Running With the Bulls
Part 1: If you haven’t read it, here’s what happens when waiting to run with the bulls.
It was a relief when the police finally released us from the holding pen.
As I walked around Dead Man’s Corner to choose my starting place, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Scores of people were waving from balconies along both sides of the street, gawking, waiting for a bird’s eye view of whatever carnage would shortly ensue beneath them. I felt pride – and a solid dose of fear. My joints were stiff from waiting around so long. Thousands of eyeballs molested us, scrutinizing our every facial expression. I did my best to feign nonchalant calmness.
Television cameras rolled as us runners crept forward slowly, tentatively shopping around for the best place to test fate on Estafeta Street – the straightest stretch and most suitable for newbies to run with the bulls. I actually walked too far forward, saw the crowd amassed around the plaza de toros at the end, and had to turn around. Every step back toward the starting line I took, I knew I would have to make up – surely in a panic. I backtracked around 200 meters and posted myself within proximity of the left wall halfway down the street.
For five minutes, we jumped up and down in place; faces to where the bulls would soon be released. Check shoelaces. Stretch. Jump some more, trying to loosen stiff joints from all the waiting. Check laces again. We went through this routine for five minutes under the gaze of thousands – millions – considering that the run is aired worldwide. I was just about to check my laces for the fifth time when a single rocket popped in the distance, signaling that the gate had been opened and that the bulls were exiting their holding stall.
Knowing that the bulls were on the streets but still out of view is a feeling I’ll never be able to describe.
A cheer erupted from the crowd. Runners shifted uneasily in place, jumping to look over each other for a flash of black or brown, anything to know when the tons of hooved hell would be tearing down the street in our direction. A few runners lost their cool and began to run prematurely. My hands were cold, shaking. Heart pounded. Ears were ringing with blood pressure and adrenaline. A second rocket sounded, signaling that all the bulls were now on the run.
They were coming. And with doors closed up on both sides of the street, there was no place to go.
About half the runners started forward in panic. I waited, along with most. Wait…wait…a third rocket sounded. Wait…just when my nerves couldn’t bear anymore, I saw a wave of runners down the street from my position turn, their faces deathmasks of fear and adrenaline. Someone beside me shouted “Go! Go!” I didn’t hesitate, only turned on my toes and began a mad dash pushing forward through the throng.
The noise was deafening. Both runners and spectators shouted at full volume.
I was engulfed by a wave of people within seconds, all overwhelmed with a sense of self preservation. There was very little camaraderie and absolutely no bravado. I ran with my hand on the guy’s back in front of me; someone else had their hand on my back. We were such a tight cluster that one trip, one fateful misstep, would throw the whole works into a messy disaster. The cobblestone street was uneven; a wide stride was impossible with so many feet and legs nearby. I slowly became aware that I was shouting “Runnnn!” at the top of my lungs – I was also in full panic.
People began to tumble and fall. I could hear their cries. I jumped the legs of a guy who was already down, balled up into fetal position with his head covered by hands. My fleeting thought was that he couldn’t of possibly have been a first-timer. He was doing exactly what you’re supposed to do if you go down. I wondered for a split second if he was one of the nice guys I had been talking to at the starting line just a few minutes earlier. It was only later that I found out he was horribly trampled, despite doing the right thing.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I was so concerned with running and not falling that I had no situational awareness. It was only when someone slammed me hard to the left that I saw the first flash of black and brown directly to my right. I heard the thunder of hooves and the deep pants of bovine breath filling giant lungs. I saw the horns. I could have touched the bastards as they rocked past me in a vortex of fear and fallen runners. My entire body braced for pain. I expected to go down at any second, and my only prayer was that the runners wouldn’t step on my back to further damage my injured disc.
Watching videos later, I learned that the bulls had swung wide around Dead Man’s Corner and had come up the left side of the street, my side, compressing us runners into a dangerous clog. Runners jostled and pushed for a position closer to the left wall, so when I saw the rump of the last steer pass, I moved more toward the center of the street where there was room. Fortunately, I wasn’t in the way when one of the two bulls that had become separated from the pack came unexpectedly tearing up the middle seconds later and gored a guy from Chicago.
I broke into a full run up the middle of the street, gasping for air, past television crews and a crowd gathered at the entrance of the Plaza de Toros. I saw the two red doors still wide open – the objective is to get inside before they close the doors after the last bull. I thought for a quick second that, if the doors were still open, there must be at least one bull still to my rear. I felt a real sense of fear from the unseen threat. With a final burst of energy, I ran into the bullring and stopped dead in my tracks, heaving for air.
I’ve never seen anything like it: 20,000 spectators in the stands, all clad in white and red, cheered from the stands above me. The sight was surreal. I couldn’t hear anything above the thump thump of my own heartbeat in my ears.
More runners poured into the arena, so I was pushed to the center. I found my Irish friend and we high-fived and gasped for air for a precious minute. I’ve felt adrenaline a time or two in the past, but my body was pushed beyond capacity – shaken – wracked and vibrating with sweet survival. My face was literally twitching. The surge made me high as hell, as if I were levitating. My knees struggled not to buckle beneath me.
The impact knocked the wind out of me.
I didn’t know what had happened when I was knocked to the ground, the runners again in a full panic to get to the safety of the fences along the fringes. Apparently, a late bull had entered unexpectedly. I got up and was slammed again into the wooden railing by a rioting mass. [ I would find out weeks later that the pop against the railing actually cracked a rib!] The bull made a complete circle of the bullring at full gallop and lowered its head, looking for a fight.
Inexplicably, the crowd laughed.
Maybe because we were all caught so off guard. I’m sure the scene did look humorous from above. But raising yourself up from the soft dirt of a bullring just in time to see an angry bull thunder past is hardly a laughing matter. I cinched my knee a little – a very minor injury – as I fought for position along the wall.
I stood there just 10 minutes before deciding that I had played enough games with fate. The adrenaline and fear of becoming a late casualty had me in a near breakdown. I wasn’t thinking clearly anymore. It was time to go over the wall. I clumsily climbed the fence with wobbly legs to the safety of the other side, then took a position to watch the runners who were still brave or stupid enough to play with the bulls.
Later, at a bar just outside the plaza, I met a guy who had been partially scalped by a bull in the bullring. I still don’t understand how it happened, and neither did he. A chunk of his scalp had been removed in the front somehow. We laughed about the injury; his hairline had been crudely modified for life (photo here). Like most of us runners, his hands were shaking as he showed the scar and held his well-earned beer at 10 a.m.
When I exited the plaza past security into Pamplona’s bright daylight, I held my head up high. I was tired, sore, and stained – but buzzing with life. Alive. Later, I would once again be just another festival goer, lost in a sea of red-and-white participants. But, for now, I was one of the proud few to have ran, a corredor con los toros.