Ten years ago, Chris McDougall brought us Born to Run, the tale of the Tarahumara of Mexico and the revolution of “bare foot running”. I was so fascinated by his first book that I read it in just 3 days. In the midst of reading, I took a run break with my husband (who also happens to be another awesome Chris ;). We came across a section of trail that I deemed smooth enough to test out my new found, liberated style of running. I stopped, slipped off my shoes, took about 5 strides and…quickly put my shoes back on. Every pebble that touched my tender, thin-skinned feet seemed to send shooting pain up through my body. My husband Chris laughed out loud and still gives me a hard time about that “one time”. But to give me credit, we later both purchased minimalist running shoes and, to this day, I have had relatively few chronic running injuries which I attribute to focusing on adjustments to my running form (leaning forward and shortening/quickening my stride), sticking to the trails over pavement, and choosing to run for the joy of it, all principles I initially drew from Born to Run.
I am a big fan of McDougall’s first book and was excited to download Running with Sherman as an audiobook to accompany my runs…and I wasn’t disappointed, especially considering that this book found me in the middle of COVID-19 pandemic while desperately needing a happy distraction. The book was recommended to me by a colleague at the Tahoe Forest Hospital Respiratory COVID clinic who knows that I love to run and that I am a first-time dog owner to a mischievous labradoodle puppy.
Running with Sherman is about the bonds that humans create with animals as coworkers and companions. In this story, the animal of interest is Sherman, a neglected donkey that Chris McDougall and his family have decided to adopt and rehabilitate. The story reveals that donkeys are incredibly smart and independent thinkers…stubborn if you will. And to throw in a twist, McDougall gets the crazy idea to sign Sherman and himself up for the world championship of pack burro racing in the high elevation mountains of Colorado. Thankfully McDougall has help from his family and neighbors on this journey.
The McDougall family lives in rural Eastern Pennsylvania AKA “Amish Country”. The story goes into Chris’ life journey and describes how he transitioned from working as an international journalist to settling his family into rural life. His Amish neighbors become instrumental in giving tips on how to manage his land and farm animals. His neighbors display astounding work ethic that in a large part continues to revolve around their relationships with their animals as coworkers. The book also dabbles into the Amish running culture which I found extremely fascinating.
Another neighbor in the story is Zeke, a college student who is taking some time off school due to a bout with depression. Zeke bonds so closely to Sherman in the process of training with him that the recovering donkey actually proves to be part of the remedy for Zeke’s mental health concerns. McDougall poignantly writes, “Sherman looked so happy these days—so strong and self-assured—that it was sometimes easy to forget that for all the healing he’d gotten from Zeke, he’d given as much in return.” A beautiful reminder that relationship with animals and outdoor physical activity can help alleviate stress, anxiety, and depression.
The final chapters bring Sherman, McDougall, and their team to the Pack Burro Racing Championships. Running 15 miles while tethered to a donkey with a rope is a very different challenge than the 50-mile race McDougall tackled in Born to Run or any of my typical ultra-trail races. Nonetheless, I found myself resonating with and inspired by this story about a donkey and his supportive team.
A lot has changed for me in the last 10 years. Today I am a new puppy owner, a mother, a more experience ultra-runner…. and I am living and working in healthcare during the COVID-19 pandemic. There have been moments lately that the heaviness of the world’s problems and my responsibilities sometimes feel unbearable. However, I find my resilience in the support of my family and community, in playing and laughing especially with our new puppy, and in heading outside for a trail run in this beautiful place we call home. The puppy is now 5 months old so I’m off to the next challenge of dog training . I am feeling especially thankful that we did NOT decide to bring a donkey home. But if any of you are so inclined in a new adventure, more information about Pack Burro Racing can be found at http://www.packburroracing.com/