I did not receive a trophy or a thousand-dollar purse. My prize was a perfect half moon bruise on the fleshy part of my thigh. A hoof print. A carefully-aimed kick. Fifteen miles of dust. Blisters in between my toes.
Weeks before, when my husband had asked if I was “excited” for Fairplay’s World Championship Triple Crown Burro Race, I had laughed.
No. Fifteen flat miles with a seven hundred pound beast is not “exciting.” Especially when you anticipate walking much of it. It takes me over four hours to complete the ten-thousand foot more-than-half-marathon. I am surrounded by newcomers to the sport who cuss and thrash. They came ready to run; why not their donkeys?
I walk quietly in sync with Thumper, the rookie cries absorbed by the willowed single-track path before us. We will finish within seconds of each other – me and the rookies – but in a different fashion altogether.
I will whisper to Thumper. I will walk backwards so he can focus on my face – and come toward me.
I will rub his ears and scratch his chin when we cross the yellow line.
I will remove his saddle so he can roll in the dirt.
I will acknowledge – and honor – that we are both still learning; I will vow to give us both more opportunities to improve next year. I will kiss him on the nose and thank him for his efforts. Thank him especially for his honesty.
The guffaws are infinite when I mention “burro-racing” or “running with a donkey.” To a certain extent the ass puns are fruitful; especially when they fuel the sputtering economy of a bygone mining town. But the sport is not shtick. At least not mine. It’s not silly. Or a gimmick. To me, it’s damn noble.
Respect. Trust. Acceptance. And a willingness to forsake the ego.
We respect these intuitive mammals with a cross traced across their withers. But their trust must be earned.
They are not stubborn. They are cautious. You must show them you are worth trusting – that you are leading them across a gently trickling stream into a safe passageway – not a rushing river that threatens to topple them. And then there’s the ability trust. Can you hang? Can you run? How are your lungs and glutes at ten thousand feet?
The human runners’ opinions matter not on this topic.
The ones with the long ears know. Can you run a ten-minute mile for fifteen miles? Do you hold on for dear life? Do you hinder their long-legged sprint? Then you deserve a walk. They accept you – and respect you – exactly as you are – in this moment. And often that means walking.
Your burro knows if you’ve got it in you. And so when he walks a plodding ten miles, his generosity is more than we humans might understand.
Acceptance is a human role, too. We must accept the now. The here. The donkey whose pack saddle is on too tight, who is nervous at the start of the race, surrounded by pawing and snorting humans and animals. But we must also accept our own limitations.
For some, endurance might mean summiting the 13,185-foot Mosquito Pass and returning for the thirty-mile finish. For others, it means patiently accompanying your partner on a 4 hour, 35-minute walk without losing your temper.
We learn to accept the warning kick as it is. To accept our partner’s chosen mode of communication in that moment. Accept the cool high altitude breeze and the intensity of the sun on our shoulders. Accept our place on this earth. Now.
When we run with donkeys, our partner has willingly stepped into a trailer, transported across miles, to train with us. They are waiting. They cannot be stood up. It is one thing to text a running buddy that you cannot make it out. It is another to leave a lone donkey in a trailer, waiting, wailing.
They become the reason for the 7:00 am alarm clock on a Saturday, for which I am rewarded with sweet grassy burro-breath and requisite burro head-rub on my back. I don’t want to wake up. My Sundays should belong to me. But the relationship calls. Thumper is steadfast. He will be there, rain, snow or Colorado sunshine.
He will carry my load.
He will walk with me. Beside me. He will challenge me to be my best self. To be a better self. To be a true self. He will nudge me to accept him. To accept myself. To walk slowly.
And to treasure a kick as the trophy it is. A badge of honor. Respect. Patience. And humility.
I am filthy when I return. And proud to share my burro’s dirt.