Buena Vista – This weekend, burro racing returns to Buena Vista for the 46th year for the conclusion of the Triple Crown in Colorado’s summer heritage sport.
The race, which takes off at 10 a.m. Sunday from East Main Street at Colorado Avenue (in front of the Trailhead and Roastery), may see a new runner and companion donkey be crowned the winner of the Triple Crown.
Leadville’s Marvin Sandoval, a first-timer running with Buttercup, a miniature burro, won in both Fairplay and Leadville.
Last year, the Triple Crown was won by Kirt Courkamp and Mary Margaret, a burro trained by Curtis Imrie, one of the men who founded the Buena Vista race in the 1970s and helped create the Triple Crown.
If Sandoval’s burro can drag him across the finish line first on Sunday, she’ll be the first mini to ever take the Triple Crown in the sport’s 71-year history, said Brad Wann, the media relations officer with the Western Pack Burro Association.
That’s not the only history-making element behind this season of burro racing, though.
For the first time ever, the Fairplay race, which ascends 29 miles from Front Street in old South Park City to the summit of Mosquito Pass, was shortened due to snow at the peak.
In the third-annual Creede race in early June, the course was changed once due to damage from an avalanche, then changed again the day before the race to accommodate heavy runoff over the trail, Wann said.
That meant the course at Creede actually grew from 9 to 14 miles at the last minute, Wann said.
“We saw donkeys that normally weren’t as good move up in the ranks,” he said. “They enjoyed the new route.”
While Wann, himself a racer, said the widespread characterization of donkeys as being stubborn asses is incorrect, the strong personality of the animals adds an element of unpredictability to the unique race.
“They’re not stubborn, they’re cautious,” he said. “They’ll follow you off a cliff if they trust you ... it’s a psychological game.”
Originally created to drum up tourist income in former mining towns that were suffering as the mines started to close down in the 20th century, burro racing is the only sport that’s truly indigenous to Colorado. Each burro must carry a pickaxe, a pan and a shovel in its pack. Their human companions run alongside them, holding fast onto a lead rope.
The eye-catching sport has begun to attract ultra-runners, like Courkamp, looking for the next frontier in running competitions, but Wann said the humans “are just the GPS,” and the race is truly among burros.
“As Curtis Imrie always said, ‘You have to broker the deal,’” Wann said.
A donkey’s natural state of being is to be running in a pack of other donkeys, he said, and this means runners have to abandon the slow and steady marathon mentality at the starting gun and keep pace with how fast the burro wants to run.
“If you hold that donkey back too much, you’re going to break their spirit for the whole race,” he said.
It’s a hard bargain to tell the burro to run, then to slow down, then to speed back up again later, he said.
“Once they get it, they give you all they’ve got,” Wann said.
In 2012, the Colorado General Assembly voted unanimously to name burro racing the official summer heritage sport of Colorado.
Wann and Imrie were part of a group that had been lobbying daily to honor the sport that is only run within this particular quadrangle of earth.
“We started here and stayed here in 1949,” Wann said. “It’s the real deal.”
Wann claims the Fairplay race is the second-oldest marathon in the country and one of the highest-altitude road races in the world. In 1951, when burro racer Edna Miller ran the race in Fairplay, she not only became the first female burro racer, but, Wann said, was the first female marathon runner in American history.
Katherine Spitzer became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon in 1967.
“From 2006 to 2012, that’s how long we were pushing for this,” Wann said.
For those years, Wann had mostly been given the run-around – “Sent down a rabbit hole,” as he puts it. He was frustrated, and wearing his feelings on his face one evening at the Capitol in Denver as the legislative session drew to a close.
The resolution came together at the eleventh hour, he said, when in the halls of the Capitol building Democratic Sen. Wes McKinley stopped him and asked, “What’s troubling you?”
A conversation between the two in McKinley’s office led to a resolution that received bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate and passed with just days left in session.
“We figured it out. We figured this thing out,” Wann said. “Donkeys and people – they’re adaptable.”
Compared to the Fairplay and Leadville races, Buena Vista’s is the newest and the shortest. It’s a dry, dusty sprint through the single-track of Midland Hill, racing around Gentleman’s Loop before crossing back over Barbara Whipple Bridge (which itself can create a psychological impasse for cautious – not stubborn – burros).
“It’s a speedier race,” Wann said. “The reason the sport goes on is because of towns like Buena Vista putting it on,” Wann said. “Skiing is not from here, cycling is not from here. This is a true heritage sport.
“This race can’t die. It’s the third leg of the Triple Crown,” he said.
The Chaffee County Times in Buena Vista is published by Arkansas Valley Publishing Co., the parent company of The Mountain Mail.