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Jim Kempton Wave-Lengths
Jim Kempton

Running with the bulls: An adrenaline rush  

By Jim Kempton 

It is a phenomenon that is almost unimaginable in an American city.

At 7:30 a.m., hundreds of adrenaline-fueled daredevils (many of whom have been drinking all night) gather in a main square of town.

Thousands of onlookers have already taken their places along the 900-yard route of curving, climbing streets that lead ultimately to a bullring packed with more screaming spectators. Starting the week of July 7-14, every year since 1591 in the Navarra region of Spain, the Festival of San Fermin unfolds; an event that (depending on your perspective) is either a glorious celebration of Latin tradition or an insanely reckless carnival of drunken, masochistic macho.

In my fearless but clueless adolescence, I dreamed of this as a magnificent rite of passage, a test of nerve and daring. It was a chance to experience what I had read in Hemingway’s otherwise uneventful novel The Sun Also Rises. It was, in the end, more analogous to punching a bully in the nose and then trying to sprint away before being beaten to a pulp.

The summer after my sophomore year at university, I had ventured across Europe with a cadre of college chums, taking in the Cannes Film Festival, the Grande Prix in Monte Carlo and the legendary Glastonbury rock music event. It was a heady five months of experience. Nothing however would match the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, the big daddy of thrill. The entire city becomes a sangria-soaked spectacle of bravado and bedlam.

We had arrived on the first day of the festival, with thousands of intrepid Spaniards, a handful of daring Danes, fearless Frenchmen, American college students and a massive assemblage of spectators. Our lack of knowledge allowed us a certain ignorant bliss.

The year before, several runners had reportedly been killed; by the time we had built up the bravado to participate on day three, at least a dozen crazed Spaniards had been gored, butted or trampled by these two-ton beasts stampeding down the cobbled boulevards each sunrise.

The goal (if such a thing exists) is to run in front of the stampeding herd of horned bovines and reach the bullring without injury. For seven days, starting July 7, this ritual repeats, pitting each morning’s crew of hapless hedonists against seven big burly bulls who are nearly as scared as the participants—which only makes them more dangerous.

When the 8 a.m. starting gun (a rocket) goes off, the bulls are let loose and the square’s sea of participants empties like a chamber on an Uzi automatic. From there it’s an unnerving half-mile sprint to stay ahead of the bulls without running out of steam before the finish. In front is a blinding blur of red scarves and white shirts, behind is a deafening roar of hooves and screams.

I had given my camera to a girlfriend in our crew and when we reached the underpass where I knew she would be training the lens, I tried to slow down enough to get close to the bulls for a few seconds. It was a miscalculation—a bull on my left periphery surged ahead, battering a hapless runner into the wall like a rag doll. It made a good photo at least. But from there the adrenalin drove all else, legs like rubber and heart like a jackhammer.

At the finish there is a long tunnel leading into the bullring where everything turns black. In that pitch darkness all that can be sensed is the sound of gasping breaths and the smell of fear.

Breaking out into the blinding sunlight of the ring and the bellow of the bota bag swilling crowd is a rush akin to bursting to the surface of the ocean after a long two-wave hold down. A quick vault over the head-high barricades and life never felt quite so exhilarating. Emboldened by survival, I ran twice more that year and several times again in years after.

It is nothing, of course, compared to a surf session at giant Mavericks, a steep run in avalanche country or actual combat in the mountains of Afghanistan. So many souls have survived the San Fermin experience in the decades since my runs that is seems almost overstated now. But for sheer spectacle, looking back at that thundering herd gaining on you as they enter the final stretch is a memory that still thrills even when the dubious youthful purpose of it has long faded.

Jim Kempton is a writer and life-long traveler who has spent much more time covering epic thrill- seekers’ acts than actually performing them himself—getting just close enough (as Hemingway would famously declare) to say you’ve been there.

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