ďWhy am I here?Ē This is the thought going through my mind as I prepare for the encierro, the famous Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain. Los Sanfermines, as the festival is known by the local Pamplonicos, has been famous ever since Ernest Hemingway described it in The Sun Also Rises. If you donít run fast, I am told, your sun will never rise again.
For four weeks I had been backpacking around Europe, hearing stories of the infamous Running of the Bulls: a week-long extravaganza of drinking, dancing and partying, highlighted by the bull run itself ó a mass of lunatics chased by six extremely large and unhappy bulls. Thus far, my European adventure had gone smoothly. I hadnít been mugged, maimed or laid waste, and I was feeling the need for a little excitement. That cute town in the Austrian Alps suddenly seemed stale. At that moment came something I donít normally have a surplus of: courage. I thought to myself: ďIím a pretty fast runner. I could outrun a bull or two. What the hell, letís give it a go.Ē
So now, three days later on a sunny July morning, Iím standing on Santo Domingo Road in Pamplona for what could very well be the last day of my life. I wait impatiently with a few hundred adrenaline seekers, listening anxiously for the rockets signaling that the gates have opened and the bulls have been turned loose. The night before, Iíd been cruising Pamplonaís bars, full of sangria-induced bravado, boasting of my upcoming adventure. Now my knees are shaking and my mouth is parched. The guy beside me in the crowd leans over to me with a look of panic and says, ďI donít think my travel insurance covers this.Ē
Boom! The rockets sound and I have one sudden wish: ďBeam me up Scotty!Ē But Scotty is obviously asleep at the Transporter switch, because Iím still standing in the cobblestone street as the crowd begins running like men possessed. I have a sudden flash of complete sobriety. Every ounce of machismo drains from my body. People are yelling and hollering; it seems Iím one of them. As I start into a full-out sprint, I have a horrifying realization: I can run only as fast as the people in front of me. At this moment, self-preservation takes over, and I switch from a running-in-sheer-terror tactic to a run-push, run-push strategy.
The buildings lining the street overflow at every orifice with spectators who are smart enough to just watch. Side streets are barricaded with fences ó and the remainder of the Spanish spectators, who kindly push you back into the running throng should you attempt a quick exit. The end of the run empties into the Plaza de Toros, or bull ring. It is at this bottleneck where most of the accidents usually take place. A fatal goring is not uncommon. I dash into the ring, the bullsí hooves pounding toward me. Iím convinced that, out of all these people, the only target they see is my plump rear end. The red shorts might have been a bad idea.
Some of the spectators in the stands boo us as we enter the ring. Weíre near the front of the running crowd, which is apparently for the wimps. It seems itís more ďhonorableĒ if youíre at the back of the crowd, with a better chance of getting trampled. In my opinion, the wimps are the people sitting in the stands. Shouldnít I be booing them?
The bulls charge in behind us as we position ourselves around the perimeter of the ring, simultaneously catching our breath and thanking the Lord for sparing our lives. Iíd been told that once the bulls were ushered out of the ring, mid-size bulls would be let in and we would spend the next half-hour horsing around with them, trying to keep a healthy distance. It is at this point that I get a little confused about which bulls are which. Maybe itís the adrenaline of the run or perhaps the sleepless night and crate of sangria coursing through my veins, but I peel myself from the crowd and run up to the lead bull. Suddenly Iím not so confused anymore. I am downright petrified. I am in something like a Bugs Bunny cartoon as I stare level-eyed at this behemoth with steam pumping out his nostrils. From out of nowhere come two locals with bamboo sticks. Their job is smacking the bulls on the behind to keep them in line. But instead of hitting the bulls, they wind up like Babe Ruth and whack me in the head.
As they walk away, their sticks broken, I reach up to discover blood streaming down my face. A young Spanish boy takes me by the arm and ushers me to the infirmary under the bull ring, where I am cleaned up. I either donít need stitches or theyíre too busy to give me any, but I donít care Ė I just want to get back to the ring and the excitement I had traveled three days to experience. And if my head wound turns into a scar that I can show off for the rest of my life, all the better.
Back in the ring, the crowd tries to stay away from the bulls. With so many people blocking the view, you have to watch the movement of the crowd to determine where the bulls are. If you get too focused on one bull, another can charge up from behind and flatten you like a tortilla. Suddenly the crowd parts, and there, much to my chagrin, is a bull bearing down on me. My brain is yelling, ďRUN!Ē ó but from head to toe I am frozen with fear. The bullís head crashes into my paella-stuffed stomach, sending me through the air to land in a heap of 100% terrified tourists. Luckily it doesnít come after me to attempt a disemboweling. I donít feel any pain. I may have lost a few brain cells, but Iím so scared and my heart pounding is so fast that all I can think is, ďIíve been trampled! I canít wait to tell my friends!Ē
Back home, long after the event, I fondly remember my brush with death. Los Sanfermines is still as popular as ever with Spaniards and tourists alike, and when I see it on TV or in the newspaper I proudly say to those around me, ďI was there, man! I did that.Ē I often contemplate a return to Pamplona, but Ö in the end, the desire to live until my midlife crisis prevails.
Billy Andersonís head wound turned into a scar that now adds zest to his storytelling. In pursuit of a similar shot of adrenaline, Billy has tried bungee jumping and is a licensed skydiver. Adventures like the Running of the Bulls convinced him to leave his job in the corporate world to pursue a career in guiding trips and freelance writing. When not on the road, he lives on a lake in northern Ontario, Canada.
Copyright 2007 Pearson Venture Group