Burro running in Denver: Donkey racing, runs gaining popularity in city

On a beautiful late May evening with lengthening shadows intimating the approach of sunset, members of a Thursday night run club gathered at Crown Hill Park in Wheat Ridge for their weekly fun run. On this night, though, something special was afoot.

Surrounded by suburbia near busy Kipling Street, the BPRunCo running store had arranged for a group of burros to hoof it alongside club members.

Burro running and burro racing have a long history in Colorado’s high country, a tribute to the state’s 19th century mining roots, and there are a dozen events annually, including a Triple Crown series in Fairplay, Leadville and Buena Vista. The Fairplay event is considered the world championship of burro racing and dates back to 1949.

But the run at Crown Hill Park wasn’t part of racing circuit. Rather, it was burro running for city slickers. And they loved it.

“I ended up running about two miles with the sweetest little burro named Ruby Rose, who totally stole my heart,” said Candace Gonzales, 42, a Wheat Ridge trail runner. “She was so great to run with, such a healing and magical experience. I know maybe that sounds a little lame, but being in nature I find to be very healing. Then, when you have this animal that’s running in sync with you, and it’s something you never thought you’d be doing, it was just kind of magical.”

Gonzales had run with burros once before in 2019 when BPRunCo’s predecessor, the Berkeley Running Co., held a similar event at Berkeley Lake. That one included an appearance by popular running author Christopher McDougall, coinciding with the  publication of his book about burro racing called “Running with Sherman.” Gonzales had so much fun that night, she jumped at the opportunity to do it again at Crown Hill.

“It’s not like I’ve never run with an animal before, I’ve run with my dog,” Gonzales said. “It was just a little different. They are so much bigger, and she was just so sweet. It just felt like we were in sync with each other. She seemed very much at peace and happy to be out there with her burro friends. Everybody just felt really connected and really happy to be there. There was no other place you wanted to be at that moment, except next to this burro, running and enjoying the beauty of the outdoors.”

The burros at Crown Hill were provided by Colorado Burro Rentals, owned by Brad and Amber Wann. The couple also operates ReDONKulous Ranch Sanctuary & Rescue, saving donkeys that otherwise might have been killed.

“We have rescued burros and given them an opportunity to run and do these activities, which is actually quite rehabilitating and a fast-paced therapy for these animals,” Amber Wann said. “They’re very herd-bound by nature, so they will pick up what the herd does. That really helps with the rehabilitation process. Then we’re able to find them new homes to have a productive life, to have a good future.”

The Wanns provide burros for runners wanting to race, but they also put on events like the one at Crown Hill so city folk can try running with asses.

“I kind of call this the ReDONKulous Ranch Road Show,” Wann said. “We go from trailhead to trailhead. The donkeys do run at different speeds, so I like to pair them up with people and their abilities so the donkey’s not frustrated, or the person. We want to have a successful outing, even if we’re just training or having fun.”

Zoe Lanterman of Denver, who has been running with Wann’s burros for three years, took part in the Crown Hill event.

“Usually we’re down south in Larkspur, it’s a little bit more isolated,” said Lanterman, 29. “This was in a neighborhood I run in. It was cool to be able to do that in the city with the donks. You always get people who are just so excited and so shocked when you’re running around with a burro. You make people’s day. People are smiling and they’re asking questions. It’s like a little piece of old Colorado, and to bring it to a city environment makes it even more fun.”

Running with burros is very different from running alone, Lanterman said, or even with a dog.

“Your dog is probably going to do what you want, but with a burro, you really have to develop that partnership,” Lanterman said. “It’s very dependent on how you work as a team. You have to go how they’re going to go. You’re in the moment because you kind of have to read what the burro is doing. That makes it fun and different and interesting. And they’re so sweet. I grew up riding horses, and they’re different than horses. There’s little personalities you wouldn’t expect. It makes it fun and entertaining.”

Scott Fauble, a Wheat Ridge High School graduate and professional runner who was the top American at the Boston Marathon this year, ran with a burro named Smokey in a race at Idaho Springs last year after his wife tried burro racing and liked it.

“It was fun,” said Fauble, 30. “I think I probably came into it a little too competitive, but I had a very good time. It’s a wild experience to be running with an animal. You’re not really in charge of it. The burro is truly in charge of what you guys do.”

Bill Lee, who owns 16 burros which he keeps on a ranch called Laughing Valley near Idaho Springs, is a beloved figure widely considered to be the face of Colorado burro racing. He’s still doing it at age 73 and has already done a couple of races this year despite having a close call with COVID-19 late last year that put him in the hospital for weeks. He’s well-known for his long hair and beard, both white.

“I like the idea of keeping old traditions alive,” said Lee, who worked as a mall Santa Claus for more than 30 years in Denver and still makes appearances as Santa, not to mention conducting historical presentations portraying 19th century mountain men and fur trappers. “I like the idea of supporting these old mining communities that have had to turn to tourism to survive and thrive. I like the idea of giving burros productive, purpose-filled lives.”

That’s has become a passion for Wann, so events like the one at Crown Hill are a labor of love for her.

“Donkeys are very emotional animals,” Wann said. “They are known to get depressed, fat and overweight just like people do. They benefit very well from these activities. It’s an art form for me to do this, to give these donkeys a happy life and share them with others.”

And, in case you were wondering, the terms burro, donkey and ass all are acceptable because they are the same animal. Burro is the Spanish word for donkey. Just don’t say mule.

“It’s the mules that are half-assed,” Wann said.

That’s because a mule is half donkey, half horse.

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