Running with the bulls: Five runs in Pamplona, Spain, and only one injury — gored by a door |

Running with the bulls: Five runs in Pamplona, Spain, and only one injury — gored by a door

Mike Mathias
Special to the Daily
Revelers run in front Jandilla's fighting bulls as they go around the Estafeta corner during the fifth running of the bulls at the San Fermin Festival in Pamplona, northern Spain, Monday, July 11.
AP photo | AP

Armchair all stars who spend their lives staring at a computer screen posted that anyone dumb enough to run with the bulls in Pamplona doesn’t even reach the level of stupid.

Or you could live your life like it’s the only one you have.

I’ve run with the bulls five times throughout the previous 29 years, most recently this July. I’m still not sure why. I notice this year’s bulls run a lot faster than they did three decades ago. Maybe they’re on steroids.

They seem a lot meaner, too.

My smarty-pants friends think it might be something else. They’re also quick to point out that I’ve said, “never again,” only to show up once more in northern Spain.

Maybe it’s the pomp and pageantry I like. I’ve seen it in other places — West Point graduation when troops move in formation in uniforms designed 200 years ago. Pageantry is a major part of commencement exercises at older universities, the Kentucky Derby and the Boston Marathon, except everyone smells like Ben-Gay.

At Pamplona, the pageantry goes back about 400 years, when local kids pushed the bulls down the streets to market. The Catholic Church became actively involved, and a 10-day festival developed. They estimated 100,000 runners showed this year. Talk about a crunch of people. Anyone with claustrophobia would be dead within eight minutes. By the way, everyone smells like sweaty sangria.

Starting line

Throughout the years, I’ve learned where to best select my starting position. I never go near the pens where the bulls are released. They’re still fresh. Then there’s a hill that you have to go up. I select a starting position … no hills … about one-third of the way down the track.

By then maybe the bulls will have weathered some.

While the bulls are formidable, it’s the panicked, running kids who are the real threat. They are totally out of control and will tromp over anything in their way. (I’m told a few years ago a panic runner kid was blasting all out … always looking behind him to see where the bulls were, when he smashed directly into a telephone pole and was killed.)

Normally, five or six bulls are released at eight in the morning. Church bells are used to let runners know the bulls are on the way. Now two rockets are set off, one when the bulls are released and the second when all bulls are out of the gate. In all my runs, I’ve never heard either because of the crowds. But you know it’s about time, and you focus on what’s coming. Your body needs to point in the right direction. You look for the runners near you because a tangle of legs and feet can be a problem.

All the runners lean forward on the balls of their feet and get their arms in the best running position. I say goodbye and good luck to all of those nearby. We’ve actually become quite close; we’ve been standing on each other for the past two hours. I hear a woman crunched nearby say, “it’s time, it’s time.”

I make the Sign of the Cross. I’m not Catholic, but it helps me concentrate when the situation is fear or apprehension of some sort. I do it before a parachute jump, a marathon, a long-distance swim and even these days when the airplane is landing. I wish I had done it in Vietnam. I am pumping with adrenaline by the gallon.

I have learned not to look back. Running forward requires my full attention. I sense where the bulls are by screams from women on the balconies above me. The earlier runners, going full blast, catch up to us runners just starting off. It’s like a baton being passed in a relay. I allow myself one brief glance back to see where the bulls are. Normally, they follow a lead bull, and I hope they are together over there, as opposed to over here, directly behind me.

That’s the fulcrum of my whole journey.

And off I go, churning my legs as fast as I can. I hold nothing back, fully emptying my tank and going beyond. I’m 72 and a winter chicken. I am so slow. Turtles pass me and stick out their tongues.

Most of the runners — maybe 85 percent — are young Spanish males in macho mode. Women are now allowed to run, a policy change of only a few decades ago. The American women are easy to spot. They wear the same upper body halters. Their braided hairstyles may be popular in Poland or Germany, but not on the females here.

I give the women credit. I feel sorry for them during the hours of the long crunch while they are protecting their starting position. Males, known and unknown, are pressed against them from all sides.

The party aspect of the festival is not underestimated. I am not a fan of sangria or mint juleps at the Kentucky Derby, but you drink the local specialty as part of the journey. I have no sympathy for the young overdoing it and puking all over the place and everybody. How many ambulances need to be called? Grow up, punk.

The women on the balconies often throw sangria and water on the revelers below. It’s easy humor in the sense of Freddie Fraternity antics. A topless woman is riding on her boyfriend’s shoulders. Each is totally slathered in sangria from head to toe.

Runs past

My best run was my second in 1987. There were fewer runners and I was able to pace with the bulls along the route. It was perfect, until I pulled over to the side and saw one of the bulls in the rear separated from the pack, running backward and attacking anyone in sight. With each thrust, the women above would scream at full voice. I was locked into the position; there were no exit possibilities. The bull was at 180 degrees thrusting counter clockwise toward me.

I’m embarrassed that my initial thought was, “Wait! I’m an American.” I pushed myself into a closed doorway, thinking it would give me an extra inch or two when the bull swiped by me. At the same time, two Spaniards joined me in front on the door. As the bull approached we pushed in our bodies and the door collapsed behind us. We fell backward onto each other into the apartment. Both hinges on the door were yanked off, top and bottom, and the door fell on us. (True.)

The bull stopped at the door opening, and I knew it would not come in. The door was not wide enough. The bull and I looked at each other from three feet. The animal had total panic in its eyes like it didn’t know what was going on. It had snot circling its lower nose. It was yesterday; it was 100 years ago. It was an imprint on my life. After our eye-to-eye, the bull turned and lumbered away toward the arena, where it would be killed within three hours.

I noticed that the hinges on top had cut my forearm and the lower hinges had injured my leg. I am bleeding. Amazing. I go to Spain to run with the bulls and end up getting gored by a door.

In all of these trips to Pamplona I have never seen one of the bullfights. I have zero interest. My father was a sheepherder when I was born, and I grew up on a small potato farm where we had a lot of animals. Never was there joy or glee in killing a farm animal, even though that is a normal aspect of farm life. (“Though the boys throw rocks at the frogs in sport, the flogs do not die in sport but in earnest.” — Aesop’s Fables.)

Tickets to the bullfights are sharp-elbow events, with the macho young pushing, shoving and yelling in lines that do not exist. (Zsa Zsa Gabor once remarked that she had learned in life that “… macho does not mean mucho.”)

The bulls are led into the arena one by one, where they are taunted and abused before being killed by a long sword that hopefully is positioned directly into their hearts. All the time the large crowd yells, laughs and claps. A small tractor pulls the carcass out of the arena by attaching a chain to the bottom foot of the animal as it bleeds to death.

The carcass leaves a small concave imprint in the moist sand as it is dragged away. The sand is characterized by numerous droplets of blood. I’ve seen pictures where a tarp is sometimes placed on the body as it is pulled away, suggesting there is some grief if not shame in this manner in which such a magnificent animal was killed. I’m told the dead animals are given to the poor. Yeah. Sure. Right.

Final thoughts

It’s back to my very small but adequate dorm room, where I prep for the trip to the Abbey at Mont St. Michel in France (five stars). I stay in what used to be a monk’s room hundreds of years ago. Then to Omaha Beach in Normandy, where I walk in the areas where more than 6,000 Americans were killed in the initial onslaught during D-Day.

I crawl into a very large glob of cement that was once a German bunker that overlooks Omaha beach. You suck in air, and it’s so daunting. I get misty eyed even though I didn’t know any of the men who were killed. But I do know of their courage and sacrifice. They came from the Greatest Generation of the 1940s and ’50s (as contrasted to the United States of today) with a great man like Gen. Eisenhower at the helm. The memorial monuments there are so well done.

Then back to Vail where my smarty-pants friends are quick to ask how it went and if I am ever going to run again. I don’t commit anymore, but I am thinking of a final run eight years from now when I am 80. That is, if I’m still around. How dumb is this? I will listen for a voice that says, “It’s time.” Right?

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