When Leadville, Colorado athlete and coach Marvin Sandoval toed the 2019 Creede Donkey Dash burro race start line with Buttercup, a miniature burro that stands just 33 inches tall at the shoulders, other teams were worried they’d get run over. No one had ever seen a donkey as small as Buttercup in the race—her competitors are easily double her height—let alone at the front of the pack. But underneath Buttercup’s sweet demeanor is a girl that loves to run fast.
“At the race start, it’s an all-out sprint. Buttercup took off, and we were in the top five from the beginning. We finished the 10-mile race in third, and it was the first run I’d ever taken her out on. She was tired after but she had proven herself. Buttercup has the mindset. She likes to run,” says Sandoval. And Sandoval, though a lifetime athlete, was new to the sport of burro racing as well. A year prior, he says, the sport simply “wasn’t on his radar.”
Consider it a niche of the already niche sport of trail running, but racing burros is a thing in the state of Colorado and a few other western states. Modern racing is thought to originate with mining prospectors historically partnering with donkeys to carry their tools as they hiked throughout the mountains. According to legend, burro racing began when two miners struck gold near each other, and then raced to town with their burros to make their claim official. Today, a small collection of events takes place each summer, bringing together runner-and-burro teams to compete side-by-side at a variety of distances.
After their strong debut last June, Sandoval and Buttercup raced the Triple Crown series: the 29-mile Fairplay World Championship Pack Burro Race in July, the 21-mile Leadville Boom Days Burro Race in August, and the 13-mile Buena Vista Gold Rush Days Pack Burro Race a week later. They won the series, and Buttercup became the first miniature burro to champion the Western Pack Burro Ass-ociation’s Triple Crown in its 40-plus-year history.
Simultaneously, Sandoval won the 2019 Leadman series with the fastest cumulative time from all the following summer events in Leadville: the Leadville Trail Marathon, either the Silver Rush 50 Mile Mountain Bike or the Silver Rush 50 Mile run, the Leadville Trail 100 Mile Mountain Bike, the Leadville 10k, and the Leadville Trail 100 Mile run. It was his second series win.
Sandoval, 42, is a born-and-raised Leadville local. His parents met at Climax mine, a molybdenum mine located outside of town. The mine has experienced boom and bust status over the years, and eventually both his parents were laid off. From there, they both worked at local ski mountains and post offices through their retirement. Sandoval’s first memory of the town’s endurance events was during a campout with his best friend at Turquoise Lake when he was 10 years old. It was dark-thirty a.m. when he heard the shuffling of the 100-mile ultramarathon’s entrants as they followed the moonlit course through the forested lakeside. He said to his friend, “Man, these guys are crazy! There’s no way I’d ever do that.” Throughout his childhood, the races that have made his hometown so notable thus existed in his periphery but he never spectated or was involved.
What he was involved in early on, however, was other sports. In the first grade, Sandoval started wrestling with Two Mile High Wrestling, Leadville’s youth wrestling club named after the town’s lofty altitude. When he reached middle school, he never lost a match. He qualified for the Colorado State Wrestling Championships in high school each year. As a high-school junior, he was ranked number one in his weight class in the state—but hit a major obstacle. “The last tournament before Christmas break, I tore the lateral meniscus in my right knee. I had knee surgery over Christmas break. Despite the doctor’s recommendation, I competed in the regional tournament 1.5 months after my surgery and won,” he recalls. A week later, he placed sixth at the state tournament.
Next he decided to join track and field with a focus in shot put and discus. “I joined track because I didn’t think it was a good idea to [wrestle] that year. I wanted to get a full knee recovery. I did shot put because it was not stressful on my knee. But it was boring, so I decided to go work out with the sprinters and see how my knee would hold up. It did fine.” He eventually became part of the school’s 4x 200-meter relay team which took fifth at state in the school’s division two years in a row.
As a senior wrestler, he was again ranked first overall. He only lost one match and brought home the state title. His high-school success attracted a wrestling scholarship at Colorado State University Pueblo. “Going into my senior year, our team was ranked third in the nation, but they ended up cutting the program due to funding,” he says.
Sandoval graduated with a degree in Exercise Science, Health Promotion, and Physical Education in 2001. He moved back to Leadville and hand built a log cabin, with the help of his brother, Wesley Sandoval, who also lives in Leadville. He became the physical-education and health teacher at his alma mater of Lake County High School, a role he maintained for eight years.
In 2009 and during a rough life patch, he was driving through town and came upon the crowd gathered at the finish of the Leadville Trail 100 Mile Mountain Bike. He’d never watched the race but something compelled him to pull over. The first person he saw finish was a friend from high school, in eight hours and 58 minutes. While anyone who finishes the race in 12 hours is recognized with a silver belt buckle, you get a gold and silver belt buckle, aka the “big buckle,” if you finish in under nine hours. Sandoval’s friend earned the big buckle.
“I thought, Huh. If that guy can do it, I can do it. I made a commitment to do the bike race the next year. I bought a bike and signed up,” says Sandoval, who finished the 2010 event in eight hours and 57 minutes. He also needed a career transition, so he left his education job and worked part time for the Leadville Race Series, the organization which administers many of Leadville’s run and bike races. In 2011, his position became full time, and his primary training buddy challenged him to sign up for the entire Leadman series. A sense of friendly competitiveness motivated Sandoval to join despite not yet being a runner.
“That first year, in 2011, I didn’t train very much at all. What was motivating me to finish the Leadville Trail 100 Mile run was that there were so many people who believed in me. I worked with a lot of the Leadville Race Series people, and I got to know a lot of bikers and runners throughout that season,” says Sandoval, who was in a world of hurt with swollen ankles for most of the mileage. He crossed the finish line that year in 29 hours and 41 minutes.
“I remember going to the awards ceremony and thought I was going to die. I went into the bathroom and was in a cold sweat. I needed crutches because my ankles were swollen. At home, I used my kids’ skateboard to go from the couch to the bathroom…. I told my wife, ‘I wonder what I could really do if I really set my mind to it and trained,’” he recalls. “It was itching at me to do better.”
In 2012, Sandoval transitioned back into working in the education field, so that he could have more time to train and do family camping trips in the summer. He and his wife Lisa Sandoval have four kids. For the past eight years, he’s pursued Leadman with deliberate training and in 2015, he became the series champion for the first time. “I went from back to the front of the pack. Once I started racing, it changed my whole lifestyle,” says Sandoval, who also became a coach four years ago.
He started his coaching business, LeadFeet Endurance, and, naturally, specializes in the Leadville Race Series events. He’s also a coach with TrainingPeaks and a USA Cycling certified coach. “I love coaching and helping athletes prepare for their goals. The best part is watching them cross the finish line, and that celebration of all the hard work they put into their goal—it’s the coolest moment,” he says.
Over the years, Sandoval’s family has become more inspired and involved, too. His sister, brother, wife, and parents all started racing; and Marvin has helped as their coach. His wife now does the Leadville Trail 100 Mountain Bike regularly.
“I remember convincing my brother, Wesley, to sign up for the 2011 Leadville Trail 100 Mile run. He struggled and ended up DNFing [before halfway]. He went from DNFing to setting the Leadman series record of 35 hours, 54 minutes, and 55 seconds in 2016—and taking fourth place overall in the Leadville Trail 100 Mile run [that same year],” says Sandoval. “I know my brother wants to win, but also we support each other no matter what we do. Our competitiveness helps to push us both to reach our full potential. We go back and forth a lot with wins: he wins and then I do. He’s usually faster than me on the bike. I used to have an edge on him on with trail running, but he’s beat me many years.”
Last year, the brothers both competed in Leadman. Remembers Sandoval about the series’ final event, the 100-mile run, “Wesley was in front of me, and I was running really strong. Close to Outward Bound (mile 76.9), my wife told me, ‘You’re catching your brother. He’s slowing down and you’re speeding up.’ There’s friendly competition there. When I got to Outward Bound, he was puking. I patted him on the back and said, ‘You got to finish this.’”
Sandoval went on to win the Leadman title, and stood on the series podium with his brother, who took third, and Rodrigo Jimenez, another Leadville local who took second. “That was my driving force in the race: ‘Let’s see if we can have three Leadville people on that podium.’”
Also in 2019, Sandoval was awarded the 1,000-mile buckle for completing the Leadville Trail 100 Mile Mountain Bike 10 times. His next goal is to collect the 1,000-mile buckle for the Leadville Trail 100 Mile run, too. He also started pursuing 200-mile races last year with the Tahoe 200 Mile, and he’s signed up for the Moab 240 Mile this October.
“I’ll continue to race until my body says no. The doctor and medicine allow me to do this,” says Sandoval. Ever since the injury in high school, his knee has gradually gotten worse and been more painful each year. Mountain biking alongside running has helped strengthen his knee, but the pain became so severe that he required surgery several years ago.
“They cleaned out the meniscus on the lateral side, cut my femur above my knee, and put a wedge in my femur. There’s a plate in there and seven screws to hold it in place. I was non-weight-bearing for three months after the surgery, but it healed well,” says Sandoval.
Then, in 2018, Sandoval also got involved with running burros. His friend, Paul Anderson, the former Leadville Race Series Event Manager, had two donkeys and could only run with one. He asked Sandoval to help him run the other one, named Stormtrooper, for exercise. After the two duos trained together for six months, Sandoval thought, Why not ask to race Stormtrooper? He did and got totally hooked. “I started in the back [of the first race], because I was kind of scared. I learned a lot in that race. The donkey really wanted to run but I was holding it back. I realized there was no reason to hold back. I went from burro racing not being on my radar to, at one point, owning five burros,” says Sandoval.
That same year, he and Lisa went to Arizona to adopt a rescue donkey off of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, but they ending up bringing two home. Then, his kids wanted a donkey, too, so the family went to New Mexico this time, planning to get one miniature donkey. They came home with three, including Buttercup. After all, five donkeys on their current property was too many, so now they just have the miniature burro Buttercup and BLM-rescue burro Ricky Bobby. Buttercup has evolved into Sandoval’s racing partner.
“At our first race, the Creede Donkey Dash, Buttercup proved herself. She really likes running and pushes me to run faster. I try to run with her two to three times a week, and to do a lot of my tempo training with her. She makes me run faster,” says Sandoval, who will give her apple horse treats, her favorite snack, during their training runs. They typically do five to 10 miles together, but have gone up to 21 miles.
Burros have fully become a part of the Sandoval family’s lives. For instance, Sandoval built a miniature log cabin for Buttercup in the back yard, out of the same wood he used to build their home back in 2001. Eventually, he and his family would love to have a ranch full of burros and other animals.
The most exciting part about burro racing is that you never know how it will turn out, says Sandoval. “You have to be very patient when you run with a burro. You can’t force your burro to do what you want them to do. You have to convince them to want to do it for themselves,” considers Sandoval. “It’s about creating a partnership and trusting in each other. It’s truly a teamwork effort.”
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- Have you raced or trained with Marvin Sandoval in Leadville and beyond?
- How about with Buttercup? Were you one of her 2019 competitors?
- Leave a comment to share a story about Marvin and/or Buttercup!