Pack Burro Racing Community Stays Strong During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Tayte Pollmann’s articles are supported by American Trail Running Association corporate member Nike Trail Running. You can follow Tayte’s adventures on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. If you liked this article, read even more of Tayte’s articles on our website.

The trail running community has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, with many races cancelled or postponed throughout the 2020 season. Pack burro racers are small, but passionate subset of trail runners finding unique ways to stay connected and grow their sport despite the challenges of the coronavirus. In this article, I interview Brad Wann of the Western Pack Burro Ass-ociation (WPBA) to learn more about pack burro racing and how they are staying connected during these uncertain times.

[TAYTE] For those of us who are unfamiliar with pack burro racing, could you tell us a little about the sport and your organization? How many people are involved in the sport?
[BRAD] Hi Tayte; it’s great to talk to you about the Western Pack Burro Ass-ociation! Our group seeks to continue a great sport begun by some of Colorado’s 19th-century miners in 1949. Those hardy characters used burros (Spanish for donkeys) to carry their mining tools and supplies through the Rocky Mountains as they prospected for gold, silver, and other valuable ores. Since the burros were carrying a full load, the miners had to walk, leading the animal with a rope.

Legend has it that two miners found gold in the same location and raced each other back to town to be the first to stake a claim to the find. Neither could ride their animal because of its load, so one of the basic rules of burro racing was established. Another legend is that burro racing began as drunken miners in a bar in Leadville, CO sought a way to make some money in a less back-breaking manner than with pick and shovel.

The burro-racing season runs from late May through September. There are presently nine events in nine mountain towns. Each event is part of a festival celebrating the town’s history. The “Triple Crown” races are in Fairplay, Leadville, and Buena Vista. The remaining races are in Georgetown, Idaho Springs, Creede, Victor, Frederick and Nederland. Find a full list of pack burro races here. Burro racing popularity continues to grow!

On May 29, 2012, the Colorado legislature approved a joint resolution that designates pack burro racing as a “Summer Heritage Sport in Colorado.” That’s right, pack burro racing is a Colorado State Sport! Last year’s Fairplay World championship Pack Burro Race had 93 teams line up to take the prize money which was a record number of teams.

2019 Georgetown Pack Burro Race. Photo by Michael Mewes.

[TAYTE] How has your organization been affected by COVID-19? Are there any unique challenges for the sport of burro racing? Is there risk of the virus spreading to burros? How do you keep them safe? What changes have you had to make to your racing schedule?
[BRAD] The first HUGE hit was the Boom Day Committee and Town of Leadville canceling the Leadville Boom Days that has supported the community for the past 72 years. The event was originally scheduled for August 9, 2020. The decision to not have the event had to be a tough one. In addition, the Clear Creek Pack Burro Races on May 23 in Georgetown, and the May 24 race in Idaho Springs have been postponed until August 22 and August 23.

Pending any changes, the other races are scheduled for:

  • June 13 in Creede, Colorado
  • July 26 in Fairplay, Colorado
  • August 2 in Buena Vista, Colorado
  • September 12 in Victor, Colorado
  • September 19 in Fredrick, Colorado
  • September 20 in Nederland, Colorado

At this point with physical distancing, the towns will look different. The burro races will start in waves. Much will change as the information about the virus coming in today is always different than yesterday. Our primary attention is to the racing team, making sure they can have a safe race. There is no record of COVID-19 in donkeys and we are working with the Colorado State Veterinarians to make sure that we have all current information. We, like the National Western Stock Show, keep all animals separated until show time. The burros may stay with the herd they came with, but herds do not mix. They do not share food and water with other herds. This is something we as owners have done to keep diseases at bay.

1951 Boom Days Pack Burro Race in Leadville, Colorado.

[TAYTE] It looks like you are organizing a “virtual pack burro race series.” How does this work? Where do people go to learn more about the races and to register?
[BRAD] After the Western Pack Burro Racing Ass-ociation heard the news of the Leadville Pack Burro Race canceling, we immediately said we must help their charities. Boom Days supports several different local charities and student scholarships every year, including Tabor Opera House and Get Outdoors Leadville.

I got a call from George Benson at BC Race Timing who suggested a virtual race. This was how the Burro Brave Virtual Race Series was created. This virtual race has 3 Divisions – Division 1, Burro Brave Race Series – Division 2, Burro Brave Critter Series – Division 3, Burro Brave So-Lo Series. Each Division has three legs, five miles each.

We are working to help the towns that we as pack burro races run in, anyway we can. The true intent of pack burro racing, just like when mining left, was created to keep the towns alive. That mission does not change. Whether we line up in town or support via the Burro Brave Virtual Race Series, our hearts are with the small towns of Colorado.

Curtis Imrie and Hayduke in Mosquito Gulch at the 1981 Pack Burro World Championships. Photo by Miles F. Porter IV.

[TAYTE] What is the pack burro community doing to stay connected during these tough times? What positives do you see coming from the experience and what are your plans for the future?
[BRAD] Our burro enthusiast group stays connected mostly by social media, many long phone calls and email strings. The consistency of our bond as a community of burro loving owners and supporters is at an all time high. Folks are finally having time to sit down and read our latest book about our sport “Running with Sherman: The Donkey With the Heart of a Hero” that was written by Christopher McDougall. This book along with the fact that people are finding out all around the world that burros are great running companions will keep our sport alive for a long time. If you look at the entries of our Burro Brave Virtual Race Series you will see racers from Washington state to Florida and Denmark to the United Kingdom. We are just getting started…pack burro racing lives!

PRO TIP: Want to learn more about Pack Burro racing? You might enjoy Pack Burro Stories written by Hal Walter.

Photo by Jyamie Doke.

Editor’s Note: Be safe as we continue to navigate the uncertainty around the COVID-19 pandemic. Please continue to follow the recommendations and updates from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), including proper hygiene practices. Also consider reading iRunFar’s COVID-19: A Trail Running and Ultrarunning Community Guide.

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