July 27, 2012 at 9:47 AM ET
Rumor has it that there’s a big sporting event taking place in London over the next couple of weeks. But if you really want to watch athletes push themselves to the limit, you might want to head to Fairplay, Colo., this weekend instead.
That’s where you’ll find a crowd of upwards of 10,000 people celebrating Burro Days (July 28–29) and cheering on the competitors in the 64th annual World Championship Pack Burro Race.
What makes the event so extreme, you ask?
It could be the 29-mile course over dirt roads, boulder fields and snow.
Or, it could be the altitude, which is literally breathtaking, as the course climbs from 10,000 feet in town to 13,158 feet at the top of nearby Mosquito Pass and then back down.
Oh, and did we mention that each racer has to run the course while tethered to a donkey carrying 33 pounds of gear, including a pick, shovel and gold pan? Competitors may find themselves pulling, pushing, pleading, even bribing with food — everything, in fact, except actually riding their burro — while living up to the race’s official motto of “64 Years of Hauling Ass.”
In other words, forget the Olympic motto of “Citius, Altius, Fortius” (Faster, Higher, Stronger). This race is more like “Citius, Altius, Asinus” (Faster, Higher, Donkeys), which is why we hereby officially decree Burro Days as Overhead Bin’s Weird Festival of the Month for July.
Like many homegrown festivals, Burro Days has both a genesis story — two long-ago miners racing to town with their heavily loaded burros, both hoping to lay claim to the same patch of ground — and a basis in the modern-day challenge of boosting tourism in small, out-of-the-way places.
“It was first proposed as a challenge in 1949 and it went out to anyone who wanted to race from Leadville to Fairplay,” said Julie Bullock, president of the festival’s burro committee. “They were probably sitting in a bar at the time.”
Today, the festivities have expanded to include llama races, in which runners lead their charges through a three-mile obstacle course; dog races, in which kids compete alongside their pack-laden pets; and outhouse races, which should be pretty self-explanatory.
But the pack burro race is clearly the marquee event, albeit one that even competitors admit can cause some head-scratching among the uninitiated.
“The idea that you can get an animal not known for its cooperation to traverse 30 miles of ridiculous roads and open country to 13,000 feet and back for cash money sounds ludicrous,” said Curtis Imrie, a 40-year competitor and three-time world champion.
But, he said, donkeys’ seeming stubbornness is really just the flip-side of their peaceful demeanor: patience in the face of suffering and underlying intelligence.
“In my experience, the race is a cross between a wrestling match, a 24-hour dance contest and an endurance race,” he told NBC News. “You have to have the humility to realize your partner is a jackass. The lessons they can teach you — counterintuitive or not — are profound.”
Clearly, this is not your average footrace, which may also explain why the Colorado Legislature officially designated pack burro racing as the state’s first-ever summer heritage sport in May.
Alas, that designation probably won’t raise the sport’s profile much beyond Colorado, but it’s hard not to root for the hardy souls who accept the challenge to “haul yer ass up the pass.”
“People should TiVo the Olympics,” said Julie Bullock. “You can’t TiVo the burro race — you have to be here in person.”
Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him on Twitter.
More stories you might like: