The pace was slow and the road was long, but Marvin Sandoval and his burro Buttercup braved steady rainfall and stiff competition to defend their title in the 72nd Annual World Championship Pack Burro Long Course Race Saturday in Fairplay.
The Long Course was lengethened to a staggering 31.8 miles this year, making it the the longest pack burro race in the history of the sport.
The race took seven hours, seven minutes and 14 seconds to complete - much of it occuring in adverse weather conditions.
The always-competitive duo of Bob Sweeney and his burro Yukon were less than a second behind at the finish line, placing second just behind the leaders for the second consecutive year.
“It was really frustrating because our burros stayed together and would not separate the whole way,” Sandoval said. “We started together, got the lead and stayed together never more than 15 feet apart for the entire race.”
Just as it occurred in 2019, the familiar cast of competitors scrambled feverishly for position and rumbled down the stretch.
Sandoval and Buttercup seemed to start their frenzied sprint for home slightly ahead of Sweeney and Yukon, establishing the narrowest of leads and maintaining it over a stretch of about 100 yards.
This was Sandoval’s fifth Long Course championship with Buttercup by his side.
“She [Buttercup] could have run a much faster pace, but both burros played off of each other no matter what I tried,” Sandoval said. “Both burros walked up the hills, and ran down them, always together.”.
Sandoval complimented Sweeney on a smart, strategic race. Typical of top-flight endurance athletes who have dueled many times in grueling pack burro races across the state, the two top finishers took a moment after the race for a respectful handshake.
Perhaps due to the world record distance of the Long Course, 41 of 45 participants opted for the Short Course covering 13.9 miles. All participants were eligible to run either course, but each had to make a final decision seven miles in where the two courses split.
The final two Long Course competitors included Amber Wann (10:16.04) and Mark Phillips (11:21.04).
Wann, 45 of Highlands Ranch, and Sandoval, 42 of Leadville, earned the opportunity to compete for the highly-coveted Western Pack Burro Association’s 2020 Triple Crown, which will include the races in Leadville and Buena Vista, Aug. 2 and Aug. 9, respectively.
The conclusion of the Short Course race, which occurred more than five hours earlier than the conclusion of the Long Course race, was no less exciting.
Hal Walter, a cross county track coach at Custer County High School and seven-time winner of the Long Course event, took only 2:01.16 to complete the journey alongside his burro, Full Tilt Boogie.
The 60-year-old resident of Westcliffe took sixth in the Long Course race in 2019, and remarkably, was competing in his 40th consecutive World Championship Pack Burro Race in Fairplay on Saturday.
Walter was by no means alone down the stretch, however, as Tracy Loughlin put forth a gallant effort to finish less than a second behind.
“I always dreamed of beating my mentor [Walter],” Loughlin said. “We actually got ahead a couple of times, but couldn’t quite get there in the end. I’m just so excited that we got this race in, and I was really happy with Roger, my burro.”
Loughlin joked that perhaps ... “the view was too good behind Boogie” and Roger had no desire to pass.”
Roger was a wild burro less than a year ago, but Walter, a friend of Loughlin’s, recently accquired him from the Bureau of Land Management and has been working with the burro to get him race-ready.
“Roger went from wild to second place, so it’s like a double-win for me,” Walter said. “He blindsided me several times along the way ... just slammed into me like a linebacker ... but I was happy with him..
Walter said when Loughlin urged Roger to overtake he and Boogie near the finish line, Boogie responded with a sense of urgency.
“Oh she knew what was happening and she reacted to it,” :Walter said. “Boogie is super-competitive.”
Boogie is no stranger to finishing in the money, and she has been in long and short course winner’s circles numerous times in recent years.
Boogie’s instincts were ultimately vital to the victory, Walter said, because Loughlin and her inexperienced burro were beginning to hit their stride.
“Tracy is a heck of an athlete, runs ultra-distance races and has been competing in burro racing at a high level for a long time,” Walter said. “She caught up with me and settled in. I told her I would do everything I could to win at the end and she said she wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Loughlin was the Fairplay Long Course Women’s Champion consecutively from 2012-2015, has been racing all three Triple Crown events for the last 10 years and plans to keep competing throughout the summer.
Walter said he did not want to stretch the race out for either of his burros, Full Tilt Boogie or Roger.
“We didn’t expect this race to happen, so the burros have not been training for the Long Course distances,” Walter said. “So I didn’t think it was fair to ask them to run the long course right now. I hope the other burros who are running the Long Course are prepared for it.”
“I didn’t think this race would happen, and I was starting to think a year off might not be that bad. But this honestly makes my summer. This was a lot of fun today.”
Walter said he will likely compete in the Leadville leg of the Triple Crown, but will likely pass on the Buena Vista event.
Jeff Bennett, 53 of Lewisville, Texas, finished third with a respectable time of 2:04.38.
Bennett finished seventh, just behind Walter in the 2019 Long Course event.
A winning event
Concerns about COVID-19 and steady showers for much of the day were not nearly enough to dampen the spirits of racers, burros or event organizers.
Race Director Brad Wann had a full compliment of staff and trail maintenance assistance, and he and his staff were diligent regarding social distancing measures throughout the day.
“None of this was possible without all the the volunteers, ham radio operators, BC Consulting-chip timing, and most importantly, the Town of Fairplay itself. for allowing us to have this event,” Wann said.
“Thanks to the Town of Fairplay and their willingness to allow us to be here this year, we documented history, had two amazing races and all got to be human for a while and enjoy this amazing sport. I’m really proud of all the members who volunteered. They showed you can still have fun in a responsible, healthy way, even in these difficult times.”