Editor's note: Jim Caple is spending two weeks on Page 2's dime, traveling through Europe for a firsthand look at, to name a few, Wimbledon, the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, and how far he can carry his wife.
PAMPLONA, Spain -- I did not exactly run with the bulls so much as stand in line with them.
Don't get me wrong -- I wanted to run with them. An old friend named Boog and I had talked about running with the bulls for years, and when he learned Pamplona was a stop on my Lost In Translation tour of European sports, he caught a last-minute flight to Spain to join me.
This was good because I think it is always important -- if not required -- to have an old and trusted friend at your side whenever you plan to do something incredibly stupid. It's why you have a best man at your wedding.
Besides, Boog is bigger and slower than me and that meant I didn't have to outrun the bulls, just him. "Considering my size," he said, "the only way I should be participating in something like this is if I had two long horns growing out of my head."
Like most people, my knowledge of the running of the bulls was limited to the first five minutes of "City Slickers." So I was a little dismayed when I started reading up on the subject.
Begin with the bulls. In his classic book on bullfighting, "Death in the Afternoon," Ernest Hemingway writes that the half-ton bulls can outrun a horse for 25 yards, turn on their feet like a cat and have been known to attack motorcars and even trains. They have killed lions and tigers in exhibitions. They are bred to fight and their horns can dig four inches into iron.
In other words, they are a little like Ron Artest, only bigger.
The run, or encierro as it is known in Spanish, is held promptly at 8 o'clock each morning during Pamplona's nine-day Festival of San Fermin. The route goes about half a mile from the corral through the narrow city streets to the bull ring. If everything goes well, it takes less than three minutes. And if not? Well, cards are handed out before the run warning that runners risk "fatality" and "mutilation," two words guaranteed to draw your attention nearly as much as "totally" and "nude." Several ambulances park along the route. Every year, runners are gored and seriously injured. On average, one person is killed per decade.
|Jim Caple's Lost in Translation tour
Johnnie Cochran would have loved this event.
I mean, can you imagine such a thing being allowed in the United States? Give me a break. Just to watch a baseball game we have to listen to a disclaimer about the hazards of foul balls. If a U.S. city held a bull run you wouldn't be able to even get onto the route because of all the lawyers blocking the way.
"That's one of the reasons I want to do it," Boog said. "Because I can imagine in a couple years they won't let people run anymore."
|LOST IN TRANSLATION|
Take a look back at Jim Caple's European vacation thus far:|
While England slept
Strawberries, cream and Maria
Get off my back, honey
The amazing race
French fried over Olympics
A pit stop at the Tour de Lance
Riding a bike ain't easy
Bulls, blood and beverages
There are thousands of runners each morning, so the odds are overwhelmingly in your favor for avoiding injury. Especially if you are sober, which many runners are not. I probably stood a greater injury risk in the World Wife Carrying Championship.
Still, people do get hurt. In fact, the morning paper ran a huge photo of a bull goring a young Canadian woman the previous day and ran a smaller photo of her writing a letter in her hospital bed. That must have been an interesting letter.
Dear Mom and Dad,
Europe is wonderful! I wish you were here to see it. The people are so friendly and the food is so good and the art and architecture is amazing! Everything is so old! I just love it. In fact, I might be here a little longer than expected. Don't worry -- everything's fine. I just want to explore a little more and meet some more people and see some more churches and museums and learn a little more about the local customs and maybe take time to find out how Spain's national health care system compares to Canada's.
Love you! XOXOXO
P.S. Please send my health card to the Pamplona hospital.
My game plan was simple. Our first morning in town, I would scout out the run. The second morning I would run. And despite the risks, I felt confident about taking part after watching that first run. Boog ran the first day and he raved about it. So did everyone else. Dray Quient of New Orleans called the feeling "soil yourself fear." Before the run, Knoxville native Mitch Wallace had been a little apprehensive, but afterward was exhilarated. "It's every bit as fun as a Vols victory over Georgia."
The best part of the run, everyone insisted, was in the bull ring at the end after the big bulls have been safely penned. That's when several small bulls are released into the ring to charge the hundreds of runners who make it that far. The bulls' horns are capped to prevent goring but they can kick, flip and trample the runners. It's like watching Don Zimmer charge Pedro, and it is not to be missed.
The key is to get into the ring before they close the gate. Boog had not been swift enough to do so the first morning and was determined to do so our second morning. He therefore positioned us farther up the route than where he began the first run.
This was a major mistake.
We waded through broken bottles and pools of vomit and drunks passed out on the street, then forced our way onto the route and into the crowd of thousands of runners waiting for the start by city hall. The crowd was packed so tight it was difficult to even move, let alone run away from angry bulls. We pushed on until we found some breathing room. We looked at our watches. It was 7:20.
Merchants blocked their storefronts as if a hurricane was about to hit. Runners stood around nervously as the minutes dragged by. It was like sitting in the lobby, waiting for the IRS agent to call you in for your audit.
More minutes passed and Boog looked at his watch. "Only half an hour to go," he said. I nodded. I was anxious to run.
Then around 7:35, the police formed a cordon and began forcing us and hundreds of other would-be bull runners from the route and down a narrow side street. At first, I thought they were merely pushing us back so that they could quickly hose down the street, but this was not the case. One young man suspected what was happening and he broke from the pack and tried to race back toward city hall. Several police chased him down and beat him repeatedly with billy clubs. When they hauled him away, I saw blood oozing from behind his ear.
This was a good reminder that Spain was ruled by a Fascist dictator within my lifetime. Trust me, running with the bulls is not nearly as dangerous as running from the cops.
We were told later that on mornings when the crowd swells too large, the police arbitrarily force hundreds of runners off the course. We were also told that we had just stupidly positioned ourselves too far up the route and that the police always force runners from this spot. Either way, we were screwed.
Hemingway ran with the bulls and wrote about it in "The Sun Also Rises," turning the encierro into a worldwide rite of passage and test of courage. Michener and untold others wrote about it as well and romanticized it with their heroic tales. Thousands upon thousands of people have followed them to Pamplona's streets year after year to test themselves by running alongside these dangerous bulls. By doing so, they all found something deep inside themselves.
Boog and I, on the other hand, couldn't even find the right place to stand.
Desperate, we rushed along the route looking for any opening. There were none. There are only so many spots from where you can enter the course and the police close these at 7:30. While it is possible to sneak onto the route by slipping under the barricades, you first must fight through the crowds and then risk the police and the billy clubs.
The cannon went off signaling the start of the run and minutes later the bulls ran by. Or at least, we assumed they did. There were so many people standing in front of us that we couldn't see the street. The crowd broke up slightly after the bulls passed though, and I was able to squirm in and slip under the barricade.
True, I was behind the bulls, but I was ahead of a few hundred runners. And at least I was running on the route.
We sprinted into the stadium and onto the dusty floor of the ring. There were at least a thousand other runners in the ring with me and many thousands more people watching from the stands. Soon after the gate closed, the first of the little bulls was sent into the ring.
I cannot say what it is like to have a half-ton bull with razor sharp horns run past me on the streets of Pamplona, but I can tell you what it is like to have a slightly smaller bull charge at me in the ring. I imagine it's a little like dropping back to pass and seeing Simeon Rice out of the corner of your eye. But at least I had plenty of blockers. Mostly, the bull charges and everyone shuffles and runs away. Occasionally the bull catches someone and flips him with his horns or kicks him underneath his hooves.
"Look at this!" an American shouted, pointing at a tear in his pants crotch. "Another inch and he would have had my [cojones]!"
Several bulls were brought out in this manner and it was great fun for about a half-hour. After that, I began to get bored, so I climbed over the wood fence and out of the ring. I met up with Boog, who had managed to sneak into the ring himself for the last bull. We considered changing our flights so that we could run the next morning but this proved impossible. So we left the streets of Pamplona and flew on to Madrid.
I had not truly run with the bulls, but I had met the bulls in the ring and smelled fear. Or perhaps I only smelled my soiled underwear.
Either way, I'm sure Hemingway would have been disgusted.
Jim Caple is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His first book, "The Devil Wears Pinstripes," is on sale now at bookstores nationwide. It also can be ordered through his Web site, Jimcaple.com.