Going for four

All alone down the stretch, Grand Lake resident Jared Cooper and his llama, Jack Daniels, win the Pack Llama Race for the fourth time. (Photo by Kelly Kirkpatrick/The Flume)

What does it take to win endurance events such as the ones offered at the 71st Burro Days last weekend in Fairplay?

Probably much more than you think. Winners of events such as llama or burro racing are not to be confused with pot-belly softball players or weekend fitness buffs.

Anyone who thinks a touch of raw athleticism or merely the willingness to compete is enough to take home a top prize at one of these events should definitely think again.

In fact, a brief profile of last weekend’s winners and contenders reveals the inescapable reality these events are extremely demanding and highly competitive. The fields are stacked with talented, experienced endurance athletes who have conditioned themselves specifically for the rigors of high-profile, high-elevation endurance activities.

The vast majority of serious contenders have learned to be competitive at the proverbial school of hard knocks. They have usually lost or been non-factors repeatedly in such events before obtaining the knowledge, experience, and physical and mental conditioning required to actually be competitive. That evolutionary process generally requires years of commitment, rather than weeks or months.

Every winner or top contender in last weekend’s races took the starting line with an impressive dossier of endurance training and competition. The Long Course Pack Burro Race winner, Marvin Sandoval, was no exception.

Sandoval previously won the Leadman competition in Leadville, which consists of a progressive series of trail run and mountain bike events ranging from 26.2 to 100 miles for a total of 282.4 miles. The fact that he was a high school sprinter and an experienced marathon runner couldn’t have hurt.

Sandoval needed all of those experiences to hold off an elite distance runner in Brian Rawlings. Rawlings is a former college track star and professional distance runner. Both men have also competed in burro races before, so they understood the subtleties of managing donkeys on the run.

The Short Course Pack Burro Race winner, Danny Pedretti, finished fifth in that same event last year and has the ability to cover a mile in about four-and-a-half minutes.

The llama races are less competitive, right?

If the Pack Llama race is less competitive, then someone forgot to inform winner and Grand Lake resident Jared Cooper.

Cooper has won the event four times in seven years. He is an experienced handler of llamas and the owner of Jack Daniels, his trusted llama that has won the event five times – once with a runner other than Cooper.

Cooper is in superb shape and trains regularly with his animals. He is also required to stay in top shape for his job as a West Metro firefighter. Like many of the other race winners, Cooper also lives daily at high altitude, which obviously gives him an edge over those who don’t.

“This is my alpha llama right here,” Cooper said of his race partner. “It’s always fun to race here, especially with this guy.”

But what if I’m a well-conditioned athlete?

Being a well-conditioned athlete will help, but other factors could also come into play.

How does the well-conditioned athlete handle altitude at 10,000-plus feet? Does the well-conditioned athlete live and train at or near sea level? It will matter when said athlete begins scurrying up and down mountains around Fairplay.

Secondly, does he or she understand the finer points of how to manipulate independent thinkers such as burros or llamas? If not, it could make for a long race.

For example, as runners and burros continued spilling in from the Short Course Race around 3 p.m. Sunday, race participant Ross Campbell lay motionless beneath the shade of an overhanging roof after successfully completing the course.

Smiling through severely chapped lips, Campbell commented that he regularly runs marathons near his current place of residence, New Brunswick, Canada.

“But never in my life have I been this tired or felt like this after a marathon,” he said. “Those are a piece of cake compared to this.”

According to Campbell, New Brunswick sits about 200 feet above sea level.  

“My donkey [Katy] had to be prodded to go all the way through the first half of the race, and then when I was worn down from dealing with her, she got all gung ho and absolutely dragged me over the finish line.”

Despite maintaining his humor about the situation, Campbell was loaded into an ambulance moments later and held there by medical personnel for precautionary purposes.

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