I met Christopher McDougall in the fall of 2010, soon after his first book, Born to Run, had come out. The book was both extremely entertaining and mildly controversial, and it has since become the best-selling running book of all time. It has many storylines, but the thread that connects them is the argument, which Christopher makes quite convincingly, that the less complex runners’ shoes are, the stronger their feet will become and the fewer injuries they’ll sustain. I’d interviewed Christopher for a story about the barefoot and minimal-shoe running trend that the book had inspired, and I’d found him to be as thoroughly delightful in conversation as he was on the page—and this was while we ran in Central Park in the equivalent of ballet slippers.
I’d been working with Sid Raman at Roam149 for only a week or so before he mentioned his favorite running book, which he said was by Christopher McDougall. “Oh, right, Born to Run,” I said. “I got to meet him when it came out.”
“Not Born to Run,” Sid replied. “I’m talking about Running with Sherman.”
Another Species, Another Race*
I hadn’t read that one. Sid told me that Christopher had written the story of his bond with a donkey—yes, that’s right—whom he’d met in an animal-rescue shelter of sorts in rural Pennsylvania, where the creature was languishing in very poor health. Christopher took him to the farm he’d bought there and named him Sherman. As Sherman’s health slowly improved, Christopher started going for walks with him. As you might expect from the title, Sherman got faster.
The book’s triumphant conclusion is Christopher’s and Sherman’s participation in a very difficult race for human-and-burro teams in the Colorado Rockies. Sid had been so taken with the story that he fantasized about meeting Sherman someday. He did something rather surprising instead, but it’s less surprising if you know the guy: he invited Christopher to Roam149, where he was running daily in the kind of minimalist running sandals that Christopher loves. A connection was made through Xero Shoes, with which they were both familiar, and several strands were intertwined when Christopher visited Roam149 during a speaking tour for his latest book, Born to Run 2, a training guide that he coauthored with his longtime friend and coach, the ultrarunner and minimal-footwear proponent Eric Orton.
When Sid realized that Christopher McDougall was actually going to appear in his gym and run on his invention, the XPRience treadmill, he reminded me of a 12-year-old baseball fan waiting for Derek Jeter to autograph a ball. He hardly knew what to do with all his energy, but then, as usual, he thought something up. It was a secret until the day of the visit, but when Christopher, his wife Mika, Eric, and the books’ editor, Edward Kastenmeier, stood behind a treadmill to see one of the immersive VR courses that can be run on it, the “avatar” on the screen that would represent Christopher as he ran was…Christopher. And beside him, shaking his head occasionally so his big ears flapped as he waited to run, was Sherman.
Christopher is quite a talker—a natural raconteur and an excellent reader of his own audiobooks—but he was briefly speechless as he looked at his likeness, wearing his trademark bandanna do-rag, standing on the starting line. (It really does look like him.)
I had no idea what Sherman looked like, but Mika gave me a pretty good idea when she saw the donkey icon on the screen, gasped, and said “Shermie!!” Christopher got a bit teary-eyed. I think they both would have hugged Sherman if they could have.
Just as happily, all of the guests liked running on the beaches, in the forest, through the meadows, on the sea floor amid dolphins, and on the Moon. And everywhere that they all went, Sherman was sure to go.
The meeting sparked the idea for another visit, which took place the next week: Sid invited ten runners to the gym, and we put them through an enlightening and enjoyable hour-long workout that extended beyond the usual sport and exercise aspects of running. Eric and I collaborated on a combination of the training methods laid out in Born to Run 2 and my own track-and-field-based form drills and other technique work, and we implemented them in Roam149’s unique environment. The gym’s firm but yielding mat surface was great for the foot-strengthening and balance-improving exercises that Eric taught us, which we all did while barefoot, and the treadmills allowed sandal and barefoot running without the shock of cement and asphalt or the risk of encountering gravel, glass, and the rest of a city’s typical impediments for tenderfooted newcomers to barefoot running.
The atmosphere was one of a warmth and camaraderie that I find unusual even among teammates and other such groups. Part of that came from what Eric was teaching, which should be unnecessary to teach: that feet are the body’s natural support system, that wearing shoes all day not only cramps their style but weakens some of the muscles that would normally be working, and that using those muscles in neglected ways can feel uncomfortable at first but, even in the course of 20 minutes, also freeing. I can attest that feet are better and quicker at agility drills when they aren’t encased in a half-pound or more of plastic, cloth, and foam rubber apiece. (I felt very pleasantly light and fast.)
But part of that atmosphere also came from the particular people involved. Christopher, Eric, and Sid share a genuine desire to improve people’s movement habits, fitness, and health, and thus their lives. Writing valuable books, inventing better treadmills, opening gyms, and holding clinics are very worthwhile uses of one’s days, and when creative people meet and share their ideas, the cross-pollinations that can occur can be both enjoyable and enlightening.
We were all being treated like Sherman was: saved from inactivity, awakened to possibilities, and strengthened in ways that enable us to run through the mountains.
* If you can identify the running movie that this sub-head paraphrases, you win an honorary 1924 Olympic medal.