Rising above it at Fairplay

The 60th running of the World Championship Pack Burro Race is coming up in a couple of weeks. The race, held on the last Sunday in July since 1949, is a 29-mile trek from the town of Fairplay to the summit of Mosquito Pass, 13,187 feet altitude, and back again. Racers and their burros encounter 3,000 vertical feet of climbing, rocky roads, icy streams, spongy tundra, a rough-and-tumble trail up a talus slope, and a look inside their soul among other things

It’s this uncharted geography of the mind that sometimes proves most challenging.

It’s sobering that I’ve run in this race 27 times. I’ve finished last. I’ve finished second probably more times than any other person in the race’s history. I’ve finished in the ambulance. And I’ve finished first a few times, too.

After all this, I must admit that the more I know about burros and pack-burro racing, the less I know. It’s all still a mystery to me how to pull together proper training, rest and nutrition for man and beast. Sure, I have a few ideas, but the course is always there to prove me either right or wrong.

Spike and Hal (photo by Jim Mills).
Spike and Hal (photo by Jim Mills).

One thing I do know for sure, this particular 29 miles will seek out and find any physical or mental weakness that you or your animal have on that particular day. And if you are human and your burro is a burro, that means this course will bring something to the surface every time you run it. The difference between success and failure is what you do once that happens.

2 thoughts on “Rising above it at Fairplay

  1. The daunting 29 miles course at Fairplay is definitely not for the faint of heart. The course is rugged, the burro can be unpredictable, the elements are another wild card, and the elevation gain is grueling. No marathon can begin to compare.

  2. Roger is my friend Rob’s brother. I have a piece I wrote a few years ago and have wanted to put it on the site. Until now, I just didn’t know where to put it, so here it is:

    Rob’s Ashes
    A few moments before the World Championship Pack-Burro Race, my friend Rob’s mom handed me a Ziploc bag containing his ashes. I had never seen any human ashes before, and it amazed me that they could weigh so much as I stowed what seemed like a small cement brick in the saddlebags on my burro Laredo.

    The race is a 29-mile journey that takes in the summit of Mosquito Pass, 13,197 feet high. Rob and I had raced burros here several times, and he was also a noted mountain runner who had competed in many other races including the Leadville Trail 100. He had moved on the year before and I had a peaceful place in mind to put his remains to rest . . .

    Laredo and I had fallen to third place as we approached the pass from American Flats. From here a scant trail through the scree leads to the summit, and the road back down the pass to the finish line. This trail crosses a rock glacier, where you can hear — but not see — a stream of water tricking beneath the boulders. It was here that I placed Rob’s ashes to both sides of the trail, and in doing so I lost sight of the race leaders completely. With some of the ash still lingering on the breeze, I yelled “Hasta Luego, Rob” into the alpine silence and then I continued on my way. A ptarmigan with a brood of chicks waddled along the trail before us and then shuffled off into the boulders.

    When Laredo and I reached the final 400 yards to the summit the leaders were already descending. By the time we topped the summit they were simply gone. As we started down I knew both our loads were much lighter, and Laredo started to pick up speed. With 10 miles to go we caught the leaders and the race became fierce. Four miles later we dropped one of them. Then with about 2 miles left in the race we slipped away from the remaining team. Laredo rose to a canter as we broke away to the finish line, where friends, family and Rob’s mom waited with congratulatory hugs. I noticed some of the gray powder had remained on my hands.

    We had won, but there’s clearly more to life than winning.

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