“Born to Run” Author Christopher McDougall on His Latest Book About Racing With Donkeys

“Born to Run” Author Christopher McDougall on His Latest Book About Racing With Donkeys

Paul L. Underwood
by Paul L. Underwood
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“Born to Run” Author Christopher McDougall on His Latest Book About Racing With Donkeys

You probably know Christopher McDougall from his bestselling book “Born to Run,” in which he wrote about the history of long-distance running and why human beings remain wired for it. You might also know his bestselling follow-up “Natural Born Heroes,” blended the histories of the ancients and World War II, rediscovering long-held secrets to training and endurance.

So now, his latest book, “Running With Sherman,” might chronicle his most unlikely adventure yet. It details how he trained an unusual running partner: a donkey. More specifically, a donkey McDougall rescued from a hoarder neighbor in Pennsylvania’s Amish Country and then nursed from extreme sickness to a healthy, happy, thriving donkey. The book demonstrates McDougall’s ability to tell compelling stories that tie together a range of disparate elements with insight and wit.

In a borderline-unbelievable coincidence, it also turns out that donkeys are naturally skilled runners. McDougall trains Sherman for the World Championship Pack Burro Race, a traditional human-donkey race in Colorado, and seeks help from plenty of memorable characters along the way. As always, he provides ample wisdom about the act of running itself, in a fun and engaging way that has Hollywood calling. (Netflix is reportedly developing a movie based on the book.)

With that in mind, we spoke with McDougall to learn how the story came together, his favorite places to run, and why he considers himself “a loudmouth zealot.” Here’s what he told us:

Q: Congratulations on the book, which is both funny and emotional. Was it emotional during the actual writing process?
McDougall: Oh, yeah. It was weird. Because you have these moments that are unlike other books I’ve done, where I’m actually reliving it as I’m writing it. It’s really strange. And in the past, I always felt detached, like I’m on the outside watching other people in action. And then suddenly, I’m describing things I was intimately involved in. It all came flooding back. It was really unusual for me.

Q: In your other books, you went out and found the stories you then told. With this book, this story found you, at least at the outset.
McDougall: Yeah.

Q: Did that make the experience different from writing your other books?
McDougall: For sure. I was really caught up in the day-to-day struggle to keep this animal alive and figure out what we were gonna do with it, and all these unexpected responsibilities that suddenly dropped in my lap. I didn’t see it as a book or a story at all. It was actually an editor of mine who I ended up chatting with, who first sparked the idea. But even then I didn’t see the real depth of it until I began to explore that whole phenomenon of animal-human partnerships. And that’s when I realized, ‘OK, there’s something kind of substantial here.’

Q: Tell me more about that.
McDougall: I think the thing was, you know, at first, I’m just dealing with this very sick animal that I need to train. And I don’t know how to do that. So I started looking for role models, people to guide me. What I began to find was something very different than I expected. I thought animal training was all about, give a treat. Give an order. Sit, stay, heel. Basically barking commands. What I began to discover is real effective trainers make a teammate out of the animal. A true partner. And I began to find people all over the country who’ve mastered this lost art. Then it also opened my eyes to the fact it’s not something new. It’s something very common to our ancestors, and we’re the ones who forgot how to do it.

Q: That connects back to “Born to Run”: rediscovering a sort of ancient, original way of doing something.
McDougall: I would agree with you for sure. Same with ‘Natural Born Heroes.’ I only start to get intrigued by something if I start to see it’s got a really long pedigree. You know, if there’s some kind of legacy. If someone is telling me about some new shake they discovered, or a new recipe for a[n energy bar], nah, you know, whatever. But if you can show me this recipe has actually been around from ancient Rome to the ancient Greeks, the ancient Sumerians, the anthropological ancestry, and that every time it turns up there seems to be a correlation with some sort of performance, then I’m interested.

Q: Have you always had that interest in long-term history and those connections within the greater human story?
McDougall: No. This is a revelation that really hit me with an impact because of ‘Born to Run.’

Q: How so?
McDougall: I mean, running goes way further past ancient Greece. Again, I think this is one of those light-bulb moments. When Daniel Lieberman at Harvard, and Dennis Bramble at the University of Utah, first crafted this evolutionary model, that humans evolved as long-distance runners, all of a sudden all the pieces clicked together. It’s not an accident that we run marathons. Of all distances, why 26.2 miles? And you go, well, the Olympics and London and blah, blah, blah. But I think there’s a reason why humans gravitate toward a challenge that’s roughly around 4 hours long. Because that’s roughly around the amount of time it takes for persistence hunters to chase quarry into heat exhaustion. It takes about 4 hours, 4–5 hours. This is something our ancestors did for hundreds of thousands of years. So our bodies evolved to be really good at running distances that tend to be that long.

Q: To bring it back to “Running with Sherman,” is there something similar to our relationships with animals? I grew up in the suburbs, I didn’t have to rely on an animal for anything. But if I had grown up in the 1800s, or the 1200s, I would’ve been wholly dependent on an animal. Is that similar to our relationship with running?
McDougall: For sure. It’s very similar to the idea of ‘Born to Run.’ Distance running, it’s something our bodies evolved to do. We did it for literally millions of years. Over that period of time, we evolved into these perfect running creatures. But recently, we’ve slotted into this modern technological lifestyle, where we have bodies evolved to run but lifestyles that don’t require it. If we don’t run, our bodies suffer for it — yet we don’t really need to. Likewise with animals. For hundreds of thousands of years we lived with animals as our equal partners — not our pets, not our accessories. We named religions after animals. We named our children after animals. We understood they knew stuff we don’t know. Then we developed machines and we decided, oh, we don’t need the animals any more. But our bodies still crave that contact, and teamwork.

Q: Absolutely. How was training Sherman to run the Pack Burro World Championship similar to, or different from, training with a human being?
McDougall: Well, it was similar in the sense I was partnering up with a creature that almost immediately demonstrated he’s a better runner than I am.

Q: Ha!
McDougall: It’s true. Sherman’s gait is rhythmic. His pace is spot-on. His ability to assess terrain is far better than mine. So once we broke through his serious illnesses and physical problems from being locked up for so long — once he was able to get his health back, and we were able to win his trust and surround him with other donkeys, and he began to run — once he finally hit his stride, he was dynamite to run with. Now when I run with him, I find my posture straightening up.

Q: Oh, wow.
McDougall: When you run with a donkey, you gotta run tall. You’re running right off their haunch. You are totally tuned into the moment because you gotta see what’s happening on the road ahead of you and anticipate. You lock into that really cool, easy, syncopated rhythm you’re looking for. So the best runs of my life have been with the donkeys.

To me that’s what it’s all about. I had a similar experience when I first ran with Caballo Blanco down in Copper Canyon [as depicted in ‘Born to Run’]. I’m running with a guy, and I was really close behind him, shadowing him, and I find my back straightening, my knees starting to drive, I’m landing on my midfoot. He didn’t have to tell me anything. Just by mirroring his movements, my own running improved dramatically.

Q: Running with the donkeys certainly seems superior to running alone with your earbuds plugged into the latest podcast.
McDougall: Yeah. You can do the same thing. Anybody who runs with a running club, especially if you get a couple good runners in there, you get the same sensation. This idea of running with a herd, being surrounded by people, you all tend to sync your pace, sync your stride. You sort of throttle back on the self-imposed punishment. When you’re by yourself, you tend to want to just get it over with. You push too hard, and you don’t relax. But when you’re with friends, you just relax and breathe.

Q: You’ve long been an advocate for running with the proverbial herd. Was that always the case, or did that come later in life?
McDougall: No. I think that like every loudmouth zealot, we’re always late to the game. Converts speak louder than people who’ve done it all their lives. So it was a revelation for me, too — I would slot exercise into whatever 45 minutes I thought I had free for the day. ‘OK, I only got this one hour before I gotta go to the kid’s soccer game.’ You cram this run in. You don’t warm up. You don’t cool down. You’re either going too slow or too fast. There’s nothing thoughtful about it. You’re just trying to get through it. I still do it, to this day. But I’m mindful of the fact that a better experience, and what I should aim toward, is a group experience.

Q: That applies to running with animals, too. There’s a connectedness.
McDougall: Yeah. At some point, there is a physiological mechanism at work. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we feel a peace, or a greater focus, when we’re running or around animals. Both of these are things our ancestors relied on for survival, and so our brains became hard-wired to encourage that behavior. So when you go for a run, that whole idea of a runner’s high and relaxation, that’s your brain’s way of telling your body this is good behavior, this is going to keep our species alive. To make sure you keep doing it, we’re gonna give you a nice dose of endorphins. We’re gonna give you a nice dose of oxytocin and serotonin to reward this behavior because it’s good for our species.

Likewise with animals. If you pet a cat, and the cat purrs, you feel really good. You feel satisfied and happy. That’s not just because the kitten’s cute. That’s because it told your ancestors 100,000 years ago that if this creature is in your presence, and it has far better night vision than you, far better hearing, far better sense of smell, and it doesn’t sense a threat in the perimeter, then you can relax, and focus on what you want to do and feel good. So yeah, our brains are hard-wired to get a sense of peace and joy and focus from being around animals, and from running. I think we kind of forget the origins of the sensation, but the sensation is still there.

Q: If someone feels inspired by this book to follow in your footsteps in some way, shape or form, what advice would you give them?
McDougall: I’ll tell you, there’s been a really cool movement recently: There’s a group called Monster Milers in Philadelphia. These are runners who volunteer at rescue shelters with shelter dogs, and they are trained to run safely with the dogs, and then take these shelter dogs out for group runs with running clubs.

This is such a win for everybody in every category. If you are a runner and you want to experiment with some animal contact, and you don’t have an animal, go to a rescue shelter. For the shelters, it’s dynamite. These dogs are getting exercise, they’re coming back calmer. For the dogs it’s amazing. The bigger the group, the better the dogs run. And the final win is, people from the running groups are adopting these dogs one after another. So dogs exercise. Volunteers get animal contact. Shelters get calmer dogs. And running clubs are finding exposure to animals they might want to adopt.

Q: That’s awesome.
McDougall: Yeah, it’s great. I’d definitely push people in that direction.

Q: Redemption is a big theme of the book. For Sherman, or for the hoarder family you sort of forgive near the end of the book. Was that theme important to you in writing the book?
McDougall: That’s the thing about it. It’s so easy to feel animosity and anger toward people. But that’s the thing about empathy. Empathy’s kind of a burden. It’s much easier to be judgmental, at a distance, and be, you know, ‘eff that guy.’ When you’ve really opened your eyes, and understand where they’re coming from, people act certain ways for a reason. It isn’t necessarily evil, they’re just misguided. Or in this guy’s case, he’s not right in the head.

One thing that was really powerful to me was when my friend Tanya [McKean, a horse trainer and veterinary assistant who lives near McDougall] was talking about the power of a second chance, and I thought she meant Sherman. But she was really talking about me. “He’s giving you a second chance, buddy.” Every situation cuts both ways, and you’ve got to be cool with the possibility no matter how right you think you are, you’re always a little bit wrong.

Q: What do you hope a reader takes away from the book?
McDougall: I think what I’m really driving at is a couple of things. One is this sense of the power of compassion, of stepping outside of ourselves, and taking the time to look at each other, and understand where we’re coming from, what’s driving us, what’s hampering us. That’s what happened with everyone around me. People stopped long enough to understand what I was doing. And when they got it, they stepped right up. Someone had the compassion to pause a beat, put aside what they were doing, and help us.

Q: That’s beautiful.
McDougall: I think there’s this misguided notion, especially nowadays, that my win equals your loss. To win you gotta knock somebody else down. What I’m seeing from experience is different: Winning is communal. It’s by cooperation, and not by ripping the other guy’s throat out. I see that all the time. The original barn-raisers [said] ‘If your barn burned down, that’s my problem, I’m gonna help you out.’ You think about that today: How many of us are willing to go over and spend a week building somebody else’s barn? We let that message go to voicemail every time.

Q: I have to ask: How is Sherman doing right now?
McDougall: Sherman’s killing it, man. Sherman’s doing great. He’s having a good time. Our herd has now grown to three donkeys, so he’s living at home with two fine ladies and having a good time. He’s healthy and strong and mischievous. We take him out for runs several times a week, and we have lots of friends who come over and run with him. So it’s all been working out pretty good for Sherman.

Q: I hope success doesn’t go to his head.
McDougall: [Laughs.] People often ask if Sherman is showing up for one of these events on the book tour. And I say, you know, the king no longer travels. Now one must travel to the king.

Q: I would imagine that would be an interesting book tour. But a challenging one, for sure.
McDougall: [Laughs.] Yeah. That is not a challenge I am willing to take on.

Q: You travel a lot. Do you have a favorite place to run?
McDougall: It changes with the day. We were back visiting where my wife grew up in Hawaii, and there’s a run up there on Oahu, and I’m like, ‘That’s my favorite run.’ And then yesterday I was in Troy, New York, and my buddy Zeke took me out on some kind of island, Pequod or something island [Note: Turns out it’s a different Moby-Dick reference, Starbuck Island], and I’m like, ‘Oh my god, this place might be my favorite place to run.’ So in the moment, you get intoxicated by something that looks awesome. My favorite run is probably wherever I am at the moment the question is asked.

Q: Do you have a least favorite?
McDougall: My least favorite place is a place I never run, which is indoors on a treadmill. No way. I think I’d rather be out in the Arctic. I just don’t have the temperament.

Q: Do you ever struggle with motivation to run or get moving? And if so, how do you overcome that?
McDougall: No, I never struggle with it. I think because, to me, it’s just recess.

It’s just play and fun. I have zero interest in races. So I’ll run ‘em once in a while, but I really don’t care. I think where people get in trouble is when they come in pre-loaded with expectations. A run has to be a certain thing.

Q: What do you mean?
McDougall: It’s funny, so a couple weeks ago I was in London for some book events. And one of the events was on the other side of Hyde Park from my hotel. I thought I knew where I was going, and I’m running across Hyde Park, and it’s getting dark. They close the gates at a certain time, so you’re penned into the park. And it’s getting late, and I’m getting lost, and I’m afraid the gates are going to close. I’m getting stressed. All of a sudden I’m, like, ‘Whoa, dude: Take a breath, man. It’s sunset. And you’re in London. And you’re going to an event where people like you. How are you turning this into a negative?’ It just clicked in my mind that every run is potentially perfect if you allow it to be. It’s up to you to decide: Is this gonna be a perfect run? Or am I gonna push too hard? Or go too fast? Or be too cranky, and make it a negative? I think that’s why I don’t struggle with motivation, because I just go into it with the attitude of ‘Hey, man, whatever it is, you’re outside. And it’s sunny or it’s windy or it’s cold or it’s cool. And just gonna enjoy it, and then go back and relax and have a good time.’

Q: Makes sense. Did you make it out of the park?
McDougall: I did. I did. I made it out of the park, and ran the wrong way into traffic, and somehow made it to the event relatively unscarred and not too late.

Q: That’s good! If you could be reincarnated as any animal you choose, which would you choose?
McDougall: Ooh, that’s a good one. That is a good one. I don’t know why, it’s probably a bad idea, but I’m gonna say housecat, man. No. Barn cat. I was gonna say housecat because our housecats are barn cats. So yeah, man, I think cats have got it licked, man. They know what’s going on. They’re their own man, no one tells them what to do. I go with barn cat.

Q: They always land on their feet. More wisdom from the animals.
McDougall: Yeah. Exactly, right. They always land on their feet.

Photo Credit: Matt Roth

About the Author

Paul L. Underwood
Paul L. Underwood

Paul is a writer based in Austin, Texas. He tweets here, he Instagrams there and he posts the occasional deep thought at plunderwood.com. He’s probably working on a run mix as you read this.

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