He also yearns for that reconnection with animals, "the craft of partnering" with them. McDougall, 57, has found that only not on the farm on which he and his wife, Mika, and two teenage daughters live in Pennsylvania's Amish country, but in the rescue of a dying donkey desperate for a job.
McDougall's new work, "Running with Sherman: The Donkey with the Heart of a Hero" (Knopf), tells the story of Sherman, McDougall and preparations for the World Championship Pack Burro Race in Fairplay, Colo. But it's also a story about a team: Formed in the community, counting on strangers, yet rooted in family.
"I'm telling the story about this bizarre relationship with a donkey," McDougall says by phone during a book tour that will bring him to Greensboro on Friday. "But what I'm really probing at is that lost art of animal-human partnerships that used to be so important in our lives, that we're all kind of groping our way back to.
"We all feel that need to have a dog or a cat. As soon as a dog enters a room, it's suddenly the princess of the room. If you're at a party and someone brings their dog, everyone's looking at the dog. And it's not a coincidence. I give a presentation where I discuss my own history and then the story with the donkeys and then zeroing in on the way we can rekindle that relationship with animals that used to be so important to us."
McDougall will speak at Scuppernong Books, 304 S. Elm St., at 7 p.m. Friday. But you also can put on your running shoes to get there with him: At 5 p.m., he'll lead a group run from Fleet Feet Sports, 3731 Lawndale Dr., to Scuppernong, with "Running with Sherman" T-shirts available for those participants.
Both events will feature high energy from the Philadelphia native – read on; "it ain't about speed," he says. "Running with Sherman" will be well worth your time, as will the run and his talk.
McDougall and I spoke by phone this week, not only about "Running with Sherman" but his views on running.
EW: "Running with Sherman" is about you training a donkey to run. But what is this book really about?
CM: "It's really about this unexpected joy you get from teamwork, forming partnerships. Because I think a lot of us ... sort of focus on our own thing, in either work or even our domestic lives. We're just kind of doing our thing. When you really start to immerse yourself in the other person, you get these amazing rewards, and I had to actually had to team up with a donkey to learn that lesson."
EW: The destination, the World Championship, really was only a small part of part of your book. In running, we hear that it's not about the destination; it's about the journey. Would you agree?
CM: "Oh, yeah, absolutely. I've been rediscovering myself in all the books I've written. In 'Born to Run,' the big revelation for me is that it's not about the racing or the running shoes; it's about learning the craft. And craftsmanship is enormously rewarding, but also enormously time-consuming. You don't become a master painter or sculptor or writer, anything, without taking the time to slowly learn the fine points and get better and better. And that's why we value, we celebrate, craftspeople.
"That's what running is. We look at it as like a punishment for pizza, something you've got to bash through because you put on a couple of extra pounds over the holidays, or you've got a race coming and you've gotta just go as hard as you can for this race.
"And what I've found is the opposite, is that it's developing the art. Taking the time to slowly learn how to get better at this and enjoy every bit of that process. That's the real payoff. By the time you get to the race, you've already kind of won. You've already put in the time, and you're confident.
"And then with 'Running with Sherman,' it was the same way with partnering with animals. You have a dog, and you've got 30 minutes to walk this dog; I hope this dog poops soon because I've gotta get back and watch 'Game of Thrones.' But if you have to take a step back to try to understand this non-verbal creature and learn the craft of partnering, then the rewards are amazing."
EW: What did you learn about yourself through this process with Sherman and in producing this work?
CM: "This was a real educational process from beginning to end. For starters, I knew nothing about that lost art of animal-human partnerships. I thought animals were just accessories, you know, these things you have around your house that you pet once in a while. I knew nothing about this ancient, long tradition of really learning from animals. We named religions after animals for a reason. That was an eye-opener for me.
"And the second thing was, I tend to be a go-my-own-way, do-my-own-thing kind of guy, and to be forced to take a breath and understand, learning from my Amish neighbors, that real benefit and the difficulty of learning how to operate in a group. So it's hard, hard for me personally, but, the payoffs were amazing. I mean, I'm partnering up with my wife, who's a former hula dancer, and a college kid (Zeke) who's struggling with depression and three donkeys, all with their own baggage, and to form that crew into a smooth team – that was, to me, a real personal challenge."
EW: Not only were you in this community, but you were dealing with people who have real-life problems, just like everybody else has.
CM: "The reason I keep getting involved in these adventures, it's one of these 'jump off the cliff first, learn how to fly later.' I get involved in these things, often in over my head, and you're dealing with the day-to-day, everyday situation. ... (The people in his community in 'Sherman') find themselves plunging into these situations, and they've got the grit and the ingenuity to reach out for solutions. And it's kind of like that, with us – we never expected to have a seriously ill donkey in our care. Or with Zeke, I never expected to be trying to help a friend's son who's struggling with this really difficult situation with depression. But you can go one of two ways: You can pull back and hope somebody saves you, or you can plunge ahead and try to find some solutions for yourself."
EW: You also find inspiration and have curiosity about human performance.
CM: "The spark for me, when I found myself involved in that race in the Copper Canyon of Mexico that I wrote about in 'Born to Run' – the real bonfire for me was when, for the first time, it began to dawn on me that all this stuff, all this marketing about running shoes that I've been hearing forever; I actually wrote for Runner's World, I was in that world, and I was one of the guys repeating all the rules, 'You have to change your shoes every 300 to 500 miles,' 'You have to get your gait analyzed,' 'Are you overpronating?' – all that's just junk. And I believed it, completely, and now peeling back the layers of marketing and seeing there's nothing there. It's all make-believe.
"That was such a game-changer for me. It made me think, 'This stuff about running shoes is based on nothing.' What else is out there that we teach as the truth and maybe there's nothing there? That's when I thought humans are way stronger, we're way more robust, way more athletic. But yet the message we keep getting is, 'You better buy this or you're going to get hurt,' 'Drink this stuff or you're going to get hurt.' And the message is always like we're fragile, we need these crutches. What I've been finding is we don't need the crutches at all. We're way stronger than we think we are."
EW: What place have you found in the running community, the running world?
CM: "I'm a member of the group that is trying to remind people that, really, we're not fast. Almost all the emphasis you ever see is fast, fast, fast. You've got to PR. You've got to qualify for Boston. You've got to go fast. And that's really not what humans are good at as runners. We're not really fast. That's not our strength. Our strength is stamina and adaptability. That's what sets us apart as distance runners. But most of us forget that.
"You and I were discussing about you and that hill (the Washington Baum Bridge in Sunday's Outer Banks half marathon), and I'm saying, 'Hey, dude, walk the hill.' But you have this determination to run it; I'm not back-seat driving, man, you're doing what you think is best for you. But I think the reason why people have the difficult relationship with running is because the emphasis is always on getting yourself into the red zone, getting yourself into the distress level. It's about driving your car at maximum torque all the time. When you do that, what's going to happen? You're going to blow a piston, you're going to burn that car out, blow out that engine. Unfortunately for most runners, that's what we do. We're constantly blowing out the engine as opposed to throttling back, enjoying the run, being in the moment, chatting with your friends.
"When the first joggers began, actually in Australia, the motto was 'Always talk.' Always be at a pace where you can chat with people. You don't want to get yourself in that red zone where you're out of breath, your blood pressure's high, your tendons are starting to resist. That's where I find myself at ease. I find myself in that small minority of people that are trying to remind everybody else: It ain't about speed. It's about adaptability and stamina. And joy and having fun."
EW: How's your running going?
CM: "One of the things I noticed when I was in the Copper Canyon with the Tarahumara Indians is that these guys have fun. They're joking and laughing and having a good time, always, in the middle of like a 150-mile race. That, to me, is the big takeaway. If you're having fun, then you already won the race.
"That's kind of where I am with it, too. I had this motto I've developed for myself. It might just be baloney. I was in the middle of a run, and I was stressing because I wanted to get back in time for a phone call. And I'm pushing, 'Oh man, I've gotta get moving.' And then 'Dude, it's a beautiful evening. It's a warm October in the leaves are changing. And you're running across a hill. Why are you ruining this by stressing?'
"And I told myself, from now on, the attitude is, 'The run is always perfect.' Whatever you're doing is perfect. And you're the only one that can ruin it. Just appreciate whatever you get at that moment."