Racing dozens of miles over steep rocky mountain passes leading a donkey named Laredo might not sound like the most zen sport, but that's just how burro racer Hal Walter describes it. The hardest part about pack burro racing is also the key to that zen moment.
"Finding that space in which you are totally in sync with the burro ... That's how you win at this sport, and it's difficult to have everything working right for you - where both you and an animal that is not especially known for its cooperative nature are in tune, physically and mentally," said Walter, who has been competing in burro races for more than 30 years.
Walter is one of the main characters in the documentary film "Haulin' Ass," which screens tonight at the Avon Library. Walter will attend the film screening and answer questions. As the author of two books on the subject, "Wild Burro Tales: Thirty Years of Haulin' Ass" and "Pack Burro Stories," and the owner of three burros - Laredo, Spike and Redbo - he's an expert on the subject.
The 2011 film was made by Trevor Velin, a 28-year-old Brooklyn, New York resident who works in television, as a director of photography. Velin read Christopher McDougall's (author of New York Times bestseller "Born to Run" who appears in the film as well) article on pack-burro racing in Men's Health magazine and was inspired to make the film, which is his first.
"Trevor stopped by the Fairplay World Championship race in 2007 on one of his cross-country travels to check it out, and interviewed me on-camera afterward (I had happened to win that year)," Walter said. "Then he contacted me over the winter about making the documentary. He stayed here for about a week filming my life."
On that day in 2007 Velin saw an an opportunity to tell a story about a sport and a culture that very few people in the world know about, despite the fact that races have occured each summer in the United States for more than 60 years.
"When I first went out to witness the sport of burro racing and research it as an idea for a documentary, I expected to find a group of not-so-serious athletes putting on a fun spectacle every summer," Velin said, "but I was very surprised to find that not only are burro racers some of the mentally and physically strongest athletes I had ever encountered, they are also incredibly passionate about the animals, the land and the community, which I found to be inspiring."
The documentary follows Curtis Imrie, an old-time racer who returns annually, driven by a passion for the sport and the community; Roger Pedretti, who travels from La Crosse, Wis., to carry the torch of a family legacy; and Walter, a family man with a true talent for the sport who at first try, thought he'd never take part again.
"Curtis Imrie took me for a training run in 1980 on the upper part of the Fairplay course," Walter said. "I swore I'd never do that again. But then I found myself at the starting line in Leadville a few weeks later. I finished 'Last Ass Over the Pass' in that first race and I've been at it since."
As depicted in "Haulin' Ass," the pace of individual competitors can range from a flat-out run to a standstill, due to burros' cautious nature. But it's certainly a physically demanding competition when you combine the high altitude and the several-hundred-pound variable attached to the lead rope. Racers learn early to respect the animal, that a sense of humor is an absolute requirement, and that egos must be checked at the starting line.
"While the movie may outwardly appear to be just about pack burro racing," Walter said, "it's really about much more than that as Trevor delves into our lives and the psychology behind our participation in this sport. The film is charged with both humor and emotion."
Indeed the film's characters have issues going on in their personal lives that makes the backdrop of pack-burro racing seem more like a metaphor for life.
The year the film was made was an especially tough one for Walter.
"I was struggling with some significant personal challenges while trying to maintain my fitness and focus for the races," Walter said. "Pack-burro racing has taken on different meanings for me at different stages of my life. I say in my book that my trips up and down Mosquito Pass have served to cement lessons in winning and losing, triumph and tragedy, despair and hope, and even life and death."
Vail local Shelley Hall, an Avon library employee, is about to enter her eighth season of burro racing on the Colorado circuit. She was included in the original footage for "Haulin' Ass," but won't find out until this evening's film screening if she made the final cut.
"I do it for the love of the donkeys," Hall said. "The donkeys, the outdoors, and Colorado history."
The Colorado burro racing season gets going in May. There are five events in five mountain towns, and each event is part of a festival celebrating the town's history. The Triple Crown races are in Fairplay, Leadville and Buena Vista. The remaining two races are in Georgetown and Idaho Springs. Visit www.packburroracing.com to learn more.
"We love to include films of local interest and importance to our screening schedule at the library," said Cortni O'Brien of the Avon Library. "Pack burro racing is happening all around us from May to September; I would love it if watching 'Haulin' Ass' inspires some Vail Daily readers to check out a race or even participate in 2012."