Hal Walter was on a sprint toward a steep trail above Georgetown a few summers ago when he lost control of his running partner, a mammoth burro named Full Tilt Boogie.
“The burro started stampeding, going faster than I could go. I had to wrap the rope around my hips and go into a full-body run to stop her,” said Walter, who still managed to come in first even after struggling with Boogie near the start of the race.
The burro teams had begun a steep climb to nearly 10,000 feet on Georgetown’s 9-mile course. The traffic zooming by on Interstate 70 looked like Matchbox cars. In a race that once had drawn just a handful of runners, the start-line now was packed. The distraction and chaos of so many entrants and the narrow trail made passing difficult and dangerous, Walter said.
But 40 years of pack-burro racing that started when he was a student at the University of Colorado had trained him to stay in the moment and to accept what life might have had in store for him that day: a smooth finish or an unexpected kick that he could recover from or that could send him to the sidelines for a season.
“I don’t know how many times I’ve had a burro lose a race because he balked or ran off to the side,” Walter said. “So you’ve thought you were winning and then out of the blue you end up losing by a nose. You’ve covered 30 miles and lose by half an inch. You’ve got to just keep going.”
It’s a lesson that Walter and other legends of the sport shared with journalist Christopher McDougall, author of two bestselling books on endurance runners, “Born to Run,” and “Natural Born Heroes,” when he joined their ranks as a new pack burro racer.
In his new book, “Running with Sherman: The Donkey with the Heart of a Hero,” McDougall writes about the journey of a rescued burro from his family farm in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, to the finish line in one of Colorado’s historic pack-burro races.
McDougall, his wife, Mika, and their two daughters, who picked the name Sherman, never imagined that the matted creature with misshapen hooves could run at an elevation of nearly 10,000 feet, let alone complete the race in Fairplay, the first leg in the Triple Crown of burro racing.
“The donkey was mired nearly to its knees in manure and rotten straw, and so cramped by the narrow stall that it could barely turn around,” McDougall writes of how they found Sherman when they picked him up.
The McDougalls and an unlikely crew — Amish ultra-runners; a young college athlete, Zeke, who in training with Sherman, found a way to combat severe depression; next-door burro whisperers; Walter and other Colorado burro racers both young and legendary — all helped prepare Sherman for the race to live.
As one of McDougall’s neighbors, Tanya McKean, an equine expert, put it when Sherman first arrived at the farm, “look, if he makes it, you can’t just stick a ribbon on his tail and leave him standing in a field like Eeyore. He’s been abused and abandoned, and that can make an animal sick with despair. You need to give this animal a purpose. You need to find him a job.”
At first, McDougall was perplexed. “A job? What was I going to do with a donkey, prospect for gold? Pioneer westward? But before I even asked what she meant, I got an idea,” he writes, “maybe I had something for him that was even better than a job: a wild adventure that the two of us could tackle together, side by side. But first we had to keep him alive.”
“Everyone I encountered on this journey over the past few years, without exception, was larger than life,” McDougall said in an interview. “They not only came through, but came through like a hero. I wonder if it’s because people who are drawn to animals, who have a knack for animals, are that kind of person. And that people who are predisposed to animals are also going to get along with each other. That there’s a reservoir of compassion, and courage, that comes with it.”
This compassion and courage is what’s drawing more people to the sport of pack-burro racing, said Amber Wann, of Highlands Ranch, who owns Colorado Burro Rentals with her husband, Brad. “The donkeys teach people a lot about themselves,” she said of the spike in interest she’s seen in burro racing over the past few years, estimating that she sends information about burro rentals and racing to about 150 people per year, some of those repeat customers.
“They can help you work through a problem and teach you to keep going when you want to give up,” she said, adding that burro racing helped forge a bond between her and her father, whose idea it was to train for a pack-burro race as a way to increase his fitness after being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.
“The thing about endurance sports is that the actual race is pretty anticlimactic,” said McDougall, who had done Leadville’s annual burro race as part of his research for “Born to Run.” “You get to the start line and you’ve done 90% of it already in preparing. I didn’t know quite how Sherman would do at altitude and with strange terrain. And I didn’t know how I would do.”
That first pre-Sherman race in Leadville was a trial by fire, he writes. One of burro racing’s legends, Ken Chlouber, a former miner, state senator and representative, who helped start the fabled Leadville 100 trail run as a way to save his town after the Climax Mine closed in 1982, gave him this advice: “If you and that burro aren’t of the same opinion about where you’re going and how fast, it can drag you up the side of a cliff or through a boulder field. And there ain’t nothing you can do but hold on and holler.”
Pack-burro racing has its roots in 19th-century Colorado mining towns when workers used burros to carry their tools through the mountains as they prospected for silver and gold. Since the burros, known for their sure footing on rocky trails, were packed with heavy loads, the miners walked by their side, leading them with a rope. The first recognized burro race, in 1949, was hatched to bring tourists — and their money — to Fairplay and Leadville, towns that once boomed with mining activity.
In the years that followed, a dedicated group of outdoorsmen and women from across the Rocky Mountains – marathoners, ultra runners and mountaineers – came together to create a sport that is as uniquely steeped in mining lore as it is a punishing challenge.
“You buy the ticket, you take the ride – or slide. This ain’t no disco,” Curtis Imrie, considered the dean of burro racing, told McDougall. Imrie died in 2017 as he prepared to show a burro at the National Western Stock Show.
McDougall writes not just about the physical challenge of the sport, but of how it transforms its racers. As unforgiving as the sport is, burro racing also helped a number of young runners manage and overcome health challenges. He tells the story of a near-death childhood respiratory illness that almost killed Lynzi Doke, who would go on to train with Barb Dolan, another of Colorado’s pack burro racing legends, and, at age 14, came in fourth overall in the 2014 World Championship Pack Burro Race in Fairplay. And there is Ben Wann. His epilepsy worried his parents, but that didn’t keep him from running in Fairplay in 2016, the same year that Chris and Mika McDougall raced.
“Mrs. Wann,” McDougall recalls Curtis Imrie saying to Ben’s mom, Amber, “you know that every man and woman on that mountain will watch over Benjamin like their own child. Starting with me.”
McDougall says the crew that made the most lasting impression on him was Hal Walter, 59, and his son, Harrison, now 15, who was named named for Harrison Avenue in Leadville but is known as “the Blur,” as much for his speed in varsity cross-country and track as for the blurred lines between his reality and everyone else’s.
“Pack-burro racing was my training for fatherhood,” Walter told McDougall, saying that there was no way you’re going to alpha-male a burro into doing what you want, so he had to take a step back and recondition himself to accept, adapt and improvise.
Walter, who wrote about fatherhood and burro racing in “Full Tilt Boogie,” describes his son as “neurodiverse.” Others would say he is on the autism spectrum. Walter and his wife, Mary, a former pack-burro racer, took Harrison on burro rides from the time he was a toddler, noticing that he calmed down and relaxed when he was outdoors and around the burros.
“We lost our partnership with animals as we’ve moved into cars and cubicles over the last hundred years or so,” McDougall said about the newfound interest in running with burros. “Where before we had a neighborhood cow and chickens in the backyard, we don’t have that close connection with animals. But I think that’s what we want.”
Amber Wann said that where before there were maybe 20 or so burros at the Colorado races, there are now sometimes a hundred or more. Burro racing, she said, has become a “bucket-list” experience.
“The sport has really grown not just in people renting burros and learning to run with them, but also in rescuing burros and training them for races,” she said.
Learning to run with a burro can also teach us things about ourselves we’d rather not face, she said. “They made me realize that maybe it’s not the burro who’s being stubborn or difficult. Maybe it’s me.”
As for Sherman, he still lives on the McDougalls’ farm.
“He’s still mischievous and frisky and affectionate,” McDougall said. “We call him ‘the devil child’ because if there’s a problem, he caused it.”
Sherman spends his days roaming the pasture with the neighbor’s burros, Flower and Matilda.
“The burros clang on the gate with their noses every few days waiting for their run,” McDougall said. “They’re used to it now. They’re like, ‘Let’s go, time to run.’”
Author Christopher McDougall will be at In Motion Running in Boulder, 6-8 p.m. on Oct. 14. He will be at Berkeley Park Running Company in Denver, with Amber and Brad Wann and their burros, 1-4 p.m. on Oct. 15. And he’ll sign copies of his book Oct. 15 at 7 p.m. at the The Tattered Cover’s East Colfax location.
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