The ‘Sherman’ in the title of this non-fiction book is a donkey, and this book is literally one about the author running with Sherman. Chris McDougall wrote the bestselling book, Born to Run, in which he tells of going in search of the greatest long-distance runners in the world – the elusive Tarahumara Indians of Mexico – who help him overcome a foot injury he had been told would prevent him from ever running again. I’m not a runner, but McDougall is a great storyteller.
When McDougall comes across a mistreated donkey in his neighbourhood (in Pennsylvania, near an Amish community), he decides to adopt it to nurse it back to health. On arrival, however, Sherman is worse than he realised – as well as being malnourished, depressed, stinking, and in a terrible condition, Sherman’s hooves have curled up like long nails from months of standing locked up in a soggy pen, making it virtually impossible for him to walk. Even once the extra growth has been removed with a hacksaw, Sherman remains unresponsive. The vet who cleans him up tells McDougall,
‘Look … He’s been abused and abandoned, and that can make any animal sick with despair. You need to give this animal a purpose. You need to find him a job.’
And so starts the incredible tale of how McDougall starts running with Sherman, training him up for the World Championship Pack Burro Race in Colorado. Who ever thought there was even such a thing as burro racing? It dates back to 19th-century-silver-mining days in Colorado when prospectors loaded their donkey with tools and food, and headed into the mountains in search of the precious metal. There are a number of races throughout the summer series in Colorado, including the World Championship into which McDougall enters himself and Sherman.
Donkey are notoriously stubborn – Sherman is no exception – and one of the delights of this book is the descriptions of the various methods with which McDougall gets Sherman running – including the help of two high-spirited goats, the locals from the Amish running community (who run with all their black clothes on), and McDougall’s wife and friends. Among these is the son of a friend who has dropped out of college because of severe depression. He and Sherman bond particularly well and both exercise themselves out of their debilitating moods.
Against all odds, Sherman and McDougall run and finish the race, a feat which made me want to stand up and whoop with delight.
While the book concentrates on Sherman’s recovery from abusive treatment, it also highlights how exposure to nature and exercise can have a profound effect on mood and motivation, and the incredible nature of the human-animal relationship. Overall, it is a delightful story – never sentimental – that made me feel happier for having read it.