Commentary

Welcome to Tramplona

Updated: July 23, 2010, 3:18 PM ET
By Rick Reilly | ESPN.com

Bull RunnerRafa Rivas/Getty ImagesRick Reilly didn't get trampled when running with the bulls, but he did have a few close calls.

PAMPLONA, Spain -- Ernest Hemingway made the running of the bulls legendary, but he never ran himself, and now I know why. It's an excellent way to die.

That thought occurred to me as I found myself trapped in a shop doorway, alone, while a 1,200-pound bull, 3 feet from me, sized me up as a possible hornament.

Of course, the bulls aren't the only way to die during the running of the bulls, which occurs from July 7 through 14 every year and really is something you should do once if you (A) aren't particularly bent on living a long life and (B) are comfortable drinking sangria by the barrel.

Another good way to end up dead is under the people behind you. Two thousand or more run now. Way, way, way too many people. I met 10 guys who were doing it as part of a bachelor party. I saw a guy dressed as Elvis. I saw women with purses, their tears running their mascara as they realized what they'd gotten themselves into. I saw a group of people with a tour guide.

OK, if you're not gored, meet back at the hotel and have your bags ready.

The world now seems to think of the running of the bulls as some kind of cute tourist item to check off, like the Eiffel Tower or Anne Frank's house. I was standing in the town square, two minutes before the rocket went off to let us know the bulls were loose, when I had this actual conversation:

Spiky-haired British dude with his wide-eyed girlfriend: We've never done this before. Is this a good place to stand?

Me: Well, it depends on if you want to make it to Dead Man's Corner before the bulls.

British dude: Dead Man's Corner?

Me: Yeah, where the guy died last year?

British dude: Died?

But if you enjoy replacing your entire bloodstream with adrenaline and feeling rushes that leave you still tingling on the plane home, I Know What You'll Do Next Summer.

[+] EnlargeBull Runner
Rick Reilly for ESPN.comRevelers are doused with water during the festivities surrounding the Running of the Bulls.

This chaos all started sometime in the 14th century, when a few mead-sopped men decided it was a thrill to sprint ahead of the bulls as they were being run the 928 yards from the pens at one end of town to the bullring at the other for the evening's bullfight. It was all part of the San Fermin festival that fascinated Hemingway. "All the carnivals I had ever seen paled down in comparison," he wrote.

If you go, take your oldest, whitest clothes, because strangers will douse you all night with sangria, make you drink nonstop until 6 a.m., leap from fountain tops into your arms, dance and sing, and offer to make out with you. And that's all just something to do until the real madness begins.

The Sun Also Rises, but you better be up before it does if you want your chance to toy with death. Get yourself to the town hall square by 7 a.m., or the merciless Spanish cops will kick you out.

I watched the first day's run from a spot on the balcony I rented for 30 euros ($38). I stood up there and watched a guy get flattened like a tortilla on the cobblestones below. Welcome to Tramplona. And I knew I would be down there the next morning. The fear was starting to climb up my throat. Miguel, the old guy who'd rented me the balcony, declared, "This is my 31st running. It's not something you can explain with words. You must experience it to understand."

Me: What year did you start running?

Miguel: Oh, no. I have never run. I find it much more sensible to watch it from up here.

As the minutes bore down to 8 a.m. the next day, I was wishing to God I was more sensible. I huddled with a few hundred other morons, adjusting my little helmet cam and holding my rolled-up newspaper in hopes of achieving the one noble goal of any Pamplona runner: to swat a bull's ass. As we waited to hear that dreaded rocket, my brain screamed, "We could jump over that fence! It's right there!" I didn't. Maybe because I'd already expensed the flight over.

A big guy in a Red Sox T-shirt pointed to the corner behind us and said, "Don't run until you see the flashes of the cameras. Then you know they're coming." His name turned out to be Richard Pettito; he's a Daytona Beach, Fla., firefighter. "That's when you run like hell. I'll see you at the bullring. Good luck, man."

I swallowed hard and wished him the same. And that was when I noticed he was wearing a white lace skirt over his pants.

Just when you think you're being brave and valiant and Hemingwayesque, you realize you're taking advice from a guy in a skirt.

"Uh, Rich, what's up with the skirt?" I asked.

"Yeah, I try to wear something different every day. Helps me find myself in pictures later on."

I hurried to the little shop doorway I'd picked out the day before. I'd calculated that from there I could run with the bulls until they passed me just before Dead Man's Corner. Then I could follow them through it, assuming no bull had slid into the corner wall and was doubling back on us, confused and mad. But when I got to my spot, somebody had taken a crap in it. No joke. Fear 1, Man 0.

I moved down 10 more feet and heard the rocket. In less than a minute, I saw the flash of the cameras. But I wasn't ready for what came next -- hundreds of people sprinting dead at me, panicked, as though fleeing the Hindenburg. This was what I'd chosen to do? Purposely put myself inside a soccer riot?

On their heels were the bulls.

[+] EnlargeBull Runner
Rick Reilly for ESPN.comDespite taking this picture, Rick Reilly decided to run with the bulls a day later.
That's when, for some reason, I decided not to run. I decided instead to keep everybody in my immediate vicinity from running. I leaned backward against the crowd, stuck my butt out and my arms wide, and kept half a dozen people from running, including me. I don't know why. Something paternal inside me screamed, "Protect yourself and all the kids in your minivan, you idiot! Those are live bulls coming down the street!" That's how this thing is. You lose your mind. After the bulls are gone, most runners are surprised to find themselves on top of fences and window ledges and police officers, having no idea how they got there. They're the smart ones. On this day alone, four would be gored and 39 injured.

Finally, I took off for Dead Man's Corner, only to have the cops close the gate right in front of me. A man had been knocked cold by the bulls. Another man's scarf got wrapped around a bull's horns, and he was dragged under it for about 20 yards until the bull fell on top of the guy. We watched the medicos hustle the two guys out on stretchers. Not exactly motivation. The gates opened again, and we sprinted for the bullring.

But with about 300 yards to go, I heard from behind, "Vamonos! Mas toros!" Let's go! More bulls! I turned to see three more coming. This time I was ready, stepped nimbly to the side without losing speed, leaned in -- again risking the horns -- and slapped one on the rump with my paper.

Victory was mine!

"Those were not bulls," Miguel said with a snort when I told him of my heroics. "Those were oxen. They are the sweepers. They come along later to help the stray bulls who have lost the way."

I was an oxen-moron. Vowing to reclaim my honor, I waited the next morning in the dreaded square, fear gripping me even tighter. Above me, a woman came out onto her balcony in her bathrobe, holding a mug of coffee.

Honey, do you want to see some human carnage before breakfast?

My mind was bent on swatting a fighting bull, not a clomping oxen, bent on redemption, bent on glory. Unfortunately, the rest of me was bent on leaving.

"You fool!" it said. "You already did this once! Why risk certain quadriplegia a second time?"

And I was just about to agree when ... Rocket. Flashes. Bulls.

This time, I ran. And not next to the wall with the timid and the sane. I ran near the thundering bulls. OK, not as near as some of these idiots, but near enough. The closing speed of a bull is breathtaking, and they were closing fast. I angled closer. I reached out. I swatted.

I whiffed.

I dared closer. I swatted again. And hit! I angled back out of the way, tried another and hit again! Honor and bravery were mine! Suck on that, Miguel!

[+] EnlargeRick Reilly in Pamplona, running with the bulls
Courtesy of Rick Reilly for ESPN.comRick Reilly got close enough (barely) to a bull in full trot to swat it on the behind with a newspaper.

Later, though, when I looked at the pictures my wife took, I couldn't have been farther away. No wonder I whiffed. I looked like a guy reaching over a Volkswagen to put a quarter in a parking meter. Still ...

Speeding around Dead Man's Corner, I raced with a hundred others, all cussing in different languages. I checked the helmet cam's angle only to discover -- no helmet cam.

Somewhere in the madness and the panic and the pushing and elbowing and Heisman Trophy stiff-arming, it had been knocked off. So now what? Double back against a rushing river of white-and-red humanity? Or forget it and sprint on to the glory of the bullring?

I doubled back. But there was no sea of humanity. The Dead Man's Corner gate had apparently closed behind me. More stretchers perhaps. Suddenly, I heard someone yell, "Peligroso!" Danger!

And that's when I saw the stray fighting bull, muscled and black and snorting, 30 yards ahead of me, coming my way.

I ducked in the 10-inch-wide doorway. I tried the door. Stupido! Every door is locked during the running! The bull menaced closer. I looked above for something to grab onto and hoist myself up. Nothing.

Now he was 10 feet from me and walking slowly toward me.

Where were the freaking sweeper oxen now?

Five feet.

I stayed still as a corpse, trying not to breath, not to smell, not to exist.

Three.

He stared at me. A bead of sweat trickled down my nose into my mouth. If it was five seconds, it felt like five hours.

It suddenly became very clear to me how a doorway can become soiled.

Finally, he tore away after some other poor bastard.

The story in the next morning's paper said:

PAMPLONA, Spain (AP) -- One man was gored and two others injured in a panic-filled third running of the bulls Friday at Spain's San Fermin festival that saw at least three people sent airborne by the beasts. One of the six bulls caused more chaos when he separated from the pack and prompted several minutes of fear as he charged runners and tried to break through wooden barriers separating onlookers from the bull run.

My god, it was horrifying, feral and glorious. I loved every moment of it.

I also vowed, in that moment, that every year, for the rest of my life, no matter what, I would do everything in my power to never, ever be in Pamplona again.


Love the column, hate the column, got a better idea? Go here.
Want more Life of Reilly? Then check out the archive.
Be sure to check out Rick's latest project, "Go Fish."

Rick Reilly | email

Columnist, ESPN.com