Today I was saddling up burros in the sun, stroking their long ears, rubbing their hindquarters, running my fingers along their spines, tousling their manes. Colorado sun on my shoulders. The sweet smell of the burros and the pine trees and the fresh hay…
I was thinking about something fellow burro-racing rookie and sports journalist Jon Page had said. He had mentioned that through his research and interviews, he had learned that burro racing is often less about adrenaline and competition than it is about remembrance.
Indeed. Burro racing can be about lost sons. About lost brothers. About lost dreams. Burro racing can be about running to honor someone who cannot be on the trail with us. Honoring them with blood, sweat, tears, and joy. About entrusting your four-legged companion with all of your pain, love, and memories.
Later in the day, my long-eared friend, Thumper, was pulling me up a dusty red dirt road. And I realized that this is the happiest I have felt in a long time. A very long time. To be clear, I am a happy person. A very smiley, happy person. But this is the happiest I have felt – real deep-down, choked-up happy- since I lost my brother more than seven years ago.
And I have traveled the world looking for the good feelings. Chile. Boston. Corporate America. Non-profit America. I have gone out into the woods hoping for peace, solace, understanding. I have worn designer stilettos in pursuit of a glamour that I hoped would help me forget. I have buried myself in books, intellectualism, academia, searching for that clean, wholesome sense of fulfillment.
I never guessed I would find the peace I sought in such an unlikely place as this. Running with pack animals who are stubborn, stinky, and sometimes slow. Animals who often turn around and go the opposite direction than the one you want them to go in. Animals who must be occasionally dragged, pushed, and pulled.
I have been accepted into a community of pack-racers. People who love their animals. Who love to get outdoors and move their muscles. People who cheer each other on and give awards for finishing last – because you still finished. There is something about this that feels old-fashioned. Fundamental. Real. Simple. A group of people that supports one another and their animals. Unconditionally.
Later in the race, I was neck in neck with Amber and Stormy, just listening to my breathing, thinking about the course ahead of me. A light sprinkle was tickling our faces and arms – incredibly refreshing in the hot mountain sun. I glanced up in the sky and there was a small patch of blue peeping through the Rocky Mountain clouds. The blue seemed to follow me all the way into the woods, down the gulch, and through the finish line. Someone upstairs was watching me. And maybe, just maybe, those raindrops were more than just rain.
There is tranquility in bringing burros buckets of cool water after the race. There is beauty in learning how to tie a knot correctly. In giving your burro fresh straw and banana peels. In brushing the burrs out of their fur and protecting them from biting flies. But best of all, those long velveteen ears.
There is peace in stroking long ears. In kissing soft noses. In holding a burro’s head in your arms. These animals have old souls. Big, mournful eyes see straight through me. My burro knows my secrets. He knows my fears. My burro understands things about me that I could never say out loud.
Through all of the capers, stops, starts, trips and kicks, the burros are accessing something deeper than I know. They are pushing me. They are teaching me. They are healing me. They are giving me good medicine the best way they know how – through hard work, patience, and that very subtle, much-coveted, can-only-be-earned burro love.
Photos and a race run-down to follow!