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Dead Heat

When taking part in a coffin race, preparation is key

Author Chera Prideaux Illustration Luci Gutiérrez


COLORADO – On a sunny fall day, Aaron Butcher sprints down a street in Manitou Springs, Colorado, hauling a coffin with his mother inside. Her slight, 95-pound frame makes it easy to build up speed, and she lies down to reduce drag. Together, Butcher and his mom are a formidable duo.

You need to be fast to take part in the Emma Crawford Coffin Races, a sporting event inspired by the story of a 19th-century woman who, having succumbed to tuberculosis, was buried up on nearby Red Mountain. A few decades later, in 1929, torrential rains washed her coffin loose, and it tumbled down the hill.

Each year, just before Halloween, dozens of teams attempt to recreate Emma’s final journey, and to do so faster than their rivals. Among the competing crews are blue-skinned Smurfs, monsters with Afros and a five-pound Chihuahua called Haunt Dog. Butcher is in his mid-20s, athletic and a couple of inches north of six feet tall. Today, he leads a team of zombies.

Butcher’s family runs the Ghouls Gulch Haunted House in nearby Colorado Springs, and they take the race more seriously than most. A couple of years ago, following a string of near-misses, he redesigned the coffin and stocked his crew with two soccer players, a former track star and a judo champion. Ghouls Gulch has taken the top prize the last two years.

Butcher seems equally determined to prevail at this year’s event. “The street has an S-curve to the left, then right,” he says to his attentive zombies in a strategy session. The biggest thing to avoid, he continues, is “the coffin going flying.”

The preparation nearly pays off: Ghouls Gulch comes in second. At the finish line, Butcher collapses with exhaustion, then opens his eyes to see the Grim Reaper standing over him. “Get up,” the cloaked figure says, “and buy me a beer.”

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