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.