AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Later this month, the world's best athletes will compete for top honors, but not only at the London Olympics. In a Colorado town named Fairplay on July 29th, a world champion will be crowned. A champion of pack burro racing and that drew the curiosity of Colorado Public Radio's Megan Verlee.
MEGAN VERLEE, BYLINE: The first thing you need to know about burro racing - there's no riding. It's you on one end of a rope, hundreds of pounds of equine on the other and the burro, says Brad Wann, is the boss.
BRAD WANN: Your burro gets up just like you do every day and he goes, I want to run or, no, I'm not running today. But you just never know what you're going to get.
VERLEE: Wann is with the Western Pack Burro Ass-ociation and, yes, they love their puns. He was standing in the middle of pre-race chaos at a recent event. Some of the competitors here are veterans, but not Chris Westermann. He was just driving by on his way to an endurance race when he pulled off the highway for a pit stop.
CHRIS WESTERMANN: Use the rest room, come down the street, and we're like, look at all those cool donkeys. We come over, like, what's going on? They're like, it's a race. Can we enter? Sure. Let's find you a donkey. Ah, you got my thumb.
VERLEE: That was the moment Willie, the borrowed donkey, mistook Westermann's finger for a carrot. Despite his bruised digit, Westermann was still pumped for his accidental new sport.
WESTERMANN: We're going to try to win this thing. I hope Willie's fast.
VERLEE: Pack burro racing is the only sport that can claim to be born in - and still pretty much confined to - Colorado. It might also be the state's smallest sport.
The 40 or so racers parading to the starting line make this a huge event and the sport got a big honor from the state legislature this year as ass-ociation president Bill Lee proudly tells the crowd.
BILL LEE: This is the first official race of Colorado's official summer heritage sport, the sport of pack burro racing.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHEERING)
VERLEE: And, with that, the burros are off. Legend has it the sport started with two miners racing each other to file a claim. In honor of that story, every donkey here is carrying a pick, shovel and gold pan on its back, but alas, according to longtime racer, Hal Walter, burro racing actually began in the 1940s as the offspring of another Colorado industry, tourism.
HAL WALTER: The sport was started as the brainstorm of merchants in Fairplay to get people to town for their local summer festival. There was a $500 prize and everybody got a case of beer, I believe.
VERLEE: Walter likes the connection to Colorado's mining past, apocryphal as it may be, but it's the adventure sport aspect that keeps him hooked. The longest race, 29 miles up and down a 13,000-foot pass might be America's oldest ultra-marathon.
WALTER: You're on rugged terrain, you're at high altitude, you're subject to the elements and what may look like a joke to some people, it's really a difficult sport to win.
VERLEE: Well, can I give a shot at burro racing?
WALTER: Sure. OK. Hup, hup, hup.
VERLEE: Hup. Come on, I had to try it. It takes a while to get Laredo running and then once he is, all I can do is try to keep up, flying down the trail dodging roots and rocks. It's definitely an extreme sport, even if the view can get a bit monotonous.
You ever get tired of looking at the rear end of a burro?
WALTER: No, actually.
(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE CHEERING)
VERLEE: Back at the race, the first donkeys are sprinting for the finish line, their humans struggling to keep up. Chris Westermann, the endurance racer with the bitey burro, arrives in fifth place.
WESTERMANN: Excellent cross-training. Think running up hills is hard? You ought to try running up hill dragging a donkey behind you.
VERLEE: And so, Colorado's smallest sport may have just won another convert. For NPR News, I'm Megan Verlee.
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