Ryan Danz - Of all the days I will know, of all the moments I will experience at home and abroad, there are those awash in golden daylight that I will always have with me. The day I took part in the Running of the Bulls will forever remain in my mind as one of those days.
I have done something more central to my being than just running in front of, along side and eventually behind a herd of bulls. I have returned to a place that struck me down with fear more than a decade ago and literally caused me to run and hide mid-sprint, off course. A place that I vowed to myself that one day, if it was within my means, I would resume to complete my imperfect experience. Allow me to take you through the moments of the running of the bulls from Thursday, July 11, 2013.
The iPhone alarm sounds – an old rotary phone tone – which is ironic considering the hostel we are staying in actually still has one of these phones at its front desk; yet no one I know and certainly no one I am traveling with (a group of six dudes between the ages of 27 and 36) has ever seen one. I can hear the alarm clearly, though I am laid up on a common room couch, not in the room with the other guys. The intense heat, symphony of snoring and other bodily functions that only men seem to emit in their sleep, forced me to seek shelter elsewhere in the hostel.
I’d arrived in Pamplona less than 12 hours earlier to meet up with a friend from my hometown of San Diego and a group of his friends from all over the US. I am the newest addition but the only one among the six of us that had previously run with bulls; my words of wisdom are treated as gospel.
My first instruction, given as the guys begin to dress in their white pants, white shirts, red Pañuelico (scarf), and red waistband, the traditional San Fermin festival garb, was simply an explanation of where we were to start on the nearly half-mile course. “If our goal is to make it into the stadium then we need to start past dead-man’s corner. Once the bulls pass us we will only have a short amount of time before they close the doors to the arena.” Responses included, “did you just say dead-mans corner?” and “why would we want to go into a closed arena with bulls?” The answers are “yes” and “because that’s the point.” Rookies.
The six of us make our way out of the hostel and begin our walk towards the track. Even at this hour the street party and festivities are still going strong. Throngs of people, mostly college-aged kids, assemble outside the still open bars and clubs as well as just loosely in the parks which double as sleeping grounds for the ‘financially challenged’ or ‘too drunk to get home.’ I actually smile to myself seeing two guys lying on a park bench, using their backpacks as pillows. That was me and my dear friend and OTB (“original traveling buddy”) Elan back in the summer of 2002 when we had just finished a semester of law school outside of Spain and made our way to Pamplona not knowing what to expect. That semester abroad, the ensuing month-long backpacking around Europe and the Running of the Bulls experience, remains to this day one of the fondest memories of my life
While the track itself is actually a cobblestone street no wider than say a few parking spaces at your local grocery store, side by side, it winds ½ mile (928 yards with 3 distinct turns) through apartment buildings, retail shops, bars and a church. We’ve walked the course already a handful of times during our short stay. You really cannot help it as much of the celebration happens in the clubs and bars along this path as soon as the run has ended each morning. But on this morning we are walking to plan out our strategy. The party has ended for now. Well… except for Conway, he’s still a bit tipsy. Actually, we all are. The running of the bulls is all about maximizing the experience, while minimizing the risk of injury. Actually, strike that, it’s about minimizing the risk of injury. The experience is only enjoyable if there are no holes in your body afterwards.
As we head towards the starting line, about the midpoint of the pathway, we pass Windsor Bar and I declare, “This is where I am going to start. I‘ll be able to see the bulls when they round Dead Man’s Corner (pointing to the 90-degree corner at the end of the street), and even though they will eventually catch me, by time they pass I should be close enough to the stadium to make it in.” The guys nod in unison. One however, Henry, makes it known that the only thing of importance to him is entirely removing the risk of injury and so he declares he will start further up the road, closer to the arena. I remind him that if he makes it into the arena before the bulls, the locals who have packed the stadium in advance will have a field day. I explain that it is severely frowned upon to finish ahead of the bulls and would be the equivalent of a grown man jumping into a pool with a life jacket and floaties on. He responds shamelessly, “Yep, probably. But at least I’ll be in one piece.” No truer words have been spoken.
We have walked the entire course and are now stationed overlooking the bullpen, just above the starting line of the course. We are staring down into the enclosure of the resting six bulls and six oxen a mere ninety minutes before we will be running for our lives from these same excited animals. The oxen are castrated bulls that keep the herd together, tending to be less aggressive and more controlled in their direction. These are the escorts the bulls and, by default, the runners will rely on to make sure they stay the course.
As we snap pictures, the darkness of the early morning still upon us, we learn that these bulls are from the Torrestrella ranch in the southern province of Cadiz. Rumor has it they are the most aggressive of the bulls to run to date. Swell.
I, my friends and the rest of the participants are now in “waiting hell”. The masses are funneling into the already cramped holding area. Ah, perhaps a bit of art imitating life? For the first time, the energy has shifted from excitement to trepidation. We are in front of the church, perhaps 150 yards up from the starting pen where the bulls are being held. The local crews are still putting the wood fence barriers in place. Mini street sweepers are sweeping up trash from the night’s revelry. The cobblestone road, already precarious due to their narrowness and windiness of the course, are now being sprayed down to wash away the stench and filth of the 100 hour party that began on July 6.
I share with the guys that water on a cobblestone street might as well be banana peels or oil slicks. “So what?” Dito asks. “So, when a bull running 15 mph slips and falls, it becomes disoriented and its instinct is to turn back the way it came.” I reply. Nothing registered, so I explain further. “So, when you’re running and looking behind you for approaching bulls (because you always run before the bulls reach you), there might be a turned-around bull charging straight at you.” I say half smiling. There is silence in the group.
Keep this in mind for later in the story.
We’ve been waiting almost an hour. Not too much happens in this time. You see a few still-too-drunk people being escorted off the course by el policia. Those with GoPro cameras or other recording devices are also removed. The people who live or rent window space to eager viewers of the run (€150/half hour (about $200US)) in the apartments above the course start to open their windows, step outside on the balcony to take pictures or just take in the site of thousands of people crammed on the course, all while sipping Mimosas. From 7:00am a majority of the 1/2 mile course will be cordoned off until ten minutes before the start. We continue to discuss starting-place strategy, running protocol and escape route options. There is a visible and palpable anxious energy and nervousness creeping over all of us. Especially Henry. He has gone radio silent.
The police have removed the barricades and now the packed crowd of runners is finally free to move up the course to their desired starting positions. Having staked out the area just beyond Windsor Bar, I am more confident now than I was 10 years ago when I decided then to start at dead man’s corner. Confidence has come from having a plan, from having experienced this before, but mostly from the vat of Sangria still in my system. Liquid courage, baby. If I were totally sober I would be Henry 2.0.
Fidgeting. Sweaty palms. Nervous glances. “Is it time yet? Is this thing starting?” Sean asks me. “No, you’ll know. There will be a rocket.” I snap back. “What? A rocket?”
Sean exclaims. I thought we had discussed this, but apparently not. The running starts when a rocket is fired; this is the indication to the runners that the bull’s gates have been opened. A second rocket is fired when the bulls have left their pen. From Windsor Bar we may or may not hear either, but when the sea of people starts moving towards us, we should have every indication that it’s go-time. Sean stays close. Henry continues making his way towards the arena. Dito and Conway are all within arm’s length. Tiny has found a closed doorway which serves as part shelter, part lookout. Hearts are racing before bodies have moved.
For the first time the risk analysis slaps me in the face. There is no way this is a good idea. It’s a bad idea. Yes there are only 6 bulls and my odds of getting gored or trampled are probably less than 1% (I have no idea that just sounds like a good guess) but running with a pack of ferocious beasts, in a confined area, is just el stupido. I love it. Have I mentioned I am weird? I am. I feel more alive now than I have in a very long time.
BANG! Rocket numero uno is launched. Action. Throngs of people from Dead Man’s Corner all the way up the street towards us start moving at once. “Not yet! Not yet!” I proclaim to Sean and any of our other friends that have stuck nearby. There’s no point at starting the run at this point. First of all, there’s a chance we could make it into the arena before even running with any bulls. Which sort of defeats the purpose. Secondly, speaking from prior experience, better to see the bulls coming, know where they are in relation to you at all times, than to run blindly. Just trust me on this.
I am freaking out as the first wave of people comes around dead mans corner. My mouth feels like its filled with cotton balls. I could be standing barefooted on burning ashes and I’m almost sure I wouldn’t’ feel anything. Feeling has left my body.
I keep a lookout for the herd of bulls but all I can see is a thousand men coming straight at me. We are being passed by people of all ages in a full on sprint. By the looks on their faces you would think the apocalypse was approaching. I think to myself, if the end of the world were coming, this is probably what it would look like. Not your typical Thursday morning.
I think the second rocket was just fired. I have no idea. I can hardly hear anything over the yells and screams from the onlookers and the runners.
“Okay, let’s go, let’s start to go, here we go! Don’t sprint! Here we go!”
Controlled but excited, these are the words to myself and whoever else is close enough to heed my advice. There’s a tidal wave of people coming, I’m sort of jogging, sort of dodging people in front and coming from behind. I’m looking ahead and definitely looking backwards. My head is on a swivel and my heart and breakfast have switched places. I don’t see any bulls yet but there’s so much activity that instinctually I know they are not far away. My vision is clouding like one of those Instagram apps that let’s you blur the outer edges of an image. All I see is a sea of white and the vague outlines of people.
“Go! Go! Sprint! ”
Oh my God. Bulls are passing right by me. One after the other. A full gallop for them, an awkward sprint for me. I can smell them and I most definitely can reach out to touch them. That’s actually the goal for most people as it’s considered a sign of good luck for years to come. But that’s not my goal, I am using my hands to push through slower moving runners and in the event I feel something big and sharp press up against the backside of me, then I’m using my hands for, well, I’m not sure what I’m going to do if that happens. The newspapers refer to this as ‘rectal perforation.’ Sounds like hell.
I am now caught in the herd of people and bulls in one movement.
As the mob of bulls lumbers alongside me, runners in all directions part to allow them to pass. I have positioned myself perfectly. I am close enough to the bulls to enjoy the open space now being created by their charge, yet far enough away that there are others between the animals and me. I feel like a kick returner in the NFL who has an open seam up the middle with my teammates setting perfect blocks. The San Diego Chargers might learn from this. Zing.
The sound is deafening. Voices screaming from the stands, hooves crushing the cobblestone road, runners yelling ahead to warn of approaching bulls, to get those not running as fast to move out of the way. I couldn’t hear myself think if I had to, but in this moment there is nothing to think about. I’m running along side a herd of bulls and that’s all there is to say. I am lost in this moment totally. In fact as I reflect back on this, the climax of the run, there are moments of black. It’s not per se out-of-body, but the amount of adrenaline and endorphins, or is it dopamine? flushing through my body is causing severe euphoria. This must be that runners high people talk about. Yeah right, only if you mainlined a soup ladle full of heroin and sugar.
I can tell exactly where I am on the course just by glancing at the open space at the end of the road. I am a final slight left turn away from the 100 yard straightaway before the opening to the arena. The bulls are mostly in front of me but there are still 3 oxen unaccounted for somewhere behind me. Or so I think. The adrenaline rush is overflowing. I could run through a brick wall at this point. And then I see her.
A young woman lying in the middle of the road, balled up in the fetal position, hands and arms covering her face and head. Is she hurt? Worse? Was she knocked down by a bull? Was she run over by the throng of bigger and arguably stronger men that were mowing down anything and anyone in their path? In the time it takes me to process all of this she starts to unfold herself and look up. She appears to be okay and as she sits herself up locals tend to her immediately. She is among many that I have seen strewn about the cobblestone streets. I continue my not-quite-a-sprint-more-than-a-fast-jog up the course and make the final turn. I am a stone’s throw from the arena. All is well.
Never mind. All is not well. All is really not well. The last of the bulls to enter ahead of me has taken a tumble on the final turn. He is disorientated. And of course, as my prescient advice from earlier this morning comes to play out in real life, he is facing me and a handful of others in a standoff that has me stopped cold in my tracks. “Holy shit!” I say to myself and those nearby. I have been separated from Sean and the others. They undoubtedly are in the arena by now. The turned-around-bull begins charging at a nearby runner who tries to slip past him while a bull handler makes a motion with his stick to get the bulls attention. The runner has evaded the bull and made it into the arena.
Breakfast is moving up the back of my throat. I want to heave.
The bull is now focused on our group. He is no more than a few strides away from me.
I scatter to the sideline to find the fence. At the very least I can crawl through one of the openings and take refuge on the other side. I did that 10 years ago and vowed I would not do that again. I am now disavowing. Well, I think I can make the fence until I realize that everyone else has that same idea. There is now no fence. It is a human wall pressed up against the fence. No one is interested in letting me through. There is nowhere to go.
I am no more than 20 feet away staring at this bull as he charges another runner. Contact is made. Runner down. I’m not sure if my pants are wet or dry at this point.
I am in partial shock and partial amazement. This is the largest animal I have seen up close. His horns look like something that you row a boat with only with tips as pointed as your mom’s Henkel knives. He circles back towards the doors and then bucks back towards us again. I have never seen a stand off like this before.
The bull is finally corralled by a group of handlers. He has spared me and those around me. I continue the run towards the stadium.
I have reached the arena. The guys are exactly where they said they would be. We agreed beforehand to meet immediately to the left of the entry. High fives. Hugs. More “holy shits!” Everyone was accounted for and everyone was in one piece. Success.
I will later learn this run took the bulls 2 minutes 47 seconds from bullpen to stadium. That is fast considering a portion of the course is up a slight incline with a handful of sharp turns and these creatures weigh nearly a half-ton. Once the stadium has been reached, the bulls are shuttled through to waiting pens. One at a time, six new bulls, smaller, slightly less aggressive and with corked and taped up horns, are released into the stadium where runners, like myself evade them, try and touch them, and generally interact with them. I was unable to achieve this during my first run in 2002. I successfully did so in 2013. I even touched the backside of a bull and will carry the good luck along with the fond memories of this experience with me until my next run.
I will be back 10 years from now. The running of the bulls is a definitive part of me.
 I am pleasantly soothed by seeing these open spaces where the bulls are free to roam, relatively speaking. I had been concerned that they were tightly packed in steel cages, in an effort to make them more hostile upon release. It is not lost on me the animal rights issues that face this type of event. I have sworn off attending bullfights for these reasons. Yet I am unapologetically supportive of this run. It has struck a chord with me many years ago and for reasons unexplainable and maybe unbeknownst, I see stark differences in the two. While one is barbaric and cruel, the other is exciting and fair.