A few weeks ago, I finished the lovely book titled Running with Sherman. There’s a quirky little donkey on the cover, appropriately named Sherman. It was easy to fall in love with him and with this book, and there’s a few reasons why I wanted to write about it.
I might get struck by lightning from the running gods about this, but I have never read Born to Run. I started it a few years ago, but I never stuck with it, even though it’s sort of the runner’s Bible, per se. I just never got it, so I didn’t finish it. I’m not sure if I even realized the Sherman book was written by the same author until I started reading it, but I found his writing to be funny, smart, entertaining, and educational. And it’s not really about running….at all. I mean it is, but it isn’t.
I learned about goats, and donkeys, and the Amish, running with goats, running with donkeys, the Amish and running, races I never thought existed, and then finally, depression. In order to understand something or someone, you at least need to know the basics, right? Christopher McDougall does a beautiful job detailing why, among other things, donkeys are the way they are, pretty much remaining the way they were initially made eons ago. Why have they basically remained unchanged? Because it works for them. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
As much as this book is not about running, it does center on one goal of the author and his crew that slowly morphs from two to many more than two. Sherman was taken in after being severely neglected by his prior owner who was an animal hoarder. The deal was for “just two years” and then Sherman would be retuned; however, you know they would never give a living creature back to someone who was capable of such neglect. The owner does make an appearance near the end of the book, and I’m happy to say there’s a happy ending. That’s the thing with this book that makes it so good. After my fall semester ended, I’ve been reading a lot, and since I had to take a hiatus from school this spring semester, I’ve still had time to read in between getting rejected for jobs I’m quite capable of doing and doing well. Frustrating. I digress. I’ve read a lot of “book club” books, and while so many are captivating in some way, they are fairly dark. Take, for instance, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue. While the story telling is very good, it’s depressing. I mean, Addie sells her soul when she’s just a young girl and has to live with the consequences for CENTURIES. It’s sad. I got another book that looked good, The Sisters Etcetera, written by Sydney Sheldon’s very own daughter. After the last page was read, I threw it across the floor in disappointment. Bah! Same with This Could All Be Yours. Bah! I wanted and I needed a good story with a happy ending.
I was not let down by Running with Sherman!
Christopher tells the story of first meeting and taking in Sherman, his neighborhood of just plain old good people who want to help, and his goal of taking Sherman to Leadville, Colorado for a race. Now this is no horse race, mind you, but one where you run alongside (you’re actually behind it, but you get the gist) your donkey. It’s actually called a burro race, but the only thing standing between a burro and a donkey is a Mexican translation. According to the internets, “Burro is the Spanish, Portuguese or Mexican name for donkey”. Huh. I didn’t know that.
Bad things happen to good people in this book, but so many come together to make this dream work for Christopher and Sherman and the crew. Goodness was seeping out of the pages, and I soaked in every bit of it. There’s real pictures of Sherman and the group’s shenanigans along the way, and because curiosity got the best of me, I looked up this Colorado race and found videos that proved these strange things have been happening, without my knowledge, for YEARS. Who knew??
All in all, this is a must read, feel good, wonderfully written testament to humanity and our unique bond with animals.
Another part of this story I found fascinating is the link (and story behind it) between depression and competitive athletes. **Because I have already returned the book, some of the following sentences or fragments could be directly from the book. I wrote some notes down while looking into this fascinating topic, but I failed to use quotes.**
One of Sherman’s crew members, Zeke, came into the picture after a suicide attempt. He was an extremely competitive swimmer from a young age until some time in high school when he and his sister both decided to quit swimming. His sister, two years older than he was, had issues with depression that ended up with a suicide attempt in college. She got her life patched back together quickly, along with the help of a therapy cat. Pets are a great way to spur release of oxytocin, which is a hormone that functions like dopamine. Zeke, who had decided to go off his depression medicine because “he felt fine” his freshman year of college, also ended up in a psych ward post suicide attempt. Their younger sister, who was sleeping when they both would take off at 4:30 am for those early swim practices and did not have to ride in the car two additional hours in the evening for part two of practice, never had an issue with depression. Interesting. Zeke did not bounce back as his sister had, and is totally understandable, which is why he came to help Christopher with Sherm. And to cut all the details out, Sherm and Zeke needed each other to heal. There’s an update at the end of the book, and as of release time, which was fall of 2020, Zeke was back in school and thriving. There’s just one of your happy stories from this book!
The author introduces a study from the University of Bonn done in 2008 that showed competitive athletes are twice as vulnerable to depression as non-athletes. You’d think it would be the opposite, right? What this particular study showed (I am leaving out a lot of the details here, FYI) is that after an endurance run, not of 30 minutes, but TWO HOURS, all runners’ opioid levels increased significantly. The better each runner felt, the more dopamine was found in the spinal fluid. That hormone was acting like an intoxicant. So with the lack of dopamine-inducing activity, there could have been a chemical imbalance caused by a sudden drop in dopamine. If you spend half your life getting a daily superdose of dopamine, what happens when you suddenly quit? Do you go through withdrawal? They were used to endorphins, this high. And then suddenly it stops. Granted, time had passed, but as stated before, years and years of this rush…..that’s got to leave a mark.
Curious thought, isn’t it? To me, it related so much to me, to so many of my friends, and my son, who pre-Covid, were very active, busy, training hard, planning, and….then…….everything……….stopped. Is that what post-race depression really is? A dopamine drop?
I know I dealt with some depression with Covid. I know many of my friends dealt with depression. And I know my son did. This isn’t necessarily laying out a cause, really, but just a little warning bell to anyone who might be reading this. I’ll tell Ryan’s story.
Ryan has a really good group of friends in Wilmington, and we moved from Wilmington during the summer of 2019. He found his posse here with the high schoolers, even though he was in eighth grade. He connected with them in cross country and then track, and right at the beginning of track season, he had a good group of kids he could hang out with and just be himself around. They had the whole season’s worth of get-togethers planned. Kids need that, and Ryan, being my extra social kid, really needed that. When Covid hit, all the friends disappeared. I couldn’t get a hold of some, and this two week flatten-the-curve thing, well, it’s still not over. They had online school, where assignments would get posted, teachers would have some class meetings here and there, and all sports were over. Well, first they were postponed, then we all know what happened last spring.
I couldn’t get Ryan out of bed before noon. I couldn’t get him to eat. He was angry. He was sad. He was quiet. My talker didn’t have anything to say. I had absolutely no idea what to do. We couldn’t go to the park, we couldn’t go to the beach, we couldn’t go to visit Wilmington, so we stayed home. I tried, oh my, I sure tried to get them engaged, to play, to cook, to puzzle, to game (the yahtzee kind, not the GTO kind). I couldn’t get that kid out of bed until the afternoon most days. When he and his cross country team started summer practice in June, he immediately was a little different. He talked a little more. When school started, and we were SOOOOO lucky we had the choice to be in-person, the only thing he liked was practice after school, and he constantly heard how crappy he ran or that all summer, he didn’t try hard, and in the meets, he was berated by his coach for not going fast enough. His one happy place was a source of negativity. Ugh. As a coach myself, I truly believe the kids should have heard “how are you all handling this, how ARE you?” and to have a supportive hand reaching out to lift them up if needed. That’s what my kid needed for sure. While I’m no softy when it comes to coaching, this was a much different situation and it really needed a hero.
Fast forward to November. I knew Ryan wasn’t thrilled with school, and that’s understandable. He had some issues with teachers, and I got involved when I felt necessary, which was just two or three times, more than several years prior combined. But the Monday before Thanksgiving, the day before we were supposed to go back to Wilmington for a fun weekend, I felt there was something wrong with Ryan. Something was off. Something was different. I went to go talk to him.
When I went to his room, closed the door, and simply said, “What’s going on, Bud?”, I’ll just say that he fell apart. He cried and he cried hard. He was lost, and he didn’t know what to do. He felt stuck and angry. As my wide-eyes stared at his wall as he hugged me and cried, all I could think was that he needed a connection that was missing. Sounds simple, right? His teachers changed (as expected and this is NOT being critical of teachers one bit but his, for the most part, were not providing what he needed, but I can truly understand that task was nearly impossible), he wasn’t in sports at that time, and he didn’t have his friend base built up. I was scared.
During that brain scramble, I remembered growing up in a small town. Due to moving during high school, I moved into a huge school, and immediately hated it. I open enrolled into a smaller school and found my peeps again. The people I am connected to, with the exception of one, the people I connected with and remain connected with are my classmates from the small schools. Everyone knew everyone, pretty much, and when I go back to that town, I will often run into someone I know. It’s connections.
I proposed to Ryan that we will figure it out. It will be ok. I wanted him to know that he was heard. We don’t have a lot of options with schools here, so we looked into private school. We had him work with a personal trainer twice a week. We tried to get him connected. Several weeks and LOTS (and lots and lots and lots) of conversation later, Ryan started at a private school about five or six miles away. Within THREE days, DAYS, he came home, sat with me while I made dinner, and went for a walk with me, chatting the entire time. I would ask him every day if he thought we made the right decision, and still, after over a month, he gives the thumbs up. When we said we would probably enroll him, and he went to go look for his long lost baseball bag and wanted to join the team, I had a good feeling.
As much as the school part of school continues to annoy him, I feel like he’s connected again. People know his name, people talk to him, joke with him, and he’s different. The good kind of different. Or should I say, he’s back to what he was like prior to Covid…. It was sad when he said “Mom. They actually said BYE to me and know my name!”.
The reason that I’m talking about all of this is that we need to be sure we are listening to our kids. Kids are resilient, but they’re not bullet proof. What could have happened? I don’t know. It might have been fine to keep Ryan where he was. It might not have. I know what kids do when they feel trapped. Drugs, bad friends, stop caring, suicide. It’s all possible. Don’t sweep bad things under the rug, talk about them. Sometimes it’s ok to not be ok. Some days I don’t feel ok, and that’s ok. I’ve had to adjust my expectations, which has been quite a struggle. But I’ll be ok, that I do know. With Ryan, I wasn’t willing to take the chance. I saw my kid changing before my eyes, and both Andy and I knew we had a really important choice to make. Honestly, it turned out to be a pretty easy choice, too, and we were thankful to be able to make it. Ryan has his first baseball game on Thursday, and I cannot wait to cheer that kid on.
Be the voice that lifts up. Thank you for doing that for me, Sherman!