Somewhere between sanity and adventure is a lot of bull

Destination Spain

April 30, 2006|By MICHAEL MARTINEZ | MICHAEL MARTINEZ,SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS

PAMPLONA, Spain -- The skies were overcast on that July morning as I made my way through a thick crowd of people on Calle Santo Domingo. I was searching for my new Spanish friends, but everyone was dressed the same - white shirt and pants, red neckerchief, sneakers - and for a moment I began to think I was on my own. Alone among all these faces.

But I found them, and then I knew this crazy thing might really happen. I was standing in the street where I would soon be running for my life, holding a rolled-up newspaper in my hand, my feet shifting nervously in the cool air.

In a few minutes, a flare was going to be fired into the sky, a corral door would swing open and six bulls weighing 1,000 pounds each would hurtle toward me - toward all of us. We would have to run with every ounce of energy just to stay in front of their horns.

"This is pure madness," I told myself. Even in those final moments, I was wavering, looking for ways to escape if sanity prevailed. Coming here to see this event had been on my dream itinerary for years, but running? Never.

And still, on the first day of the Festival of San Fermin, I was going to do this.

I think.

When you run with the bulls, there is no certainty what will happen, whether you will come through those few harried moments unscathed or be caught by a horn. No one knows what drives a person to do it - whether it's to test one's courage, to impress a woman, to experience a life-affirming moment. But each year, thousands of men, and some women, rise at dawn each morning during the Festival of San Fermin to run.

Mentally, if not emotionally, I felt prepared to join them. I had spoken on the phone several times with Carlos Gil, a businessman from Malaga, Spain, who is an old hand at this, having run in the encierro - the Spanish word for running of the bulls - for 39 consecutive years. But two years ago, his luck ran out. Gil, 60, was gored under his left arm while running up Calle Santo Domingo (I was shown the exact location by his friend, Javier Lozano) and suffered a wound that kept him hospitalized for two days.

He sat out last year's run but promised to return.

"Of course I'll be back," he said. "It's part of my life."

Hearing of Gil's injury was enough to dissuade me, at least in the beginning. On the first day of the festival, when revelers break out in song and spray each other with wine in the ayuntamiento, or city hall, I even met people who said they never run, despite being regulars. One of them, Daniel Villar, looked me in the eye and said solemnly, "It's a decision that comes from inside of you. It's whatever you feel."

Frankly, I wasn't feeling too bold. I had given myself every excuse to opt out and find a nice spot on a balcony next to my wife. I was convinced that I could enjoy the festival without having to exhibit my bravery (whatever little existed in my middle age). Sanfermines, as the locals call it, is a nonstop party that begins July 6 and ends nine days later - 24/7 drinking and depravity mixed with marching bands, religious processions, parades, food and more drinking, usually with little sleep. I could do that.

On the eve of the first run, though, Lozano invited me and two first-timers from New York, JP Connolly and Jim Murray, to walk the first part of the half-mile course. I was certain that I would not be standing there the next morning, but I went anyway, just to see what it was about.

He took us to Santo Domingo and showed us where the bulls are penned before being let loose (their final destination: the corral at the bullring, where they would meet their fate that afternoon). He walked us up the street and pointed to the spot where we would wait for the bulls to come rushing toward us at almost 30 mph. Because the street is no wider than 25 feet, it's considered the most dangerous portion of the course, but Lozano insisted it was the best location; bulls are pack animals and tend to run together, so they would be more predictable at the start. Later, when one or two usually slip rounding the corner in front of the city hall, they often get confused and separate from one other - a bad thing for runners.

Lozano pointed to the small shop where we would buy the morning newspaper, roll it up and carry it with us - and if a bull got too close, he said, we could use it to distract him away from our bodies.

Then he showed us a small alcove in the stone wall where a statue of San Fermin, Pamplona's patron saint, is placed and candles are lit each morning before the run begins. This is where we would gather with other runners, he said, to sing a hymn asking to be protected.

I was becoming mesmerized by the romanticism of it - dressing in festival colors, holding my newspaper aloft as I sang, standing fearlessly in front of the adoring crowds that lined the street. Daring the bulls to find me.

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