It is 7:58 am on a cool morning in Pamplona Spain, and in a couple of minutes, I am going to be running with several tons of angry bulls.
Talk about a mid life crisis. Other middle aged men find themselves a new sports car or a trophy wife. Mine is to collect new experiences, and here I am about to run with the bulls in Pamplona.
I am standing cheek to cheek with other bull runners, waiting for the start. We are packed like sardines, or rather…perhaps like a herd of cattle about to be led off to slaughter. Many of us come from all over the world to join the local bull runners. Numerous bull runners are in their early twenties, and reek of stale alcohol and smelly sweat, as they have been up all night drinking and partying.
I am in pole position, near the front of the line at a sharp corner. The Pamplona police hold us back for better crowd control, and will release us just before the bottle rocket goes off which signifies the start of the run.
However, there’s no way I will hear the bottle rocket go off, as I am hearing-impaired. That won’t be an issue as all I need to do is look at the reactions of the bull runners. Their panicky runs and expressions will be so loud that it will be deafening – bad pun intended.
Before the start of the run, I had carefully taken off my hearing aid, wrapped it in bubble wrap, and put it in my sock. I know that in the mayhem of the run that it can be easily dislodged off my head or fly out of my pocket.
I am clad in traditional clothing – the white pants and the white shirt, with a red scarf around my neck, and a long red sash around my waist.
All part of a tradition going back hundreds of years ago, and popularized by Hemmingway in his novel “Death in an Afternoon”. Sadly, Hemmingway did not inspire me to run with the bulls – rather it was Billy Crystal’s butt.
To be more specific, Billy Crystal’s character in the movie “City Slickers” got gored in the butt while running with the bulls in one of the most hilarious scenes I’ve seen in a movie, and for some peculiar unfathomable reason, it created a burning desire for me to run with the bulls.
Reality is sinking in, and I get butterflies in my stomach.
I am at the curve at Estafeta – it is a dangerous curve as the bulls must negotiate it after thundering down an inclined cobblestone surface. I see numerous media and photographers ensconced safely on the other side of the fence, and disconcertingly, see an ambulance crew, and paramedics milling around. I look upwards and there’s several stories of buildings lining the route, filled with people watching us on their balconies.
The police stop holding us back and we start to spread out. I recognize a few bull runners and we nod to each other. We all look tense, anticipating the start. A bull runner tells me the colours of the bulls and oxen and how many there are of each colour.
Each day there’s six bulls and six oxen that start the run, and they run fast at an average speed of 16 kph, which makes it is hard to tell the difference between them when they zoom by – thus, if you have an idea of the colours, it helps. Keeping track of the numbers and the type is critical so you don’t celebrate prematurely, as a bull could sneak up behind you and gore you.
I see it happen many times watching YouTube – the bull runner raises his hands in celebration thinking he’s done, and gets whacked from behind. This is a classic rookie mistake, and is just like a scene in a bad horror movie – you know the one where you think the bad guy is gone and you let down your guard and then he comes back and whacks you.
Today’s bulls come from the Cebada Gago ranch, which has a reputation for the toughest and nastiest bulls with the most gorings.
For me, running with the bulls presents an additional challenge as I can’t hear them approaching. When you are running you have to be aware of your surroundings at all times, as you have to watch for bulls on either side of you, in front of you and behind you. But you can’t look behind too much as you may crash into another bull runner in front of you. Or fall over another bullrunner who has collapsed onto the cobblestones. Other runners can hear people screaming that there’s bulls coming – I can’t hear that and just need to keep my wits about me.
My strategy is to be near a fat person. Yes, I am going straight to hell, but I figure that I can always outrun a pudgy bull runner, if a bull gets away and charges us. Fortunately, I find a suitable candidate and stand near him.
The rocket goes off signalling the start of the bull run, and I see people start running madly. However I hold my spot at the corner against the wall. If I run too soon, I will end up missing running with the bulls or get hemmed in by the herd. I am nervous and giddy with anticipation. I feel like I am about to plunge off a precipice.
The first bulls come roaring by – brown and white.. all brown.. or wait was it an oxen? They are moving so fast and the adrenalin is kicking in, giving me temporary Alzheimer’s.. I can’t remember which is which is which with certainty.
It brings back memories of when I was swimming in the Pacific ocean off the coast of Maui and saw big dorsal fins above the water appear suddenly in front of me, and I wasn’t positive about the difference between dolphin fins and shark fins, but I wasn’t going to stick around to find out.
I see a massive black bull thunder down the cobblestones towards me, and he loses his balance and crashes into the fence at the bottom of the curve only a few feet away. It creates a domino effect, with the black bull behind him also sliding and crashing into the fence. I see the two get up and a white bull follow them. I steal a quick look back – the coast seems clear. Now it is my time to roll!
I step out from the side of the street and run with them alongside few feet away, but they quickly get away from me to catch up with the rest of the herd. The pudgy runner is just too slow, and I abandon my strategy of being near him.
I see other bull runners in front of me look behind me with panic – we are like a school of fish that veers away when a shark appears. I instinctively move slowly to the sides at a diagonal and look back. Out of nowhere, a bull comes up behind me. I run faster and ease my way to the side – if I move too quickly across, I will collide with other bull runners.
It is a full sensory Technicolor experience and I feel very alive and aware of my surroundings at all times. I run quickly, and see bodies sprawled down in front of me. I leap over them and keep running. Whether they were gored or tripped and fell, doesn’t matter at this stage. If you stand still, you will be knocked over by the freight train barrelling down right behind you.
I steal another look back, and the bull swooshes by me with less than a foot to spare.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see other bull runners raise their hands to celebrate, but there’s no way I will let my guard down.
I take another quick look behind and sure enough, there’s a straggler sneaking up behind us.
I move away, and run with the bull. Out of morbid curiosity, I steal a glance at the bull runner who raised his hands prematurely, secretly hoping that the bull gave him a little love tap to show who’s the boss, but alas, the bull runner got away at the last minute.
I continue to ride the wave, and grin with childlike excitement. I see other bull runners ahead of me, and go with them. The way is clear and we run in a herd on the route. All of a sudden, a massive metal gate swings in front of us, and we pile up in front of the gate.
Pandemonium ensues, and other runners push me from the back as there is another bull coming up, and at the same time, I get pushed from the front as the gate is closing. I am squished like a vise and I fall down and immediately curl up into a foetal position, covering my head. After a few moments, the pressure eases, and I carefully peek to ensure that there’s no bull next to me.
I get up and see one of the bull runner’s legs jammed under the gate, and I pull him out to safety. I continue to run, and then more gates swing open. I let off a bestial scream as I’ve successfully run with the bulls.
After further reflection, I now understand why the gate was slammed in our faces – the police officers who operated the gate thought that there were no more bulls, and had opened the gate to let the runners out. However, when they realized they miscounted, they panicked and slammed the gate in our faces to ensure that no bulls could escape.
As a consequence, I got a few minor scrapes and bruises, as well as a couple of footprints on my clothes – if anything, it gives me minor street cred, and is a small price to pay for a fantastic experience.
I love running with the bulls and highly recommend it. Not only is it exciting, but also it is part of a rich cultural experience, in a beautiful part of the world.
If you want to do this, the running with the bulls in Pamplona is every July 6th to 14th, and is part of the San Fermin festival. Check www.sanfermin.com for full details.