Running with Sherman: The Donkey with the Heart of a Hero, by Christopher McDougall. Knopf, 2019
Most of us have run on a team -- whether on a high school XC team, a Ragnar team, an adventure race or a club endeavor. This is so much more than a solo configuration where our performance affects not just ourselves, but our teammates as well. As such, it is dimensionally more difficult to blow off workouts and definitely adds to race day stress despite the fact that your brain is telling you there is safety in numbers. So why bother? For the simple reason that together we can achieve more than we can individually. But what if your teammate has four legs and a different understanding of the concept of racing? What if he doesn’t even speak the same language?
Taking it one step further, what if your teammate is a donkey, an animal legendary for his swift, punishing kicks and mule-headed stubbornness? That is the dilemma facing Christopher McDougall, of Born to Run and Natural Born Heroes fame, when he adopts a rescue donkey in need of a confidence-building purpose in life. As his local donkey whisperer, Tanya, succinctly states, “Anything you want a donkey to do, you’ve got to make him think it was his idea.” Those of you who have adopted rescue animals are already shaking your heads. You know not only is there physical damage to contend with, but also post-traumatic stress issues, the causes of which can only be guessed at.
Toppling the curve is the fact that donkeys are extremely intelligent animals. Like cats, they were the last of their equine species to be “civilized” (a fact that is open to heated debate) and as such are frustratingly free of the fawning characteristics of other long-time domestic companions. As McDougall discovered, “Donkeys don’t react, they reason.” And after a few thousand years of experimentation, donkeys are the clear winners. At any time, they could amble off and make a decent living. And they know it. Sort of like your standard house cat.
If you are one of the ten people who have not heard of McDougall’s other books, know that he relishes research and digs into his Sherman project with laser focus, consulting training experts, his Amish farmer neighbors and Curtis Imrie, the legendary hero of the Fairplay Mule Race, the event Chris, if not Sherman, was targeting. As Curtis unhesitatingly puts it, “If you want to explore your capacity for murder, try a burro race.” After roughly four decades of racing, Curtis rates his own proficiency as just slightly above passable. A donkey’s primary goal is survival and he is not about to let any humans get in the way of that basic instinct.
As you may have gathered, this book is not just a heartwarming story of donkey/human bonding or animal rehabilitation, but a quest to heal Sherman and coincidentally in the process unite a small Pennsylvania town towards a single purpose. For just like the goat, Lawrence, who sensed Sherman’s initial distress and became his barnyard protector, donkeys are supremely capable of bonding with autistic, epileptic and mentally upset humans, despite all the mayhem they might cause their owners along the way.
Taking off from the writing style initially explored by Barbara Kingsolver in The Poisonwood Bible, where each chapter carries the story along from the perspective of one of the characters, McDougall relishes jumping from topic to topic as he bonds with Sherman. In just the first few chapters he hurdles from trimming Sherman’s hooves, to his own barnyard menagerie, to his stint as a war correspondent in the Rwanda massacre, to purchasing a farm in Amish country and learning about Amish behind-the-barn cash-only stores. Whew! But his story is told so skillfully that you are never confused by the convoluted journey. And what’s more, it is impossible to skip ahead to glimpse what happens as what you might encounter is not another plot twist but an expose on Amish reading habits. A readable William Faulkner.
Just like any runner, McDougall figures that more is better and points his 3 donkey/3 human teammates toward the 71 year-old World Championship in Fairplay, Colorado. Notably, way before Kathrine Switzer shook the world as the first woman to run the Boston Marathon as a numbered entrant, women were welcomed and even encouraged at Fairplay. Young teens, were also encouraged in an atmosphere where runners and burros were expected to stop their race for those in distress. It was always about acceptance and teamwork. Along the way, McDougall’s team is beset with the usual obstacles: injuries, training glitches and bad weather as well as unique challenges like honing in on donkey psychology and locating an animal van. The humans realized that they needed to look at things through Sherman’s eyes rather than trying to mold him to their mindset, the foundation of a true partnership on any level. They discovered like Emilie Forsberg and other lasting runners that the key to any successful endeavor is the sheer joy of a playful attitude. And like any team, they learned to rely on each other’s strengths. In the end it was McDougall’s wife Mika who carried them through. Unlike the others, she had no need of healing and nothing to prove, just a desire to help everyone else and a joyful acceptance of each moment. And that is really the key to all endeavors.
So what now? Sherman has settled in nicely with his girlfriends Flower and Matilda and they and their human partners enjoy running together. Chris McDougall has another book in the works, but no hints yet as to what it will be about. However, unlike Sherman’s story, which began as a birthday present for his daughter and evolved into a book idea, his next offering hints at being more of a planned affair. Stay tuned for the next blue and yellow cover jacket!
Reviewed by laura clark