When Christopher McDougall’s new book, Running with Sherman, arrived in my mailbox, I was excited and intrigued for two reasons: one, I loved his 2009 best-seller, Born to Run, and, two, there was a photo of a donkey (Sherman) on the dust jacket. I had no idea what the book was about but figured anything written by McDougall — and starring a donkey —would be a good read.
I was not disappointed. Running with Sherman is an absorbing tale about rehabilitating an abused miniature donkey by training for Colorado’s annual World Championship Pack Burro Race, a 26-mile trek for human and donkey.
Blessed with a sharp wit and an aptitude for scene setting, McDougall recounts an amazing journey that takes place on their small farm in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and begins with Sherman’s arrival. McDougall and his wife, Mika McDougall, agree to let the wee donkey live with them at the behest of their neighbor, Wes, who was looking to relocate a hoarder’s abused animals, and pleas from their daughters.
When Sherman arrived, he was in terrible physical and mental shape, having lived his life in a tiny stall with a mud-soaked floor, underfed and neglected. His hooves had grown to shocking lengths, disfigured and curling up on the ends. Sherman was in such a bad way, they wondered if the little guy would even live. But with help from their neighbors — such as donkey expert Tanya, and others, many of whom are Amish — the McDougalls got Sherman back on his feet (literally and figuratively).
Running with Sherman is a highly engaging, deeply moving account of how fortitude, patience, love, and tenacity can heal physical and emotional wounds, and the amazing bond that can develop between humans and animals. I spoke over the phone with Christopher McDougall just before his book release.
There doesn’t seem to be much written about donkeys. Where did you find information about how to help Sherman? I looked through a couple of different guides and basic texts about donkeys, but there really isn’t much literature out there that I found worthwhile. But there’s a bottomless supply of word-of-mouth information. Guys like Curtis Henry and Hal Walter, these full-time burro racers, are just fascinating when you get on the topic of what to do with donkeys. And Tanya, who took us under her wing from the start, would say, “Take a breath. Take your time and open your eyes. This is all about patience. And if you do it, you’ll get anything you want. If you don’t, you’ll never make any progress.”
I think patience would be the hardest part. Yes, but it’s also the biggest payoff. There’s this old saying that whatever you’re feeling travels down the road. So if you’re stressed, the donkeys pick up on it. If we’re running, and I start to get out of breath, the donkeys are like, “Whoa, what’s going on here? This guy doesn’t sound right. Is there some mountain lion around here?” So they hear the stress in one of the herd — me — and they stop to check it out. What you learn is, keep yourself calm and then whenever there’s frustration, I just have to blow it out. Frustration and urgency to Sherman means things are getting out of control, he’s not making his own decisions, and he just shuts down. And so, the second I start to get frustrated, I go, “Blow it out, take a breath, chill.”
You’re learning to be meditative by working with the donkeys. I think you start to refine the whole art of communication because when you take away language, what are you left with? You’re left with observation and empathy. You’ve got to kind of put yourself into that creature’s mind. I think the act of verbal communication probably accelerates the process. You don’t have to really listen because you think you understand inside your head, but an animal can’t communicate. You really have to get back to first principles and really pay attention.
Did your concept of running change after teaming up with Sherman? It really has. The big life lesson about running I took from this is that competition is way overrated. In fact, it may be more harmful than helpful. And that’s something I’m wrestling with because I understand how motivating it is. On the other hand, the greatest era of running I’ve ever had in my life by far was training with the donkeys. It’s something I feel needs a longer look — like challenging the whole idea of whether competition is good or bad.
Is there anything else you want to say about the book? I think there’s some really powerful wisdom out there that we’ve forgotten, about our relationship to the natural world with animals. And we thought we could outsmart Mother Nature, and we’re paying the price for it. And I think this experience I had is kind of a way back.
4•1•1 | Christopher McDougall will read from and sign copies of his new book, Running with Sherman, Saturday, October 19, 4 p.m., at Chaucer’s Books (3321 State St.). Call (805) 682-6787 or see chaucersbooks.com.