updated 6/7/2005 9:04:42 PM ET 2005-06-08T01:04:42

Donkeys don't like to do much of anything, let alone run a marathon. But they've been doing it in Colorado for years and they'll be back at it this summer.

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Pack burro racing has become an annual spectacle in a handful of old Colorado mining towns; there is actually a minicircuit of sorts. Racers and their fans pack Fairplay, Leadville and Buena Vista for the races that are cornerstone events for summer festivals.

Many come for the novelty, but the races aren't for the faint of heart.

Laden with old mining gear, donkeys hurry along steep, mountain trails above 10,000 feet, their owners clutching a rope and trailing behind. Runners spend hours looking at the rear ends of their animals, which sometimes don't stop when their owner falls, launch into a gallop to chase the opposite sex or simply lay down before crossing the finish line.

"Not many animals in their right mind would run that far, except in sheer terror," said Curtis Imrie, who has participated in the unusual sport for three decades.

The summer's first race takes runners along 29 miles of steep, four-wheel-drive roads to the 13,186-foot summit of Mosquito Pass above Fairplay, about 85 miles southwest of Denver. Trails start out paved, but quickly turn to dirt with hazards that include boulders, streams, trees and, occasionally, snow.

If that weren't enough, runners must keep their headstrong donkeys up to the task. Athletes can "push, pull, drag or carry" but never ride their animals. Veterinarians examine the animals before the race, and any donkey doping results in disqualification.

"It's a combination of wrestling, dancing and distance running," said Imrie, who now breeds burros for racing. "If you're doing it right, you're literally dancing with the donkey. There's a lot of continuous adjusting, not only to the terrain but to the pace that these crazy suckers can set."

The Fairplay race, dubbed the "World Championship," kicks off Colorado's so-called Triple Crown on July 31. The following weekend, a 22-mile race for men and a 15-mile race for women are the central events of the annual Boom Days in Leadville. The final 12-mile race is in nearby Buena Vista on Aug. 14.

The races originated more than 50 years ago as a way to honor the state's mining history and attract tourists to the central mountains of Colorado. The animals carry 33-pound packs and the trails go by some of the state's old gold mines.

Imrie said burro races are far more strenuous than the New York and Boston marathons or even the 100-mile ultradistance races he has completed in recent years. They also carry unique hazards; one man finished a race with a collapsed lung after being kicked in the chest by his burro, Imrie said.

Imrie said he once lost his footing and got dragged off a small cliff and down a rocky hillside before his burro finally stopped. Male burros, called jacks, also have been known to be distracted by female donkeys, or jennies.

"The first time I won Fairplay a jennie was in heat. And my stud, he just immediately fell in love," he chuckled. "He found another gear I'd never seen before and the next thing I knew, it was a six footed race."

Barbara Dolan, a former ultradistance runner and competitive cyclist, has held the women's Triple Crown title for nine years. She recalls being surprised by the fast pace and the upper body strain of holding onto the rope during her first race in 1991.

"It's a lot harder than people really realize, running with a large animal," she said. "I was crying, I didn't really know what I was doing. But after that, I was hooked."

Unpredictable weather adds another element to this high-altitude pursuit, surprising racers with summer heat at the starting line, thunderstorms along the trail or even several feet of snow on the passes.

"One year, I was running with my old burro Sailor and the snow came completely up to his chest. People had to help me dig him out," Dolan said.

"What I have learned is, burros aren't stubborn. They're really cautious animals, and they're not going to do something that's going to hurt them," she said "Once they learn to trust you, they'll do pretty much anything you want.

Dolan still cycles and runs normal marathons. She and said she's not quite sure why she participates in burro races.

"It makes life exciting," she said. "We're a crazy bunch."

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