(An Embarrassing Way To Die)
Picture yourself being dragged down a gravel road by a galloping jack-ass. Dragged by a rope wrapped around your ankle — the other end of which is attached to the halter on the donkey.
Most people would feel pain, bouncing like a rag doll and any attempt to exert control over this situation is futile. Yes, normal people would definitely feel pain in such a circumstance. Not I. Whatever pain was being inflicted was masked by a more powerful force.
It was the summer before my senior year of high school. How I got talked into entering the “World Championship Pack Burro Race” didn’t involve any arm-twisting. I was up for anything involving running, adventure, and food. (This was a couple years before beer came to exert a magnetic influence comparable to, if not exceeding, the afore-mentioned three forces.)
There were four of us from the Denver Track Club (which later became the Rocky Mountain Road Runners) entered as a team. I had just finished a race in Denver and was talking to Bobby Campbell, a really seriously fast high-school runner. A guy we knew, Steve Matthews, approached us. “How would you two like to run a 23-mile trail race up in the mountains being pulled by a donkey later this summer?”
Steve was really interested in getting Bobby on board, but apparently they, whoever “they” were, had an extra burro. If either of Bobby or I had (a) sense, (b) a job, (c) a girlfriend, (d) a life then perhaps this wouldn’t have sounded so intriguing. We met the other team members, including the ‘pack-burros,’ at a stable in rural Jefferson County a couple days later (the location of this ‘stable’ is probably either downtown Highlands Ranch or Littleton today).
Bobby and my first workout under Steve’s supervision was just to meet our counterparts, walk a bit leading our animals on the halter, then we tried a short run. Each succeeding day we were supposed to run farther, until the 23-mile high-altitude 4WD trail would not seem so daunting.
The basics were simple, but getting to the point of working as a team would take patience, repetition, and many miles. Each ‘team’ of runner and animal had to negotiate the entire course together. Each donkey had to have a pack displaying such mining/historical artifacts as a pick, shovel, and pan. Human contestants used to wear cowboy boots and hats. Now, runners were starting to take over. There was (allegedly) serious money being wagered on this race. Perhaps that’s why I felt I was being kept in the dark about everything except the actual race itself. And the preparation …
A good human/animal team worked as a unit. You could (so I was told) get your burro to pull you up the hills, while not running away from you or galloping berserkedly out of control.
After the first couple work-outs, most of my training runs were alone with “Charles deGaulle.” There’d be days where we would cruise a dozen or more miles without incident. And, always, after the work-out, I’d brush him, give him oats and other donkey treats, securing him in his pen.
If you aren’t familiar with the “World Championship Pack Burro Race” then you’re in the majority, even here in Colorado. But to enthusiasts of arcane mountain-town miscellany, this event rates right up there. It was the central part of a late summer weekend festival in Fairplay and Leadville. The race would start in one town and finish in the other. The following year, the start and finish would be switched. This year the route was from Fairplay over Mosquito Pass to Leadville. A few years later the two towns had a falling-out and each staged it’s own separate race. I think there is a circuit of such races now.
“Charles de Gaulle” and I were out on a run and he was ornerier than usual that day. We’d be running along and he’d bolt. Trying to out-run him or pull on the rope was of no use. Just like water-skiing, I’d hunker down in a squat position, grabbing the end of the rope with both hands, weight back on both heels, and be dragged along. Eventually he’d slow, we’d walk, then begin running again.
The cycle of nervous co-operation, the illusion of man mastering the beast was tenuous, and the next all-out gallop with me being pulled along would be repeated a few minutes later. This was beyond ridiculous. I should get ahead of him, wrap up the rope to make a short leash, and walk back to the barn.
I was going to try one more time, and if he bolted, it was to be a walk back to the stable. Bam! he took off and as my body jolted in response to the snap of the rope, my plastic-framed glasses slipped off. I turned my head to ‘fix’ the location where the specs were, intending to walk back and pick them up when things calmed down. There was perhaps eight or so feet of loose rope, the end of which became entangled around my ankle just as I turned my head.
The rope wrapped around my leg once more, and I was yanked off my feet, then becoming pulled, the donkey galloping faster and faster. Gravel and bumps in the road were immediately felt, but within milliseconds I pictured the story in tomorrow’s paper: BOY DRAGGED TO DEATH BY GALLOPING DONKEY. Talk about a headline. Everybody would read that! And so, all or most pain was blotted out of my mind by the more-powerful wave of embarrassment.
Think about it. You’re at the high school reunion, and between the attempt to get everyone to sing the school fight song and the M.C.’s presentation of awards for “looks the youngest, traveled here the farthest, the most kids,” everybody would inevitably reminisce over ol’ what’s-his-name who died in such a tragic, yet comical, fashion. I was blushing all over with waves of embarrassment. I don’t think I had given much thought as to how I’d be remembered, my legacy — as it were, but THIS was definitely not part of the plan.
I was a ghost hovering over the participants at my 30th H.S. reunion when the rope un-entangled itself and I slid a few inches to a stop. Adrenaline was on par with the embarrass, and not even stopping to gauge any wounds or rash, I was able to run Chuckie G down. I turned him around, staying in front (this inhibited the tendency of his to run) and walked back to pick up my glasses. And, much to my surprise, I did not look for a board or stick to beat him half-to-death with. Instead, we walked to the stable. Again, I did not look for a club or other blunt instrument but quickly brushed him, put out a small bucket of grain, and … then quickly drove to my Grandmother’s place (she lived much closer than my house), filled the tub half full of soapy water and picked gravel out of the gouges in my hips and legs.
I called our team captain to declare my resignation later that night. “Don’t decide right away,” he counseled. “Take a couple days off and think about it.”