Sunday, July 28, 2013

Lessons from a longears

Last weekend's adventure in central Colorado at the Idaho Springs pack burro race was - hands down - the most fun I've had yet in a quarter century of distance running that was already pretty chock full of great runs. Although I had done a little reading about donkeys and seen some video of pack burro racing, I really had no idea what to expect out there - from myself, from my equine running partner, or from the race itself. Never could I have imagined just how much fun, or what a life-changing experience it was going to be. Since first learning of this sport last year, I've read about the dedicated passion of those quirky folks who self-identify as "donkey people," (in contrast to "horse people"), and the efforts of the pack burro racing community to promote this local heritage sport, all of which now makes complete and total sense to me.
Rock Ridge Ranch (Loveland, Colorado)

We arrived in Colorado on Thursday, and then spent most of Friday and Saturday at the beautiful Rock Ridge Ranch so that my partner Tonto and I could get comfortable with each other, and work out the important race-day logistics such as a 15' lead, and a properly stocked pack saddle. (The races are an homage to 19th century Colorado miners, and the burros are required to carry 33 lbs of equipment, including a mining pan, pick, and shovel.) We practiced running on rocky, mountainous terrain together, and Tonto and I turned out to be a great pair. We quickly learned to trust one another, and even as one who is fearful of large animals, I found his charms irresistible. I can't say enough about the training provided to me by Patty and Margi at the ranch, who put us both at ease, and had him following my newly-learned commands in a matter of hours. Neither of them had ever trained a pack burro for racing, but you would never have known it. Their knowledge about and love for these amazing critters more than made up for any inexperience in the sport, and they handled this ignorant city-girl runner with equal skill and patience.

The start of the 2013 Idaho Springs Tommyknocker
Mining Days & Pack Burro Race
Sunday morning, family, friends, husband, and donkeys packed up and headed for the hills of Idaho Springs, and after a morning that is now a blur of nervous last-minute preparations, suddenly it was noon and there I was. Standing in the middle of an old mining town 1,200 miles from home, in a packed crowd of sixty strange burros (and their runners), holding nervously onto Tonto's lead and waiting for the starting gun. Wait what? But before panic could set in, there was the gunshot, and off we went. Me, Tonto, and a big crowd of donkeys, heading out of town and up a steep mountain grade. We ran (and walked) up and down dirt road, some single-track rocky trail, and then back down through the streets of town for the finish. It was pretty slow going up the hills (I am not accustomed to high elevations, and I think Tonto could tell ...), but we were absolute magic on the flatter, faster parts of the course. I'd spent a few weeks trying to strengthen my ankles, which aren't accustomed to dirt and rocks, and other than one stumble that had me getting pulled briefly through a bit of soft dirt, I was able to keep up pretty well with my amazing donkey. He navigated the trails with ease, jumped over fallen trees when I asked him to, and even tolerated the occasional passing car with a grace and calm that I would never have expected from a donkey.

Our Saturday training hike, wherein Tonto taught me some
good lessons in "donkey persuasion." Here he is, refusing
to step on a pile of rocks. We worked it out.
This was the five-mile version of what are usually much longer, more grueling races, and it was a perfect introduction to a sport that I suspect is now hopelessly under my skin. I am an urbanite Southern Californian to my core, but as it turns out, I may also be "donkey people." These animals have profound senses of their own selves, and what we call their "stubbornness" feels very familiar to me. I don't have a problem with authority, and I don't mind being told what to do - as long as I trust (and like) the person doing the telling, understand what's expected of me, and have been given a compelling reason to do it. My impression during the race was that those burros who knew their human runners well and understood what was being asked of them out there were, on the whole, pretty cooperative. (There are exceptions, of course, and many stories of experienced burro racers whose animal on a given day simply decided that they were not participating. And there's not a whole lot the human can do about that.) Tonto and I had to pause for a couple of heart-to-heart discussions out there on that trail, and it was so beautiful when I felt it "click," and knew that he understood what I was asking for - and decided that he was going to oblige. And it was a humbling experience when I could tell that I knew he understood what I was asking for, but decided he was going to do his own thing anyway.

The demands of burro racing are fascinating. It's physically exhausting to be sure (running while attempting to keep a several hundred pound animal under one's control is a whole new ball game), but it's also emotionally exasperating. There never seemed to be more than a few minutes where I was thinking "Okay, I've got this under control." We would hit a great running stride (trotting, for him) on some manageable terrain, and I'd think we were set to cruise for a while, and then we'd turn a corner and be heading straight uphill on a bunch of rocks. Oof. Or Tonto would, for some unknown (to me) reason, simply decide to start walking. "Tonto, up! Up, Tonto! Yah! Tonto, let's go! Okay, Tonto ..."

My great family hauled their asses - literally and figuratively -
all over Colorado to support me in this crazy race!
In many ways, I relished my lack of control over the outcome, as a runner usually focused on paces and finish times. And the thrill of turning that final corner and seeing my family leap into the air when they spotted me is something I'll never forget. None of us had any sense of how I would do - I could have come in last place, and no one would have been surprised. I could have finished bruised and bloodied, not finished at all, or shocked everyone and come in first place (okay, that last one was unlikely ... but it technically could have happened ...). They couldn't spectate along the route, and so just had to hang out in town wondering what on earth was going on up there. When I came into view, their excitement over my strong finish (and my lack of bodily injuries) was overwhelming. Inside they were probably breathing huge sighs of relief, but all I could see on the outside was their energy and excitement. After Tonto and I crossed the finish, my sweet sister came up to me and said: "That was amazing. You can do absolutely anything you set out to do!" Who would have ever guessed that this important life lesson would come in the form of a donkey?


For more information about this Colorado heritage sport, check out the Western Pack Burro Ass-Ociation's website at And if you're game for giving it a try yourself, let me know! I can hardly wait to get back out there again.


  1. Congrats to you and Tonto on your cool finish.

    Too funny, my boyfriend calls my dog Big Ears.

    1. Thank you! I've finally finished our video production of the whole ridiculous affair ... will convert and post it soon! Hee haw.