I think she meant it more as a joke, but when my girlfriend suggested that I might actually want to run the pack burro race we were going to watch Sunday in Buena Vista, Colorado, I wasn't really laughing. I knew she was setting me up to make an ass of myself (yes, all these puns will be intended), but I figured, Why not? I'll try anything once!
So she called her friend Hal Walter in Westcliffe, Colorado, and inquired as to where I might get a burro. Hal has several, but he said they were all spoken for already. So he told Nancy to have me call a guy named Bill Lee, someone whom she has known for years and has been racing burros probably as long as Hal has -- which is 30 years. Hal actually has written the book on pack burro racing, which is subtitled, naturally, "Haulin' Ass." No, nothing I write in this blog today will be original.
So I called Bill, whom Nancy refers to as Santa Claus because of his long, white beard, and he told me, yes indeedy, he in fact did have a burro I could run on Sunday. Not the fast one that he had loaned some triathlete from Texas the week before in Leadville, where the two of them had raced to a second-place finish. But he had a nice little gray burro named Smoky who might just fit my needs. He did warn me that Smoky likes to run. I didn't realize that he meant four-minute miles!
Nancy called Hal back a few minutes later to tell him I was in and I could hear Hal's uncontrollable laughter from half a room away!
The next morning, we made the two-hour drive from Colorado Springs to Buena Vista and had plenty of time ... to reconsider. But I didn't. I sought out Bill, who was easy to recognize as there aren't many Santa Clauses running around rural Colorado in August. He was at the registration table signing up and had already had my saddle "weighed in" and approved. Apparently everyone has to carry at least 33 pounds on their burros -- no matter how big or small -- and my saddle and pack weighed in at 34 pounds.
Then I met Smoky. What a cute little feller! His ears perked right up and I tried to bond with him before the race by bribing him with an apple treat I brought from home. Many of the racers in this frenetic sport -- which they are trying to get named Colorado's "official" sport -- have burros as large as horses, but Smoky was only the size of a pony.
Bill saddled him up and gave me and another burro racing "virgin" named Brian, who was borrowing his other burro named Jack, a quick course in Burro Racing 101. He told us how to get the darn thing to go left or right, and hopefully even forward -- at least at a favorable pace. "These burros are just like my granddaughter over there," Bill said, pointing at a cute 8-year-old near the trailer. "They'll try to test you to see what they can get away with."
Then he warned us about the start. "These animals have a herd mentality, and when the gun goes off and they all start to running ...." Well, let's just say good luck holding on! There's one rule in burro racing. If you let go of the rope because the burro is about to drag you down the pavement on Main Street like so many Westerns (sans the pavement), or through the chaparral because he simply decided he doesn't like the trail anymore, well, not only are you going to be bloodied and bruised, but once you retrieve your teammate -- wherever you locate him -- you have to retrace your path to where you lost the rope and start from there.
Now, this was a 12-mile course on dirt roads leading out of town on the opposite side of a foot bridge over the Arkansas River. And this was a short race -- the week before they went 20 miles in Leadville. Much of the course was on single-track trails and the rest on forest service and county roads, finishing back along Main Street, oh, two or three hours later, depending on your burro!
There was a good crowd at the starting line as it was also farmer's market day, so the burros and all the racers -- all 25 of us -- made quite a scene. Just getting Smoky to the starting line was a bit of a chore as he immediately began testing me as Bill said he would. But he was pretty well-behaved to this point. Before the start, a priest came around and sprinkled Holy water in the faces of all the burros to bless them and wish them well. How come he didn't have any words for the racers!
Then the gun suddenly went off and all hell broke loose. Just as Bill warned, the beasts exploded from the starting line like a pack of wolves was in hot pursuit. Even little ol' Smoky. Bill warned me that Smoky could run, but I wasn't expecting this. This little burro took off as if he was Usain Bolt and I was hanging on to the end of my 15-foot rope for dear life, running at a clip I could not imagine! It was all I could do to keep from falling on my face and eating asphalt -- and it would've been my ass's fault!
I pulled hard on the rope, which was attached to his halter, but Smoky seemed to pay me no attention. Apparently me screaming, "Whoa," a thousand times went unheard. There were only three other burros ahead of us as we sped down Main Street and I knew I was in big trouble -- I was already in oxygen debt a quarter mile into the race! Finally, my frantic tugging on the rope caught Smoky's attention and he slowed to a sprint. By now we were at the end of Main Street and heading downhill to the bridge crossing and onto a single-track trail that would wind its way up through the chaparral to County Road 304. Smoky never broke stride as he raced across the bridge and onto the trail. I was still holding on for dear life.
I had been able to reel Smoky in enough to drop us back comfortably into about 12th place after we crossed the bridge, but he was still charging hard uphill on the single-track. Suddenly, I heard a scream behind me and saw a women tumbling into the rocks without a rope in her hand. Her burro was quickly beside me so I grabbed its rope, but I was having a hard enough time controlling one burro, so what was I doing thinking I could handle two! They quickly headed in opposite directions off the trail, with me trying to hold desperately at least to Smoky's rope. I wasn't letting that thing go at any cost!
The woman's burro finally dragged me off into the bushes, carrying me over trees and rocks and roots, scraping up my right shin. I had to let go in order to regain control of Smoky. Later, the woman, named Amber, came past me with her burro and a bloody knee, but was otherwise okay. I, on the other hand, had a problem with my ass. No, not my burro, either.
I've been recovering from hip and leg issues for two months now after running the Massanutten 100 in May, and I didn't get more than two or three miles into the race Sunday before I pulled a muscle in my left butt cheek! And with my hips already ailing, and a bruise on my heel that I now think might not be a bruise but plantar fasciitis, I was pretty much done racing right there.
But not Smoky! Oh, no, that herd mentality was still ever-present as every time another racer would storm past me, Smoky would pick up the pace to try to keep up ... even though I was still screaming "Whoa" between every chest-pounding breath! Finally, after about three miles, I got Smoky under control and realized that since I couldn't run at his pace, and he wouldn't slow down to run at mine, we were just going to have to walk for a while.
We actually walked for quite a while, through some gorgeous single-track and back onto a forest service road where Smoky did decide he wanted to trot along behind me whenever I could get my own legs to cooperate. The long section back along County Road 304 was when things began to fall apart. (Well, maybe that happened when the gun went off!).
Smoky decided that since I hadn't allowed him to run at the pace he wanted, then he wasn't going to walk at the pace I wanted. So back he dropped until the entire 15 feet of the rope was now stretched out between us and I was literally dragging him. Bill had told me that when this happens, I am to take my end of the rope and start whipping him on the behind to get him moving ... but everytime I tried, Smoky would just spin around as if he was going to head off in the opposite direction.
So I just threw the rope over my shoulder and leaned into the trail and pulled the reluctant burro the length of the road until we turned off on the single-track headed back to town. This is where he dug in his hooves for the first time. Up until now, I felt as if I had let Smoky down by not being able to keep up with him ... now he was letting me down by refusing to keep up.
It was pretty much a tug-of-war from that point out, the final two miles to the finish line. I finally got him back to the bridge, but it was now full of tourists watching the swift-flowing Arkansas River flow underneath, and when Smoky saw the bridge, he stopped in his tracks and dug in for war. I tried to remind him that he had sped across this very same bridge at breakneck speed only about three hours before, but he turned a deaf ear.
No matter what I did, he wasn't budging. I pulled on his rope, grabbed his harness and tugged, leaned against him to push him onto the bridge, and reluctantly even whipped his backside. Nothing. Some other racers and organizers came across the bridge and tried to push him from behind, but Smoky has been known to kick a bit so they didn't get too close. Finally, we had all the people clear the bridge and with the help of two or three others, I was able to drag Smoky onto the bridge and then across to the other side.
I was exhausted by this time, but we still had one more uphill to climb to get back on Main Street and then a half-mile of pavement to reach the finish line. Fortunately, Smoky wanted to walk again, and we trudged up Main Street together, in 20th place of the 24 racers who would eventually finish. Not too bad, I thought, even though Brian, who had Bill's other burro named Jack, had turned in an impressive 10th-place finish in his burro racing debut. Hal had finished third, but had been with the leaders until he took a nasty spill and came up bloody.
As Smoky and I neared the finish line, some skateboarders came up behind us, spooking Smoky and off he went into a trot again. Fortunately, it wasn't a repeat of the start. We crossed the finish line and I bent over and gave Smoky a great big hug! We had made it! My first burro race was in the bag -- oh, and probably my last, too! Unless it becomes Colorado's official sport. Then we might have to reconsider.