“You need to give this animal a purpose. You need to find him a job.”
Christopher McDougall, an author and former Associated Press war correspondent, can still remember his neighbor, Tanya, giving him that advice about a severely abused donkey that his family had just rescued from a hoarding situation. She was at the McDougall farm that day to clean up the animal’s coat, after her husband, Scott, had performed “hacksaw surgery” to restore its hooves.
Despite their efforts, the donkey, who the family had decided to name Sherman, in honor of the happy-go-lucky, songwriting Sherman brothers in the Disney film, “Saving Mr. Banks,” was still in such bad shape physically and emotionally that no one was sure he would survive.
So putting him to work seemed cruel, in a way, but the right kind of work can be a cure for despair. And moments after Tanya had suggested finding a job for Sherman, McDougall remembered something he’d seen years earlier in Colorado while researching a story on running.
It dates back to Colorado’s mining days, “when prospectors would hit pay dirt, heave their gear onto their burros (the Spanish word for donkey) and hightail it to town to file their claims,” McDougall explains in a new book he’s written about rescuing Sherman, training him to race, and the power of animals and people to help each other heal.
“Running With Sherman” will be the featured story at this year’s annual Run to Read 5K/Walk/Dash, set for Saturday, Oct. 12, beginning at 8 a.m. on the parking lot of Washington Public Library, 410 Lafayette St., in Downtown Washington.
One of Sherman’s local cousins, Ace, the pet donkey of Kerri and Colin Flynn, Washington, will be at Run to Read showing support to everyone as they cross the finish line. And McDougall will be here to tell the story of how he benefited from partnering with Sherman.
“I learned a lot from training myself to work with an animal that I couldn’t communicate with,” McDougall told The Missourian. “And I think that’s a lesson that really extends to much of our lives, especially now. We are in a world where people just don’t listen and appreciate each other.
“If you’re faced with a donkey that you’re trying to persuade that it really wants to run 15 miles with you, that is a master challenge in communication,” he said. “One thing people have told me is anything you want a donkey to do, you have to let the donkey think it’s his idea. Try to make that happen. Try to persuade a donkey to think it’s his idea to go running.”
McDougall wants to share Sherman’s story with everyone because of what an amazing turnaround it has been.
“When he came, he was so stunned and shell-shocked,” he said. “If you can imagine, he had just been standing in this tiny stall where he could barely turn around in semi-darkness for years. And suddenly he’s out in the sunshine and standing on green grass.
“Those first couple of days, he was just catatonic. We didn’t know how he was going to respond at all. But once he started to pal around with us and our other animals and we got him moving, the transformation has been unbelievable and really heartwarming.”
‘Born to Run’
Running has become central to McDougall’s life since he took up the hobby for good about 15 years ago. He had been running off and on since his 20s as a way to get in shape, but he routinely developed injuries that sent him to doctors looking for help.
He was surprised by their advice — quit!
“Look at the size of you!” they told him. “You’re 6 foot, 4 inches tall, 240 pounds; you’re too big to run. Running is bad for you. The impact is bad for the body, anybody, let alone a guy your size. It’s just a matter of time before you get injured again. You’re going to need orthotics. You just shouldn’t do it again. Why don’t you get a bike?”
Instead, McDougall did the opposite. He leaned into his search for information on “why his foot hurt” from running, and that led him on an adventure into Mexico’s remote Copper Canyon to meet the Tarahumara Indians who were said to have extraordinary running ability.
“Few outsiders had ever seen them in action, but those who did claimed that the Tarahumara were near-superhuman athletes who could scamper from peak to peak faster than a horse and knock off 10 marathons in a row (yes, that’s more than 260 miles) without stopping,” McDougall writes in “Running With Sherman.”
What he learned from the Tarahumara was that his foot hurt from running because he had been running all wrong — wearing heavily cushioned, motion-correcting shoes.
“Instead of actually looking at my running technique, I was looking at the gear,” said McDougall. “In every other physical activity, if something causes pain, you change the behavior. If you’re playing tennis, and your shoulder hurts when you serve the ball, you change the way you serve. You don’t change the racket. That’s not going to make any difference.
“Running is the only sport where they tell you if you’re getting injured, you need a different shoe,” he said, admitting that it sounds logical. “Everybody loves a shortcut. We would all rather buy something than learn something.”
But after learning what the Tarahumara Indians know about running, he changed his technique and his gear. Now, when he isn’t running barefoot, McDougall wears a pair of minimalist running sandals designed by his friend “Barefoot Ted” that he’s had for 10 years. And he has no pain or limitations on his running.
“I am purely a recreational runner . . . My only goal is to just be able to run as far as I want as often as I want. That’s all. I don’t care if I run fast or ever do a marathon. I just want to be able to go out the door every day and run as far as I feel like and anytime I feel like,” said McDougall. “I’ve accomplished that goal. Fifteen years later I can walk out the door, see a direction that looks fun and run for an hour without batting an eye.”
He has run his share of ultra-races — a few 30-miles and a few 50-miles. But he doesn’t find enjoyment in them the way some runners do.
McDougall said his terrain of choice for running is “whatever looks fun that day.
“If I’m running purely barefoot, no shoes at all, then I like to go on roads,” he said.
Yes, he lands on a pebble or sharp object every once in a while, but he mostly doesn’t because he’s watching where he’s going.
“It’s actually really restful, and most of the roads are really smooth and clean. I live out in the country too, and still the roads are really great to run on,” he said.
The skin on his feet doesn’t appear to have toughened up from running barefoot, and McDougall credits that to technique.
“You learn to land softly,” he explained, noting this is all part of what he learned from the Tarahumara tribe in Mexico. “They are running into old age and wearing thin little sandals.”
When it’s cold outside or when the weather calls for it, McDougall dresses accordingly for his run.
“My approach to shoes is the same as my approach to clothes. You add some for protection,” he said. “So if it’s a cold day, I put on a coat. If it’s a cold day to run, I put on a pair of minimal shoes and a pair of socks. If it’s not, if I don’t need the protection, then I don’t bother.”
Benefits From Communion With Animals
McDougall and his family live on a farm in Pennsylvania’s Amish country with a number of animals, including four goats, eight sheep, three donkeys, a dozen chickens, six geese, six ducks and four cats. They milk the goats and sheep, using the milk to drink and make cheese, yogurt and butter, mostly for their own use, although they do trade some with neighbors.
Through his experience with Sherman, McDougall came to see that donkeys have a special affect on people — particularly people with special needs — and vice versa. He said Tanya’s comment about every creaturing needing a purpose and a job opened his eyes how the relationship between people and animals had changed over time.
“For most of human existence, we always partnered with animals. We didn’t have them as pets, we had them as partners. We rode our horses, but we trusted them. We had dogs that we trusted and communicated with. We had hawks that we hunted with,” said McDougall. “And I became intrigued by this whole concept of true animal-human partnerships.”
Prior to writing the book “Running With Sherman,” McDougall wrote series by the same name in the New York Times looking at animal-human partnerships.
“I found in Colorado a guy who trains donkeys to run with, but he also has an autistic son, who has also benefited from the donkeys,” he said. “Then I met someone else who has an epileptic son who also benefits from being around donkeys. And the conclusion I drew is that I think we benefit so much more from our contact and relationship with animals than we realize.
“I think that was natural to our ancestors, but we’ve kind of forgotten about it. We tend to think that machines are better, but actually there’s a whole lot of intangible psychological and physiological benefit from communion with animals.”
More From McDougall
Prior to writing books and magazine articles, McDougall worked for five years as an AP war correspondent, serving four years overseas and one year in the U.S.
In addition to “Born to Run” and “Running With Sherman,” his second book, “Natural Born Heroes,” looks at World War II resistence fighters and how civilians turn themselves into people who can fight like that physcially.
He also wrote a series for Outside magazine called the “Art of the Hero.”
“Running With Sherman” will be released nationwide the week after Run to Read, and it’s a busy time for McDougall with lots of publicity events long planned ahead. But as soon as he heard about Run to Read, he made of point of adding it to his calendar.
“This is exactly like what all my books are about,” he said, with excitement. “Run to Read is exactly what I’m talking about. It’s combining the physical and the mental.
“We tend to think of ourselves as one or the other, and actually as humans we are this really rare combination of both. We are creatures who are evolved for movement, and yet we also are highly academic and cerebral, and I just love the fact that there is an event that exactly embodies what I’m all about.”
Run to Read, Ace the Donkey
The 2019 Run to Read will be held Saturday, Oct. 12, and will begin and end at Washington Public Library, 410 Lafayette St., in Downtown Washington.
Course options include a 5K (3.1 miles) run and a 1-mile story stroll, which allows walkers to learn Sherman’s story from enlarged photos and captions taken from the book. Children 5 and under may register for the Baby Buzz Dash — a sprint to the finish for the youngest participants.
Runners will take off at 8 a.m., followed by walkers at 8:05 a.m. The Baby Buzz Dash will begin at 8:45 a.m.
McDougall’s presentation will be held around 9 a.m. in the meeting room at the library, followed by awards to the top runners. Anyone is invited to hear him speak and copies of his books will be available for sale at the event.
There will be awards for overall winners, first-place finishers in each age division and medals to all children who finish the 5K and Baby Buzz Dash.
Bee trophies will be awarded to the overall 5K winners — youth, teen and adult, in both female and male categories and the fastest educators. A special award also is given to the school with the most participation.
All students who complete the 5K will receive a medal.
As always, everyone who participates in the Run to Read will be given a free book.
Dawn Kitchell, Missourian educational services director, who organizes the run in partnership with the Four Rivers Family YMCA, said one of the reasons Run to Read was created is to share the hundreds of books The Missourian reviews for consideration in its book columns with area readers. Hardback books for all ages and all genres will fill tables at the library and participants will get their pick after they complete a chosen event.
Cost to participate is $15 for adults and $10 for children.
In gratitude for all that teachers and librarians do to promote reading, there is no cost for an educator to register. Additionally, bee trophies are awarded to the first male and female educator across the 5K finish line — and a bee goes home with the school with the greatest participation.
To register for Run to Read, people can stop by Four Rivers Area Family YMCA, 400 Grand Ave., or Neighborhood Reads bookstore in Washington for registration forms. Online registration is available at gwrymca.org.
Forms also are available online at www.emissourian.com under the MIE tab. Print off the form to complete it and mail it in or drop it off at the bookstore or Y.
All participants who register by Saturday, Sept. 28, will receive a free T-shirt.
Registrations also will be accepted the day of the event, beginning at 7 a.m., but those racers won’t get a T-shirt.
With the book’s main character, Sherman, back in Pennsylvania, Kitchell said she’s excited the Flynn family is willing to bring Ace the donkey as a stand-in.
Ace, who is 18-years-old, will be waiting at the finish line to greet runners as they cross. Prior to his life with the Flynns for the past dozen years, Ace worked as a circus donkey.
Today, however, his main purpose is to keep Kerri’s horse, Forest, company in the pasture and entertain little children whenever they visit. He’s also good at keeping predators away from the chickens.
And for the last two years, Ace has had a starring role in the living nativity at Trinity Presbyterian Church.
Story Time and Library Event
Local runners and readers will have several additional opportunities to meet McDougall in Washington and hear his story. In addition to giving a presentation at Run to Read, he and Ace will be the guests for Saturday morning story time at Neighborhood Reads bookstore across the street from the library. It will begin at 10:30 a.m. in the backyard.
And Saturday evening, McDougall will give another presentation on his books at the Washington Public Library beginning at 6:30 p.m. That event is being sponsored by the Friends of the Washington Public Library, The Missourian and Neighborhood Reads Bookstore.
Both the bookstore story time and the library evening presentation are free and open to the public. No registration is necessary.