Review: Running with Sherman — blended fiction

Curtis Imrie and I (center/right, near bottom) getting our burros ready to poolshark/barnstorm for major money on the pack-burro racing circuit in Silver Cliff in the early 1990s. Also pictured, Patrick ‘Mad Dog’ O’Grady. Photo courtesy of Wet Mountain Valley Historical Society.

Never have I seen an author so artfully blend genres of fiction and non-fiction as Christopher McDougall does in his new book, Running with Sherman.

I am a recurring character in Chris’ shaggy tale, appearing throughout the book. Though there is a thread of truth in many of the stories he weaves, when it comes to my role much has been considerably embellished or outright fictionalized. As a professional journalist myself, I’ve found this bending of the truth in a non-fiction format disturbing and discouraging. I opened my doors to Christopher as a guest to my house, my ranch, my burros, and my Hardscrabble Mountain Trail Run. He also kindly provided back-cover quotes for my books, Wild Burro Tales and Endurance. I thought we were friends. I attempted to discuss this matter with him over the phone after reading Running with Sherman but got nowhere.

Christopher McDougall (left) on his 2015 research trip to the Walter Ranch for Running with Sherman.

For the record, I have competed in the sport of pack-burro racing for decades. I just finished my 40th consecutive Leadville Boom Days race this past summer. Along the way I’ve also won the 29-mile World Championship Pack Burro Race in Fairplay seven times, and the Leadville race four times. Not bragging, just framing some background for why I might appear in the book as this is never fully explained in Sherman. To my knowledge, Christopher has never finished a long-course burro race.

In one of my early appearances in the book, I am absurdly depicted as making “a living” by “barnstorming” on the pro pack-burro racing circuit. This scene goes on to describe me in a conversation with Ken Chlouber mockingly referring to my longtime friend Tom Sobal as “Snowball” (I don’t get it — I guess rhymes with “Sobal?”). To set the record straight Tom was not only a fellow competitor when he was racing but remains a close friend to this day. I introduced him when he was inducted into the Colorado Running Hall of Fame, and placed the medal around his neck when he was inducted into the Leadville-Lake County Sports Hall of Fame a couple years ago. There is no way I ever referred to Tom as “Snowball” and I am not aware of anyone else ever using this moniker either. What Chris should have been written about Tom is that he is the winningest burro racer of all time with 11 world championships and holds most of the course records among a ton of other athletic achievements. To insinuate I ever referred to Tom with disrespect and sarcasm is insulting to us both.

In another scene, Chris describes me winning a race in Georgetown a few years ago, saying that I was sick and had decided to not run but drove there under questionable road conditions and only decided to run when another racer bailed. About the only thing he got right is my age and that I drove there and won the race. Other than that, the story is largely a case of “When in doubt, print the legend,” with no fewer than a dozen fictional anecdotes within about two-thirds of a page. This appears to be not a matter of merely getting things wrong. It’s more a case of Chris making things up to suit his story, the most laughable being that I was in last place at the course turn-around and still won — a physical impossibility.

In another scene Chris describes me looking for a way to cheat prior to a burro race by asking if the race organizers are measuring lead ropes. (Because this is how a seven-time world champ rolls, right? Not!) Sometimes when registering for these events organizers measure ropes and sometimes they don’t. If I asked if they were measuring ropes it was simply because I wanted to know if I needed to carry my darned lead rope over to registration and get it measured! Period. To imply that I was looking for some way to defy the rules paints a poor picture of my character.

Furthermore in this same vignette he describes my burro Teddy “going for blood and taking a chunk out of my shoulder.” Teddy never bit me on the shoulder or went “for blood” or took “a chunk” out of me. He did once clamp down on my wrist at a water crossing and drew blood. Like I mentioned, there’s often a thread of truth that gets twisted and embellished in Chris’ blended masterpiece.

For the record, I never quit journalism to “pool-shark” from town to town across the Southwest on the “professional” pack-burro racing circuit with my mentor, the late Curtis Imrie. We never did any such thing — and in fact there is no such thing. There are only a handful of races and almost all of them are in Colorado. (There have on and off been a very few races in New Mexico and Arizona.) The prize money hardly covers gas and entry fees, much less feed and care for a burro. I did take a leave of absence one summer from my newspaper job. I won a race in Chama, New Mexico, that summer — I think the prize was $600. As always we were in it more for the fun than the money.

Probably most disturbing is Chris’ fictionalized account of my good friend Rob Pedretti’s suicide. Rob died in 2004. His brothers Rick and Roger took up pack-burro racing as a tribute to Rob following his death. According to Rick and Roger many of the events and circumstances as presented in the book leading up to Rob’s death are inaccurate (Roger has a list which he has sent to Christopher as well as to me). As a final insult there is a fabricated description of Rick hearing the gunshot and carrying Rob’s body out of the woods in his arms. To drag an entire family, including a forever-grieving mother, back through such a traumatic event by way of a dramatized account is deplorable.

Also during this discussion about Rob in the book there is material presented as quotes from me. I do not recall ever discussing Rob with Christopher. Instead, this material appears to have been borrowed from my own book, Wild Burro Tales — reworked slightly then used as direct quotes. 

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right? Chris also writes about the concept of my adapting the experiences of pack-burro racing to the challenge of raising my autistic son Harrison, who I also coach as a cross-country and track runner. I first explored this in my book Full Tilt Boogie and then the follow-up Endurance.

In his story-telling Chris does get a few things right. Near the end of the book I am quoted about my son’s classmate Kyleigh saying if anyone ever bullied Harrison she would “stomp their ass.” One minor correction: Kyleigh is not a senior — she is a sophomore in Harrison’s class and they have grown up together since they were about 3 years old. I also coach Kyleigh and they both recently ran in the Colorado State Cross-Country Championships. The quote is not exactly how I said it, but I recently ran it past Kyleigh she confirms that in essence it is true.

Too bad Christopher didn’t work a little more authenticity into Running with Sherman. He had the recipe for a great story without even having to make things up — for when it comes to pack-burro racing, the truth might be more bad-ass than the legend.

Hal Walter is the author of Wild Burro Tales, Full Tilt Boogie and Endurance, all of which are available from amazon.com. He also can be found on Facebook where he regularly posts to his Wild Burro Tales page.

Caballo Blanco meets Burro Negro

If you’ve read Christopher McDougall’s book “Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen,” then Caballo Blanco, aka Micah True, needs no introduction. If you haven’t read this New York Times Best-Seller, it would be easier for you to get the book and read it than for me to try to explain who Caballo is.

Caballo Blanco, Burro Pinto and Jalapeno.

There’s a reason the book has been on the NYT Best-Seller list for months — it’s because it’s a great read. A good part of the story is devoted to tracking down and explaining the almost mythical Caballo Blanco who lives much of his time among the Tarahumara, or Raramuri, people in the Copper Canyon country of Mexico.

I had to go on no such search to find Caballo. All I had to do was drive an hour to the Bill and Julie Canterbury Ranch near Howard, and I already knew how to get there. Caballo appeared there Friday ready to try his hand at pack-burro racing. This was Caballo’s first introduction to the sport prior to running the Leadville’s Boom Days race next Sunday, though he’s seen plenty of burros in Copper Canyon, and hires them out to pack gear on tours that he guides there.

Caballo is also no stranger to long-distance running — that’s mostly what he does, and he’s competed in countless ultramarathons, including the Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon, which he organizes.

This venture into pack-burro racing was arranged through Roger Pedretti, brother of the late Rob Pedretti, my close friend whom I wrote about in my book, “Wild Burro Tales.” Roger took up pack-burro racing as a tribute to Rob following his death, and now travels from Wisconsin each summer to run in the races.

It seems Roger struck up a friendship with Caballo over Facebook (go figure – Caballo has nearly 2,000 Facebook “friends”), and talked him into checking out pack-burro racing. Of course Caballo needed a decent burro, and so Roger contacted me and I decided to set him up with Spike, who has actually won the Leadville race a couple times. Spike, by the way, is black.

So we met at Cantebury’s for a training run, up the Howard Creek road. Basically we just ran uphill about three miles and then back to the ranch. Caballo did well keeping Spike moving uphill, but on the way back down Spike managed to get away from him a couple times.

After the run I asked Caballo how he’s coping with the newfound fame brought about by the book. He said that he has mixed emotions about it, and that he’s “trying to keep it real” by channeling the energy into helping the Raramuri people sustain their culture.

Last year the race he organizes brought in 100,000 pounds of corn for the Tarahumara, and $14,000 in prizes. In fact every Raramuri who finishes his race is awarded 500 pounds of corn. But Caballo wants to do more. He’s traveling the country doing speaking engagements in hopes of raising more awareness about the Tarahumara. And he’s contemplating a book of his own.

Apparently Caballo and Roger have a couple more training runs scheduled next week to give him more opportunity to get acquainted with Spike. It’ll be interesting to see how they do at Boom Days next weekend.

The Great Running Shoe Hunt, Part 2

My great shoe hunt may be over. Saturday a pair of Inov-8 Flyroc 310s arrived in the mail from Colorado Running Company in Colorado Springs.

Now let’s back up. When I last wrote about shoes I had been having footproblems since Nike changed its Pegasus model. I went through a pair of Nike Skylons, then a pair of New Balance TR 904, which I initially liked but then began to develop pain in the top of the foot. My feet felt pretty tortured after the 30-mile World Championship Pack-Burro Race. But the final straw was the following week when the bottom forefoot of one these shoes peeled loose somewhere on the way back down Mosquito Pass during the Leadville Boom Days Pack-Burro Race

By then I was not in the mood to buy any more new shoes, and this was only reinforced after reading Christopher McDougall’s “Born to Run” over the winter. Sometime last fall I bought a pair of Land’s End Trail Runners, and for $38 they actually weren’t the worst shoes I’ve ever run in. At least they were gimmick-free and fairly low-profile. Somehow throughout the winter and spring I put in my workouts rotating these shoes with a pair of Nike Lunarglide Avants, which I destroyed in short order, and an old, old pair of Nike Free Trail 5.0s.

I even put in a couple of two-hour runs in the Frees. I’ve also been doing some barefoot therapy after some workouts, and have done some running and walking in my Crocs.

All the while I’ve been researching shoes. I even spent a few hours in some shoe stores. The thing that annoys me most is the discrepancy in sizing. I had my foot measured on Brannock Devices in two different stores. Both times it was agreed that I am just under a size 11. Still, I knew better and had one shoe-store salesperson bring out a pair of Nike Free Runs in size 12. I couldn’t even get my foot into the shoe. I asked for a size 13 and they didn’t have it in that size. I tried on a pair of Nike Lunarglides and decided that I needed a 13 in this shoe as well.

Why can’t shoe companies make shoes to standardized sizing? It seems like this is even more important in the age of Internet shopping.

Figuring that I’d take advantage of my discount at Roadrunner Sports, I decided to order a pair of Lunarglides from them. My wife also wanted a pair. They arrived. We tried them on. We looked at each other and suddenly realized how tall they are. We boxed them back up. I sent them back.

That was when I contacted John O’Neill at Colorado Running Company. The store carries the Inov-8 line and after some discussion I decided to order the Flyrocs in size 12. These shoes are low profile, flexible, and so far seem to be good. I spent three hours running and hiking in them yesterday. I wish I’d ordered them in size 12.5, but for now at least I have something I can apparently run in.