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.

Have story, will travel

Next stop this Wednesday at Greenhorn Valley Library in Colorado City

I’m not the most natural public speaker, but one of the things I’ve enjoyed since publishing Full Tilt Boogie — A journey into autism, fatherhood, and an epic test of man and beast is getting out and talking to folks about the book, and about the autism epidemic, living with autism and parenting, burros and pack-burro racing. Believe it or not, there is a parallel.FTBcover200

I keep these things fairly low-key and informal, and seem to settle into a comfort zone by the time we get to the question-and-answer period, which I think is the most interesting part of my discussion. Frankly, I’m more concerned about what people want to know than what I have to say.

Recently I had the pleasure to talk to a fairly large audience at the Scottish Rites Foundation Dinner in Pueblo. What was really cool about this was having the chance to thank members of the organization for the assistance they provide children who might not otherwise receive important speech therapy services from The Children’s Hospital. My son Harrison received two of these speech scholarships at a time when it was critical in his development, and also when we could not have afforded those services.

More upcoming talks include:

  • Greenhorn Valley Library at 6 p.m. Wednesday, April 8.
  • Pueblo West Library at 7 p.m. Monday April 13.
  • Westcliffe Library Book Club, 11 a.m. Wednesday, May 27.

If you’d like to host one of my talks contact me at jackassontherun@gmail.com. I’m good for groups of five to 100 in book shops, libraries, art galleries, luncheons, or wherever anyone wants to hear my story. Will do my best to promote it as well.

‘Full Tilt Boogie’ available as ebook

FTBcover2 copy

My new book, Full Tilt Boogie — A journey into autism, fatherhood, and an epic test of man and beast is now available as an ebook directly from me. This ebook is a PDF that can be read on most tablets or your computer.

Full Tilt Boogie is a story of endurance and perseverance in the face of adversity, and is filled with parallels and metaphors for life. The book is organized as a series of vignettes that weave together to tell the story of how I set out at the age of 53 with a jenny donkey named Full Tilt Boogie to win a seventh World Championship in one of the planet’s most obscure and difficult endurance sports, while also struggling with the challenges of raising my autistic son Harrison, financial hardships, and aging.

To get a copy simply email your email address to me at jackassontherun@gmail.com. The book is “pay what you want” — there is a button on the copyright page and on the back cover directing you to an online payment form that takes Paypal or credit cards.

The ebook is also being published by Vook, and will soon be available on all major epublishing channels — Amazon, iTunes, Barnes and Nobel and others.

Print copies of Full Tilt Boogie will be available from me in the near future, and several signing events are in the works. Stay tuned for details.

This is an exciting time to be a writer, with so many ways to get your work out there, and also to get paid for it. I thank my readers for being a part of this journey.

“Inspiring, thoughtful, humorous, pensive, honest…a must-read for parents, athletes, ranchers, farmers, animal lovers. Without question, four hooves up!” Nancy H., Colorado Springs

“In two evenings I’ve experienced more than every human emotion; loved this book , what a great job you’ve done. God bless you all.” — Chuck L., Westcliffe

‘Born to Run’ author likes ‘Wild Burro Tales’

A few years ago, Christopher McDougall came out to cover the Leadville International Pack-Burro Race for Men’s Health magazine. Since then, he’s become a New York Times best-selling author with his book “Born to Run.” When I was putting “Wild Burro Tales” together I contacted Christopher and asked him to read the galleys. He provided this kind quote, which is on the back cover of the book:

You need to read “Wild Burro Tales” to discover why Hal Walter is the poet laureate of pack burros, and why pack burros deserve their own poet. For the same reason we’re lucky that Jack London went to Alaska and Hemingway took a fancy to bullfights, we got a break when a writer of Walter’s talents decided to immerse himself in the weird and wonderful world of pro burro racing. Not only does Walter capture all the drama of “the longest, highest, roughest, toughest test of man and beast” where “a big animal gets in the way of a big ego,” he also pays as much respect to the scrappy old miners who created the sport as the blazing young newcomers who are redefining it. No one knows more about this unique partnership of complex animals and extraordinary athletes than Walter, and it’s hard to imagine a writer who could describe it better.

— Christopher McDougall

Author of New York Times Best-Seller “Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen”

How to get a copy of “Wild Burro Tales”:

• Available at The Book Mine in Leadville, The Hand Hotel in Fairplay, the Book Haven in Salida, Candy’s Coffee and Westcliffe Super Market in Westcliffe, and The Bookery in Pueblo.

• Order a signed copy directly from me.

• Order from amazon.com.

• Order from Creastespace:https://www.createspace.com/3438422.

The gift that could change someone’s life

If you are looking for a meaningful gift to give someone this holiday season, consider the book “In Fitness and In Health” by Dr. Phil Maffetone. You just may be giving someone the gift of health!

This book details the diet, nutrition, exercise and lifestyle strategies that I’ve used to stay healthy and fit, and to compete at pack-burro racing, for many years. But it’s not just for athletes — the principles can be used by anyone who wishes to improve health and fitness.

If you order this Monday or Tuesday there’s a 20% discount — you get the book for $14.39 (the regular price is $17.99). It’s an inexpensive gift for friends and family.

To order, go to:

https://www.createspace.com/1000246293

Many of you know that I have worked with Phil as his editor since 1998, and have been the editor of this book for three editions, now. We worked on two printings of the 3rd edition starting in the late 90s. And there was a major overhaul of the book for the 4th edition in 2002.

However, this new 5th edition, which I edited and designed earlier this year, is more complete and more interesting than all the others. It contains updated information, and some totally new material about organic foods, sunshine, gut health, and more. It tells how to optimize the diet for physical and mental performance, and how to make healthy dietary choices to prevent disease.

This book could change somebody’s life, or even save somebody’s life.

What better holiday gift could there be?

A race on the Internet burro trail

An amusing Internet campaign has emerged for officers of the Western Pack-Burro Association as the annual banquet approaches this week. Mostly it’s amusing because in past years we’ve had to draft someone or elect some conspicuously absent person at the banquet.

burrohead.jpg
“Spike” by Lorie Merfeld Batson

It’s heart-warming to see Lee and Sandi Courkamp among those on the e-mail list for this group, which has served Colorado’s only indigenous sport for more than 30 years. Lee and Sandi are the founders of the organization, which was originally called the Colorado Pack-Burro Racing Association.

In addition to serving as the leader of the association, Lee also was one of the greatest pack-burro racers of all time. He won the World Championship race in 1971 when it was held from Breckenridge to Fairplay, and on the 29-mile course in 1974 and 1982.

Lee’s winning times on the long Fairplay course were 4:14 and 4:16. He also stands out as one of the very few people to run more than two different burros in winning multiple world championships, attesting to his animal-handling/training abilities.

In the mid-90s we had a race in Arizona. To show our support for branching out to neighboring Western states, and to also attract interest from those who might be interested in other burro-related activities, it was decided to change the club’s name. After some discussion we settled on Western Pack-Burro Association.

The annual Burro Banquet will be at 6 p.m. Saturday at Zichittella’s Italian Restaurant in Leadville. Contact Shelley Hall to RSVP if you wish to attend.

Goodbye to Norton Buffalo

Largely unnoted by the mainstream media, musician Norton Buffalo crossed over on Oct. 30. Norton was a Grammy-winning harmonica player known for his performances with the Steve Miller Band, Doobie Brothers, Bonnie Raitt, and Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen.

He played on two tracks of the Doobie Brothers’ Grammy-winning “Minute by Minute” and in 1992 won his own Grammy for “Song for Jessica” with guitarist Roy Rogers.

I met Norton in the early 1980s when I was getting started in pack-burro racing. Norton was a friend of Curtis Imrie and on occasion visited Buena Vista when I was there training burros.

This was a period in my life when the world seemed wide open. That’s what pack-burro racing represented to me then when I was training a jack named Moose on the roads and trails around Curtis’ place.

In addition to Norton’s actual presence, Curtis always had cassette tapes of his music in his car and home stereo. Once Curtis arranged a concert in the local bar, The Lariat, in Buenie and I got to see Norton play the harmonica in front of a rowdy crowd. His trademark harmonica riffs will always remind me of that time in my life.

There was a wild burro named Hannibal that Curtis adopted from the Bureau of Land Management. He ended up at Norton’s place out in California and was uncatchable for a long while. It was Norton who got Hannibal gentle enough to be captured and loaded, and this beast ended up here. I trained Hannibal to some in-the-money finishes in the pack-burro races. (Hannibal now lives in Cañon City.)

Youtube is loaded with video of Norton’s music. I suggest you check it out.

Sometimes you have the good fortune to meet someone, but it isn’t until after that person is gone that you wish you had taken the opportunity to learn more. For me, Norton Buffalo was one of those people. It appears he lived a short life dying of cancer at just 58, but how many people are able to do what they love to do for so many years?

What do you want for free?

There have been the usual complaints about nothing new at Hardscrabble Times this week. Hey, what do you expect for free? Especially during the week between the final two events of the 2009 pack-burro racing season. Last week’s race at Buena Vista turned out to be a repeat of the previous week at Fairplay, with Bobby Lewis able to get his burro Wellstone over the finish line again 2 seconds ahead of myself and Laredo. It’s a little frustrating, but then I suppose I should be happy to even be in the running at my rather advanced stage of youthfulness.

Laredo, Hal and Harrison following another second-place finish at Buena Vista. Photo by Tim Van Riper.
Laredo, Hal and Harrison following another second-place finish at Buena Vista. Photo by Tim Van Riper.

The next morning bright and early I was limping away to the Colorado Springs airport to pick up my old high-school buddy and neighbor Eric Leeper and his son Sam, who were visiting from Indiana. Eric and I lived in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Annandale, Va., and attended high school in Burke at Lake Braddock but I had not seen him in 23 years. Eric is now a noted professor of economics at Indiana University.

We spent four days more or less getting reacquainted, taking in the local scenery and bugging out Eric’s mind and eyes with my lifestyle. On Tuesday we packed Sam and my son Harrison on burros to the Swift Creek Beaver Ponds, where the fishing was quite decent though tricky with all the overgrowth. Harrison even hooked into a nice cutthroat with a little help from dad, and held the flyrod as I scrambled down the bank to release the fish.

After taking Eric and Sam back to the airport Thursday, Harrison and I spent a lovely evening dining in the backyard of my longtime friends Mad Dog O’Grady and wife Shannon. After that I returned home to find an unexpected rush editing job had fallen into my lap. What’s a guy to do in this economy but stay up past midnight and get the job done?

That left me two days to get my @#$% back together for Sunday’s big race at Leadville. For tomorrow’s race I find myself focusing not so much on No. 1 or No. 2, but rather on No. 30. If all goes well that’s the number of consecutive finishes I’ll have had at Boom Days.

Reality TV: A jackass on the run

Adding to the excitement of the upcoming pack-burro racing season — the Triple Crown races begin this Sunday at Fairplay — was a visit by New York documentary filmmaker Trevor Velin and producer Meghan McGinley who recently spent a few days following me around with a video camera.

 

Trevor had contacted me over the winter about his idea to make a documentary film on Colorado’s only indigenous sport. Apparently he had read about pack-burro racing in a magazine and decided to check it out on his travels last year. After seeing it, Trevor decided the reality of a 29-mile race of humans and burros up and down a rocky 13,187-foot mountain pass was interesting and worthy of documenting.FILMINGsm

 

It turns out that Trevor and Meghan have quite some experience in the business of reality TV. He films “The Real Housewives of New York City,” “Shalom in the Home,” and “Psychic Kids: Children of the Paranormal,” and “Paranormal State.” She is a casting producer and location manager for shows like “Nanny 911,” “Wife Swap.” Both work on “Z Rock” which airs on the Independent Film Channel.

 

I’ve seen many journalists take an interest in pack-burro racing over the years, but Trevor was the first videographer I’ve seen to attempt to get into the minds of participants by exploring their personal and professional lives.

 

A brief  initial filming session of my family going for an evening walk gave the pair an introductory glimpse of our life here and helped me get over the jitters of being on camera. Over the course of the next two days I was filmed going over projects with my client Phil Maffetone whose books I edit, doing chores and doctoring a horse over at the ranch I manage, checking on cattle, training burros, doing chores around here, and taking my son Harrison on a therapeutic recreational burro ride.

 

The final bit of filming was a sit-down interview in which they grilled me about pack-burro racing and my life. There were questions about how I got started in pack-burro racing, what keeps me in it; they asked about parallels between raising a son with autism and training burros, about why I find burros such intriguing animals . . . and, of course, there was the question that no pack-burro racer I’ve known has ever nailed. That question is: “Why do you do this?”

 

I knew it was coming and I had actually thought about it the entire time Trevor and Meghan were here. I did not want to give a trite response. This year will be my 30th consecutive Leadville Pack-Burro Race and there must be a reason I keep showing up.

 

And then it dawned on me that there was no one “why.” Sure, I love the sport, but there is no way to convey all the experiences and emotions I have felt in more than 100 races over three decades. What I finally came to realize is there have been many “whys,” and “why” has changed at different stages of my life. “Why” in 1980 was quite different than “why” in 1998 or “why” in 2009. And that’s why I’m still in it.

 

It was a little dose of reality TV for myself.