We traveled almost 900 kilometers to participate in a world-famous festival that dates back 800 years. And the policewoman was kicking me out.
It was my shoes. At each stage the police glance over the runners to make sure they’re properly equipped, trying to prevent idiots from increasing the fatality count. My Five Fingers hadn’t failed me over five months and eleven countries, but I wasn’t running on this lady’s watch.
All this for nothing? I feverishly tried to explain in my rough Spanish that these were running shoes… people run marathons in these! I’ve run marathons in these! They’re specially made for running?
She grabbed another policeman and together they forced me out through the double fences bordering the path the bulls would take.
I sprinted to another entry point and tried to get in, but another cop pushed me out violently and told me I was too late. I ran to find another but couldn’t. How could I tell people I’d been to Pamplona but hadn’t run?
Then it occurred to me – I could just run the next day.
That morning I picked up some $30 running shoes and met two Lithuanian running partners at the internet cafe. Only one was going to run, but it didn’t take us long to convince the other to sack up.
Ty gave me some invaluable tips. He’d stuck to the right and was pushed up against the wall as the bulls passed, safely insulated by a few layers of people but disappointingly out of reach.
We arrived a little earlier in case something went wrong so we’d have plenty of time to move to another stage. Running on a Saturday meant tons more people – it was starting to get packed, and when the rockets signaling the bulls’ release were fired the crowd started to sway back and forth.
The police set us free to start running. The crowd was thick and moving slowly, but we still reached the next stage before the bulls and became part of an even larger crowd as we waited.
At this rate I’d never get close to a bull. I looked behind me and saw some Spanish guys stretching. They looked like they knew what they were doing.
I walked back to them and watched them warm up, expecting the bulls to round the corner any second. After a minute or so, the cheering started. People packing the balconies above us were looking back expectantly.
Then everyone started to run.
You’re much more likely to trip over a person than a bull is to trip over you, but by then most of the people were way ahead of us.
The bulls largely stick to the left side, so if you stay right you’re less likely to get stuck or trampled. Though touching the bulls is officially discouraged, it’s what everyone’s trying to do, me included, so I stayed just right of center.
It wasn’t scary when the first group appeared behind me to my left. Everyone had told me how huge they were (almost as tall as me – six feet) and I’d seen them fly by the day before. The field was open enough that I could have dodged out of the way if necessary, and the bulls seemed to be pretty set on their path.
As the second one passed me I leaned left and touched his flank. We’d come up on a slight turn that would put the next group on the right side, so I veered left and put out my hands to keep from tripping over the people in front of me.
The next group passed and I reached out again to touch another along his back. They were running twice as fast as I was.
Probably because I wasn’t on the receiving end of any horns, they didn’t seem particularly violent or malicious. Just your average group of bulls trying to get from point A to point B, though they did trample a dude or two while I followed them.
Only 30 seconds after we’d started running, we ran through the gates and into the arena, another group of bulls seconds behind us. If we’d entered before any of the bulls, the crowd would have booed us as cowards.
We waited along the sides as the rest of the bulls and steers ran through the arena and into the holding cell. Usually you wait a few minutes for a young bull with blunted horns to be released to play with the runners.
As they went to close the gates, I slipped out at the last second and stepped into the streets. I had an 8:45 bus to catch to Barcelona.
I ran with the bulls. I even touched two of the 1600-pound monsters, just a slip away from injury by horn or hoof. No falls, no cuts, no bruises.
Too bad, really… I’d love to be able to show off a scar on my forearm and tell how I got it running with the bulls in Pamplona on a trip around the world.