Running With The Bulls

“Fook, oh fook! Fooking hell, oh God, oh fook!” 

The young Irishman’s hollering only confirmed what had already been seared into my brain twenty times over: Do. Not. Look. Back. Not a second later (which felt like an eternity), three men stopped on a dime in front of me. We were stuck. It was a pinch point bottleneck, and in these circumstances, absolutely deadly. With nowhere to go, my animal survival instincts kicked in—the kind that turn ordinary men mad. The reason you don’t yell fire in a crowded theater. I wanted to mow these people over. What are they doing, and why in God’s name have they stopped? But I kept as calm as humanly possible and accepted that this is where I’d chosen to be. I’d put myself here—out of bravery or stupidity, but all the same, it had been my choice. 

What now? Fight through? Go around? Something, because it was move or die. As I turned to my right, an enormous bull passed me by like a great white, and with the same feeling of colossal indifference. Such a beast doesn’t care who or what you are, if you are in the way, you are in the way. Thankfully, the bottleneck cleared, and I was on the home stretch. I hurdled a fellow runner balled up beneath me who was following the sage advice of “If you go down, stay down”, hugged the corner, and saw the arena ahead. Fifty meters more and I was home free!

I could taste the end as mangled runners littered the stone-street entrance to the stadium. There’s no way of knowing if or when the next herd will come, so with runners on all sides, I pushed my way past two more stalled, confused men, and hit the tunnel. There was a brief but echoing quiet, with only panting breaths and mumbled curses— then we exploded into the arena circle, met by the cheers and roars of the crowd, Spanish techno blaring. A sight and feeling unlike any other.

A wave of relief and excitement overcame me as I looked around, took in deep breaths, and realized it was over. At 8:03 am, the morning of July 14th, 2022, a full three minutes after the sounding of the first rocket, the Running of the Bulls had come to an end. Everyone now had a choice: Take pride in your survival and head home in one piece… Or stay for the younger, smaller bulls to be released into the arena for a deadly game of “grab ass.” A game reserved for the truly mad.

“The bulls come out like a cannon shot and they are not happy. Daredevils play matador as the bulls flip and trample them indiscriminately, and it feels like a strange cross between college football and Jackass.”

The panicked shouts of “fook!” that first signaled the bulls were upon us, would be the last words I’d hear from Louie, the 21-year-old from Kerry, Ireland. Not for tragic means, mind you, but because he had a bus to catch at 8:30. A fellow rookie and the first English-speaker I’d found when I hit the course, Louie was only there for the run. He had chosen to join the death-defying bull run after a young girl had broken his heart a few months prior. A feeling all men can understand. 

Women have a way of becoming chapters in men’s lives, and the greats—they become novels. Just a week and two days earlier, in Ireland of all places, I had ended one chapter in my life and begun another. I had gotten married.

Though one could draw comparisons between the fearful wait on Calle Estafeta and that fateful wait at the altar, the two couldn’t be more different. I can honestly say I never felt an ounce of fear while waiting to be wed to my wife. I had nerves, as all men do. I may have even felt unready, too immature perhaps, but the truth is, you never really stop feeling that way. You make the decision to move forward, and little by little you become the person you are pretending to be.

I did, however, feel every bit of fear imaginable on my walk to the arena that Thursday morning. In an effort to distract me, my new wife asked, “Are you more nervous for this, or before getting married?” Without missing a beat, I answered, “This.” We both laughed, and I felt better, if only for a moment. Not long after, we parted at the ticket line, and I made my way to the Calle. 

When you show up, you assume there will be a method to the madness, but some forty minutes before the run, there’s still a party going on. Men, women, and children in the streets, celebrating in the traditional red and white garb. The festival’s proper name is San Fermin. As the story goes, at the time of the Roman occupation, Fermin was either decapitated or dragged through the streets by a herd of bulls for accepting his Christian baptism. This act of sacrifice would both martyr and canonize the Spaniard. The white clothing represents his sainthood; the red bandanas, his blood.

It is quite the festival. Even if you have no intention of running, partaking in the week-long fiesta is truly one of the hidden wonders of the world. It is something you will cherish, revel in, and remember for the rest of your life. The people are kind and joyous; the tourists happy and respectful, and everyone shares in the same desire for it to last forever. But believe me, at 7:30 am on the morning of your run, the party is the furthest thing from your mind. 

My new Irish cohort Louie and I proceeded to walk the course, as he shared all the bits of wisdom he had gleaned. We clocked the bullpens, passed the mob at the old town center, and paced the infamous “Dead Man’s Corner”, named for the sharp turn the bulls crash into, stumbling runners along with them. Then, politely but forcibly directed by the Polizia to our proper starting point, all that was left to do was wait. 

Photo Courtesy of Constantine Trakas

Thousands in red and white packed the old town center as we pushed our way to the front. Standing there, packed like cattle, I was left only to think, ‘Why?‘ Why do this?’ What was the point, truly? Glory? Bragging rights? Adrenaline-fueled ecstasy? No. None of that, not really. At least not for me. It’s only fair Hemingway take some of the blame. On some level I’d always held him up as the paragon of literary perfection. He’d led me to Africa and up Kilimanjaro when I was 20, just as he had now led me to Pamplona. As a writer, I was forever chasing the ghost of the Old Man, but as a man, I was chasing a different ghost. I was there because of my old man, and because of his old man. For a desire to live up to their image. A chase that never ends; a race I know I can’t win, but one I love all the same. As I stood there waiting, I realized it was because of this chase that my reach would always exceed my grasp and why my aim would forever be set ever higher. For that, I felt grateful. 

BANG! The sound of the first rocket snapped me back to reality. 

The Bull Run is signaled through a series of rockets. The first signifies the Bulls’ release. The second, when they’ve hit the track. The third, when they’ve made it to the arena, into the ring, and the run is over. But that first rocket simply meant one thing: it was on. I turned to Hobbs, a middle-aged Briton and veteran I’d met only 10 minutes prior, to ask what it meant. “It means we’re all Fucked!” He bellowed with a belly laugh that simultaneously relieved and unnerved me. 

“”It was move or die. As I turned to my right, an enormous bull passed me by like a great white, and with the same feeling of colossal indifference. Such a beast doesn’t care who or what you are, if you are in the way, you are in the way.”

The vast ocean of red and white was now on the go, and there was no turning back. The mob moved in not quite a sprint yet, but more of a hasteful jog. You had to be deliberate. Move too fast, you could miss the bulls entirely and end up in the ring before they got anywhere near you—much to the dismay of the crowd. But move too slow…

The key was to find your best spot, run with the beasts for as long as you could without dying, then make it into the ring before the closing of the gates. It’s called the Running of the Bulls, after all, not the running away before you’ve ever even see one.

And so we jogged. We jogged and picked our spots, and then, again, we waited. Around me I saw men kneeling, men stretching, and men praying. Prayers for guidance and for protection. Prayers asking Fermin for his blessing, “A San Fermín pedimos, por ser nuestro patrón, nos guíe en el encierro dándonos su bendición.” (Translation: Yo Fermin, get us out of here with 10 fingers and toes.)

Waiting in the dead center of the Calle Estafeta were the maddest of them all. Those who chose to start with the bulls were crazy enough, but these guys— they aimed to finish with them. They weren’t there for their bucket lists and they weren’t there for kicks. These ones were there for tradition and glory, and yes, for God. These were the psychotic, and they were brilliant. 

I looked down the Calle, if only for a moment, trying to catch a glimpse of the stampede as they hit Dead Man’s Corner, but all I could see was the mob, gaining and gaining. The speed is what surprised me most. Suddenly, we were all charging, all of us afraid—all of us alive! Then came Louie’s “fooks,” the bottleneck, the homestretch, then the roar of the crowd and the final rocket. And that was that. 

As I said earlier, once in the arena, the intelligent wisdom is, “You survived, go home.” And I genuinely considered that wisdom… Until the first of the young bulls was released into the ring, and I knew I had to see it through. Once again, I was gripped with fear. Yes, more fear. The bulls come out like a cannon shot, and they are not happy. Daredevils play matador as the bulls flip and trample them indiscriminately, and the crowd cheers as the bulls connect and it feels like a strange cross between college football and Jackass. 

After twenty minutes of running, dodging, and diving over barricades, my stupid bravery started to get the better of me and the words of a childhood anti-hero rang in my ears. “If you want the ultimate, you’ve got to be willing to pay the ultimate price.” And Bodhi, of course, was right. You don’t get to feel this alive without risking everything. I had come this far. When would I ever be here again? So, I made my move. I jogged, jumped, sprinted, and dodged until I was mere feet away from placing my hand on a bull’s backside. But faster than I could cry “tag,” it about-faced and almost took me for a ride. I turned, hauled ass, survived, and called it a day. 

I found my wife in the crowd at the Monumento al Encierro and kissed her hard. Was it worth it? Would I do it again? I really can’t say. It was beautiful, and terrifying, and absolute madness. It had terrified and excited me in a way only the most beautiful of things can. I honestly can’t say if I’ll ever run with the bulls again, but I do know this: I will chase that feeling for the rest of my life.