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A Romp through Donkeyland

Lancaster County, Pennsylvania
it:Utente:TheCadExpert, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons
Lancaster County, Pennsylvania

Raylene Hinz-Penner here, retired English professor now living in North Newton, KS and talking about Running with Sherman: The Donkey with the Heart of a Hero by Christopher McDougall, former foreign correspondent, writer of the bestseller, Born to Run, collector of great human stories.

Running is a theme with McDougall, a cureall for human disability, for all manner of healing, physical to psychiatric: movement as medicine. In this book the runners are both human and animal, donkeys to be precise, and the subtheme is how humans benefit from learning what donkeys already know.

The main plot centers on McDougall’s interactions with a terribly abused miniature donkey, Sherman, with footlong hooves McDougall helps to bring back to life, literally, and then his crazy decision to take Sherman to Leadville CO for the famous burro run.

When McDougall gets involved in a topic, here, burros running, he does a thorough journalistic investigation, and his writing style is to follow the rabbit trails of his mind and his own adventuresome wanderings, as he tries to understand Sherman the donkey, from animal intuition to human need (women sleep better with a dog than with their husbands, we learn!). The history of donkey lovers, Jesus to George Washington. Donkey habits. Donkey heart.

Furthermore, because McDougall lives with his family in Amish country, Lancaster County in Pennsylvania, a reader of this book learns about the Susquehannah terrain, Amish history, culture and lifestyle, broader Mennonite history, Amish relationship to animals, of course, and learns to know McDougall’s Amish friends, even the Amish run in the Pennsylvania countryside he stumbles on to.

McDougall works his way through all the obstacles which impede him and at the same time propel him toward his goal of running the Leadville 100 with his tattered donkey Sherman, a race instituted to save the town of Leadville, the highest city in the continental U.S. after mining stopped. 23 miles up and over a 13,500 foot mountain notably open to all comers; you’ll either be cured or addicted. McDougall knows and admires all the old time burro race addicts, haltered to their burros for the run, had even tried the race himself, and somehow got into his head that Sherman was his ticket ten years after his first adventure in Leadville.

The amazing cast of characters at the heart of the story includes Tanya, the donkey whisperer, without whom McDougall cannot imagine pursuing his dream. She gets him started with Sherman, then suffers a series of misadventures that leave McDougal stranded on his own.

McDougall’s hula dancer wife Mika becomes enchanted with his dream and becomes the heroine of the story. Zeke, the brilliant and depressed college kid who goes off the rails at college and needs to run to heal is at the heart of the training with the donkey Sherman. And mixed in, the myriad of healing stories of running with burros to save one’s health and one’s soul.

Always another rabbit trail that McDougall takes you down, at first reluctantly, until you find yourself intrigued, then fascinated by a good story that fits into the overall theme of donkey heart and wisdom, running to heal, community--as learned from the Amish or the burro racing community with its cast of crazy but helpful and good natured characters. McDougall has a heart for woman wisdom, intuitions and strength, learning from his wife Mika, for example, to see his own mistakes while running: He was more afraid of looking soft than of falling short, so instead of following her lead and playing it shrewd, he was brute strengthening his way into trouble.

The last third of the book is an amazing series of hard knocks and training fiascos which repeatedly look like they will derail the Leadville race for Sherman. Even the story of how to haul the whole crew and the donkeys who trained with Sherman from Lancaster County to Leadville CO becomes a subplot. As is who will race with Sherman when Zeke, now totally bonded to Sherman, breaks his foot right before the race. Read the book. I will tell you that Sherman and the team do run in the Leadville race.

This book is about process, the journey, what you learn on the trip to your dream. The power of the unexpected. Read it especially if you too have a love of “figuring stuff out.”

In addition to the escapades of training and being trained by a donkey, what makes this book fun is McDougall’s story telling, his inane but deft writing style and no holds barred straightforwardness, himself the butt of the joke. The book has been described as a love letter to the broken, but it isn’t that sedate: more, a rambunctious romp through donkeyland in an Amish setting with a crusty storyteller who is humble enough get the joke on the human race.

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