The run of my life
My third novel, The Road to Devotion, is dedicated to my high school English teacher, Julie Wilson. In addition to teaching me many important life lessons, many of which are reflected in the novel, Mrs. Wilson also inspired me to love the great American writers, particularly Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck. It was while reading Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises that I first heard about the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, and from that day forward, it was always at the top of my “bucket list”. In 2009, I finally made the trip to Pamplona. (More importantly, I made it back.) The following is a recollection of that unforgettable day.
The Run for Your Life
The alarm rings at 5:45 am. It is the day. The day of your dreams, the day of your fears, one of the defining days of your life. It is the day you will find out what you’re made of, and how wide are the boundaries of your limits. The only certainty on this day of all days is what to wear… the traditional festival garb of white pants, white shirt, red sash, and red bandanna, plus the shoes I think will carry me the fastest over the cobblestone streets of Pamplona, Spain.
Dressed and almost awake, I step into the teeming confines of Calle de San Nicolas, barely wide enough to qualify as a street. It’s littered with the empty bottles, cups, and cans of alcohol that the mass of pilgrims consumed overnight and into daybreak to pay homage to Saint Fermin, the patron saint of Pamplona. The entire spectacle is raucous and reckless, yet surprisingly romantic.
Few, if any, of the thousands of people I will encounter over the next few blocks has gone to bed. The nine day festival of San Fermin occasionally rests, but it never really goes to sleep. The hour of the day or night has no bearing on the number of revelers jammed into the narrow avenues of the old city, or how loudly the music will be played.
I blend into the growing throng, most of them young Spanish men, as they continue to filter out of the bars and bodegas and make their way into the heart of town. Testosterone flows as freely as the sangria did the night before as the gathering masses ponder the challenge we’re about to undertake. For many, the historic running of the bulls through the streets of Pamplona is a ritual they revisit every July. For many others like myself, it is a once in a lifetime experience that will be savored until our last breath. I am only hoping that my last breath doesn’t come later that morning. I know that at age 51, rarely again will the adventurer who lives deep inside me be able to convince the rational side of me to do something so daring, and perhaps so foolish. I know this day could be life ending, but I’m planning on it being life changing.
It is now 6:45, and I have moved inside the wooden barricades that keep man separated from beast during the morning bull runs. As I pace nervously up and down the Via Mercado, I cross paths with a handful of other Americans also traveling alone. I meet Matt, a student at Southern Cal, who hasn’t had any sleep for 36 hours. I meet four 20-somethings from Brooklyn who are trying to reassure their friend Tony that this is not the time to have a sudden change of heart. “Tony, you come all this way! You chicken out now, you’ll regret it da rest of ya life!” Regret. That word tumbles through my mind, over and over. So much of this trip to Pamplona has been about avoiding regret. I never want to be someone who looks to the past and says “if only”, but rather someone who looks to the future and says “what if?”. I have come to realize that people without big dreams usually have small scrapbooks, and perhaps that’s why I find myself in northern Spain on this unique morning. It is truly now or never. No regrets.
It is now 7:30, a half hour before the “encierro” begins. The balconies on the four story apartment buildings that line Via Mercado are filling up with spectators. You can sense their nervousness as they nibble on their buttery croissants and drink their coffee with steamed milk while awaiting the bravado and bloodshed to come. The avenue is so narrow the people on one side could just about reach over the railing on their veranda and borrow a lump of brown sugar from the residents on the other side. I feel somewhat trapped, like the six fighting bulls waiting to be released from the corral at the far end of the street.
Despite only three hours of sleep, I am as awake and alive as I have ever been. Adrenaline is already racing through my veins as I wait, but it is nothing compared to what I am about to experience.
Loudspeakers, circa 1940, crackle from fixed positions along the route. The only words I can pick out are attencion and muerto, which is Spanish for ‘death’. I have no idea what else was said, but that one word certainly captured my full attention.
There are now just ten minutes to go before the first rocket goes off, signaling the release of the 1,500 pound bulls. As I stretch my legs again, I meet Ted from Arizona. “First time?” he asks me, already knowing the answer. With the wisdom that comes only through experience, Ted gives me a five minute primer on how to survive the run, admonishing me more than once that if I fall down, I need to stay down, and cover my head. As we finalize a strategy for getting up Via Mercado to the relatively safer portion of the run near City Hall, he leaves me with this thought… “have a plan and stick to it, but prepare to abandon it at a moment’s notice”. I appreciated all his sage advice. “How many times have you done this?” I asked him. “Yesterday, first time,” he replied. Great. My mortal safety has been entrusted to a complete stranger who has exactly three minutes more experience at this than I do.
With five minutes to go, I suddenly feel very alone with my thoughts. I’m thinking about the people I love and who love me, the people who have encouraged me to chase my dreams, even when those dreams mean running up medieval cobblestone streets. I’m thinking about my mother, who instilled in me the sense of adventure and wanderlust that brought me here, and who taught me to explore new things in old worlds. I’m thinking about my father, grateful for passing along his athletic genes that will get me through this. I’m thinking about my high school English teacher who introduced me to Ernest Hemingway and first planted the seed of Pamplona in my young mind. I also said a prayer, asking God to see me through the morning.
With less than a minute to go, the three or so thousand runners behind me start jumping up and down in anticipation. When the bulls are released, I’ll have about twenty five seconds before the mass of sprinting humanity reaches me, with a stampeding herd of bulls somewhere in the middle of the throng. That’s when I’ll run like I’ve never run before because I know that if I don’t keep up, I’ll certainly be trampled by foot or hoof. One misstep could be disastrous.
Thirty seconds to go and my mouth is bone dry. My adrenaline is flowing even faster than before. The fear is unlike any I’ve experienced, yet the thrill over what’s about to happen trumps any genuine concern over serious injury or worse. Now or never, I whisper to myself. Now is almost here.
At precisely 8:00am, the first rocket goes off. The bulls are released. The swirling sea of white and red begins sprinting towards me. In the middle of the charging masses I can see the bulls for the first time, instinctively chasing some enormous domesticated steers in a herding mentality. All I can see are their horns, bobbing up and down as they run. It’s all I need to see. As if someone had ignited a fuse in my brain that then exploded in my feet, I take off running up the incline of Via Mercado, pushing and shoving my way through the frenzied crowd. Within 100 yards, the street suddenly narrows like the passageway between the two ends of an hourglass, and I’m but a single grain of sand trying to squeeze through.
My plan was to move to the outside of the avenue and get as close to the walls as possible. Only now did I realize that this was apparently everyone else’s plan, and I was immediately shoved back into the middle of the street, perilously close to the thundering herd. I had no idea going into this that once you’re caught up in the rip current of churning legs, there’s nothing you can do but try to survive. The next three seconds were a “my-whole-life-flashing-in-front-of-me” blur. I am literally close enough to the bulls to pat them on their coal black flanks if I so choose. I choose not to. What followed was sheer panic, the zenith of my fear, as I turned sideways on the dead run to allow horn and hoof to pass by. I distinctly remember the sound they made as they pounded by, something akin to a runaway stagecoach churning down a gravel road.
Within thirty seconds, it was all over, and the danger had galloped away. I chased after the bulls as they rumbled past City Hall and into the Mercaderes, a particularly dangerous stretch of the run. My heart was pounding as never before, as though it wanted to burst through my ribcage and flee my heaving chest.
Somewhere in all that chaos I found Ted from Arizona again. Like me, he was grinning widely. “We made it!” he yelled as we wrapped our arms around each other and slapped one another on the back as old comrades do. I don’t remember if I said anything through my nervous laughter, but I know I was euphoric. There were people on the balconies cheering wildly for their loved ones who survived, and I was thinking how wonderful it would have been to have somebody there to share it with me. For now, Ted from Arizona would have to do.
The next few hours provided an emotional tug of war between relief and exhilaration. I also felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment. Not so much for just managing to not get trampled, but for having a dream, and then doing what it took to realize it. In the grand scheme of things, running with the bulls in Pamplona is not a huge achievement, but nonetheless a deeply satisfying chapter in my life story that I will always cherish. I feel as though I stepped to the brink of my personal limits and looked over the edge. I will never be the same again.
I wandered back to my hotel and enjoyed a perfect cup of coffee at the bar as I watched the replay of the bull run on Spanish television. “I can’t believe I just did that,” I mutter to the woman behind the counter. She spoke not a word of English, but somehow she understood exactly what I meant.
I’m exhausted, but not ready for sleep. I have run on the streets of Pamplona, and now it is time to dance on them. The only thing that gets put to rest on this day is that word “regret”.