — if you work in a mine or on a farm. They’re still used in military operations to carry ground air missiles over difficult terrain.
Burros, as the Spanish call them, walk at about a human’s foot speed. They rarely kick or bite. They seem to have a calming effect on horses and humans. And they don’t get nearly the respect they deserve, the Rodney Dangerfields of the animal kingdom.
Like a cross between a Tesla and a wheelbarrow, donkeys are beasts of burden that can carry up to 300 pounds for more than two weeks in the mountains, while needing very little food or water. They’re sort of the camels of the West. In fact, they’re the camels of the East, North and South, too, as donkeys continue to thrive in North and South America, Europe, Asia and Africa.
As some industries faded, the donkey soon added racing partner to its resume. When the US mining industry started to dry up in the 1930s and ’40s, some enterprising Coloradans came up with the idea of attracting spectators to their towns by hosting an ultramarathon of human-donkey pairs — The World Championship Pack Burro Race.
“They teach us so much,” said pack burro race director Brad Wann. “They teach us humility. They connect us with nature. Burros have the ability to reach into your soul.”
The first race was in 1949, which makes it, according Wann, the second-oldest continuously run marathon in the country after the Boston Marathon.
The race also lends itself to a variety of puns. For example, the winner of the annual pack burro championship is the first to get his or her ass over the finish line. Wann’s title is media relations officer for the Western Pack Burro Ass-ociation. There are eight of these eye-rollers in this article if you’d like to spot them all.
But it’s still a serious sport, even if it has a sense of humor. “Haulin’ Ass” is the title of a very straight documentary about the sport.
A burro-ful day
Originally the race extended between Leadville and Fairplay, located in the middle of the state and only about 11 miles apart as the crow flies, but separated by a mountain. Legend holds that it was inspired by two miners who struck gold simultaneously and raced back to town to claim the find. The real story is that the race was inspired by a desire to keep former mining towns from turning into ghosts.
Now both towns have their own races, part of an annual series of eight in Colorado. Fairplay, is the longest (29 miles), tied for highest (more than 13,000 feet), and the one that retained the World Championship title. The town is also home to the Prunes Monument, possibly the only monument in the world erected to honor a donkey. Prunes worked alongside a miner for more than 60 years.
Race day, in July, was a cool one of blue skies. This year 89 — a record number — of human-burro pairs competed in the 70th world championship, assembling in the Old West-looking Fairplay. Wann estimates at least 150,000 people showed up to watch the start of the race.
The smell of excitement and excrement was in the air as the starter gun signaled a mass start of two lengths. The 29-mile race had 20 pairs and 3,300 feet of elevation gain and a short course of 15 miles had another 69 pairs.
The start of the race is critical, explained Wann. “Don’t break their will, let the burro set the pace early on instead of shutting it down,” he explained. “Burros will pair up and want to go that pace, and you have to feel that out. So run as fast you can — sprint if the donkey does. If you can’t do that you’ll have a slow donkey the rest of the race. It’s a burro race, not a human race.”
The course also ends in Fairplay, running through South Park (the show of the same name has somehow not done a burro racing episode), and then heading up dirt roads, trails and rocky terrain to the 13,185-foot summit of Mosquito Pass. (Or should that be Mosquito P-ass?)
The age range of the human runners at this year’s world championship was 15 to 70, and they came from all over the US, Europe, Canada and even Africa. The California team brought in their own donkeys. About 65% were repeat runners addicted to the niche sport which consistently only takes place in Colorado, the state where it was born.
About a third of the runners were women this year. In fact, the first woman to ever compete was Edna Miller, with her burro Pill, in 1951, nearly 20 years before the first woman ran the Boston Marathon (against the rules, even then).
The donks — as insiders may refer to them — that competed this year have adorable and delicious names such as Buckwheat, Hershey and Sweet Pea. Past winners have included BonBon and Cream Puff. My favorite name for a competitor this year was ReDONKulous. This year included 16 mini-donkeys on the short course.
And don’t call donkeys mules, which are actually half donkey and half horse breeds. Those half-assed animals aren’t allowed to race in the pack burro circuit.
Rules state that the donks (I’m an insider now) must carry mining equipment: a pick, gold pan, shovel and saddle. This weighs about 16 pounds and for the mini-donkeys that’s all they need; standard-sized donkeys must add weights to a minimum of 33 pounds. The rope attaching the team can’t be longer than 15 feet and the runners don’t dress as miners, though the occasional cowboy hat may allude to an earlier era.
Like any ultramarathon, especially with elevation, endurance requires training. And in this case some animal husbandry skills as well. As a result, there are, of course, comical moments for bystanders watching when the donkey protests. Sometimes a burro will just shut down. In previous races, teams have had to drop out when this happens.
The air may be thin on oxygen up on Mosquito Pass, but the mountain views are amazing. Green and grey peaks are in all directions, the views as wild and West as some of pack animals.
This year’s winning team was Kirt Courkamp and his burro Mary Margaret, finishing the 29 miles in just over 6 hours and winning the $1,000 first place prize. These two locals won the last two years and this year won in Leadville and Buena Vista too, collectively known as the Triple Crown.
“In the whole world, there are probably fewer than 1,000 people who have ever competed in a pack-burro race,” the late Denver Post columnist Ed Quillen wrote in 2007, arguing for it to be the state’s official sport. (In 2012, pack burro racing was designated a summer heritage sport of Colorado.)
If you want to be among this elite crew, your training is two-fold. You need to condition yourself to run long distances — putting in the hours on trail runs and at high altitudes — as the pack burro race is a very challenging course.
Then there is driving a donkey. They don’t need to acclimate to the altitude or learn how to properly fuel themselves with calories and hydration to go the distance. But runners still benefit with getting as many miles together as possible.
There are techniques and personality differences among the animals that need to be m-ass-tered to have a successful run. “If the burro doesn’t trust you, or like you, or you are pushing too hard,” said Wann, “it’s not going to work.”
Organizers don’t recommend it but you can show up the day before a burro pack race and rent a donkey. Amber Wann, a self described “donkey matchmaker” and wife of Brad, rents them for races and tries to match running speed and equine experience.
“Burro racing is a very mental game,” he added. “We’re navigating through some of the roughest terrain in the world and you have to build a relationship with your ass to make that happen.”
Running with a donkey is a bit of give and take, literally. Sometimes you’re pulling them, other times they’re pulling you. Uphill they can be a real ass-et if they are in the lead and pulling a bit. But going downhill, runners want to be in the lead lest they find themselves getting dragged by a fast and enthusiastic 900-pound burro which can haul ass at speeds up to 40 miles per hour.
On flats, either teammate can be in the lead, or side-by-side, but human runners are still doing the steering.
You control a donkey through their nose, pulling back on the rope to slow down, like a gas pedal of pressure-and-release to change speed. A whistle or a “hup-hup!” can get ’em goin’ and the classic “whoa” can slow ’em down. The donkey of course doesn’t know where it’s going. Humans are the “GPS for the critters,” Wann said.
Gear-wise, runners need the right shoes, clothes, running vests and fuel for an ultramarathon. And the burros, in addition to getting a clean bill of health from a vet, need the old timey mining equipment and added weight to carry.
Ass-essing risk and reward
As with any ultramarathon trail run, injuries are always possible. According to a 2015 study involving 1,212 active ultrarunners, they suffered about the same frequency of injuries as shorter-distance runners, though some wounds were inflicted by the obstacles of trail running. The most common injuries were of the knee and foot stress fractures.
Being tethered to a donkey adds risk of injury to runners, of course. If you trip, you can get serious road rash from getting dragged along. One year a runner bruised or broke some ribs when her burro kicked her in the chest.
The rules don’t allow runners to ride the donkey, but in the race’s history, injured runners have been carried down the mountain on their partners’ back, as they’re out of the race anyway.
Donkeys get injured too, but in 70 years of racing, not one animal has died or been injured beyond recovery.
Animal rights groups have raised eyebrows about the sport but organizers stress the humane treatment of the burros. “Any contestant mistreating his animal may be disqualified,” the race rules state. “No needles, electric prods, narcotics, clubs or whips, other than the halter rope, may be used.” But the runners’ love for their donkey partners makes this rule seemingly superfluous.
Organizers also point out that donkeys enjoy the race as much as the ultra-runners. “If you observe donkeys in the wild, they aren’t sedentary creatures,” wrote Western Pack Burro Ass-ociation member Sheri L. Thompson on the sport’s race website. “In the wild, donkeys are very trim athletic animals” and “they exercise all day long.”
“They are willing participants,” Thompson writes, alluding to the burro’s famous stubbornness. “If they don’t want to go, you can’t make them do anything.”