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Running of the Bulls, Pamplona, Spain

 

Standing in the dim light and darkness of a cheap hostel in Spain, dressing in white and red, I was having some second thoughts.

Statistically speaking I knew I was probably safe.  The Running of the Bulls, or encierro del toros, is notoriously over-inflated.  With that many people in such a confined space–  someone will always get hurt– probably by other people, much less a bull.  But, I didn’t tell you that– sure it totally “rad” and bad ass and I’m crazy for doing it. Believe the hype.

Despite my rationality, my palms were sweating and mental image of goring clips and late night extreme TV shows that always played as a kid kept running through my mind.  “Top 10 insane things to do before you die…”  Whatever.

I remembered back to my first few skydives and how terrified I was.  Irrationally terrified.  Those sweaty palms again.  Increased heart rate. Tunnel vision.  The anxiety and catastrophizing during the build up. Fear.  And I remembered how it all just kind of went away once I took that first step.  In time, that fear was eventually replaced with a heightened sense of awareness, attention to detail, and confidence in my skills and teammates.  Trust it.

So it is with the Encierro–  you think about the fear and just as quickly dismiss it and occupy yourself by focusing on the simple task that lay ahead.  Double knot my shoes.  Sash. Bandana.  Euros  for the bus fare.  Check the time.  Review the course over again.  Check, check, check.  Let’s go.

It was still dark when Josh  (my friend, fellow Infantry Officer, and West Point classmate of 7 years and my roommate of 3) and I arrived at City Hall.  The police began screening for drunks and corralling people in behind barricades and check points.  Pretty soon we begin to attract a small group of other like-minded english speaking travelers.  The guy from Chicago. The Brit. The Aussies.  Everyone trading advice and comparing game plans for how to accomplish this without ending up as an unlikely  statistic.

We had time to pass, and the sarcasm and dark humor steeled our nerves.

“What’s Spanish for get the **** out of the way?”

“I don’t know, but you can sign it out by throwing some bows”

“Just get past Dead Man’s Corner….”

“Is that a subliminal message?”

“No, just a shitty translation”

“Is 7 AM too early for a drink?”

“There’s a special place in hell for people who waste good Scotch…”

The Brit lit up a cigarette.  Let’s face it, he tells me, now’s not the time to be concerned about long term health.  True…. let me get a drag of that then.

And we wait.

More people begin filing in.  It’s shoulder to shoulder now… and you couldn’t even leave if you wanted to– we’re way past the point of no return.  The balconies begin opening up as spectators get into position 6 stories high to cheer, on look, and participate vicariously.

“Today, we’re the man in the arena, Josh.”

“Yeeeaaah…”

“No, literally– this run ends in an actual Arena.”

We finally meet up with the second half of our group–  my old West Point roommate Kirk and his girlfriend Shannon.  Kirk is smuggling a GoPro in his crotch to avoid getting kicked out of the run. (And still hasn’t sent me the video.) We quickly fill them on our strategy, in true military officer form.  All the contingencies are covered.

The clock strikes down and we begin getting pushed down the narrow street to the roar of  tens of thousands of screaming spectators.  I notice a Texas flag hanging from a third story balcony and bellow “You can all go to Hell–  and I’ll go to Texas” .  A lady smiles at me in recognition of our shared origin and takes a picture with her Digital SLR.  Well at least, if I go down, someone, somewhere has proof of my last words.

The first rocket goes off, signifying the release of the bulls, and the confusion and pandemonium set in pretty quick.  You’re at the mercy of the crowd and people are kind of flowing back and forth like one giant river of red and white.  It’s a single mass of thousands of people that moves and react as one…. you have no control really.  On second thought– this is not like skydiving….  I’m not sure how I like this.

The second rocket fires, signifying…. oh hell I don’t even remember…. that the bulls are pissed and are getting closer to you.  Where are the bulls?  Do I run now? or wait?

I start to time it by people’s reactions.  A couple of people sprint by me, wide-eyed and scared as ****.  Ok… they’re just freaking out.   Stay cool.   More wide-eyed people. Stay cool.

Now I begin to hear a low rumbling sound and the roar of the crowd.  But I still don’t see Bulls.  Then I see a bunch of people with a look of sheer terror start running my direction and the rumblings and roars grow deafening.

I turn to Josh,   “Run. Now.”

We dash out into the street…. still have no idea how close we are to the herd.  We’re just running as hard and as fast as we can. Looking over our shoulders the entire time…. then…. BAM…. we smack into a wall of people. Bottle neck… someone tripped and got trampled by all the panic…

“Josh, go left, go left’

We bypass the traffic jam and hurdle over a few fallen runners and take the middle of the course.  I look left and see 3 giant bulls storming by me less than 5 feet away.  Waaaaay bigger than I imagined.

“Joooossh”….  I grab him in a bear hug and pull him to the side of the street.  But not before he gets a quick butt slap on a passing bull.

We both look at each other, no words were exchanged, but “Dude that was really close…get to the arena, now” was implied.

There was a little bit of a lull and more confusion as people guessed and decided where and when the other horned creatures were in relation to themselves.  We heard someone from behind us say “You’re good! Guys, make a run for it…”  We start making our way up the homestretch right before a second group of three bulls splits us on opposite sides of the street. And in the mayhem we lose each other.  I don’t see Josh anywhere.  Plan B.  Just get in the arena.

The entrance to the Arena is arguably the most dangerous part of the run… simply because it bottle necks and if your timing is not right you could take a set of horns right up the rear.  I take a quick look behind me… run in and immediately cut right.  The arena is packed with spectators all cheering at the top of their lungs.  I scan around for Josh… nothing.

I find Kirk instead and we just run to each other, high five, hug— duuuude that was intense– have you seen Shannon or Josh?  Our reunion was cut short when out of the corner of my eye I catch a bull charging our way.  Apparently they release smaller bulls, with filed horns, once you’re in the arena to chase you around and flip you in the air to the amusement of the spectators.  I knew this was going to happen– but not so soon.  People freak out all around you and this only adds to the confusion and the sense that at anytime from any direction you could get totally obliterated by angry livestock. With that, I make a beeline for the arena wall and hop over to safety.  My war is done.  Bucket list complete. Nothing more to prove.

I climb up into the stands and immediately start looking for Josh.  Kirk finds Shannon…. joins up with me and we hang around for a few minutes taking pictures and looking for Josh.

We decide to leave the Arena and check the agreed upon link up spot a the agreed upon time.  Well…. if he’s not there I guess we have a problem.

Luckily he was…. and we immediately start trading the same story from all of our different perspectives.  We made our way to a cafe, still reeling from adrenaline and the excitement of having cheated death– however improbable, and grab breakfast and a few much deserved chocolate milks mixed with cognac and hash out the logistics of the next leg of our trip.  Such is traveling.

Looking back,  I’m glad I did it.  Yes, there’s something satisfying about doing something others think is completely crazy.  But the reality is always different from the perception– and the Encierro Del Toros is no different.  Yes– I experienced some fear, uncertainty, excitement and finally the elation of making it.  But that is all normal, everyone experiences those things at the Running of the Bulls, or any experience like it.  The true memory of the Run, at least for me, was who I got to experience it with.  Rather new friends or old friends I’ve known for most of my adult life– since we were young, idealistic cadets back at West Point facing similar uncertainties about what our own future’s had in store for us.  Now older– each with deployments and leadership time under our belt– acting like those same youthful kids again.  And that silent confidence that no matter what happens to us, good or bad, today or 50 years from now, no matter the fear, no matter the uncertainty–  we’ll still be there for each other.  Just as we were as cadets– just as we still are now.  Cheers, boys.

 

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