Wednesday morning I logged into my work e-mail like I always do. There was a message from a colleague inviting people out to cheer on the burro race in a small mountain town not terribly far from home. After a bit of casual banter back and forth I figure out the long course matches my distance goal for Sunday. And the next thing I knew, I had signed up for a burro race.
Did you know you can rent a racing burro? Me neither. But the crew at Laughing Valley Ranch have been doing it for a while now. And doing it well I might add.
The course was exactly the sort of thing my coach would like to see me running. A mile or so of pavement. Some twin track through the high mountain prairie. Some weird trail in the road ditch. Some Jeep trail. Some cross tundra route finding. It had nearly everything the Colorado mountains had to offer - including topping out over 13,000 feet above sea level at the top of Mosquito Pass, and some really wet shoes due to stream crossings. I even could have spent some time in the snow had I been so inclined.
Why burro racing? Well there's a story behind all that. Legend has it that two miners struck gold at a claim on the same day. And they were fighting over who owned the claim. And the only real way to establish that would be to get down to town and register the find. The first miner there got all the gold. So they loaded up the burros and raced into town. The burro race is a sort of reinactment of that event, only we get the bonus of running up to the mine then back, and not just down into town.
There's even video of the start! I make an appearance about 1:20 in. Orange shirt, black and white hat, somewhat short and choppy stride. (kind of like a burro now that I think of it...)
The first mile of the race went nearly nothing as I expected. I had heard stories of burros blasting out of the gate. Thumper and I (the burro's name was Thumper) took off at a good clip, but nothing too fast. I was kind of feeling him out and he was kind of feeling me out. As the terrain got rougher, Thumper would slow. And that was fine with me. And we walked a bit. And then Thumper stopped.
My friend from work had explained to me that the burro was a cautious animal. If something was new, the burro was probably going to stop. Sometimes the best thign to do would be to just let the animal check things out and make a decision by itself. Well, Thumper had found a bit of leather strapping that had fallen off the saddle of one of the faster teams. And even I admit it looked kind of like a snake sitting there in the grass. Way to go Thumper! So I picked up the strap and put it in the saddle bag.
And that was pretty much the end of the fast stuff for a while. Thumper and I managed to get caught by a couple of kids. These kids had more experience than I did, and they were very nice and taught me a bit more about handling a burro. And Thumper fell in with the herd and we all kind of ran, walked, pulled, and pushed for another five miles together.
A couple times since the race I've been asked the question, "What was it like running with a donkey?" Well, best I can describe it is like running with a four year old. You go fast. You go really fast. And then you stop. The stop might be a short look at something. It might be a stop for a snack. It might be a potty stop. And then you walk a bit. And maybe you get distracted and start going the wrong way, and someone throws a fit and gets all stubborn and decides they aren't going to move for a bit. (Could be you, could be the burro.) And you just repeat that in a random sequence and that was pretty much my day. We'll get the yelling and trickery later...
As we (you know, Thumper and I) approached the turn around for the short course Thumper decided it was time to stop and get pet by some spectators. The family in the camp chairs was nice enough to ask if I minded. I just kind of laughed and said I didn't think I had much choice. I rummaged in the saddle bag and found the carrots I had stashed in there. I was going to lure Thumper away from the family the old fashioned way. As Thumper reached for the carrot and started to follow, another passing group of burros reached us. The people laughed at me. I guess they hadn't seen the carrot trick actually work much. Thumper and I fell into the new pack. Everyone was moving pretty slowly, and this was just fine with Thumper. I'm sure the burros had a discussion about how the day was going, but by now it should be ovious that I do not speak burro. So I can only assume they were laughing at me. The people started to talk a bit too. Turns out the three of them were intending to do the long course.
Now I have to admit, at this point I had resigned myself to the shorter distance. Between Thumper not being interested in running with me, and the building clouds, I didn't think there was any way going up the pass was going to be a good idea. But here was a group moving about my speed (well, Thumpers speed) and I was welcome to join in. Taking on the long course with just me and Thumper didn't sound like a good idea. But with a group, things seemed a bit more manageable. I shifted my mindset one more time. I was in it for the long haul again!
You ever get a song stuck in your head while out on the trails? Since I stopped using music it happens to me rather frequently. And on this day, the song was the theme from Raw hide, as performed by the blues brothers. You know, this one:
So I'm there humming along. And a few words slip out. Next thing I know, some others in the crew are mentioning they have the song stuck in their head too. I should probably apologize for that, but I'm not really sorry. The song was just too fitting to let go.
One of our group was Amber. Her burro was Willie. Amber was the burro racing veteran of the group and willie knew exactly what to do. On the uphill climbs, Amber would put the rope behind her hips, drop behind Willie, and he would pull her up the slope. Thumper and I had things pretty much reversed. I was in front, and I was pulling Thumper up the hills. In fact, when I would drop in behind Thumper, he would pretty much stop.
This is a bit of a problem. You're supposed to be behind the animal, and the animal is supposed to pull you up the hills and along the flats. On the downhill, you want to be in front to control the speed. No where in the list of things you're supposed to do is pull your burro for 25+ miles.
The scene was classic Colorado. The high alpine was excellent. The storm blew through with just a few minutes of light rain, and less than an hour of cloudy drizzle. There was no lightning. The flowers this year have been incredible. We even got up into just a bit of snow - though that was easily avoidable. And we topped out at Mosquito pass just over 13,000 feet above sea level.
What do a guy from New Jersey, an Iron Man from Houston, an ultra runner (can I claim that title now?), and a mom recovering from health issues have in common? Four hairy animals and a goal to make it up the pass and back down to town. I mentioned Amber and Willie. Our Iron Man was Rob. He was with Smokey. The guy from New Jersey was Randy. Randy was running with Mr. Ziffel. We were a bit of an odd group, but we got along well and helped each other finish the race.
The way back down was much of the same, only with Thumper deciding he REALLY wanted to chew on some thistles and drink from the streams that were crossing the path. Clearly, we were in no hurry. At some point on the way down Amber noticed the saddle on Willie was broken and sliding forward. Remember that leather strap that Thumper found? Well, we used that to patch up the saddle. Thumper had saved the day!
I'll skip over most of the descent. It was beautiful. It was wet with the snow melt running down the jeep road. And it was slow. The course passed through a small neighborhood of cabins and seasonal homes, and just a couple year round houses. And we were welcomed. There were unofficial aid stations that gave us and the donkeys water. There were people just hanging out in their yards cheering on the animals and their people. It was great to feel the community come together to support the Colorado tradition of burro racing.
There was a check point where the course was to make a turn and follow the paved road. Coming to this check point Amber had mentioned she was having issues with her feet and shoes, and that she had a fresh pair and a desire to swap out. I let Thumper take a great big drink at the check point. Even though a burro can go quite some time without water (I was told second only to a camel, but I haven't fact checked that.) Thumper sure was a thirsty beast today. I'm willing to guess he drank at least as much water as I did, and probably consumed more pounds of thistles and yellow flowers than any racer should eat on the course.
As Thumper continued to refuel, Amber found a good spot for shoe changing. This is when our herd splits. Two other burros had come in while I was letter Thumper do his thing, and Randy and Rob set off with them. It was a race after all. (I learned later they thought we were still together. No hard feelings. Had I been in their spot, I'm not sure I would have turned back or stopped.) Thumper and I hung out while Amber changed her shoes. We both had a snack. Even Willie was enjoying a good graze. I hung out for several reasons. First, Amber was suddenly not looking so good. Part of the spirit of the ultra running community that I love is the way people take care of each other. And I didn't feel right leaving Amber when she was hurting. A second reason I stayed with Amber is that I didn't exactly know the course back. It was different than the way we took out. And third, it was about to get dark, and she had a headlamp. I didn't. And fourth - things of this nature are so much better with company.
I don't remember the exact details of of the brief conversation when Amber stood up. I remember I asked a simple question. "Are we finishing this?" And I remember Amber's answer started with, "Let's go." So we did.
Going by the waterfowlers trick of guessing sunrise and sunset times by when you can distinguish color, I'll say the sun set as we turned off a brief piece of dirt road and fell in on a single and twin track that sort of followed a creek. Funny thing about burros. They don't run in the dark. In fact, they don't see all that well in the dark, and they'll get right up close to you. Thumper was so close to me that I forgot to take in the slack in the lead and he stepped on it a couple times. The last magestic sight of the day was when the trail rose a bit above the water and the brush along the creek and I could see the nearly full moonlight reflecting off the water. I remember staring at it a while without really recognizing what it was I was staring at when Amber mentioned it. It was a beautiful sight.
We passed the last checkpoint in the dark. Amber didn't have her headlamp turned on yet. We were still navagating by light of the moon. And it was going pretty well. We had some navigational issues leaving the last checkpoint, but we got back to where we were supposed to be. The course finished by going through a gravel pit. And in my opinion, this was the toughest part of the course. (Sure, the dark didn't help.) Heading out the far side of the gravel pit required sneaking through some rather dense undergrowth with poor footing. It was all I could do to keep Willie in my sight, and he was following Amber's light. Thumper was just being dragged along. As we started to climb, things got ugly. Amber told me I should just grab onto Willies back strap and follow that way.
That seemed like a great idea. Until Willie decided to go, and Thumper decided to stop. We were headed up a hill and the footing was loose. I was being pulled up the hill by one arm, and down the hill by the other. And I slipped. But I didn't fall. I was just hanging there, suspended in the air between two donkeys heading up a rocky slope. I quickly got my feet back under me and we finished the last of the climb. And then we were nearly to town. We followed the road. A car filled with Amber's family had come out to the main road to watch for us. And we could hear them yelling back to the rest of the folks that we were coming. And then we could hear the crowd. Amber stopped us. We got our herd organized. The goal was to make a race of it. Less than 100 yards, one left turn, and then another short straight away to the finish line.
Somehow Amber rallied. She managed to get both the burros running. So we hooted and hollered our way down the road. At the turn both burros kind of got confused, but we got them facing the right way and kept it up. We made a good show of it for the folks that came out of the bar and hotel to cheer us in. Thumper fell in behind Willie. That's where he wanted to be. And I was fine with that. Amber's kids came and ran a bit and actually scared Willie onto the sidewalk for a moment. This cause Thumper to put on the brakes. I was able to watch Amber finish with her family. And then Thumper and I got ourselves across the line.
And that's the story of my first DFL (Deak F***ing Last) finish. I'm sure it won't be my last, but it will quite likely be my most memorable.
Photo credits -
Most of the pre-race photos are mine.
I took some of the mid-race photos.
And I have to confess, the rest I lost track of the original photographers as they bounced around facebook. Most are used with permission. Some, I don't think I actually asked.
I would like to thank Rob Crane for several photos and a day of great company.
Amber - I would not have gotten my miles without you. Thank you.
Randy Pedretti, thanks for letting me crash your day. I love the tradition your family has started.
A special thank you to Jennifer Mewes for allowing me to share the finish line photo. My smile is not fake.
And thank you to GZ. This will not be my last burro race.
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