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Running your ass off – ‘Running with Sherman’

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As the old adage goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. That may be true, but what about this: you can lead a donkey to the road, but you can’t make him run.

That’s the question asked by author Christopher McDougall in his new book “Running with Sherman: The Donkey with the Heart of a Hero” (Knopf, $27,95). In this nonfiction account, McDougall tells the story of Sherman, the donkey that he and his family rescued. From sad, almost tragic beginnings, we watch as Sherman – thanks to the boundless love and patience of Chris and his family and friends – goes from a shy, sickly, socially maladjusted donkey to a lean mean racing machine … eventually.

It’s a story about a donkey, yes. But it’s also a story about the lives that are touched by the indomitable spirit of that donkey. Through the successes and the bumps in the road alike, Sherman’s refusal to give up serves to rally the people around him. It’s the story of a man who has moved his family into the middle of Amish country in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The story of a man touched by the generosity and gentleness of the Amish people.

The story of a man and his donkey.

Chris McDougall and his family were settling into their new life in Amish country in Pennsylvania. The adjustments weren’t always easy, but they managed to make it all work. They were happy, living a more removed life (though not nearly as removed as their Amish neighbors). One of the things they found themselves doing was taking in stray and unwanted animals, so when Chris was approached about taking in a donkey rescued from an animal hoarder, he figured it would be more or less like every other rescue.

Instead, a tragically sick animal arrived. This donkey’s fur was patchy. His hooves were overgrown. He could barely move. And worst of all, he had spent so much time isolated in a tiny stable that he didn’t really know how to be a donkey. Thanks to a little help from some of his neighbors, Chris was able to get the donkey – now named Sherman – headed in the direction of physically healing.

Emotionally? That was another story.

Chris watched as Sherman struggled to deal with his new life. There were baby steps – the biggest was when he made friends with a decidedly weird, borderline iconoclastic Oberhasli goat named Lawrence – but the donkey still seemed adrift, unable to deal with the realities of just being a donkey. It wasn’t until a friend told Chris that what a donkey needs more than anything is a job.

So Chris gave him one.

But it wasn’t pulling a plow or carrying a passenger. No, Chris had something a little different in mind. He was going to train Sherman to be a racing burro. That’s right – a racing burro. They were going to train and Sherman was going to run with Chris in the World Championship in Colorado.

What followed was an incredible journey, one that expanded to involve not just Chris and Sherman, but many others. Chris couldn’t do it all alone, you see. He needed the help of others – burro racers and goat farmers and troubled young neighbors. Oh, and the noted Vella Shpringa Amish running club (yes, really).

Along the way, we learn more about Chris and the people closest to him, his family and friends, all of whom are just as committed to help this troubled little donkey become a racer. It isn’t easy, with plenty of obstacles presenting themselves along the way, but Sherman proves to be quite a resilient beast, ready to tackle anything so long as his friends are by his side.

“Running with Sherman” is a magical read, one that elicits surprised chuckles even as it tugs at the heartstrings. The motley crew – both human and animal – that it introduces is an absolute delight; McDougall clearly has a gift for fully rendering the people that he meets. The term “inspirational” is a loaded one when it comes to books, but it’s an apt descriptor here; the story of Sherman’s journey – and McDougall’s alongside him – does inspire, capturing the beautiful spiritual connection that exists between man and animal.

And while McDougall is at the story’s center, it is the characters at the tale’s outskirts that truly fascinate. Amish runners in full skirts or suspenders striding through the woods under the full moon. Teenage girls who overcome potentially fatal childhood ailments to become burro racing champions. Young men whose surface-level perfect lives succumb to depression, only to find solace in jogging alongside a donkey.

(Again, it can’t be stressed enough – burro racing is a very real thing, a throwback type of event that celebrates the rough-and-tumble mining town past of the places where the races are held. Burros and humans run side by side; the burro carries a standardized set of tools designed to represent the usual kit used by miners.)

It’s a special thing to genuinely fall in love with someone you meet in the pages of a book. Rest assured: you can’t help but fall in love with Sherman the determined donkey. “Running with Sherman” is charming and hilarious, heartfelt and sincere. It’s a wonderful read for anyone who has loved an animal that needed to be loved … or has faced a challenge that seemed insurmountable but had someone there to stand (or run) alongside them.

Last modified on Tuesday, 15 October 2019 17:01

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