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Remembering my daring run

Sunday, July 11, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:15 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

The seconds ticked down. I knew that I was sure to remember the following minutes of July 11, 1999, for the rest of my life. Even the ones who had done this before took one last deep breath, and then it got quiet.

I couldn’t recognize the silence. My head was spinning with thoughts.

I wondered why I chose to be a part of the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. Someone once asked how close a person must come to death to feel alive. Was I trying to prove something to myself? Was it an effort to please my father, who had run here for years, or was it just an experience to me? I was in a trance when I needed to be alert.

BOOM.

The cannon jolted the runners’ attention. The bulls were about 650 yards away. There was less than a half-mile cushion, but they were closing quickly. I had about 90 seconds until they reached me: Keeping track of the time would be critical to knowing the bulls’ location.

My stomach burned; a massive lump in my dry throat made swallowing difficult.

I was standing with my father in an area known as Telefonos, normally a shopping area. During San Fermin it’s not a place for beginners. The action is always quick but dangerous because the bulls can be at their fastest.

I had to be extra cautious. People create just as many problems as the bulls, and the masses there didn’t bode well for me. The weekend crowd on Calle Estafeta made me feel as if I were at a rock concert. People showed up for this run in droves, making the person next to you a possible enemy. You’re on your own when you decide to run. People don’t offer a helping hand.

As I stood in the street next to Frenchmen, Australians, Spaniards and Americans, my thoughts were suffocating me. What was I doing? And why? This was the main attraction to a nine-day fiesta known as San Fermin? To me it was more like being a stalker’s victim. I couldn’t think because of the chaos. The bulls were getting closer. It felt as if they were closing in on me like vice grips.

Tucked in a small doorway for minor protection, my back was against a wall, literally and figuratively. I couldn’t get out of this predicament of being in the run no matter how hard I tried.

In disbelief, I stood in the doorway, unsure of my next move and paralyzed by fear. A thought flashed in my mind. Was I in this situation for me or for my dad?

Runners streamed past me. Some were focused on where they were going. Others frantically glanced behind them. Most had the look of death on their faces, as if they were fleeing from a battle that couldn’t be won.

Some demonstrated their bravery. My dad waited to join the crowd that gets within reaching distance of the bulls. Some years he has been lucky enough to run alongside the bulls. The true professionals, the runners who blur the lines of insanity and artistry, run in front of the horns, otherwise referred to as the “aura of danger.” These talented bull runners use the flashing cameras from the balconies to tell them if the bulls are close.

I can’t recall if I ever saw a flash. I knew it was my time to run when I saw a flood of people, like a rush of belligerent rioters, coming directly at me. Their screams and panic-stricken faces told me something no camera ever could have: The bulls were near, maybe too near. There was a time for action and a time for thought. Obviously, this was a time for action.

Yelling to my dad, I bolted. I joined this act of gracelessness, in what could best be described as running from the bulls.

I knew nothing of what was behind me. I dared not look back for fear of tripping or running over someone. I only knew what I heard: the screaming crowd and the stampeding runners.

I passed some people, for I wanted no part of these bulls now. I began to filter out all images. My sight was focused on a goal: the bullring. My movement was reckless and swift. The half-minute that I ran seemed like much more. Time seems to stretch out when you have a killer behind you. Nothing matters. Thoughts stop; instinct takes over. We were a sea of runners trying to escape from catastrophe.

I reached the narrow tunnel entrance to the bullring, the callejon, the most dangerous portion of the run because it offers no escape points. I had to position myself so as not to get tangled with other runners. If a bull finds you here, he will have no mercy on you.

Once successfully through the callejon and out of the tunnel’s darkness, I burst into the bullring. I had reached the end of the run. The pressure I placed on myself to run was gone. It lay somewhere in the street I had conquered.

The atmosphere in the bullring was as electric as it was in the streets. The crowd cheered at the sight of the first bull, charging into the ring about 15 seconds after I did. As the other five bulls came in, the dobladores corralled them. The cannon fired. The run thankfully was over.

I met my father and his friends at the Windsor, a bar Americans frequent during San Fermin. We drank cognac and told stories of our exploits. The run turned out to be “clean” with only five minor injuries, and no one was gored. That day my dad said he couldn’t find a lane because of the crowd; as he put it, he “just showed up.” I now understand, though, that merely being in the run is an accomplishment in itself. It’s as Woody Allen said, “80 percent of success is showing up.”

Basking in the afterglow of my accomplishment, I felt a huge weight lift off my shoulders. I could pass the torch to those who haven’t run. I also had fought my fears and could relate to my father’s experiences in Pamplona. We meet every year at San Fermin and build on old memories.

Outside the Windsor, the party in the city raged. I now could understand why.


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