Burro racing in Colorado: ‘It’s like riding an escalator’

Hal Walter crosses the finish line with his burro Full Tilt Boogie to win 28.6-mile World Championship Pack Burro Racing Championship in Fairplay in 2013.
Courtesy of Bonnie Wann
Hal Walter crosses the finish line with his burro Full Tilt Boogie to win 28.6-mile World Championship Pack Burro Racing Championship in Fairplay in 2013.

By Jennifer Brown/Colorado Sun via AP

At the sound of gunfire, the burros take off in a sprint, so fast that the trail runners gripping their lead ropes are at risk of getting dragged down the pavement of historic Harrison Avenue.

Within the first block, with a crowd of several hundred lining the street to watch this spectacle, a donkey is already loose. Its runner manages to catch up and grab the burro's rope, then trots it back to the spot where the two became detached. To keep going without retracing those steps would have meant disqualification.

Which, in burro racing, happens all the time.

This is the burros' race, so either keep up, get dragged or let go.

"Your job is to get out of town with everyone else — lungs popping out of your chest, whatever it takes, get in the herd," said Brad Wann, who trailered 15 donkeys to the recent Boom Days Pack Burro Race in Leadville from his Larkspur sanctuary, ReDonkulous Ranch.

"They are technically running with their herd today, so this is a natural process for them. But if you hold them back, and they don't stay with the herd, you might want to pack a lunch because it's gonna be a long day. And you may not even finish the race because you may have broken that animal's spirit to stay at their natural pace."

After the ridiculous start, where those who put in hours of training and showed up to win are lined up alongside first-timers already looking forward to telling this wild story over beers, the racers split off into three major groups. The runners. The joggers. And the walkers.

For the next two to six hours. Starting at 10,150 feet and climbing to above 13,000 for those in the 22-mile long course.

Colorado's Triple Crown

The sport of burro racing isn't likely to ever go mainstream in Colorado, but seriously, there are plenty of diehards on the donkey circuit. And it's hooking more racers each year. Runners in Leadville included a software engineer/marathoner who flies up from Dallas, a Douglas County woman who recently bought three burros and moved from her suburban house to one with a barn, and an Evergreen runner whose friend gifted her the race entry to celebrate her 30th birthday.

The burro race, after getting canceled in 2020 and then scaled down last year because of COVID, had more participants than ever this summer with 103.

Tracy Loughlin, a marathoner and ultra runner from Salida who raced with a burro for the first time 11 years ago and never went back to running without one, is going for Colorado's Triple Crown. That's three races in three different towns, three weekends in a row, with the same donkey, for a total of 64 miles.

Loughlin, 44, was the top female finisher first in Fairplay at the end of July, then in Leadville the first weekend in August, coming across the finish line in 4 hours, 15 minutes. Next up is Buena Vista this weekend. Her burro, a gray beauty taller than most named Mary Margaret, carried Loughlin's light-purple jug of Pedialyte in her sawbuck saddle.

Burros — the same species as a donkey but in Spanish — can travel 60 miles without water, second only to camels.

Loughlin ran behind Mary Margaret, lined up with her tail and holding onto the rope attached to the donkey's halter. She guided her along the route that went to the top of Mosquito Pass and back down into downtown Leadville. On the uphill, Mary Margaret pulled Loughlin along. And on the downhill, Loughlin's goal was to keep up with the burro at a pace of 7:30 minutes per mile.

"She's faster than my ability to run, for sure," Loughlin said before the race, as a jittery Mary Margaret sidestepped around the trailer where she was tied up.

After her first race with a burro, Loughlin was addicted. It felt so mentally different than running on her own that she hasn't raced without a donkey in a decade, she said.

"It's not about you," she said. "I don't think about myself in the race. I am 100% focused on her and what she's feeling, what her ears are doing, where she's going, the decision she's making about the other donkeys in the field. There's a dynamic that happens out there. Some donkeys like to run together, some don't like each other at all. And so it's more than just running. And that's what makes it really unpredictable and exciting."

Loughlin and Mary Margaret train together on the trails around Salida, and are the favorites to win the female division in Buena Vista this weekend — and if so, the Triple Crown, which comes with a trophy and $500.

In the men's division, the favorites are Marvin Sandoval and his little brown donkey, Buttercup, who are also positioned for a potential Triple Crown title. It's a particularly elusive feat in the men's division. Dressed in bright orange and cheered by the hometown crowd, Sandoval and Buttercup crossed the Leadville finish line in 3 hours, 40 minutes, earning the title of "First Ass Up the Pass." This was despite Sandoval having to tug on Buttercup as they crested Mosquito Pass at 13,150 feet.

The matchmakers

Hardcore racers like Loughlin and Sandoval train hours with their burros, but a few runners meet their hairy racing partner on race day for the first time or, if they're lucky, once before for a training session. This is all made possible by Wann, his wife, Amber, and their ReDonkulous Ranch.

Think of them as donkey matchmakers.

Tell them your 10K time and your shirt size (to estimate girth), and they pick the burro that's the right fit. The pack animals, some of which come from the wild and were captured by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management on the parched prairies of the West, range in size from about 300 pounds to about 500, though "mammoth" donkeys are larger than minis.

"I don't want to put a small person with a big donkey," said Brad Wann, a burly guy with a bushy, gray beard who helped about a dozen people and their donkeys get ready to race. "We're looking to make sure we're not overwhelming a runner, and we're not under-whelming a donkey. If the match is not right, the donkey owns the race and they're going to get loose. And that's chaotic."

The Wanns ask people who are renting a burro for race day, which runs about $170, to come to a training session ahead of time. "You don't want a blind date," he said.

Nikki Wadiwalla, from Evergreen, was on a blind date. Wadiwalla, whose friend paid for her $65 burro race entry for her 30th birthday gift, wore a Hawaiian shirt that matched her little burro's pink halter. Thankfully, the birthday gift also came with a bottle of wine. And the registration was for the short course — 15 miles instead of 22.

Wadiwalla did one training run with a donkey that ate grass the whole time. Race day in Leadville was her first time meeting Tucker, a gray burro with a brown stripe on its back. They both seemed a bit uneasy.

"Immediately they gave me a warning that he's a nervous runner and he has nervous diarrhea," said Wadiwalla, wearing two long braids and pink sunglasses. "So that's something to watch out for. And another racer told me he kicked her five times when they did a race in California."

Wadiwalla was trying to remember all the advice she received during her one training session, including to stay on the burro's left side to try not to get kicked.

"I think the idea is they help pull you up the hill and then you stay in front of them on the downhill or they'll run you over," she said. "So hopefully I'm behind or next to him on the uphill and in front of him on the downhill. Fingers crossed."

The trail runner, who keeps a 9-minute-per-mile pace when she's not running with a donkey, was looking forward to the after. After finishing in 3 hours, 30 minutes — 33rd out of 80 racers in the short course — Wadiwalla's plans were to brush Tucker and "then go have some beer."

Michelle Sroda, racing last weekend with a tiny burro named Esther, first saw a burro race about five years ago. "I remember watching the start and thinking, 'That is the most terrifying yet cool thing I've ever seen. I need to figure out how to try that, just once.'"

Now she has three of her own burros — Lolita, Rico Suave and Macho Man — two of which were captured in a federal wild horse and burro roundup in California. Sroda and her husband moved out of their home in Highlands Ranch so they could live on five acres near Parker, where the burros have a barn. The humans are living in an RV while the house goes through a remodel. "We joke that the donkeys have it better than we do," she said.

A highlight for Sroda was finishing the long course in Leadville last year with two of her best burro-racing friends. This year, she did the "short" course, in 4 hours, 49 minutes. The gang of women were disqualified multiple times, always because their donkey got away and they couldn't force it to return to the spot where they dropped the lead rope. Donkeys also want to stay with their friends.

Trail running, Sroda's old sport, was never this fun.

"I was getting a little burned out on running, especially by myself," Sroda said. "And now there's so many other things to think about when I'm out there that my brain stays busy. When you're in sync with the animal and if it's one that you've trained with a lot, and you start to figure each other out, there's nothing like it."

Donkey regulations

Burros can travel 60 miles in a day. The sturdy pack animals were once used by miners, including during the silver rush that established Leadville as a town in 1877. The athletes in the burro race, the town likes to say, run alongside their burros "much like Colorado's 19th-century miners did when racing to a claim." To that end, each burro in the race must carry a pick, shovel and a gold pan in their regulation pack saddle.

Mules, which are a cross between a horse and a donkey, are not allowed in the burro race. They're faster, so they would have a natural advantage, for one reason. But the main reason is that they're a different species — and whatever you do at a burro race, do not refer to a burro as a mule. These people are proud of their donkeys, their stamina and the differences between them and horses.

"Their self-preservation is so great," Brad Wann said. "They won't run themselves to death like a horse will. They will shut down. People call them stubborn; they're just cautious. You can't make a burro do anything it doesn't want to do."

Spectators at a burro race are watching the animals' natural behavior, he said. Sure, the runners will try to guide them in a straight line and coach them along, but basically the animals are just following their herd up the hill.

Once a runner gets in a groove with the burro, Wann said, "it's like riding an escalator."
"The main thing is: Don't get caught alone."

Jeff Bennett, an ultra runner who got medically evacuated from the notorious LeadvilleTrail 100 in 2009, is likely the only burro racer who has won both titles "First Ass Up the Pass" and "Last Ass Up the Pass." His legendary win came after he hopped off a plane from Dallas, grabbed a donkey and crushed the course.

This time, he was matched with Action Jackson. "But I just call him A.J., because when I'm running, it takes too much breath," said Bennett, who before the race was struggling to get A.J. to even cross the road. A.J. is about the size of a horse, which is why he was matched with Bennett, "one of the bigger human racers."

It was at least Bennett's seventh time running with a burro in Leadville, a race he signed up for when a lottery system prevented him from getting another shot at the Leadville 100. After he was medevaced off the mountain 13 years ago during the grueling, high-elevation race, Bennett wasn't selected in the lottery the following year. "So I looked for another race to do and found this one. I have been hooked ever since," he said.

"Mile for mile, it's more adventure than almost anything else you can do."