Half a mile up Oh My Gawd Road, my ass is quitting on me.

For the past five minutes, I’ve tried everything to motivate my new running partner up this terrifyingly steep Colorado hill that some locals refuse to drive, let alone maneuver on foot.

First, I pepper him with the appropriate verbal commands.

“Heeee-yipppp! Heeee-yipppp, heeee-yipppp! Heeee-yahhhhh!”

I even mix in a fair amount of the more aggressive nonverbal cues involving the butt end of a thick rope. But no matter how loud I scream or how hard I whip him, he won’t budge up the steep incline. Not when it’s much easier to nudge me aside in favor of the delicious weeds and grass lining the road.

After exhausting all the proven methods, it’s time for a new approach. I take the lead and literally start dragging my ass. But not before giving him a piece of my mind. On a road that takes the Lord’s name in vain, it feels appropriate.

“Dammit, Firecracker! Stop being such a stubborn ass and pull me up this ****ing hill!”

And just like that, I break the cardinal rule of pack burro racing—I let my ass get the best of me. Worse, I’m taking it out on the burro when it’s really all my fault. I’m supposed to be in charge, but I’m clearly incapable of rising to the challenge.

Oh, and we still have 3.5 miles to cover. That may not seem far, but trust me. When you’re pulling an extra 300 pounds up a mountain, it’s a long-ass way.

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One month ago, the grand sum of my equine experience amounted to a childhood horseback riding excursion, a Mr. Ed marathon on Nick at Nite, and an ill-plotted step on a trail near my home in Raleigh, N.C. My lack of experience only added to my curiosity when I heard about the Western Pack Burro Ass-ociation (WPBA), which honors 19th century Coloradoan gold prospectors who packed their mining equipment on their burros. The gold rush is long gone, but men and women have been teaming with burros for the past 60 years to run in WPBA races, some of which cover dozens of miles over rugged terrain at high altitude.

The rules seemed simple enough. Each burro must be equipped with a saddle packed with prospector’s paraphernalia including a pick, shovel, and gold pan. The pack must weigh at least 33 pounds. The runner may push, pull, drag or carry the burro, but riding the burro is not allowed. Firearms are not permitted.

I had to enter a race.

Luckily, the 4-mile Idaho Springs Pack Burro Race fell on the same weekend Carie and I had already planned to visit Colorado. A week later and we could have caught the first leg of burro racing’s triple crown, the World Championship Pack Burro Race at Burro Days in Fairplay, where racers and their asses run a thigh-wrenching, altitude-defying 29 miles.

I liked my chances much better in Idaho Springs.

Of course, I’d need some help. And a burro. Fortunately, the race organizer is also the WPBA president, and he was willing to offer me a burro rental and some guidance. His name is Bill Lee, but he also answers to Red Tail (his mountain man storytelling persona) or Santa Claus (he’s one of the most sought-after Santas in the Denver area). Weeks before the race, we worked out a deal over the phone. For $30, Red Tail promised me a crash course in burro racing and a burro for the race—although he wasn’t making any promises about the cooperation of his burros.

“You’ll finish the race,” he said, “but you may be dragging ass quite literally because you may not know how to handle the burro.”

•     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •

When we arrive at the Laughing Valley Ranch—Red Tail’s picturesque, sprawling estate and animal haven near the Arapaho National Forest—we’re rewarded with a stunning view of the countryside and a warm welcome from Red Tail and Brad Wann (the WPBA’s media relations director).

Two of Red Tail’s 30 burros—Amos and Nestor—are already on leads outside the fence. The sight of this makes me anxious, but not because of my limited experience level with burros. In the weeks leading up to the race, I had reached out to champion burro racers for advice, and I had even practiced running with miniature Sicilian donkeys at Noah’s Landing, my mother-in-law’s children’s zoo. As zoo fixtures, her donkeys have barely worked a day in their lives, unless you count begging for carrots from school children as gainful employment. I doubt Red Tail would. Attempting to run with the minis was fruitless, but I suppose it was better than running with my dogs. At least it gave me a taste of burro racing.

No, I’m nervous because I know that Red Tail’s donkeys are probably in far better shape than me. They’re really not much bigger than my mother-in-law’s minis, but they’re conditioned to run. I’m confident that I can hang with one uphill, but I’m convinced that it will bolt for freedom on the descent. The last thing I want is to cross the finish line without a burro and explain myself to Red Tail. Except it’s not just Red Tail, it’s Santa Claus. I imagine that Rudolph is a donkey, I just lost him, and it’s time to fess up to the big jolly guy.

“Uhhh, sorry Santa. I totally lost your ass. … I’m still getting presents though, right?”

Speaking of Santa, Bill looks every part of the character from the neck up. His soft blue eyes peer out from above a thick curtain of arctic white facial hair. His voice is deep, but welcoming. Throw him in a red suit, hand him a candy cane, prop up a Christmas tree, and you’d gladly let your kids sit in his lap for a few minutes on a cold December’s eve. But unlike the real Santa, Bill doesn’t suffer from a Chips Ahoy addiction. From the neck down, he’s all Red Tail—an ass kicking, Colorado mountain man with the body of an ultrarunner and the soul of a frontiersman.

Red Tail schools me on the basics of burro racing history. As he holds the lead to Nestor in his right hand, he explains that multiple prospectors often discovered gold at the same time. In order to stake their claim, the miners would race back to town. Since their burros were weighed down with equipment, they had to run next to the burro instead of riding it. Red Tail also offers some racing tips and explains the language of burros, but I barely retain a word he says. Once I learn that staying in front of the burro on the downhills will prevent them from running ahead without me, I’m eager to steal the lead and finally run with a proper burro. After all the anxiety, I’m ready to give this a shot.

Minutes later, I get my chance. Red Tail and I jog away from his ranch at a casual pace. I’m with Amos and Red Tail is with Nestor. Amos, unfortunately, doesn’t share my newfound enthusiasm and refuses to break into a sprint. After trotting up and down a few hills, Red Tail and I swap burros. Nestor is a formidable partner, but Bill worries he might be too headstrong for me.

“We could try Firecracker, instead,” Brad says.

Now, I’m scared again. Nestor was too fierce, so you’re giving me a donkey named Firecracker? I try my best to pretend like this is a good idea.

“Um, OK,” I reply. “Firecracker. Yeah. Let’s try him. Great.”

But moments into our first run, I can already tell that we are a perfect fit. Firecracker doesn’t want to run too fast, but he’s willing to push it when I ask him. Later, I learn that his namesake has nothing to do with his demeanor. The gelding was born on the Fourth of July.

Since Red Tail has to leave for a storytelling gig, I’m now in Brad’s hands. Although Brad is only in his second year on the burro racing circuit, it’s clear that he’s in this for the long haul. In addition to training for each Triple Crown event, he’s also reviving a push to make pack burro racing the official state sport of Colorado. With Republican support, Brad believes it will be impossible for the Democrats to block a bill promoting their mascot.

Atop a steep hill, Brad explains that running downhill with a burro is actually his favorite part of racing. That there’s no bigger rush than haulin’ ass down a mountain. This, I have a hard time believing. Running downhill with a burro is supposed to be the scary part. The part where you fall on your face and your ass runs over … well … your ass.

But then I watch Brad disappear down the mountain with Nestor, and I’m a believer. I give it a go. With the lead looped around my waist, I zip in front of Firecracker, scream “Heeee-yipppp,” and we’re at the bottom of the hill in a flash.

“How was it?” Brad says.

“Ho—lee—crap,” I say, fighting to catch my breath. “It was… incredible. Like, getting shot out of a cannon… and going down a rollercoaster… at the same time.”

“Running downhill with a burro is the most fun you’ll ever have,” he says. “Except for college.”

We race up and down the hills for another 30 minutes. Later, Brad tells another racer that watching me run with Firecracker is like poetry in motion. I probably wouldn’t describe it with such lofty admiration, but I allow my mind to wander. I remember my conversation a few days before with six-time world champion pack burro racer Hal Walter.

“You really never know what’s going to happen,” Walter said. “There’s always a chance. If there weren’t a chance like that, none of us would show up for the thing. Everybody goes there with a chance of winning the thing.”

I’m not actually trying to win, but placing in this race no longer seems like a Disney-made, fairy tale ending. At the very least, I shouldn’t finish last.

I have the desire. I have the determination. I have great teachers. And now, I even have the perfect ass.

What could possibly go wrong?

•     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •

It’s the morning of the race, and I’m struggling to embrace the day. After two nights of camping at 10,000 feet, an altitude-induced headache is crushing my skull. The elevation in Idaho Springs is just 7,540 feet, but that’s still 7,000 feet higher than my training grounds in Raleigh. I chug 24 ounces of water, scarf down a Cliff Bar, and pop 500 mg of ibuprofen. I can hardly concentrate on driving our rental car down back down the mountain to Idaho Springs. At this point, I can’t stomach the idea of riding a burro. Running with one might as well be suicide.

Whether it’s the hydration, the carbs, the drugs, or the 3,000-feet elevation drop, I’m feeling much better when we arrive at the staging area for the race. For the next two hours, I try to be helpful. Red Tail has five burros running in the race, so there’s a lot of preparation work ahead. The burros must be brushed. Saddles must be packed, weighed, and strapped to the burros.

Fortunately, there are multiple volunteers who are better equipped for this work, so I mingle with other racers. Among them is Bethany Buchanan, a fellow novice. Unlike me, however, she’s been training with Red Tail’s burros for more than a month and she’s run the course. She answers a few of my last-minute questions.

Even though I enjoyed running downhill with Firecracker in practice, I begin to worry about losing him again when Bethany shows me some scrapes on her arm. After all her training, she recently took a spill while losing a burro. She reminds me that before I can worry about the downhill portion, I’ve got to tackle Oh My Gawd Road.

Hoping to solidify our bond from two days before, I stroke Firecracker’s mane, tug his ears, and rub his nose. He ignores my signs of affection, choosing to continue his hay and weed demolition. I decide not to bother him again before the race.

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I’m cautiously optimistic as all 17 racers begin the pre-race procession down Miner Street. Even in this small, charming town where George Jackson was the first person to discover a substantial portion of Coloradoan gold in 1859, pack burro racing is an obscure sport. Bewildered motorists watch as if they’ve never seen a grown man walk down a street with a burro. Children stare wide-eyed. A pedestrian asks me what this is all about. I respond as if I’ve been doing this all my life. It feels good to be part of the spectacle. I feel like I belong.

Meanwhile, in his role as the WPBA’s version of Don King, Brad passes out his business cards to anyone showing the faintest sign of interest and repeatedly screams the same message.

“Pack burro racing! Colorado’s oldest sport! Check us out!”

During the procession, I bump into world champion pack burro racer Barb Dolan. She’s not racing (most of the top runners actually stay away from the smaller races, probably because clueless folks like me are running), but she’s come to cheer us on. She asks if I’m ready.

“I guess so. I had a pretty good training session the other day, but I’m not so sure about this Oh My Gawd Road. It seems pretty steep, but I guess lots of people walk up it?”

“Not really,” she says. “I usually run up those hills and let the burro do the work pulling me up. But just stay in the back and have a good time.”

This seems to be the one common link in every bit of advice I received from pack burro racers—play it safe and start in the back. Burros are herd animals, they all said, and my burro might run too fast for me if I start in the front with the stronger runners and bigger burros. Not that I have much of a choice. As we walk down Miner Street, I have to stop Firecracker from eating the flowers at each street corner. By the time we reach the unofficial start line at the base of Oh My Gawd Road, I’m starting the race dead last.

Red Tail addresses the crowd to detail our route. After a vigorous climb, we’ll race downhill for a mile. Another uphill road awaits. That will funnel down to the former site of a tent city where miners would camp before striking it rich. The next half-mile veers off down a gulch that features a fallen tree and one extremely dicey descent. The race ends at the Argo Gold Mine and Mill on the outskirts of town. Flour on the ground marks the turns and orange and pink caution tape will guide us through the gulch.

Just before the race starts, I remember my initial phone conversation with Red Tail. I asked him if there was an official race t-shirt.

“This isn’t exactly the Boston Marathon,” he said.

He wasn’t lying. There’s no actual start line. No PA announcer counting down the time. No giant clock. No grandstand with adoring fans. Instead, the race officially begins when Red Tail announces, “On your mark, get set, go!”

I’m pleased to see that Firecracker is jogging along at the pace of the other burros. For the first 100 yards, he closely follows another team. Then, for what seems like no reason, he stops and veers left.

Of course, he’s just a hungry ass, and our battle is only beginning.

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By the time I pull Firecracker to the top of Oh My Gawd Road, I’m drenched in sweat and wishing I brought more than one water bottle along on this journey. Luckily, Carie is waiting with a bottle of Gatorade that I suck down like a tequila shot.

I’ve been in the back of the pack with a middle-aged woman and another guy who’s also participating in his first race. No worries. This is the downhill portion. This is where I blow past them and maybe make up some time on the frontrunners. Except that I can’t see another runner in front of me.

I wrap the lead around my waist, loop it over, and run ahead of Firecracker, just like Brad showed me. For the first 10 yards, I’m pulling Firecracker until he begins trotting. We’re almost running, but not really. Not like we did in practice. And only in 50-yard increments. We continue this game along the switchbacks, jockeying back and forth between our lone male competitor.

On the final uphill portion, I’m forced to pull Firecracker to the top once more. But it’s all worth it when we reach the gulch. We’re slightly ahead of the competition when we reach the downed tree. I take the lead and leap onto the tree and bound down. I turn slightly to watch Firecracker. Given his lack of cooperation to this point, I’m certain he’s going to give up and lie down when he sees this 3-feet tall obstacle. He might even try to eat it. I’m surprised to see him gracefully leap over the log. I’m absolutely exhausted after all our tussling, but this glorious sight refuels me. I decide to seize this momentum and start running as fast as I can. This time, he’s matching me pace for pace. We’re in a full sprint before I realize that this is the last part of the course that I’d want to be in a full sprint. In fact, this is a stretch of gulch that Bethany warned me about. It’s steeper than Oh My Gawd Road, and we’re blazing downhill on a path no wider than a sidewalk, flanked by trees and littered with jagged rocks. But there’s no stopping. I nearly lose my footing but the tension in the lead corrects my stride. Firecracker won’t let me fall. Finally, our training is paying off and my goosebumps are sprouting goosebumps. I can honestly say that I’ve never felt a greater high from running. Together, Firecracker and me are an unstoppable force.

Until we reach the bottom of the hill.

At the sight of a nearby patch of undisturbed grass, Firecracker once again refuses to run. My competition soon emerges from the woods and I’m forced to pull Firecracker again. Down a gentle driveway and around the bend, we can see the finish line. Our burros feed off one another. On the final downhill, I have a slight lead. In the flat straightaway to the finish, he and his burro pull even. I’m yanking Firecracker’s lead harder than ever. So hard that the rope nearly cuts my palms. With 10 yards to go, I turn to Firecracker and pull the lead closer to me, as if we’re playing a game of tug of war. Unfortunately, Firecracker is winning, and we’re about to lose to our rivals.

With only one more female runner on the course, Firecracker and I finish last in the male division. Back at home, without a donkey, I can run 4 miles in a little more than 30 minutes. In Idaho Springs, with an unwilling ass, it takes me 1 hour and 15 minutes. Nearly 40 minutes behind the winner and a pack of racers that includes two kids under the age of 15.

At the finish line, Brad asks me how we did.

“He didn’t want to run!”

That’s when it hits me. Of course he didn’t want to run. None of these burros probably wanted to run in the 90-degree heat. The problem wasn’t Firecracker. It was me. It was my job to convince him to run, and I failed miserably. Instead of getting creative, I screamed at him and drug him around. Now, I feel like a proper ass. I kneel down and ask Firecracker to forgive me for swearing.

Then I realize that we’re in the middle of the road. For the first time all day, I intentionally lead him to some weeds. I owed it to him.

•     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •

At the awards ceremony on Miner Street, Red Tail gives the top finishers an assortment of prizes, including rare coins and gift certificates to nearby restaurants. But first, he presents a goody bag to everyone who finished the race. Even the sorriest, most hopeless excuses for pack burro racers. Like me.

Less than a month before this race, I won a national championship in egg tossing. But here, Red Tail announces that I am the Last Ass. No joke. This is an actual title. It’s a tag designated for a loser. But I don’t feel like one. Not even close.

That’s because pack burro racing isn’t about an end result. It’s not about statistics, trophies, prize money, or endorsements.

It’s all about the moments. Like the first time you get your ass going. Or the first time the two of you sprint down a mountain trail. Or when you cross the finish line in last place but would hardly know it because all of your competitors are cheering you on, as if you’re the winner.

It’s about the people. About forging instant friendships with former strangers crazy enough to join you and a bunch of donkeys on a mountain run.

Ultimately, it’s about perseverance. About fostering a unique bond with an animal, and summoning the patience to stay positive when that bond is broken at the sight of green grass.

Even if that makes you the Last Ass.

Special thanks to everyone who helped me out before the Idaho Springs Pack Burro Race. Especially Bill Lee, Brad Wann, and Bethany Buchanan. Good luck to you all in Fairplay. Also, thanks to world champions Hal Walter, Barb Dolan, and Curtis Imrie for their encouragement.

Most importantly, thanks to Carie for running parts of the course with a camera and for being so eager to turn our summer backpacking trip into a burro racing extravaganza. I’m one lucky ass.

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