Go & Do: Pack burro racing in Garfield County a throwback to Colorado’s mining boom days
Addie apparently wanted to stake her own claim on the downhill, and Charleston seemed to have his own opinions about this particular runner’s pace.
But it was all good fun on a late August evening at the new Sutey Ranch Trail outside Carbondale, where Independence Run and Hike hosted a “burro run.”
Pack burro racing, in case you didn’t know, is the official Colorado Heritage Summer Sport.
Legend has it that a pair of miners who had found gold in the same place high in the Rocky Mountains had to race each other back to town to stake their claim, but they couldn’t leave their prized pack burros behind. So, the six-legged race was on.
Today, places like Fairplay, Leadville, Buena Vista and Georgetown are renowned for their pack burro races, where distance runners of various abilities, and even a few shaggy miner types, compete in a point-to-point or loop race covering a variety of distances.
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Burro running became popularized more recently with the release of the 2020 book “Running with Sherman” by Christopher McDougall (“Born to Run,” “Natural Born Heroes”).
When my friends at Independence Run and Hike announced the burro run night, being an avid runner always on the lookout for something new to try, I couldn’t pass it up.
A couple dozen of us crazy runner types took turns on the lead rope running alongside brothers Charleston and Ellis, Addie, Cinnamon and cute-as-a-button Dylan, a miniature donkey who just turned 1.
Burro is Spanish for donkey.
Alexis Knight of Rifle keeps this particular group of burros at a ranch just off Colorado Highway 13 along with her wife, Kathleen.
It all started when they were visiting Kathleen’s parents in Arizona, where they met up with some friends who talked them into adopting some donkeys.
“We thought it would be a fun thing to do, but the only thing was what would we do with them?” Knight recalled of that initial conversation.
An avid ultra runner herself, she thought, “Duh, I’ll run with them,” she said in an interview after the burro run event in Carbondale.
Soon, she reached out to Longhopes Donkey Shelter in Bennet, Colorado and adopted Charleston and Ellis, who are a bit unique in the donkey world because they’re pure white.
Knight soon entered her first pack burro race, an 8.5-mile event in Georgetown.
“I remember this distinct moment standing at the start line with 30 seconds to the gun and I thought, ‘oh, wait. This could turn out bad,’” Knight recalled of the prospect of falling and being dragged down the trail holding onto a 500-pound donkey.
“I’m at a little over a hundred pounds, so of course the donkey’s going to win that one,” she said.
She finished the race without incident, adjusting to the fits and spurts of running at a good clip, interrupted by sudden stops to check out that oh-so-tempting clump of grass alongside the trail.
A picture of Knight and her donkey in that race ended up in a competition for an adventure grant, which they won.
They’ve since added more donkeys to the local herd of, uh, what to call them? Burrobreds! How’s that?
Knight is now known around the area as the “donkey lady,” trailering her burros to different trails around the area for training runs.
Which brings us to the evening of Aug. 26 at the Sutey Trail. The burro run came about when Knight called Independence Run and Hike manager and events organizer Sean Vanhorn out of the blue one day.
“She asked if we had some runners who would want to race and train with the donkeys, and I immediately responded ‘yes,’” Vanhorn said. “I think I enjoyed it a little more than I expected. It might have been the biggest group run we’ve ever had.”
Store owner Brion After and wife Betsy brought their two young children, Julius and Arbaney, along for the experience.
“They both love animals, and it was a great opportunity for them to be around an animal they don’t get to see very often,” he said. “It was a cool way to introduce something new and different to them.”
Personally, my turn to take a donkey didn’t come until we’d climbed up to the 2-mile turnaround point where the foot trail through the old Sutey Ranch ties into the back side of the Red Hill Recreation Area.
After a couple of minutes getting to know Addie, and a word of advice from her owner to try to stay in front of our asses on the downhill, off we went.
The bonding was short-lived, as my smart phone promptly bounced out of my pocket and my attempt to slow Addie from her suddenly spirited trot to keep pace with the front runners was unsuccessful. I had to let go, and off Addie went in pursuit of Cinnamon, Ellis and little Dylan.
About halfway down, Charleston’s runner was ready for the handoff, and I was about to make a new friend. Problem is, Charleston seemed to have developed a case of the munchies. That might be a perpetual thing for burros, but about every four or five strides forward was met with a tug backward, donkey head down to chomp on some greenery.
Once I figured out how to keep Charleston a little more focused, along with some helpful smacks on the backside by my fellow trail runners, we finally settled into a comfortable pace. Soon, interrupted only by a few fits, we were back at the trailhead — and I was hooked.
Pack burro races this summer have taken Knight and her burros to Canon City, Creede, Fairplay, Buena Vista, Leadville, Idaho Springs, Monte Vista and even to Tombstone, Arizona.
Knight said she’s always looking for willing, consistent runners to help train her burros.
After a pair of upcoming races take place later this month, she’ll be starting up training runs again in October.
Training grounds include the 32-Mile Gulch and Rifle Arch areas, along with occasional treks to Sutey.
Runners and their burros take to the Sutey Ranch Trail during the Independence Run & Hike burro run on Aug. 26, 2021. | Tami Stroud/Courtesy photo
Take a fall color road trip and take in a burro race as a spectator along the way. Upcoming events include:
Victor Pack Burro Race, noon Saturday, Sept. 11, Victor, Colorado.
The annual Victor Pack Burro race kicks off at noon downtown, with racers from across the region competing for cash prizes. There’s also a beer garden, live music, kids donkey race and a poop drop contest. [stcfg.com/BurroRace.htm]
Frederick Miners Day Pack Burro Race, 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 18.
In conjunction with the 4th annual Frederick Miners Day, this 10K race represents one leg of the Western Pack Burro Ass-ociation 2021 race series. [frederickpackburrorace.itsyourrace.com/event.aspx?id=12800]
Nederland Pack Burro Race and 137th Miners’ Day, 9 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 19.
This 10K burro run goes from the fire station towards the Caribou Mine and back. [trailrunner.com/event/pack-burro-race-and-137th-miners-days/]
Senior Reporter/Managing Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or email@example.com.
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It may be by a technicality, but the Valley Valkyries 7s rugby club were the de facto champions of their hosted tournament this weekend.