Publication Date: July 2, 2020
Genre: Memoir, Non-fiction
Publisher: Profile Books
When barefoot running guru Christopher McDougall takes in a neglected donkey, his aim is to get Sherman back to reasonable health. But Sherman is ill-tempered, obstinate and uncooperative - and it's clear his poor treatment has made him deeply fearful of humans. Christopher knows that donkeys need a purpose - they are working, pack animals - and so when he learns of the sport of Burro Racing or running with donkeys, he sets out to give Sherman something worth living for.
With the aid of Christopher's menagerie on his farm in rural Pennsylvania, his wife Mika and their friends and neighbours including the local Amish population, Sherman begins to build trust in Christopher. To give him a purpose, they start to run together. But what Sherman gains in confidence and meaning is something we all need: a connection with nature, the outdoors, with movement. And as Christopher learns, the side benefits of exercise and animal contact are surprising, helping with mental and physical health in unexpected ways.
A good friend of mine – whose idea of a good time is competing in triathlons – and I met for our weekly coffee/tea a couple of weeks ago, and she said “I have a book I think you’d like.” I looked at her with heavy scepticism, because she reads running books and cookbooks, and I’d rather starve than cook, and be eaten rather than run. “No, really; it’s written by a runner, but it’s about a donkey and I SWEAR nothing bad happens to the donkey, and it’s ends happily.” She knows me well.
So I brought the book home, and when MT saw it, he said, with heavy scepticism, “Is that supposed to be for me to read?”, thereby proving that the only person he thought less likely to be interested in the book than himself, was me. So I started explaining how the book ended up on our coffee table and as I did, I opened it to the first page.
And was completely captivated. I don’t mean “oh, this actually looks good” in an idle sort of way, I mean once I started reading it, I couldn’t stop and I heard MT ask about 30 minutes later: “Did you mean to start reading that now?” Er… no, but shhh…
Part of this easy engagement definitely stemmed from my friend’s assurances that the story ended well; if she hadn’t sworn up and down that this was so, I’d have thrown the book down before I got to page 2 and refused to touch it again. The donkey may end up in a great place, but he doesn’t start there. Horrifying fact: donkey’s hooves never stop growing; they have to be trimmed or else they start curling upwards.
The story in a nutshell is this: the author, a runner, agrees to shelter and rehabilitate a donkey rescued from a hoarder. Part of the donkey’s recovery success depends on being given a purpose, and at a loss for anything more purposeful, and with a secret curiosity about the sport of donkey racing, the author starts the donkey on the long path from death’s door to racing fit.
That nutshell makes it sound like it’s still more about racing than the more sedentary reader would like, but it isn’t. This book is about the donkey – Sherman – and his fellow goat and equine friends, Lawrence, Flower and Matilda; it’s about the people involved in helping Sherman be his best donkey self, and, as filler to pad out the page count, a lot of interesting asides about related topics, such as the history of donkey racing (honest to god, it’s a thing), the people involved in racing donkeys, the benefits of animal/human relations, the benefits and dangers (in excess) of athletic training, depression, and the Amish. Yes, the Amish. It works.
McDougall is, at heart, a journalist, and the writing style and narrative reflect that. It’s well written and an easy read, but it lacks that formal, reserved style sometimes found in similar books. It’s chatty, and his personality comes through clearly, as does Sherman’s and his furry friends. Who are awesome, by the way.
Running with Sherman is the best kind of feel good book, where the animal triumphs in the end, and everybody wins. As the reader who’d rather be eaten than run (not really, but it’s a close thing), I’d happily recommend this book to anybody looking for an easy but worthwhile read. Even MT is planning on reading it.