Why Some Run with Bulls

When I stepped on the crowded street in Pamplona, Spain, to run with bulls I thought of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If” about being a man and remembered its first words: “If you can keep your head when all about you
are losing theirs….” I knew I needed to find the zone, to be calm in myself while observing and moving properly with what was coming. So I stood still in my white pants and shirt, clothes that symbolize what Spanish peasants once wore, and red sash and bandana, which symbolize the blood of the martyred saint San Fermin that this festival celebrates, and waited within the nervous crowd. Most were young men. A few were young women. A young Brit asked me from which direction the bulls would be coming. I pointed back toward the bullpen and told him “if you’re knocked down near the bulls stay down.” He smiled. A young woman stomped by me in rubber boots. When someone said she shouldn’t run in those she shouted at him, “I don’t have anything else. I didn’t know I was going to do this.” Then she stomped off. Many of these people were there for the rush, to say they ran with the bulls. They didn’t know what it was about. This to me seemed like a good metaphor for life within a heedless populace. Then the crowd began to shudder. Ripples would roll through like shivvers of fear. A few began to run early. It was nearing 8 a.m. and soon we’d hear the rocket telling us the bulls were coming.

A man named Juan Macho, my guide to this ancient festival, taught me the rules to running. He showed me there is more depth to running with the bulls than an adrenaline rush. He introduced me to his circle of veteran runners. One gray-haired, little American who has been running for decades said, “If you’re not living on the edge you’re taking up too much room.” Another gentleman was wearing a pin that said, “Down these mean streets a man must go.” After each run I’d ask both veterans and first-time runners why they did it and what it did for them. The common theme was that life must be lived, that playing it too safe all the time leads one to forget what life is all about, that no one lives forever. Some said when they get in the zone and find themselves running with bulls they experience something that’s almost out of body. They are in the street with the bulls of moving crowd in white and red and see themselves from afar. In the end they’ve learned to control their fear and that is something to help them live. All of them said they cherish the friends they’ve made in Pamplona—friendships made more intense by the shared experience of being close to fighting bulls.

I didn’t run every morning—the bulls run eight days in a row—but I got in the street again and again trying to understand, trying to get the perfect run. When the bulls come it’s over very fast. Sometimes they came uncomfortably close in the tight streets. One morning I was inches from the horns. People were hurt, some badly. Most walked away to the bars, jumpy from adrenaline and with the knowledge they’re alive.

Of course it is all much more complicated than this, but I’ll save the inside story about the tight group of veteran runners I spent the festival with, the religious foundation, the telling myths, the wild characters I met and the profound things they said for the book I’m working on.

Though as I write this and think about my runs and all those crazy people the last lines from Kipling’s “If” keep running through my head:

 

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

To serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

 

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

If all men count with you, but none too much:

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!