Get Your Ass Up The Pass – It’s Leadville Boom Days!
The pack burro might be one of the most stubborn animals on earth. On the other hand, this sturdy, mostly sure-footed beast can also be found at the top of the chain when it comes to loading and hauling mining equipment through rough, mountain terrain. But either way you look at it, it’s hard to deny the burros relevancy when it comes to Leadville history. So come and join the celebration of these beasts of burden at the Leadville International Pack-Burro Race on Sunday, August 7.
While pack burros have been a Colorado workhorse for more than 100 years, racing pack burros has been part of the local scene since about 1949, with the first Leadville – Fairplay race. The Leadville – Fairplay race started in Leadville and ended 22 miles away in Fairplay. And from the very beginning, these pack-burro races were serious business.
Leadville and Fairplay switched starting points each year, and eventually went their separate ways, creating two races instead of one. When Fairplay changed the courses in the early ’70s, the race was dubbed the World Championship Pack Burro Race.
Coupled with a burro race in Buena Vista, three races now make up the Triple Crown.
The Fairplay leg was held the last weekend. The second leg will be held today in Leadville as part of the International Pack Burro Race. Boom Days organizers said that they will also have a record number of entrants. The final leg of the course is in Buena Vista next weekend during the town’s Gold Rush Days celebration.
Women started entering the races around 1951, and as the event grew in popularity, more races started to include separate categories for men and women. However this year, as a nod to political correctness, the burro race will just categorize things as the “long” and “short” course race, rather than seperate and constrain by gender.
The long course – which will start first – is 21 miles summiting at Mosquito Pass to the east side of Leadville. The short course loops around Ball Mountain and is 15 miles long. Runners and burros will all find their way back on to Harrison Avenue with fans cheering them on at the courthouse, often times with the human teammate pushing and pulling the stubborn beasts across the finish line. These last few feet of the compeition can be a real game changer. As a general rule, spectators can anticipate that the lead teams will be closing in on the finish line at about 1:30 p.m. Don’t miss out!
Here are some great stories and insight from the Leadville Boom Days Burro Race director for the Leadville International Pack-Burro Race, Dave TenEyck.
If you think convincing your friends to head home after a fun night out is difficult, try getting a burro out of a bar. Dave TenEyck, the race director for the Leadville International Pack-Burro Race, had to do just that one year. According to TenEyck, the starting gun went off, all the animals and racers went charging down the avenue and his burro took a right turn into the Manhattan Bar.
TenEyck says that getting the burro out of the bar was only half the problem. The other was that the crowd was packed together in front of the Manhattan, with everyone focused on the race. Those who think a crowd might readily move aside for a racing burro are woefully mistaken, he says. In fact, he had to spend several minutes politely saying “Excuse me, burro racer coming through. Excuse me. Burro racer. Umm…Excuse me.”
After managing to direct himself and his burro out of town, he headed east for only a block before his burro headed right again — straight into someone’s backyard barbecue.
TenEyck summarizes that story—and several others he has about burro racing—with his analysis of racing with these four-legged animals. “The difference between racing with a burro and racing without one is quite simple. Without a burro, you’re 100% in control. In a burro race, it’s a partnership-with someone who has veto power.”
Why race burros? “I’ve thought about it a lot, and I really have no good answer,” says TenEyck. He laughs, and then grows more serious. “I like animals. I’ve developed a fondness for the Rodney Dangerfield of the equine world. You end up with a relationship with them if you train all year.” TenEyck explains that the most important thing in burro racing is to train extensively with the burro. “I train my burros year-round,” he says. “At the end of summer, I start for next year.”
The worst mistake any burro racer could make (and one that happens every year) is to sign up two days before the race, borrow a burro and try to finish, says TenEyck. “Usually the cooperation is not good,” he says dryly.
TenEyck explains that although burros are known for being stubborn, they are, in fact, simply extremely cautious. “A stripe, a crack, a manhole cover – their interpretation is that it is fatal.” A great deal of burro training, therefore, is convincing them that not every abnormality in the world will actually kill them.
TenEyck says there are only two ways to get a burro to work with runners and not against them, during a race. First, runners must expose the burro, in training sessions, to hazards they will experience during the race. Second, the runners must work to gain the burro’s trust.
Runners may also wish to help the burro train for its dramatic role as a historical stand-in. During the race, every burro must wear a regulation pack saddle loaded with prospector’s paraphernalia – including, but not limited to, a pick, shovel and gold pan. Burros measuring more than 40 inches at the shoulder must carry at least 33 pounds of gear. The burro may never carry the runner, however. (Though burro-racing hopefuls who haven’t been incorporating weight-lifting into their training routine may wish to note that the rules clearly allow the runner to carry the burro.)
Training the burro is important for another reason – hurting the animal in an attempt to control it is grounds for disqualification. TenEyck says that one of his biggest concerns as a race director is that no one mistreats the animals. “The rules say no whips, knives or guns – those rules are there because someone has tried to use each of those in the past.”
Canada has basketball, Norway has skiing, and Colorado has… burro racing. This early version of adventure racing is, say the experts, the only sport indigenous to Colorado.
The first race, in 1949, began in Leadville and headed over 13,187-foot Mosquito Pass to Fairplay. Melville Sutton won the $500 purse, and all other finishers received a case of beer.
Winning that case of beer wasn’t as easy as it may sound, however – of the 21 people who started the race, only 13 finished.
The next year, the race began in Fairplay and ended in Leadville. For ten years, the towns took turns hosting the beginning of the race, according to TenEyck. Eventually, each town developed its own independent race, and Buena Vista added one as well. The three races now make up what is known as The Triple Crown. TenEyck explains that although other towns have tried to create their own races, those competitions never seem to stick around very long.
The Fairplay race – The World Championship Pack Burro Race – took place Sunday, July 31. It will be followed by the Leadville race, on Sunday, August 7. Buena Vista race – the Gold Rush Days Pack Burro Race – will wrap up the series on Sunday, August 14.
Whether you’re a long-standing burro aficionado or a newcomer to the sport, this year’s Leadville International Pack-Burro Race should be worth any spectator’s time. But don’t take my word for it; come see for yourself: the Leadville race begins on Harrison Avenue at 11 a.m. Sunday, August 7. Be warned, however – you’ll want to wear your running shoes. You never know when you might have to get out of the way. © Leadville Today