Running with the Bulls Friday, July 13th, 2018

This article was published in the Escape Artist Weekly Newsletter on August 22, 2018. If you would like to subscribe to the newsletter, please click here.

Up to this moment, it wasn’t real. But at 8:01 in the morning? Now it’s real. The bulls are approaching the corner about 30 yards away. I know this because there is a mass of people running madly towards me. I look one last time back to “La Curva” and I spot the charging bulls. Turning forward, I begin my mad dash up the alley to try and pace myself with the charging bulls, even for a moment or two. And yes. It’s now very, very real.   

But flashing back a couple hours, when I awoke at 5:30 a.m. that morning, Friday, July 13th, I felt rested and excited. But not worried or anxious. Well truth be told, I was nervous. I wondered whether or not I was going to be able to find a coffee at this early hour. That had me very worried. Not the run, the coffee.  

Luckily, the front desk clerk at the Hotel Maisonnave, took pity on me and went back to the kitchen and made me a nice café Americano. Perhaps they thought this crazy American needed one last coffee before being skewered on the horns of an angry bull. While I waited for the coffee, I glanced at the paper lying on the coffee table in the lobby. Nice.   

Running with the BullsThursday’s paper.

Right on cue, at 5:50 a.m., Rachel Jensen, Kat Kalashian, and her husband Harry arrived in the lobby to walk over to Calle Estafeta. I had been told to get there early to get my place. This was a location I had researched diligently and ultimately selected as about the safest of the non-safe spots on the course. As someone asked me recently, “Was it like picking the cleanest shirt on the dirty clothes pile?” Yep.   

So, out into in the early morning light, we took a left out of the hotel and followed the cobblestone street as it wound down to the Plaza Santo Domingo where we picked up the course itself. We walked on towards the spot I hoped would give us the best chance of running injury-free.   

Running with the BullsCalle Estafeta in the predawn of July 13th.

Estafeta is a long straightaway just after “Deadman’s Curve,” a place known for bulls smashing people up against the planks lining the street side running perpendicular to the course. The strategy I employed when picking our starting location was to be on the inside of the curve, thinking that the momentum of the charging bulls would carry them to the outside of the alley. This is the odds-on favorite probability. However, one can never rule out the randomness of circumstances, but playing the best odds you can is always prudent.   

Running with the BullsKat, Harry, and I staking our position on Calle Estafeta.

After the 4 of us found our way onto Estafeta, we found our location about 30 yards up the street on the right side. If everything worked out, the bulls would be coming up the center-left side of the alley having just gone wide in the curve. Standing there at 6:05 a.m., we were strategizing about what was going to happen, yet none of us really knew anything. Basically, we were just talking BS….in English. It still wasn’t real yet.   

While pondering how many angels can dance on the head of a pin (figuratively), a young man hearing our English approached and introduced himself as Antonio, an ESL teacher from California. His uncle lives in Spain and he was visiting for the summer and decided to run. There by himself, and also a newbie, we added him to our merry band of runners.    

Running with the BullsOur new friend Antonio showing off an Ambergris Caye, Belize, Sandbar Band. A small world indeed.

While hanging out in the alley, we watched a guy set up the official photography equipment to catch the details of the run. They even have the highline cameras, just like the NFL uses, running down each street from end to end to capture the entire run. The 2-minute, 20-second video at the end of the article shows the entire run, much of it captured with these overhead cams.   

Running with the BullsGetting ready to create the official video of the run.

One of the reasons this official filming is important is that no cameras are allowed on the course by runners. Seemingly a good rule to keep hands free and minds focused, the advent of GoPros may make this less critical now. However, the commissioners of the race, along with the town fathers (and mothers) take the rules of the run very seriously. So seriously in fact, that they herd everyone back to the Plaza Santo Domingo where you watch the rules of the race on a giant screen mounted high above the square while the rules are read in 5 languages to the herded mass below.   

There are 2 main rules that seem to loom large in the video. First, no cameras, backpacks, bottles, or packages of any kind allowed in the run. Second, if you fall down, stay down. Getting up is when the bulls will gore you. Stay down and cover your head as best you can.   You may get trampled by people, but the bulls will most likely leave you alone – and between the two, people stomping on you is the better alternative.

Running with the BullsSafety video on the big screen with the Do’s and Don’ts clearly marked.

Running with the BullsPost safety video but pre-police frisk to search for contraband, like cameras.

Then, once the rules have been read numerous times, they push you through a frisking ordeal by police who are checking to make sure you have no camera, backpack, or other items on your person. Not going to name names, but one of our group managed to have her camera on her and get past the frisking with it. By the way, it still isn’t real yet.  

Running with the Bulls7:45 a.m. Post-police frisking, awaiting the bulls in the alley back at our chosen location.

The main focus of my research for the run was to choose a specific place to start. There are four main sections to the run. Calle de Santo Domingo (#1) is an uphill run from the corrals to the plaza. Next is the Mercaderes (#2), a short stretch of the run leading to a right turn onto Calle Estafeta at “La Curva,” or “Dead Man’s Curve.” Then onto Calle de la Estafeta (#3), the longest part of the course, and finally into Telefonica and Callejon (#4) and the entrance to the bullring.

Running with the BullsOur spot located on the inside, just past “La Curva,” because usually the bulls go wide.

The course itself is 853 meters, about a half a mile. Now considering that I don’t run, jog, or otherwise cross train in any fashion on any regular basis, I was pretty sure that I could not run a half mile at full speed. Therefore, a fun Toby Keith song become my mantra:   

“I ain’t as good as I once was, but I’m as good, once, as I ever was.”  

At 53, I was pretty sure that I could still run a quarter mile at full speed, especially with the extra motivation of six very angry, goring, and trampling machines at my heels.   

So, with that in mind, I ruled out the initial part of the course, an uphill sprint of about 300 yards right when the bulls come out of the corral all full of energy. Then there’s the area around Plaza Santo Domingo and the next hundred yards to Deadman’s Curve. Reading about all the smashed bodies on that stretch over the years, I ruled it out too.   

Callejon is the last section. Because the street narrows significantly into a tunnel through the wall of the bullring, it is a frequent source of bottlenecks, the jamming up of people against running bulls, and the high likelihood of trampling. I ruled it out too.   

Running with the BullsOur street in both Spanish and Basque.

That left Calle Estafeta as the best of the bad choices. It is described this way by one of the websites that give you instructions on running with the bulls:  

“The danger tends to increase in Estafeta street as very often there is a loose bull that gets separated from the pack when it has slipped up at the corner of Mercaderes (Deadman’s Curve). It is almost impossible to run the whole length of Estafeta as the bulls will overtake you and you will need to find a moment to get out of their way.”  

So, with Toby Keith in mind, I decided that I would indeed be as good as I once was and run like the wind for as much of Estafeta as I could. Then I’d move over to the side and let the bulls by.  

Now for the reality. My research, what I imagined, and all the hype about what was going to happen, bear little resemblance to what actually happened. There I was. In an alley about 18-feet wide at 8:00 a.m., waiting for the sound of a rocket exploding that signals the release of the bulls from their overnight corral at the bottom of Calle Santo Domingo.   

Running with the BullsThe rocket sounds and the bulls are released.

And right on schedule, 8:00 a.m. exactly (in Spain, no less), the rocket reports. The run is now real. Very real. For the first time since I said I was going to run a year earlier, it really hits me that there’s no way out of this gauntlet. The bulls are coming at full speed, which is about 15 mph by the way. In about a minute, they will be upon us, and ready or not, we will run with the bulls.   

It’s now 8:00:58 and looking back at Deadman’s Curve, I see the bulls take the curve wide and start their charge up Calle Estafeta. Turning around, I am ready to sprint up the alley and be one with the bulls. However, there are a ton of people right in front of me. And you can only run as fast as the slowest runner. Now mind you, that’s still pretty fast that morning, but not my top adrenaline infused speed.  

Running with the Bulls8:01 a.m., Friday July 13th, at the entrance to Calle Estafeta.

Having turned around now, I run with my back to the bulls, looking only forward as I read time and time again that I needed to do. Tripping over people causes more injuries than bulls. But I bet it hurts more when the bull delivers the injury. That, I don’t intend to find out.

Suddenly, I hear some cowbells clanking just to my left and in about 2 seconds, the first group of bulls and steers are past me in a blur. The pace picks up and I’m running at full speed now. I hear more cowbells behind me, and then there they are. 2 bulls and 2 steers running about 4 feet to my left, slowly passing me and moving on down the alley. And then they are gone into the mass of other crazy people like me running full tilt. My run with the bulls was all of about 5 seconds, but what a glorious 5 seconds it was.   

You can check out the entire two-and-a-half-minute official video of running with the bulls at the link below. It’s a fast-paced live coverage of the run using the NFL-style wire cams and ground level camera equipment placed along the course. You might even see the blurred bouncing back of my head at 1:08 as well.

After the bulls pass me, then it’s just a mass fast jog to the ring where I look for Rachel, Kat, and Harry since we lost one another about a microsecond into the run. We had agreed to meet on the left side as you enter and that’s where we found each other. Harry enjoyed some of the post-run nonsense in the ring where they release baby bulls to plow into runners young enough to stay in the ring and dodge death a second time.   

Not me. Having made it this far, I move outside the ring to watch the spectacle and avoid most of the danger. However, at one point, when one of the bulls charges the crowds near me, the foot of a person diving over the wall catches me in the face, a small reminder that this has been a very real morning.   

Running with the BullsAfter the party and celebration die down, our group, along with our new friend Antonio head back to our hotel for a buffet breakfast and the tale-telling of the run. I’m just happy to be alive, uninjured, and consuming my 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th cup of coffee. The “Running of the Bulls” has officially become the “Running with the Bulls” for our group. And even though we don’t have any photos to prove we ran, the memory of doing it will remain hot in our hearts for a lifetime.   

Running with the BullsA breakfast to remember, as caffeine replaces the adrenaline leaving the body.

Running with the BullsThe expression on this ancient poster says it all.

Next week, some fun in northern Spain and a trip to Andorra, a tiny nation and banking haven in the Pyrenees. Until then, enjoy a super week.

P.S. Escape Artist has started a monthly webinar series and I’ll be featured this Thursday evening. For only $99 a year, you’ll regularly hear from top experts in their specific offshore fields. And if you sign up to attend the EA Conference in Dallas later this year, the $99 subscription fee is waived, making the webinars free. This one-time offer is available for this week only! Click here to receive this week’s special conference/webinar pricing!

This offer ends Sunday!
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This article was published in the Escape Artist Weekly Newsletter on August 22, 2018. If you would like to subscribe to the newsletter, please click here.