Have you ever seen someone’s face and immediately known what they were thinking? I have, and he was thinking “You are literally seconds from death.”
In July of 2009, I went to the festival of San Fermin with my friends Dave and Tanya, who happened to be living in Spain at the time. San Fermin is an 8-day tribute to, you guessed it Ron Burgundy, Saint Fermin, the co-patron saint of Navarre. Unfortunately for Fermin, he is rather overshadowed by the wild bacchanalian death race which occurs every day at 8AM during his festival, The Running of the Bulls. If you’ve never heard of the Running of the Bulls before, it’s exactly what it sounds like. People let enormous, violently angry Spanish Miura fighting bulls loose in the street, then they run from them. It’s pure genius.
We left Madrid for Pamplona with some of Dave’s co-workers somewhere around 2 AM, with the stated goal of finding a safe, preferably high, vantage point from which to watch white-clad revelers get demolished by fighting bulls. I say “stated” because I am pretty sure Dave and I knew from the get-go that we had to run. I also say “stated” because I’m pretty sure I told my Mother that very thing. “Of course I’m not RUNNING WITH THE BULLS Mom, that would be crazy! Don’t worry.”
Anyone who has ever ridden in a car, bus, airplane, boat, or any other method of effortless conveyance with me knows that I fall asleep when the key turns in the ignition, so I can’t tell you anything about the trip up. Plus it was dark. I awoke when the bus slowed down to enter Pamplona, which resembled a post-Apocalyptic zombie wasteland. There were mountains of empty wine bottles taller than our bus, and unconscious people littered the ground. Seriously, every single patch of flat ground had a person on it. Even the 2 foot wide divider in the road had people sleeping on it, their red scarves fluttering weakly in the dawn breeze. We pulled into the underground bus station/New Orleans Superdome, which was packed with cots and humans, many of them curled into balls on the asphalt. I kid you not, had we not been there for a party I’d have assumed that we had somehow missed news coverage of a giant earthquake and had walked into the ensuing humanitarian crisis.
We knotted on our jaunty red scarves and ventured forth to find the starting position, which would obviously be the best place to “watch”. City workers put up tall wooden barricades in the streets to keep the bulls on course, and ostensibly to protect people. Runners are the only people allowed inside the barricades, which mostly just means there are no EMT’s standing there to save you if you get ventilated by a bull. Festival-goers mostly use the barricades as grandstands from which to watch punishment get meted out to drunken Dutch college students who cannot run straight enough to escape the bulls. No cameras are allowed inside the barricades, I suspect because they’d find a lot of smashed people with one last really great close-up of a charging bull.
As we searched, the city began to shake itself out of its sangria-soaked stupor and a passing wave of white-clad hedonists swept us along with them, singing and shouting, marching into battle. By this time, there was no way we were not running. It was just way too exciting. We marched up and down the slick cobblestone streets of Pamplona until suddenly a group of police shut a gate in front of us. We turned around to go the other way, just as another group shut the gate we hadn’t seen at the other end of the street. They then started marching toward us menacingly. Chaos immediately erupted. A young Spaniard grabbed me by the shoulder and dragged me after him “We have to run! The police will take you away!” I thought, “This doesn’t sound right…but ok!” So we ran. We ducked under the barricades and sprinted away through the twisting alleys and plazas until we found more barricades, rolling under them and re-joining a new crowd of runners marching and singing. It was then that I turned around and realized that Dave was gone. Of the 4 of us that had made good our escape, there remained only myself and one of Dave’s friends. He said “Hang on, I’ll run back and see if I can find the guys.” And then it was just me, alone and unafraid. Ok, a little afraid.
I looked around and realized that we had somehow, in spite of our seemingly unplanned escape route, arrived at the front of the course, a mere hundred yards from the corner which housed the bulls’ pen. The people around me were not the sodden screaming masses of vacationing Germans we’d seen earlier, but a group of older Spanish gentlemen carrying newspapers…I guess they figured that while we waited to die they would do their Sudoku puzzles. They saw me eyeing them, and one of them began to explain how the next/possibly last few minutes of my life were going to play out. “When the bulls’ pen opens,” he said, “the handlers will send up a rocket, then there will be a second rocket to let the runners know that the bulls have entered the course.”
“Then we run?”
“Then we run.”
I asked why they’d brought newspapers, the man explained that they used the newspapers to extend their reach behind them, that way they didn’t have to turn their heads to see how close the bulls were.
You’re planning to be an arm-plus-a-newspaper from the business end of these F-150’s with horns? It was only then that I realized the gravity of my situation. I was right in the proverbial “kill box,” no barricades to protect me, surrounded by veterans of countless bull encounters, and I hadn’t brought a bull-proximity-detector/newspaper.
Standing in a sea of strangers, buzzing with nervous energy, a small quiet thought entered my mind. “I really don’t want to get gored by a bull today.”
That thought was cut off by a lone rocket streaking across the sky, the report echoing through suddenly silent streets. A wave of frenzied people came tearing around the corner and I prepared to flee for my life. My Spanish friend laid his hand on my arm, “wait,” he said, “the scared ones always run at the first rocket, the bulls aren’t out yet.” I stood there shaking my head with the Sudoku group as “the scared ones” fled around us. “PLEASE TAKE ME WITH YOU,” my mind screamed at their backs as they retreated to safety.
A second rocket hissed over the alleys, and this time the report was nearly drowned out by the thunder of hundreds of feet…and hooves.
A new crowd rounded the corner, different from the first. These men were running as if the devil himself was in pursuit, their brows furrowed with concentration as they coaxed every ounce of speed out of their legs. They did not shout or scream like the first group, instead conserving their breath to run. Then I saw them. Six bulls rounded the corner behind the runners, snorting and tossing their horns in fury. Every bit of adrenaline my body could produce flooded my system and my stomach dropped into my shoes. They blocked the alley from wall-to-wall, covering the hundred yards between us in seconds. As those Panzer-sized beasts thundered down the alley toward me, I struggled to put one leg in front of the other, scanning the barricade-bereft alley in front of me for any kind of protection. Nothing. We had somehow chosen the part of the course which consisted of nothing but cold unforgiving stone facades and locked doors. I saw a barricade about 20 yards up the street and urged my jelly-like legs into motion. At this point I could barely see, either due to extreme tunnel-vision or my life flashing before my eyes, I’m still not sure. It was like one of those dreams where you’re being chased and you can’t run. Except this was no dream. Somehow I managed to reach the barricades ahead of the bulls and reached out for them behind another runner, who somehow leapt 10 feet into the air and pulled himself to safety in the last available space at the top. There was nowhere to go. He looked down at me and I saw it. The Look. “You are literally seconds from death.”
I glanced over my shoulder to see a bull, well within newspaper range. I threw myself into the barrier, pressing every inch of my doomed body into the plywood, waiting to find out what a dragonfly in a bug collection feels like. Then suddenly it was quiet. “Hm,” I thought, “I always thought death would be louder…” Opening my eyes I discovered that the bulls had passed, and I was alive. My friend at the top of the barrier shook his head in disbelief. Apparently he was surprised too.