How This Rescue Donkey Became a Trail-Running Dynamo

After a lifetime of abuse and neglect, Sherman’s future looked bleak—until author Christopher McDougall found him a purpose.

I’d been waiting for Wes for more than an hour, and now, before he even came to a stop, the look in his eye warned me to brace myself.

“He’s in rough shape,” Wes said as he got out of the truck. “Rougher than I thought.” I’ve known Wes for more than 10 years, nearly from the day my wife and I first uprooted ourselves from Philadelphia to live on this small farm in Pennsylvania Amish country, and I’d never seen him so grim. Together, we walked behind the pickup and pulled open the trailer doors.

Running with Sherman
Christopher McDougall runs with Sherman in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, on September 24, 2019.

Inside the trailer was a gray donkey. His fur was crusted with dung, turning his white belly black. In places the fur had torn away, revealing raw skin almost certainly infested with parasites. He was barrel-shaped and bloated from poor feed and his mouth was a mess, with one tooth so rotten it fell right out when touched. Worst of all were his hooves, so monstrously overgrown they looked like a witch’s claws.

The donkey belonged to a member of Wes’s church. Wes is a truly wonderful person to begin with, and as a Mennonite, he’s committed by faith to helping anyone in need—or, in this case, any creature. Wes had discovered that one of his fellow churchgoers was an animal hoarder who kept goats and a donkey penned in squalor in a crumbling barn.

Wes owns the farm next to ours, and when he told me about the donkey he was trying to rescue, I figured why not? We’d wanted to help a creature in need, but this kind of creature—and this kind of need—was way beyond anything I’d imagined.

Early the next morning our savior rolled into the driveway. Scott hopped out of his truck with a confident grin—which quickly faded. “I’ve seen it all,” he said. “But not this.”

Scott, a sales rep for the shoe company Dansko, grew up in upstate New York and paid his way through college by fitting horses for shoes. After he moved to our neighborhood in Lancaster County, he became the go-to guy whenever local farmers needed help with their big work mules and buggy horses.

The hooves, he explained, were a death sentence. Donkeys usually keep their hooves naturally pumiced by foraging for long miles over rocky ground. But if you pen them up on soggy straw, or even leave them standing around in a grassy meadow, their hooves will eventually curl like the nails of a Hindu holy man. Once they’re deformed, the damage can be irreversible and lead to an excruciating death: Because equines have unusually small stomachs, most digestion takes place when their intestines are churned by the rocking motion of walking. Hobble them, and it’s only a matter of time before waste matter blocks their guts until the animal is torn apart from the inside.

The author and donkeys (from left) Flower, Sherman, and Matilda traverse a creek in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. When Sherman first started running, he was suspicious of even the smallest puddle.

“That’s a horrible way to die,” Scott said. “Unless . . .” He paused to think for a moment. “Do you have a hacksaw?”

Scott spent the next three hours performing last-ditch emergency “surgery.” He sawed through each hoof like a tree limb, then shaped them with his steel clippers and a rough file. He flopped back on the grass in exhaustion, sucking in deep breaths of relief. His T-shirt and jeans, spotless when he’d arrived, now looked like they’d been dug out of a swamp.

“I don’t know,” Scott said, his voice sounding weary and resigned. “If he’s not walking by tomorrow, all we can do is make him comfortable before he goes.”

Comfort was his wife’s department, and it wasn’t long before Tanya was roaring up our driveway in her dusty old SUV. She charged into action with her medical kit and shears, swiveling her head back and forth as she alternately crooned to the donkey (who by this point, I had decided to name Sherman) and barked commands back at me: Rags! Baby shampoo! Get the hose!

Running with Sherman
These days, Chris and Sherman usually run 10 to 15 miles a week together.

Suddenly, Tanya clicked off her shears and turned to face me.

“Look,” she said. “If he makes it, you can’t just stick a ribbon on his tail and leave him standing in a field like Eeyore. He’s been abused and abandoned, and that can make an animal sick with despair. You need to give this animal a purpose. You need to find him a job.”

A job? What was I going to do with a donkey, prospect for gold? Pioneer westward? But before I even asked what she meant, I got an idea. If Sherman found his way back to life, maybe I had something for him that was even better than a job: a wild adventure that the two of us could tackle together, side by side.

“That’s your idea?” Tanya snorted. “A burro race?”

She began squinting as I told this story, squeezing her eyes as if trying not to look at me. “So how far would he have to run?” she asked.

“The World Championship has two distances—”

“The World Championship.” She was smirking now, as if she’d just caught the punch line. “Not just a race. A World Championship.”


Running with Sherman
Sherman has changed McDougall’s attitude toward running: “I think I’d be bored if there wasn’t a 400-pound, semi-wild animal by my side.”

Colorado pack-burro racing is a throwback to the Gold Rush days in Leadville, Colorado, when prospectors would hit pay dirt, heave their gear onto their burros, and hightail it to town to file their claims. In 1949, an epic challenge was thrown down: Anyone foolish enough to try was invited to a 23-mile, all-comers burro race stretching from the Silver Dollar Saloon, up and over a 13,500-foot mountain, and back down the far side to the Prunes memorial in Fairplay, erected in honor of a donkey who wandered around Fairplay for years as the town’s shared pet.

Until 1980, women were banned from any Olympic track event longer than 800 meters. Meanwhile, in Boston, Running While Female was literally a crime: Any woman who dared attempt the Boston Marathon in the 1960s was subject to arrest by the cops or, if your dad was in charge, a beating. “If that girl were my daughter, I would spank her,” race director Will Cloney famously snarled after Kathrine Switzer finagled her way onto the course in 1967.

But in Leadville, the hardrock miners saw things a little differently. “Out West, we’ve always known that women were cut from the same leather as men,” said Curtis Imrie, the legendary burro racer who was happy to talk about the many times he’d been smoked by women like Barb Dolan and Karen Thorpe. “Burro racing has none of that nonsense you have back East about ‘protecting’ women.”

Looking back, it’s kind of insane that in Boston, grouchy old men with cigars and overcoats would keep declaring until 1972 that women were too dainty to run their marathon, while in Colorado, the “ladies” had been tearing up a far more grueling challenge for 20 years. Boston likes to boast that it’s America’s oldest marathon, but that’s true for only some Americans. For the other half of the population, the ones who were outlawed for decades from even entering, it’s as if the race didn’t exist. So for all Americans, men and women alike, our oldest marathon is the one that’s always been open to everyone. It’s not going to cost you a fortune, and you don’t have to qualify. All you have to do is show up, borrow a donkey, and get ready for battle.

“So when is this race?” Tanya asked.

“Next July,” I said. “Little less than a year.” Tanya pursed her lips, rocking her head back and forth noncommittally. Tanya wasn’t on board yet with my burro race idea, not by a long shot, but I could tell she was intrigued by the intellectual challenge. For a skilled trainer like her, it was like tackling a math problem for NASA; she wasn’t promising she could put a man on Mars, but she wanted to at least see if she could crack the equation.


“How far will he have to run?”

“Twenty-nine miles,” I said. “Fifteen for the short course.”

“Fifteen. Is short.” Tanya rolled her eyes. “Well, I’m the one who told you to find him a job. But it won’t be easy. Sherman can come up with a million ways to make your life a living hell.”

Tanya and I needed some help, and I had an idea where to look. It was time to call in Vella Shpringa—the world’s only Amish running club.

Our neighborhood in Lancaster County is home to America’s largest community of Old Order Amish, and among those horse-and-buggy drivers is a much smaller sub-group of Amish ultrarunners. Vella Shpringa means “Let’s all run” in Pennsylvania Dutch, and it began as a wholesome way for young Amish singles to get together on Sunday afternoons. The club soon created two magnificent traditions: They adopted an all for one, one for all motto—“The joy of running in community”—and launched the Full Moon Run, a monthly ramble under the stars hosted by various Amish families.

When McDougall first rescued Sherman, the donkey’s hooves were so overgrown they looked like “a witch’s claws.”

Before long, these Amish amateurs were getting fast. Everything the Amish have learned over the past 300 years about how to rely on their own bodies, the Vella Shpringa gang has applied to running. One Amish runner sliced a full hour off his marathon best in the course of a year, improving from 3:59 to a sizzling 2:54. Another wanted to see if a tall, muscular farmer like him could break five minutes in the mile and three hours in a marathon; within a year, he’d nailed both. As a six-man team, the Amish runners have won three Ragnar Relays covering distances from 128 to 200 miles. Leroy Stoltzfus was even featured in Ripley’s Believe It or Not! when he was spotted near the front of the pack in the Harrisburg Marathon in his long pants and suspenders, while Liz King has several times shown up at the starting line of a 10K in her full-length Amish dress and apron and outrun every other woman in the field.

Two months after Sherman arrived, I volunteered to host the Full Moon Run at our house. The Amish runners not only are strong and fast, but they’ve also been training animals since childhood. Just by luck, I might be living next to an undiscovered talent pool of expert burro racers: Where else are you going to find master horsemen with Boston Marathon speed?

“Is that the famous Sherman?” someone called from the darkness.

A van door slammed, and out stepped Jake Beiler, one of Vella Shpringa’s unofficial group leaders. Jake is tall and slender, but strong as a grizzly (one year at the finish of the Bird-in-Hand Half Marathon, Jake nearly single-handedly dunked me headfirst in the water barrel to cool off). I was holding Sherman’s rope, while nearby, Tanya was saddling Flower, her big riding donkey. Jake saw the donkeys were nervous and immediately took command. He switched off his headlamp and kept his hands low, approaching slowly. He moved his head around until he caught Sherman’s eye, locking gaze to let Sherman know he wasn’t in any danger.

“So this is our new friend,” Jake said, his voice low and reassuring. Sherman eyed him warily, but held still when Jake stroked his head and scratched him under the jaw. Around us, vans and pickup trucks continued to arrive, filling the driveway and squeezing into rows across the lawn in front of the house. The murmur of voices grew louder, a stew of English and Pennsylvania Dutch, as runners who hadn’t seen each other since the last full moon greeted each other and loosened up.

Running with Sherman

“Okay,” I told Tanya. “Let’s see how far we get.”

I unknotted Sherman’s rope and yanked it free from the gate. I turned to make sure Flower and Tanya were set, while Sherman began trotting down the driveway—

And kept on trotting.

As soon as he realized he could outrun the commotion behind him, Sherman was off. I watched him go, so impressed by his speed and initiative that it took a few beats before I realized the rope was about to jerk out of my hand as Sherman disappeared into the dark. I sprinted after the fugitive, while Tanya swung herself onto Flower and joined the pursuit. When I caught up with Sherm, he didn’t seem to be escaping; he was clip-clopping happily along like a thoroughbred on parade. I bent down and grabbed the rope but he never broke stride, cruising at a crisp jog.

“What’s he up to?” I asked Tanya.

“Beats me,” she said. She held Flower back to see if Sherman would slow down, but Sherman seemed oblivious. After about a quarter mile, we hit a long grinder of an uphill slope and Sherman didn’t hesitate; he shifted into climbing gear and streamed along so smoothly, I was gasping to keep up. “Holy crap,” I panted. “What’s gotten into him?”

“Anything to mess with your mind,” Tanya laughed. “That’s donkeys.” Sherman ignored us, barreling straight into the night, a donkey on a mission. Only at mile two did I spot the first danger sign: Sherman’s ears swiveled back, detecting some menace in the silence around us. A few moments later, a shout rang out.

“Finally!” a distant voice called, and then I heard pattering feet. The first Amish runners were closing in fast, surging into view as they topped the hill behind us. I tightened my grip on Sherman’s rope, prepared to haul back if he got spooked, but other than the ear twitch, he didn’t flinch.

“You guys are flying,” Jake said, pulling alongside us. Beside him was Laura Kline, the 2012 World Champion duathlete and U.S. National Team triathlete. As many times as I’ve seen Laura on these runs, it still comes as a jolt whenever I spot a gang of young Amish men and, in the middle, this ripped elite athlete in her sleek compression gear emblazoned with sponsor logos. Laura had moved to the Lancaster area from Baltimore a few years earlier, and she soon became a Vella Shpringa regular. Her speed speaks for itself, but it’s her old-school work ethic that really bonds her with the Amish guys; I’ve watched Laura run for miles through unbroken snow up to her knees, and charge into the woods during a freezing winter storm that coated the rocks with ice. When she heard that tonight’s Full Moon might feature donkeys, she had to check it out.

Running with Sherman

“Looks like Sherman’s got some go,” Jake said. “Mind if I take a try?” I opened my mouth to explain why that was a bad idea, then shut it and handed him the rope. I hated to tamper with Sherman’s sudden miraculous mojo, but the whole point of bringing the donkeys out tonight was to see what I could learn from Vella Shpringa. Jake may not have run with a donkey before, but I had to believe his lifetime of animal savvy would let him suss things out. Sure enough, Jake expertly coiled the rope in his left hand and, with the right, gave Sherman a reassuring pat on the rump. The rest of the crew formed a flying wedge with Laura setting the pace, surrounding Sherm so closely on all sides that all I could see were two long ears jutting up from a circle of bobbing heads.

“Get up there, fella,” Jake said as we rounded a curve in the road and approached a long downhill. Sherman was already at a brisk trot, but at Jake’s command, he accelerated into a canter. I dropped off the pace a little so I could get a better look at Jake’s technique. He was only a few inches from Sherman’s left haunch, keeping himself much closer than I usually did. Every few strides, Jake clucked with his tongue or gave Sherm a little pat with his hand, gently reminding him that they were on the job. But Sherman showed no sign of slowing, even when the rope switched hands from Jake, to Jonathan, to Elam. Everyone was eager to take a turn, and they all handled Sherman with the same confidence and purpose—I’m not even sure Sherm was aware when a new runner stepped in.

As we breezed through mile three, eight hooves and 12 feet were pattering in unison, a single drumbeat uniting the tribe. I loved the way everyone instinctively synced their pace, adjusting their speed up or down a notch to make sure that humans and animals were all flowing comfortably. We were having such a blast, it took a good half mile before the distress signals from my legs and lungs made their way to my brain and I realized I was in trouble. Sherman and Flower were keeping up beautifully, but for me, the party was coming to an end. “I’m out,” I said, slowing down and peeling away from the group. Jake handed Sherman’s rope back to me. “Bye, cuties,” Laura called, rubbing Flower’s muzzle. “See you back at the ranch.” With that, she and the Amish guys stormed the hill and were soon out of sight, leaving Tanya and me alone with the two donkeys.

We’d run less than four miles, but we’d run it like real burro racers. “Let’s walk them in,” Tanya suggested. “Always finish on a high.”

Good advice for any run, I thought, then realized I’d learned something even better that night. I’d hoped the Amish could teach me about donkeys, but instead, they’d taught the donkeys something about the Amish. Sherman had discovered the Amish approach to exercise—“the joy of running in community”—and for him, there was no other way.

From Running With Sherman: The Donkey with the Heart of a Hero by Christopher McDougall. Copyright 2019 by Christopher McDougall. Published by arrangement with Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

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