Burro Racing: Gone Donkin’

There’s an art and partnership to running with burros. Tony White and Rosco have been working on it together for years.

runners burro racing
Photo by Shayla Bradford.

Hooves are pounding inches behind me. The path continues to drop out below. My legs strain to maintain the increased speed, and my feet bound over loose granite, roots and rocks. Rosco and I go in unison faster and faster downhill, and I chance a glance at my Garmin: 6:20 mile pace. I want to let out a whoop, but I know the moment will be over as quickly as it began.

So this is donkin’?

Well, not really. As Tony White, local burro racer and owner of Rosco’s Coffee House, warned me, the other 55 minutes of the hour consist of asking your burro to trot, or walk, or even just move. Asking, begging, pleading, demanding and back to asking again. It’s a surrender of your own will and acceptance that running with a burro is a team effort built on trust and mutual consent. Despite your own ambitions and résumé, you are never fully in charge.

“Donkin’ is running, walking, stopping and repeating, but not necessarily in that order,” White says with a laugh. “Runners will come with watches set, planning to go 3 miles, but donkeys don’t just go.”

A lifelong recreational trail runner, White began feeling bored with running about 10 years ago. He heard about the sport of burro racing and was intrigued. White rented a burro named Zapata and ran in his first race. After that he was hooked.

Thickly wrapped in legend, burro racing is said to have begun in the 1800s when two miners found gold in the same location and raced back to town to stake their claim. Another legend claims Fairplay was the origin of burro racing in 1949 when two miners raced over Mosquito Pass to Leadville.

Since 2012, burro racing is an official Colorado summer heritage sport, with races held in mining towns from May through September. Racers are not allowed to ride their burros, and burros are required to carry a 33-pound packsaddle that includes a pick, shovel and gold pan as a nod to the race’s historical roots.

White bought Mordecai, a notorious donkey who had won the World Championship Pack Burro Race in Fairplay, Colorado, and who served as the mascot for the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver.

Training Mordi and learning to work as a team was not easy. After a year of struggle, White was on the verge of giving Mordi back. “I would head out for an hour and a half run and return four hours later,” he says. “Mordi would take off, run back to the stables, and we would have to start all over again. If a burro doesn’t want to be caught, they never will be.”

Watching White run with Mordi now, you would never know. The two run with a visible synchronicity—most of the time.

“Donkin’ takes running to a different dimension,” White says. “You don’t just put on your shoes and go. With burros there has to be a partnership. … You have to pay attention to the burro, watch their ears, feel their movements, and learn to predict and know what they are going to do.”

Eventually White decided he wanted a second donkey, a bigger one he could take into the backcountry and ride occasionally. That’s when Rosco entered his life.

Rosco is now well known as the namesake and mascot of White’s Westside coffeehouse, and the burro makes frequent guest appearances at parties and gatherings. White describes Rosco as a “gentle soul who is very calm and a pleaser.” Having run with him, I can attest to that. Rosco occasionally rubs shoulders with you, wraps his neck around you for a hug, and loves to lick the sweat off your shirt and hands.

I’m a trail runner. Dashing along mountain paths, checking my Garmin for speed, posting to Strava and looking for new PRs has become my norm. With donkin’, that just ain’t happenin’. The burro has to consent. And while the downhill rush makes me want to blissfully power home, for Rosco it’s a moment of fun followed by a rather sudden stop for some fresh flowers to chomp.

Somehow, though, Rosco’s appreciation for the moment is rubbing off on me. Together we’ll tackle the Gold Rush Challenge in Victor this September and see what Rosco has planned.

Run With the Burros

Got ass-pirations of your own to give burro running a try? Head to Manitou Brewing Co. Oct. 13, 2018, for the fifth annual Run With the Burros. Join Tony White, Rosco and Mordi for the free 5K trail run, plus food, drink and festivities—including Burro Barn Brown Ale.