Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Yep. I survived the Running of the Bulls!

I’m standing on street corner in Pamplona, Spain. Although I am expecting it, nothing can prepare me for what I am about to experience. It starts with a stirring in the crowd, then a building noise. Some of the men around me begin to run – far to soon. Then suddenly it comes. Just like a scene out of an apocalypse movie, I see a mob of hundreds running down the street at me. Men yelling and running as though death was imminent, pure panic written on their faces. Within seconds, I would be swept up in them.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a crowd when panic overtakes it, but it is an other-worldly feeling. The panic is real. Palpable. It grabs onto something deep and instinctual inside of you. Something that screams, “RUN!!!”

But I didn’t. Heeding some great advice I’d received, I pressed myself against a wall and fought the instinct. I had come here to run with the bulls, not with the crowd. The panicked mob hit like a wave; legs, shoulders, bodies plowing into me. A few excruciating seconds in their throws and I caught a glimpse of what I’d come all this way to see. A flash of horns and hide in the mob. The bulls were upon me.

I ran.

The next few seconds were a blur of knocking my way through bodies as I fought to run alongside the beasts. Several runners went down around me, but there was hardly time to notice. A few seconds later, I was sprinting just behind the pack of bulls, their hooves hitting the ground not more than two feet ahead of mine. My first realization as I struggled to keep up was to marvel at how massive they are. The videos I’d seen just didn’t do justice to the reality of running down the street with beasts about the size, shape and weight of the Jeep I drive back home. They were truly massive creatures.

This was it. I was doing it! The famous “Running of the Bulls,” a tradition dating back 400 years and popularized to the outside world by Ernest Hemmingway’s The Sun Also Riseth. Several have died, many more seriously injured, all in an ancient, arguably barbaric tradition I now found myself swept up in.

There was little time for reflection. Thanks to the pack of bulls a foot or two ahead of me, I now had a clear path for running (trampled runners not withstanding). As I did, one thought jumped in my mind. “Beware the straggler.” I’d been warned numerous times that the most dangerous bull was the one who got separated from the rest. Disoriented, alone, and angry, most gorings are delivered by the bull who falls behind. And here I was running in the middle of the street, immediately behind the main pack of bulls. Were they all there? How could I possibly count?

It’s amazing how, in moments like those, your mind becomes intensely focused on just one or two things. I vividly recall the brown hide on the bulls, and their size. I can still see the little grates I was stepping over in the middle of the cobblestone street that told my hyper-focused mind that I was exactly in the center of the road. And then, as I recalled the warnings about the “straggler,” I saw the faces. I clearly saw the faces in the crowd and on the sidelines as I sprinted by. Mouths open in horor, they weren’t looking at me as I passed by. They weren’t looking at the pack of bulls right in front of me. They were definitely looking… right behind me. Each head turned as I ran by, not focused on me, but instead a foot or two behind by path. Instantly, I knew. The straggler.

If the adrenaline wasn’t intense enough already, a fresh wave swept over me. My feet began moving faster than I could have ever imagined. I dared not look back, but I knew it was there. One very big, very angry bull was right on my heels. I could see the arena entrance ahead of me. Right or wrong, one plan dominated my thoughts. Make it into the stadium and the bull could go anywhere. And so I sprinted. Straight ahead, never turning or veering, I sprinted like I never had before.

Not more than a second or two passed before I could feel him. The bull was literally right behind me. I could hear him pounding the street on my heels. At any moment, I expected to feel his head or, God-forbid, horns against my back. I thought one thing… Go! Go! Go!

Unknown to me, the first bull into the arena had already knocked a man unconscious. As I sprinted in, he was being dragged out of the way by his feet, face down, bleeding in the dirt. I didn’t even notice. I had a Straggler on my heels. And sure enough, as we passed from the entryway into the wide open space of the arena, the Straggler veered, leveling someone else as he passed me. Now safely behind, my legs instinctively kept moving and I chased him across the infield until he was corralled on the other side.

YES! I’d made it! Alive! I noticed the crowd in the stadium for the first time. They roared. So did I. It was time to celebrate – I thought. I began looking around for my friends, hopeful we’d all made it safely into the arena.

There would not be time. With the main “running” complete, they would now release one bull at a time to chase around us runners who’d been fast and fortunate enough to make it into the arena. Unlike the Jeep-sized killers who’d just chased us through the streets, these bulls were a bit younger and had an inch or two shaved off of their horns. Mean enough to hurt (badly), but not sharp enough to gore. Or so I’d heard. Safe, right?

I’d not yet found my friends, but the first bull was out. Instantly, that same sense of panic came over the crowd of men. They were running around me before I could even see where the bull was. This time, I ran too. Where was that freakin bull?

By the time I got a good look, the bull had stopped his charge. As the crowd of men stood around him in a wide circle, all sane men trying to keep their distance, the bull paused. It simply stopped and began looking around, as if trying to decide who to charge.

It’s hard to explain why I did what I did next. For starters, I had adrenaline pumping out of my ears. People respond to adrenaline differently. For me, it’s usually with a huge grin and an unwarranted feeling of invincibility. “Flight” is rarely my instinct. Give me my superman cape, I’m going in! Occasionally, when I find myself in one of those dumb pre-fight situations every guy gets into from time to time, usually with some drunk meathead looking for trouble, and he begins the chest-thumping, cussing and big-talk that precedes every fight, I almost always hear something like “You’d better stop smiling punk!” or “I’ll wipe that smile right off your face!” Smiling? Who smiles when they’re being cussed and threatened? Apparently, me. I don’t even realize I’m doing it. I try to stop, but can’t help it. I’m having too much fun. It doesn’t matter how big the guy (or the bull), in situations where I should be either scared or angry, I’m neither. I just grin, loving every minute of it. And for some reason, my smile in the face of threat seems to make angry people even angrier. Bulls must be the same way…

And so, with that trademark smile that usually accompanies my doing something stupid, I stepped forward from that circle. I literally remember thinking, “Come on, bull.

It did. As soon as I took my third step forward toward the bull, it locked eyes on me. We stared each other down for a long second that seemed like ten. I’d given him what he wanted – a target. He charged. I braced myself and took a horn to the chest. Whomp. Oww! I grabbed at it’s horns, then it’s neck. I held out for a few seconds, which seemed eternal, but the bull soon had me on the ground. I scrambled to get away, hopeful others would distract the him. Thankfully they did.

My chest hurt. Not bad enough to suspect serious damage, but enough to decide I was done tangling with bulls. Of course, that little dose of common sense would last all of fifteen minutes. I found my friends and, in between the releasing of different bulls, we’d catch our breath and trade war stories. Then they’d release another bull, and we’d run again. Now I was running away right along with everyone else, keeping a nice safe distance. I’d had my experience. I had my story. I had the bruises to prove it.

Finally, they released the last bull into the arena. It came charging out, leveling several guys in the process. My excitement was building again and I worked my way toward the bull. Once again, the bull slowed to a trot, looking around as if to choose it’s next victim. Dare I do it again? Then, directly across from me and on the other side of the bull, I saw my buddy Chad with his head-mounted video camera. Crap. A chance to do it again on film?

“Come on, bull…”

I stepped out. True to form, the bull did what bulls do. Full charge. I was better prepared. I fully braced myself and stayed between the horns. Whomp. This time it was the head that hit me. Much better. I grabbed my new friend around the neck and held on. We wrestled for ten or twelve wild seconds before the bull finally threw me.

Here are excerpts from Chad's video. Or see a larger version here. I appear at time code 0:19, just as I'm about to tangle with the second bull. You can’t miss me. And of course, when Chad runs up to me seconds after I’m thrown, the last thing you’ll see is me smiling ear to ear. “Look ma. I lived!

The adrenaline rush lasted a few more hours. Me and the boys took our victory picture and began to assess the damage. I had a small horn bruise on my chest, a very well skinned knee, a few other scrapes and bruises of unknown origin, and a slight limp. Tom had a fractured rib and his pants half torn off. Chad had an impressive looking hoof-print in the center of his back (hence the video footage of the bull jumping over him at time code 0:13). Eric was either smarter or luckier than the rest – probably both. And we all felt like kings.

It was without a doubt the most intense experience of my life. I’ve done a lot of crazy things, but nothing where I truly knew I could die. No other experience had put me in such an intense state for so long. I loved it.

I will also never do it again. Late that night, long after the exhilaration had subsided, the reality of some of what I’d seen began to set in. The men I’d seen trampled. The unconscious bodies being dragged out of the way. The pool of blood in the arena dirt. It all seemed real now. It wasn’t just in a video or on a TV screen any more. And the foolishness of my bravado became clearer too. Had I lost my mind?

Ah, but what a rush...

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