Not quite what I was hoping for, but perhaps as unpredictable as I had expected. Thumper was great at the start – pawing and pulling to get up front with the big guys. He stayed behind me on the steep ravine at the beginning of the course. He didn’t pull me; he held me up as I watched the racer in front of me be dragged by his burro, Stormy.
Lars (the racer being dragged) had come out from Alabama for this race. He had never run with a burro. He had asked shyly before the race if he could hang with me. I smiled. “I’m pretty slow, Lars. You’ll probably want to pass me.” Lars said he didn’t want to try to keep up with the fast runners at this altitude, and he’d like to run with me. “But I’m pokey,” I warned again.
We ended up running together anyhow. Or, maybe walking is more accurate.
Thumper trotted for the first four miles. He was eager to keep up. But then he stopped. He slowed to a leisurely walk. He paused to eat weeds. He pretended to kick me when I got behind him. He wouldn’t pass Stormy.
So Lars and I became a team. By smacking Stormy’s butt (the donkey in front of me), I could get Thumper to jog in thirty second intervals. That was it.
At the halfway mark, Lars and I paused to have water and a snack and give our donkeys carrots. We were hopeful they’d pick up the pace downhill. The crowd marveled at how long of a break we were taking. Lars and I just shrugged. We apparently were not in a rush, and neither were our donkeys.
The donkeys would not run downhill. Now, I am not saying they were misbehaving. Rather, we had “rookie” written all over us. Stormy and Thumper had never run this course. They had never run in a race further than 4 miles. And they were paired with two runners who just couldn’t quite motivate them the way they needed to be motivated. So Lars and I settled for a slow walk.
I couldn’t help but feel bad for Lars – a college track coach who I assumed had high expectations for this race (and had traveled a long way to participate). But Lars remained surprisingly cheerful, coaxing and encouraging Stormy, trying again and again to get her to run (and thus getting Thumper to run behind her). We could occasionally get going for a few minutes with some vigorous ass smacking from behind, but the walking pace was the dominant one. For fifteen miles.
For the last five miles, I felt nauseous and begged Lars to go on without me. But Lars, upstanding Southern gentleman that he is, refused to leave me behind. Plus, Stormy wouldn’t run without Thumper behind her.
And then we took a long-cut. Accidentally missed our turn and went about a mile out of the way and had to go back. Stormy kicked Lars. I was dragging Thumper. I kept telling Lars to go ahead. He wouldn’t. I told him if we could make it back in thirty minutes, we’d make it just under four hours. Forty five minutes went by.
Suddenly we scrambled up the rock face Lars had been dragged down, and lo and behold, we were 200 yards from the finish line. I couldn’t believe it.
And then, something extraordinary happened. They opened the gates of South Park City to let the racers onto Front Street. I have seen them open those doors for the last twenty years. Except this time I was not in the crowd. I was the racer. This time, they were opening the doors for me and my burro. I could hardly believe it. This was really happening. I was finishing the race it had taken ten years to find the courage to compete in. The gates opened, and I could hear screaming at the finish line. My smile felt fifteen miles long. I was fist-pumping all over the place. Pure exhilaration.
Thumper and Stormy slowed to a meandering walk. But I was still smiling. Lars told me to go ahead. “This is a race!” I shouted, urging him on. In the end his burro crossed the finish line one second after mine. 15th and 16th places, respectively, in the short course. We did not finish last. We did not win prizes. But we crossed the line.
I was instantly surrounded by a beautiful throng of some of the most important people in my life. My parents, my fiancé, my fiance’s mother, sister and brother, some of my best friends, my running coaches, and even my first-grade teacher. It was beautiful and painful and incredible all at the same time.
I did it. I finished the race. I crossed the finish line. I held onto my donkey. I didn’t get hurt.
But now it is over. I just emerged from my first shower after the race. I am clean and relaxed and… feeling a little empty. I had hoped for under four hours. Why couldn’t I get Thumper to cooperate? Why didn’t I run better, faster, longer? Why didn’t I train more? Did I really give it my all as I had pledged to do?
Here I am, well-fed, barely sore, and wondering what is next. Where are my long ears to stroke? Where are my four legs to coax and prod? Where is my next mountain to climb? Running in Washington Park just doesn’t seem the same after this.
But before I let myself go completely into the post-race letdown, I luxuriate for a moment in the most meaningful moments of my race day. I remind myself that it was about more than a finishing time. It was about more than walking or trotting or ass jokes.
This race was bigger than all of that.
It was about the sleepy 6:30 am emergence from my warm bed. The scrambled eggs Mom made with whole-wheat toast. The wildflowers she picked to weave into my braids. The peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich my dad made to pack in my saddlebags.
And the t-shirt. I was wearing a very soft, very special, very old t-shirt for this race. A t-shirt my deceased older brother, Ross had made in third grade. With his name written in his handwriting on the front, and the word “PROUD” written confidently on each bicep. There is a photo of him wearing it. He is holding a fish, grinning exuberantly into the camera, displaying his catch. I had been saving this shirt for a very special occasion. This was it. I was going to honor him. I was going to do the best I could. I was going to make him proud.
When we arrived in town and began to help Bill with the seven burros he had brought to compete, I began to feel less like a rookie, and more like one of the crew. I knew how to put lead ropes on and unload the burros. I could tie them up. I understood the logistics of the saddles. I could instruct about using the curry comb and getting the saddles on right. We even put all the saddles in the back of our pickup truck and drove them to the weigh-in station. Someone asked me if I was Bill Lee’s assistant. Someone else asked if I was his daughter. “Something like that,” I replied to each. Whereas the other five racers were perhaps unfamiliar with Bill’s animals and equipment, I felt comfortable and knowledgeable. I had not only earned the privilege to run with Thumper – I had earned a spot on Bill’s crew.
More than four hours later, when I saw the doors to South Park City open for me – a racer – a dreamer – a spoiled younger sister – a proud young woman, I knew I had arrived. I had done what I had come to do. And I had made my brother proud.
|Drawing power from Ross's Superman T-shirt at my pre-race dinner.|
|Pre-race slumber party with dogs and friends!|
|Pre-race breakfast with Galen, Mom (in the kitchen) and Dad.|
|Good morning, burros!|
|Thumper is still sleepy, too.|
|Yup. 33 lbs.|
|#1 Fans. They are such groupies they spent the night, made signs, and stayed for the whole race! Thanks Kate and Vanessa. :)|
|Getting Thumper saddled up and ready.|
|Here we go - making our way to the course.|
|Freshly-picked Fairplay wildflowers in my hair. Thanks, Mom.|
Here's the start:
Trying my hardest to motivate Thump...
And then the finish!
Can you hear the gates opening for me?
|Post-race nose rub.|
|Thumper has earned carrots.|
|And now, a little series Nick shot with the commemorative burro toy I received as part of running the race...|
|Kiss my ass.|
|Richard - you and Maasai wouldn't know anything about running at sunset, would you? So proud of you, buddy!|
|The last ass shot until next year.|
|Goodnight, Moon. Full moon over Pikes Peak.|