A race, a donkey with heart, and a lot of humour

Review: Vivien Horler

Running with Sherman, by Christopher McDougall (Profile Books/ Jonathan Ball)
This is a book about a donkey called Sherman. It’s also about burro racing – racing with donkeys; about the Pennsylvania Amish; treating depression; and how the relationship between people and animals keeps us human.
Because that’s the wonderful thing about Christopher McDougall’s writing: he has an ostensible topic, but then drifts into other areas, thinly related, in a generally fascinating way.
Readers of his bestseller Born to Run will know this. It was about ultramarathon running, a subject many of us have very little interest in. It sat on my bedside table for weeks. Then I picked it up and it was utterly brilliant. It was about a group of Mexican Indians who entered one of the toughest ultra marathons in the world, the Leadville 100, and wearing tyre-sandals, beat everyone else.
Leadville, in the Colorado Rockies, is an old silver and lead mining town, two miles (3 200m) about sea level. Walk up a little rise and you’ll be breathless. It is so high that pregnant women are sent down the mountain to give birth, which means babies are no longer born there (although 130 years ago my grandmother was).
McDougall’s next book, Natural Born Heroes, was about Allied guerillas in Crete during World War II, and also about parkour or free running. In some ways it seemed like two different books, and when I got to the author’s note at the end I discovered I was right – McDougall admitted he had had two topics he wanted to write a book about, and unable to decide between them, managed to weave the two stories into one.
Running with Sherman is a little more unified, but still manages to cover a lot of ground, both metaphorically and physically.
It starts with Sherman, a donkey that has been grievously mistreated, kept in a cell of a stall on his own, standing in his own excrement. McDougall, his wife Mika and two daughters, live on a small farm in Lancaster County in Pennsylvania, and agree to take him on. But when he arrives he is virtually catatonic and there are doubts that he will live.
His neglected hooves are curled up and he can barely walk. It turns out that donkeys and other equines need to walk if they are to digest their food, so an animal that can’t walk is in dire straits.
But McDougall gets a neighbour over who trims Sherman’s hooves and gives other advice about his care. Sherman then becomes fixated on one of the family’s goats, and begins to amble around the paddock after him.
Another neighbour, Tanya, who has horses and donkeys of her own, tells McDougall it is not good enough for Sherman, a working animal, to vegetate in a paddock,
McDougall has a thought. Would it be remotely possible to enter Sherman in the World Championship Burro Race in Colorado in a year? The training would give the donkey a sense of purpose.
Tanya doubtfully agrees, coming over on her own donkey, Flower, to train with McDougall along the local trails. Tanya rides Flower, but in burro racing you don’t ride your donkey – you run alongside it.
It turns out donkeys are much more independent minded than horses, and don’t take instruction well. They’re also easily spooked, and when they are, they turn to stone. Turns out anything can spook a donkey: a sign swinging in the wind, a puddle on the road, a different ground surface, a creek. Both Pennsylvania and Colorado are full of creeks.
Tanya has a personal crisis, and had to withdraw from the training, at which point Zeke steps in, a college student who is having a semester off while battling with depression. By this time the McDougalls are training three donkeys for the world championship: Sherman, Flower and another tiny donkey belonging Tanya called Mathilda.
McDougall is a great writer, able to keep your interest, range over a variety of subjects, and be hilarious with it. The six racers, three human and three burros, have determination, heart and plenty of ups and downs – again metaphorically and physically – as they train for the big one.
This book is a delight.

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