Monday, July 16, 2012

A Survivor's Tale: Running with the Bulls

Eleven years ago, my Ferris Bueller of an older brother decided it would be fun (crazy-psycho dangerous) to run with the bulls. He had been backpacking through Europe with two of his friends when they just "happened" to be near Pamplona the same weekend of the running.

It could have been detrimental to my mom's health and my ability to ever eat beef again if we had actually been there with him, but we did receive an email from him shortly after his run, saying (and I quote), "no embellishment nor even honest prose could explain the mood and sheer terror that surrounded that moment."

Awesome. Sounds like fun.

Recently, Sam wrote an account about that day, vividly reliving those moments as he hurled himself down cobbled streets, narrowingly missing the sharp tip of a bull horn. And today, I am here to share that with you. So, sit back, relax, and enjoy an excerpt from his story. It's a great motivator for the treadmill.

The clamor was intense. Chaos defined, too many people, then, abruptly, in one step, it went quiet, no noise, just a fluid movement, gaining speed and confidence with each step. A symphony ensued. I felt apart from it all, totally internal. There was only blurs of white and red and grey. Bodies became objects to avoid. Two of these objects bumped into each other, I ran directly through the collision point as their forms fell away. Within a few meters I turned a left bending corner, keeping to the center right. Instantly everything became silhouetted. The rays of sunshine streamed between the city buildings and onto the ancient, slick cobblestone street below. I was blinded for a moment and nearly tripped over a man who angled in front of me. My camera was in my right hand. I raised that arm, turned the lens toward my pursuers and took a picture of the scene from which I had just passed. Click. An image of my shoulder in the foreground, the cobblestone, wide eyed runners, and the leg of a bull was captured. My eyes struggled to adjust; the warm glare of morning sun rays engulfed my face. Shadows formed and dissipated rapidly. Out of the corner of my eye I saw someone hurdle a stooping, indolent participant.

This contracted causeway was precarious; no place to exit. Only the stucco walls of a building extending into the sunlight. No sunken doorway within which to hide and cower. My feet felt light, I may have been running fast or slow, I don’t know. I jumped over two people huddling together near the wall. Looking ahead for refuge and seeing none. A strange sense of being stalked seeped in; quickly, I glanced back and to the left. The dark lead bull was 10 feet behind and 3 feet over and moving with purpose. At that moment, the confusion ceased and fear took hold. His right horn was white and enormous, his head the size of my parent’s TV set from 1981. I saw a cross street was coming up in 25 meters or so. These intersections are blocked by two rows of fences, which are erected to keep the bulls progressing down the historic route to the arena of their ultimate demise and to offer a last second sanctuary to the hunted runner. I noticed the runners in front of me were abandoning the thought of making it to the fence, and were ducking and rolling to the side in hopes of avoiding a foot, hoof or horn. This was hysteria, a stampede. Tunnel vision, I began to pray.

Harder now with a burning in my lungs and tightening of my body. The fence appeared, fifteen feet ahead, the black bull was less than two steps behind, his right horn near my left elbow. His momentum centered on my back. Time went into slow motion. I was flying, propelled by a consuming fear. Each step lasted an eternity. I felt hunted, escape in two steps or be overtaken, the boiling point had been hit. Where was my refuge point? I saw no immediate perch with which to occupy. My right foot planted and pushed down and forward. Witnessing my predicament and obvious distress, a huddled, terrified and confused runner currently occupying the sanctuary shifted ever so slightly. His eyes opened wide, the person hanging next to him inhaled sharply. My left foot came forth, struck the surface, I planted, leaned, cut hard in full stride and dove, terror-filled. Head first I flew, twisting in the air, between a pair of legs through an opening just atop the second rail, which stood at four feet. As my legs followed my torso beyond the barrier, I saw, felt and heard the black bull hip check the fence. A scream, a contestant fell from the fence. I sailed sharply forward then came crashing down onto the crown of my head, jarring my senses and vision, the right elbow impacted the tightly lined rocky street. I bounced with dullness from the momentum; the plastic camera remained glued to my hand. Some peculiar instinct caused me to reach out, to touch my pursuer as he passed. In one motion, while contorting, my left arm thrust behind and back but missed the bull’s right rear limb as he passed. I popped to my knees and dove forward and left, tried to snap a picture but in my haste had neglected to wind the film. The bull took two more steps then disappeared down the corridor.

More bulls passed, the person who fell from the fence was tumbling beneath hooves, more screaming then runners trailing the pack. I dropped, looked around and saw people staring at me, at the scene, the storm’s wreckage. There was a pool of blood in the street, it was growing, a woman lay motionless as a paramedic attended her. She was lying just a few feet from me. The paramedics moved with speed, the woman was unconscious. I was shaking and dazed. I crawled through the fence and back into the street. Where was Kurt? Surreal shell shock, my ears were ringing, sounds finally reaching my brain.

Retracing my steps. Another body in the street with red coats surrounding him. As I moved toward this wounded participant, three more bulls came into my peripheral. I jumped to one side instinctively then felt ridiculous after I realized they weren’t the angry bulls. They moved more slowly. The sweeping bulls; lumbering and huge. They passed. I crossed toward the damage. The man was on a stretcher, being handed through the fence to additional medical personnel. The medics were business like, quick and focused on their duties and unaffected by the carnage. Blood, like watery tomato sauce, splattered the stone in no particular pattern; the wounded one had dark hair, his eyes were open and he was scared; not Kurt.

Making my way back to the church, I found Kurt standing, holding our bags. Adrenaline coursed hard through my veins, a high unlike any other. We shared our experiences, his excitement was evident, a new commonality in our history established. We turned and walked toward the bullring, not as heroes, but as survivors. The sun was higher now, illuminating more of the roadway we’d just run. We found Mitten, near the narrow archway that designated the entrance to the arena from the running corridor. From there we exchanged stories and started making our way, through the city’s historic labyrinth, toward the bus stop. An hour later, as I sat atop an ancient wooden keg barrel, I started to shake. This lasted for 5 minutes, after which I rose and moved quickly around the nearest corner and vomited. Standing next to a green dumpster filled with festival shrapnel, I was unashamed. Later I boarded a bus returning to the coast, to San Sebastian and our small room next door to the kind lady with the child. While looking out the window as we entered the Basque countryside, I slipped into an unconscious state and snored with my mouth agape.


  1. great read! He should write, maybe songs perhaps? Does he also have a blog? I googled "frustrated cowgirl's brother" but found no such blog

    1. Alas, he does not have a blog. So very sad. And funny you should ask, he DOES write music. You should hear him sometime.