Steamboat Springs ultrarunners ‘haul ass’ at Leadville’s iconic burro race
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — There’s a race that gives a different meaning to the saying, “hauling ass.”
It’s a summer Colorado heritage sport that, at first glance, seems just hilarious.
Steamboat Springs ultra runner Britt Dick couldn’t believe her eyes as she strolled through downtown Leadville after a day of training five years ago. People were running through the streets, leading burros with long ropes, competing in the annual Boom Days Pack Burro Race.
“They were like, ‘It’s a marathon with a burro,’” Dick said. “And I was like, ‘How have I not done this?’”
Burro racing is a long-standing tradition in Colorado — the Western Pack Burro Ass-ociation’s website proudly states that it’s “Celebrating 70 Years of Hauling Ass.”
Nineteenth century miners used burros to carry their tools up the mountain and, from there, stories on the race’s origins diverge.
Some say two miners struck gold and raced down the mountain, leading burros by ropes, to be the first to claim the find. Others say drunken miners hatched the idea of a burro race at a Leadville bar as a way to make money.
Now, the race features runners pulling the burro — or donkey — by a 15-foot rope while carrying a 35-pound saddle pack containing miner’s tools: a pick axe, shovel and gold pan.
Dick ran her first burro race last year in Fairplay with a rented burro named Einstein. As an ultra-runner, Dick was prepared on her end, but the challenge of burro racing is getting the burro to keep up.
“Einstein is a great runner, very quick,” Dick said. “He can go a long ways … a good listener most of the time, but he can be a bit of a smart ass. We were in the front pack, then reached a river around mile 10, and Einstein decided he was afraid of the river.”
It took the pair an hour to get across the river.
“I tried to coax him across with carrots,” Dick said. “I was patient and tried to calmly lead him across. But it took another runner to help pull and push, and we went from first to last ass over the pass.”
Steamboat’s Will Carlton entered the sport this year out of curiosity. He faced a similar challenge entering his first burro race last week in Fairplay. His burro, Koshare, just didn’t feel like racing that day.
“At this point, there’s pretty high demand for the burro that they lease out to people, but really nothing available,” Carlton said. “I mentioned I wanted to do Leadville this weekend, so they found me a really strong, fast and kind of off-the-couch burro named Peaches. She ran really fast for a couple of miles, but she wouldn’t run uphill, which is pretty common.”
Both Carlton and Dick represented Steamboat in the 70th annual Boom Days Pack Burro Race on Sunday in Leadville. Dick took fifth overall and was the first female finisher with her burro, Josie, clocking in at 4 hours and 26 minutes.
She was also the only female in the top 10 out of 30 groups in the 22-mile course. A total of 85 teams participated, with the other 55 taking on the shorter course.
Carlton ran the 15-mile race, placing in the top 20, but Peaches wasn’t as well-trained as the other burros, so she’d spin around, occasionally running into Carlton. But they’d make up for lost ground on the downhill portions, where Carlton really had to push himself to keep pace with Peaches.
“I’m kind of a softie with animals, and some of these guys are a little harder on them,” Carlton said. “If you’re not willing to be aggressive and smack their butts with the rope or whatever, they kind of take advantage of you. It’s sometimes hard to really feel good about putting pressure to run uphill when they don’t want to.”
Dick said she used a lot of energy pulling Josie uphill.
The bond between a burro and a racer is key, but both Dick and Carlton rented their burros from Redonkulous Ranch in Douglas County and Laughing Valley Ranch in Idaho Springs, which raise burros for racing.
“Most of these donkey racers are not elite people — two of the best ones in the world came last year to Fairplay and one of them finished in last place,” Carlton said. “The running is such a small part of it.”
That’s something that’s refreshing to both Steamboat racers, who hail from elite ultrarunning backgrounds. Carlton has done the Hardrock 100 for years and is training for a 100-mile race in Utah. Dick is slated to compete in the Steamboat Honey Stinger this weekend, then the Transrockies Run the week after.
“This is a really good way for me to not get burned out on just running ultras,” Dick said. “It brings the life back into running. It’s just fun and, sometimes, when you’re trying to compete at a higher level, it feels like there’s a lot of pressure.”
But both Dick and Carlton are competitive and want to be better burro racers. Dick won $250 for her fifth-place finish in Leadville, which will help her pay for her own burro. Carlton said he’s also in the market for his own animal. The Bureau of Land Management puts younger burros up for adoption, which is an option for runners who want to train their own.
The two racers met on race day, brainstorming ideas on how to get more of their friends involved in the sport.
“She’s way more experienced than me,” Carlton said. “The guy she got her donkey from gave her a really good donkey — that’s the key right there.”
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