"Just remember: Bulls run twice as fast as you do."
~ Neal Sharma
We ended up being in Pamplona for the first three days of the Festival, which are also the craziest. Unfortunately, due to circumstances beyond my control, I only got to run on the first day. However, it was a successful run. And by "successful" I mean I didn't get gored. I've tried to recount the moments below. It was truly one of those times that will be etched in my mind forever.
5:27am: I wake myself up out of a fairly decent three hours of sleep in the passenger-side seat of our rented Pugeot. We found a pretty good parking spot - about a ten-minute walk from the festivities, complete with some port-a-potties and large trash bins which as it turns out, also function as port-a-potties.
5:30am: My alarm goes off. For better or worse, I'm getting good at anticipating it.
5:41am: After a little deodorant, a few chocolate chip cookies, some salted peanuts and some warm water, I head out towards the city center. My fear factor at this point in time is about 4.3.
5:46am: I walk by the "food concourse" nearest our car. Even at this hour it's still full of people. A band is still playing in the distance. I see people staggering into one another in their stained shirts and red sashes. You'd have sworn it was 8:30 in the evening. Except that the sun was coming up.
5:50am: I navigate my way down into the old city, through the gathering throng of people into the main plaza in front of city hall. Amazingly, the streets are still full. Probably not as dense as it was at 11:00 last night, but still a pretty large contingency. And, to top it off, everyone still seems to be sipping on calimocho or downing beer. It's amazing.
Workers are attempting to put a fence together on either side of the plaza - creating a corridor through the middle of the streets. The boards and posts are smooth, old and strong. They've seen a few years, and a few bulls. The people putting them together don't really seem to mind the people - they push them out of the way like they weren't there.
There's a police presence, but nothing major at this point. There's an aluminum scaffolding erected where nothing stood the night before. A camera crew was setting up at the top. A few people were sticking their heads out of the windows lining the street.
6:04am: I run into my crew (Fletch, Mr. T and the Wolverine) at our designated meeting point - all looking a little worse for the wear.
6:30am: Our crew ends up befriending a couple of moderately attractive girls - well, one anyway - her friend looked exactly like the female version of Sean Penn (which, in case you were wondering, is a little creepy).
6:37am: I hear random people giving advice to newbies. "If you fall, don't get up, just get in the fetal position." "Stay to the sides." "Get to the inside of the corners - the outside is where people get nailed." "If you're as drunk as me, you shouldn't be running."
6:45am: We mosey down the path toward the pens containing the bulls which will soon cause mass chaos. We find them to be pretty docile at the moment - the calm before the storm as it were. However, they are rather large.
6:51am: I sit down on the semi-clean pavement near the bullpen. I chat briefly to an Australian guy and his friends. He's an interesting dude - about my age, bald head, big eyebrows, and decked out in the full Pamplona gear. He was pretty nervous. I told him he could go down to see the bulls in the pen. "Do I want to?" he asked. Yeah, probably not. Just across from us, I saw a couple people who definitely shouldn't be running.
6:58am: I wander back up toward city hall. The ground is absolutely gross. And, it's really slick. I hadn't really counted on this little added degree of difficulty. It was like morning dew had formed on the garbage and cobblestones, creating a layer of super-slickness. I nearly fell twice just walking on the sidewalk. My fear factor is now up to a 6.8.
7:04am: I see Fletch talking to some guy who looks familiar. I look again... It's actually a friend from Cerner, Jim, whom I haven't seen in probably four years when we were both in London. We took some time to catch up, trying to calculate the odds of us meeting here. "Rediculously miniscule" in case you were wondering.
7:09am: Jim introduces me to a friend of his who he met here in Pamplona. This guy was straight out of the 70s - about 5'4 with a straw cowboy hat on his head. He had a grey hair and an old, wise face which was half covered by a huge, long grey/white beard which reached down to his potbelly. He was dressed in all black, including a black leather vest and pants. He looked like he's just jumped off a Harley with Peter Fonda. He was sipping on a beer in an old glass, and talking to another guy who could have also been a cast member in Easy Rider. We talked to him for a bit, and found out he had been coming to San Fermin for the last 31 years. This was to be his 113th encierro. I asked what his strategy was. He said, "well, I'm pretty much going to stand right here." Really? "Yup, I'll just watch them pass by and hope they don't decide to get crazy this year." Amazing dude.
7:23am: People are starting to get nervous, including me. The fear factor is up to 7.2 at this point. A few are starting to stretch, including my own crew. I see some people jumping up and down in place, trying to get the calves loose. There are some wide eyed and eager, there are some who look like they are about to fall asleep. It's these veterans I liked to watch. Cool, calm & collected. They'd been here before. I figured I'd try to stay close to one of them.
7:31am: A couple guys came through with a street cleaner, doing their best to pick up the disgusting, gross trash all over the streets. The guys had brooms and dust bins, which they filled and dumped into the street cleaner. Much to my surprise, once the cleaner went through, the street was "relatively" clean. And, it added a bit of traction to the ground, which was much needed.
7:40am: Jim and I go over our strategies. At the point at which we were starting, there was no way we could make it to the arena in front of the bulls. We were just 200 yards from the pens, which were just around the corner out of sight down the street. Jim figured he'd stay pretty close to a drain pipe on the side of a storefront, and scale it if needed. I figured I'd run for about 50 yards, and head for a fence on my left if I felt it necessary.
At this point I lost track of most of my crew. They were either ahead of me or behind, lost in the crowd, which was now shoulder to shoulder.
7:54am: The nerves start to set in. I'm up to about an 8.9 now. Everyone is looking back down the street at the start of the run. People are jumping up and down trying to get a look and keep their muscles loose. Some have started to migrate up the track already. There are people in the windows above us peering down into the sea of people. They have drinks in their hands and smiles on their faces. I'm starting to wonder about this whole thing. Even if I wanted to run, there are too many people around to make it happen.
7:58am: Holy crap. This is going to happen. The crowd is ancy and nervous. I see a couple people jump over the fence already. Jim and I look over at each other and smile nervously. I'm at a 9.4.
8:01am: I hear the loud pop of the rocket in the air down the street. The crowd erupts. Holy crap, holy crap, holy crap! It's almost as if a collective "Oh Shit" was audible in all languages at the same moment. Almost on cue, the entire throng took a step up the track, myself included. I'm at a full FF of 10.0 right now. My heart is pounding. Some people around me start to push their way up the crowd. I look down the road at the people in the distance. All heads are turned toward the pens... then the people at the very beginning of the crowd start to whip their heads around toward us. Then, like a school of fish, people start to turn up the track with wide eyes. The domino effect passed up through the crowd like a wave. I'm still looking down the track when I see people start running around the corner. Nearly everyone downstream is facing me now, and beginning to moving past.
I take a step, then two. The roar of the crowd behind me gets really loud. A bunch of people streak by me in a white flash.
8:01:16am: I don't know if all senses are heightened during a time of crisis, but I hear the clip-clop of hooves on cobblestones. It's that moment I'll never forget. My heart was either pounding so fast I couldn't feel it, or it had stopped. Everything around me disappeared. I had no idea where my crew was, where Jim was, where anyone else was. They were gone. I was now worried about finding the fence. I could hear screams and shouts behind me getting closer. I knew I didn't have time to look behind me though. I found a clear path in front of me and ran hard. It was only about 20 steps or so for me until I found the fence on my left. I felt I had a little time before the bulls were right on me, but I didn't want to chance it. I figure that's what all the people who get gored think. I took one more step and then jumped onto the fence. My arm caught the top, and my feet found a foothold on the bottom bar. I secured my arm around the top and held on, then looked back down the track.
8:01:21am: A mass of white and red and flesh flew past me. A horde turned left and headed right for the fence. Hands, feet and faces were now pressed up against me. The look of desperation was on every face. Some had terror in their eyes. A mass of people who had fallen started to build up under me. A few tried to grab onto me. I helped one smaller dude up and completely over the fence. One big dude nearly pulled me off. I fought him off, and looked up just in time to see a huge grey bull in front of the pack heading right towards us. Fear factor: 12.4
8:01:24am: I'm certain they were normal bulls, but at that moment, I could have swore they were mutant bulls with super speed and about twice the normal size. The grey bull bearing down on us was big and strong. Strangely enough, it slipped on the pavement right in front of us. It slid on its right side into the mass of people below me, hooves first. I heard some cries of pain, and some shouts from people around me. The bull kicked and thrashed until it was back on its feet. It quickly regained its form and joined the rest of the herd that had just passed by.
8:01:31am: I was still clinging to the fence like my life depended on it. My knuckles were white. A dude had to get his arm out from under me, as I had it pinned as I tried to skinny up to the fence. A couple seconds later I stepped down onto the street. Holy shit. I mean, Holy Shit! I looked up the track and saw people vainly trying to follow the speeding bulls. I just stood there in bewilderment. Did that just happen?
8:03am: A second rocket goes off below us at the start of the track, signaling the release of the "pussy bulls" as they have become known. A group of less aggressive bulls is sent up the track a couple minutes after the big bulls. I started a jog up the track which got me to the City Hall before they were on me. I saw them coming around the corner and thought about running further in front of them, but realized they could probably still stick a horn in my ass just as easily as the others. I again headed for the nearest fence and jumped on. A mass of people and bulls passed by without incident, and I jumped down as soon as they passed.
8:04am: It's over. That's it. For all the pomp and circumstance, the whole thing lasts about four minutes. However, my heart is still pounding. What a rush!
8:06am: Work crews come out to start dismantling the fences. People start walking toward the arena. I walk back down to our starting point, and find Jim, each of us taking turns telling our version of the story. We caught up with his friend, the biker guy. I asked him what he thought, to which he replied: "Pretty good one - I didn't even spill my beer." Jim, it was great to see you. Take care of yourself, and maybe I'll see you in Australia later this year.
8:13am: I run into my crew, who looked to have had an interesting time. Fletch seems fine, but Mr. T has a nice rip in his pants from hitting the deck on a corner. We stop to tell our tales for a few minutes. We haven't seen the Wolverine, and figure one of three things has happened. He's either A) in the arena, having defied the odds and gotten in in front of the pussy bulls, B) headed back to the car already, or C) getting carted off by the red cross on one of the many stretchers we've seen pass by.
We ended up heading back to the car, and getting caught up on some sleep. Fortunately, our lost comrade wandered back to the car. He had some great stories, as he had indeed made it into the arena. He's the man.
Around noon or so, the sun became unbearable - at least as far as sleeping in a car goes. We migrated down to the park, and found some shade trees under which to sleep for a bit. Around 7:00 or so, we took turns "showering" in our swim trunks in the public fountain in the park. I must say it was a first. And, rest assured, we weren't the only ones. People from all over came to the fountain. After a quick bite to eat, we headed back into the city for another night...
The second day was a bit less eventful - for me at least. I got kicked out of the running for having my camera. Apparently they don't want to have people distracted while running. It sucked, but It did offer me some interesting camera shots.
I ended up close to a fence, and fortunately, ol Fletch is right in front of me. I decided to put my camera on rapid fire for the event. As luck would have it, Fletch stayed in the camera the whole time.
My camera can take a picture every 1/2 a second. Thusly, the following pictures each represent a half-second. I just want you to check out Fletch through the whole thing. He's of course, the one in the terrible yellow Missouri shirt. Note he has a camera and didn't get kicked out.
Keep an eye on the dude in the blue cap as well. He's trying to take some pics, but doesn't have Fletch's fortitude.
Fletch raises the camera tentatively. Check out Blue Cap. He's already looking downstream.
And, he's out. Fletch is holding strong though. I like his courage here.
Still in the game. I guarantee those pics don't turn out. Now pay close attention. Again, my camera snaps pics roughly every 1/2 second. Fletch is on the far left of the frame...
And he's gone... Nothing but a yellow vapor on the right. I didn't know he could move that fast. He would have been a lottery pick with speed like that in college. Check out the guy's face at the bottom right of the picture. That's desperation.
He makes it over the fence...
Just like the guy in the left hand bottom corner would like to do.
Note how the people still in the street are pretty blurry - they've built up a bit of speed by now...
I love this guy's face. "I really wish this fence wasn't so high..."
Whooosh. They come through so fast. It's hard to catch them. Our friend looks like he's going to claw right through the wood.
I ended up taking a few pictures of the aftermath afterwards, as a few people got nailed near me, requiring the services of the Red Cross.
I ended up taking taking the long way back to the car, taking a few pics of a cool statue of the running of the bulls. Unfortunately for my crew, I had the only set of keys. They made do though.
The third day I got up early and decided to take some video and some more pictures of the bulls. I got there two hours early and positioned myself as well as I could. I then had to wait and defend my position while standing for two hours. It was an interesting angle to catch the runners though.
It was truly amazing. And, when it came down to it, I was a lot more afraid than I thought I would be. But, I'm glad I was. The daily paper shows pictures of the previous day's events, with some absolutely fantastic pictures. I picked up a copy, and while flipping through the pages found a picture of someone who looked familiar. One person got gored on the first day. An Australian. Amazingly enough, it was the same guy I was talking to before the running. There he was in all his glory, awesome pictures of a bull running him and others into a wall. He had an agonized and surprised look on his face. Two pages later was a picture of him getting carted off by the medics with a smile on his face. Wow.
It's truly a surreal experience. Outside of the final regular season game of my senior year when we played and beat #1 ranked Pitt State - our arch rivals, and the experience of being in a cage next to great white sharks, I've never felt more alive.