It may lack the frenzied danger of running with the bulls, but don’t undersell the excitement of running with the burros.
Just ask any of the members of the New Mexico Pack Burros club who compete in races with, but not on, their burros.
“Think of it as a trail run with your donkey – no riding allowed,” said Shane Weigand, one of the leaders of the NMPB group.
Picture 50 to 100 people clad in colorful T-shirts, shorts and running shoes, competition numbers pinned to their clothing, holding tight to their burros’ lead ropes as they all cluster together and jockey, so to speak, for position to break away and set their own pace.
The NMPB was formed just three years ago by a group of enthusiasts in the Edgewood area. But the sport grew out of the history of the old mining towns in the West, when the miners, having struck gold, would grab their burros by the lead rope and run into town to stake their claim, Weigand said. Because the burros packs were usually full of mining equipment and supplies, there was no room for the miners to ride them.
The first pack burro races were held in 1949 in and around Colorado mining towns, said Stan Lundy, a State Police officer and another NMPB leader. In the past five years, other mining communities outside Colorado began holding races “and entries jumped from about 20 to 70, 80 and 90,” he said.
In 2012, pack burro racing was recognized as the official summer heritage sport in Colorado.
In a race in Tombstone, Arizona, on April 17, Weigand and his 5-year-old borrowed burro, Marshmallow, a large, standard breed female, took second place in the 13-mile competition. In March, the duo won first place in a race in Black Canyon, Arizona.
A construction manager with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Weigand got interested in the sport, he said, “partially because I was into trail running and partially because I’m a hunter and was looking for a way to get farther into the back country in the summertime and the fall.”
Pack burro racing combined elements of “all the stuff that I love,” said Weigand, who now has two burros of his own.
Burros, also called donkeys, are different from mules, which are the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse, but are unable to reproduce. What they have in common is a reputation for being ornery.
Weigand, however, says that donkeys are really more cautious than stubborn, “and once they warm up to you, they are the most athletic, awesome beasts.”
If donkeys are not stubborn, neither are they always accommodating, said Sheila Cunningham, a retired Bernalillo County sheriff’s deputy and Lundy’s sister.
Cunningham, who lives in the South Valley, participated in triathlons until COVID put the kibosh on that. Her brother talked her into filling the need for speed by running with burros. She has participated in five pack races, but has yet to win or place.
“Win? Shoot! You’re lucky just to get your donkey to go,” she said. “You may be at one race and your donkey looks at you, like, ‘OK, let’s run.’ And the next race, your donkey looks at you and goes, ‘Not today, honey.'”
But when the donkeys do run, “they are very surefooted little acrobats who can jump like nobody’s business,” Cunningham said. “And they’re really good on the trails, because they don’t stumble and don’t fall. They just pick their way through the rocks.”
And when you get to know them, “they’re very sweet little animals,” she said.
Burro racing is pretty simple, and there are not a lot of rules, said Lundy, who races with large, mammoth breed donkeys.
Races generally offer different distance competitions, from three miles up to 29 miles. All burro breeds compete together against one another in their respective distance races, and they are not separated by gender. Each is, however, required to carry a pack containing a pick, a shovel and a gold pan. Runner lead ropes can be no longer than 15 feet, and if a runner lets go of the rope and the burro takes off, the runner must retrieve the animal and return to the spot where he lost the rope and continue the race from there, Lundy said.
Logically, one might think that the larger mammoth donkeys with their longer strides would have the advantage.
The burro that has been winning most of the competitions lately has been 4-year-old female Buttercup, a mini who stands just under 33 inches tall.
“I think she just enjoys running and enjoys being out there. She’s very competitive,” said Marvin Sandoval, an endurance coach and general contractor in Leadville, Colorado, who runs with Buttercup. “She likes leading the pack or just, you know, running away from the pack.”
No kidding! Buttercup has raced 13 times and won nine first places and four third places.
Edgewood resident Lisa Kazmar was a half-marathoner. Knowing that, Weigand asked his neighbor if she had ever thought about running with a donkey.
“I was, like, what? That’s just crazy,” she said, but not so crazy that she wasn’t willing to try it.
“So Shane brought one of his donkeys to the trailhead for me to run with, and, yeah, at first I thought it was nuts.” But after a while, she said, she was having fun.
“When running half-marathons, you have a mindset and you set your own pace as you go from point A to point B,” she said. “But with a burro, you’re paired with this other being.” The question of who leads, and when, was something she learned early on.
“I let him lead because I didn’t know any better, and that donkey pulled me around like I was a rag doll,” she said.
Kazmar, a massage therapist, now owns her own donkey, a 5-year-old male standard breed named Albus, after the Albus Dumbledore character in the Harry Potter movies.
Albus is a bit more cooperative, Kazmar said. She generally runs alongside him, but if he starts going too fast, “I get in front to slow him down, but you can also drive from behind if you’re going uphill, and the burro will kind of pull you up.”
A note of caution, she said. “When you’re going downhill, you better be in front,” because if you’re in back you may get dragged on your face.
In many other sports, Lundy said, “there are all these classes and divisions – male, female, size, weight and that sort of thing.” But with pack burro racing, “There is none of that; it’s about how good you get along with your donkey.”
And of course, if your donkey feels like it.