NORTH AMERICAN mountain runners have created a new race form for one of the world's oldest domesticated animals: the South American llama. Nicknamed the "Ship of the Andes," the llama is used as a beast of burden to this day by Aymara and Quechua Indians in the lofty altiplano of Peru, Bolivia and Chile, but now the adapatable camelid also runs in "Llamathons," long-distance mountain races in which pack llamas, accompanied by human runners, carry fifty pound loads on their backs.
The first "Llamathon Challenge Trek," run in 1989 in the La Plata Mountains outside Durango, Colorado, saw a llama named Clancy best a field of twenty, completing the grueling sixteen-mile mountain course at elevations of up to twelve thousand feet in three and one-half hours.
The sport has attracted star athletes, such as Mike Larrabee, who won a Gold Medal in the 1964 Olympic games in the 400-meter dash, and who has entered three llamathons with his star llamas Jodi and Sundance.
"We haven't tapped the llama's potential yet," Larrabee predicts. "Events like the llamathon will show us what these animals can do. I think some day llamas will run marathon and ultramarathon distances in the mountains as fast as humans."
Last May, in the "Second California Llamathon," forty llamas raced along a seven-mile course in the coastal mountains south of San Francisco, to benefit AIDS and cancer research. Clancy won again, in thirty-nine minutes and forty-three seconds.
On October 8 the "Colorado Llamathon" takes place outside of Fort Collins, over a sixteen-mile course, with an anticipated field of twenty to thirty llamas and at least as many human participants. (Generally, one llama requires four human partners over the course of a llamathon.)
But the llamathon is just the tip of the iceberg of North American interest in these ancient animals. Until some five thousand years ago, wild camelids related to llamas roamed the North American plains. The llama returned home to the U.S., as a zoo resident, in the late nineteenth century. Excessive numbers of zoo-bred llamas, all descendants of animals imported to the U.S. …