Let the record show that Little Jonah did not finish dead-ass last in the Gold Rush Challenge.
The mighty (and shaggy) little beast that I rented for a 7.5-mile pack burro race in the sleepy mining town of Victor, Colo., shuffled his cupcake-size hooves up and down a narrow mountain trail, at times dragging me, at times coming to a dead halt and at times nonchalantly plucking tufts of grass from the hillside.
Here’s the thing about pack burro racing: It’s all up to the burro. It doesn’t matter if you’ve aced the Boston Marathon or conquered the Leadville 100 endurance trail run, if your burro wants to dawdle, there’s not much you can do about it. And if your burro wants to run really, really fast — faster than you can run, for example — there’s not much you can do about that, either.
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Before you ask, nobody rides a burro in any of the eight races put on in small Colorado towns each May through September by the Western Pack Burro Ass-ociation (their hyphen, not mine). Humans run alongside their furry counterparts — or walk, push from behind or flail their arms and yell, “Whoop, whoop, whoop,” depending on the animal’s mood.
The sport, according to the Ass-ociation, began back in the mining days of the 19th century. Miners loaded their burros with tools and gear as they searched for gold and silver. Legend holds that two miners hit a vein in the same area, loaded their burros with ore and raced back to town to stake the first claim — either that or a bunch of drunken miners in a Leadville bar decided to race as a less back-breaking alternative to hoisting shovel and pick.
Some of the races trace their roots back 70 years; the biggest three make up the sport’s Triple Crown. In 2012, the Colorado Legislature designated pack burro racing a summer heritage sport, a nod at the rich cultural history of mining in the Rockies.
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Most race participants rent burros from one of several outfitters in the area, although a few bring their own. The burros range from the pint-size mini I ran with (or “burrito,” as I called him) to strapping full-size standards like Moose, who towered over my running mate.
I first learned about pack burro races via a flyer tacked to a bulletin board at a restaurant wall in Idaho Springs, Colo., on my way back from a ski trip a few years ago. When former Austin police commander Fred Fletcher, who left Austin to serve as police chief in Chattanooga, then retired to Colorado last year, contacted me to see if I’d like to run, he didn’t have to twist my arm.
I paid $100 to rent a partner from donkey matchmaker Amber Wann in Idaho Springs. Wann paired me with 17-year-old Little Jonah, a 350-pound shaggy gray fellow with ears like elongated satellite dishes, a resident of Laughing Valley Ranch. She matched Fletcher, who had raced with a borrowed burro named Scratch in 2017, with Jacob, Jonah’s much bigger brother.
I looked up Jonah’s stats from previous races. Let’s just say I wasn’t expecting to place anywhere near the top. (Actually, even if I’d had a fast burro, I wouldn’t have expected to place well. I’m not that fast of a runner.)
“He has come in last ass on a time or two, but that is because the folks running him were not speedy people to begin with,” Wann told me before the race. “Burros like Little Jonah could go either way, speedwise, depending on the person navigating and encouraging him to keep going.”
Fletcher and I met our burros a few hours before the race. The jokes came fast and furious: Who had the best ass in town, who would haul ass, and, when a handler slung a light-weight wood-framed pack saddle onto Little Jonah, the inevitable “does this pack make my ass look big?”
At noon, about 75 burro-human teams gathered in the middle of downtown, beneath wood and brick buildings more than 100 years old. Little Jonah eagerly nipped me in the shorts, as if to tell me he was ready. Then, as the starting gun popped, he shot off at a full gallop, clattering up Victor Avenue. I held on for dear life.
I instantly received a not-so-subtle reminder that the elevation of Victor is nearly 10,000 feet. If you’re a flatlander like me — Austin’s elevation hovers at just under 500 feet — this kind of racing will make you gasp like a guppy even if you’re moving slower than your typical pace.
We sped through town alongside much larger burros, then spilled onto a single-track trail that led us past some dilapidated old mine structures. I held Jonah back as best I could, trying to catch my breath as the herd swallowed us. Then, just as I began to breath normally, Jonah decided he had run fast and far enough. He screeched to a halt. We were facing 3 miles of uphill, after all.
I enjoyed the respite, but most of the pack quickly left us in its dust, so I encouraged Jonah to move on. I hollered out “Hup, hup, hup.” I swirled the end of the lead rope overhead like a rodeo lasso, as advised. I even placed my hands firmly on Little Jonah’s haunches and shoved with brute force. But until another pair of donkeys — old stable mates, perhaps — approached from behind, Jonah was perfectly happy to admire the scenery from a slow stroll.
The arrival of fellow minis Pearl and Katy spurred Jonah’s spirits, and together we leisurely made our way up Grouse Mountain. When we hit the next downhill, Jonah again lurched into high gear. We dipped in and out of a couple of gullies, me practically skidding behind him, then cut across broad grassy valleys. We moved alternately at an emergency-vehicle clip or an I-ate-too-much-Tex-Mex stagger. At one point we passed Fletcher, who had pulled Jacob off trail to adjust a slipping saddle.
Eventually I broke away from the other mini burros and met up with a runner named Amanda, paired with a sweet burro also named Amanda. We worked together, encouraging our little group to slog up the final hill. When a few minutes later Little Jonah spied the streets of home, he brayed with excitement. We galloped through town, past a man serenading us on ukulele, past a woman dressed in Victorian steampunk attire, toward the white line painted in the center of the street.
When we slid across the finish line, I unzipped the saddlebags and pulled out a bag of apples and carrot chunks, which Little Jonah happily slurped from my hand.
He deserved them. I hugged his neck. I high-fived my human friends. Fletcher trickled in a few minutes later, a smile spread across his face.
“I didn’t get to run as much as I did last year,” he said. “Jacob seemed like he was intent upon enjoying the experience. You could tell when he would come across burros from his stable — he’d slow down and nuzzle them. It was slightly frustrating, but also really endearing.”
Despite his slow-moving donkey, Fletcher says he plans to race again next year, mainly because of the welcoming community, both two- and four-legged, of the pack burro racing world. “It’s a real way to connect to the history and the past of the state,” he said.
I’m with him. I can’t wait to run my ass up a mountain one more time.