Pamplona, 1995

Today someone was gored to death at Pamplona –the first time since 1995, when Matthew Tassio died. I was running when Matthew died and wrote this piece about the experience:

That was a great summer. It was the summer of ’95 and I was set to go on a 2-month trip packing around Europe. My buddy Jim and I were making the final arrangements, which wasn’t much – buy a backpack and get a ticket. Jim bailed out at the last minute and left me holding the bag (or backpack) I said “fuck it”, I’ll go anyway, on my own and meet a few of my European friends along the way. I had a buddy in London and one in Prague, so between those 2 destinations I could get lost bumming around the place. Halfway through the trip I found myself on a train from Barcelona to Pamplona to partake in the running of the bulls. As soon as I boarded the train I immediately hooked up with 3 other dudes in a cabin, they were also all cruising on their own and we all started to chat about the bulls. One guy was from Maryland, a real Jim Morrison look-alike. He had that laid-back look about him that seemed to beckon the girls to his doorstep. Another guy was blond due from Uruguay. He was cool – a rich kid who had played soccer all his life. The last guy was from Germany, I think Munich. He was totally out there, some bohemian type of dude with a name like Kai.

So there we were, the four us, somehow chosen by destiny to meet on the eve of the running of the bulls festival. We knew right then and there that we would experience this part of the journey together and to celebrate, we started drinking right away. We drank all through the train ride and were quite sloshed when the old bird rolled into Pamplona. The first thing we did was check our bags into the pack station. They had this huge warehouse for all of the back-packers shit to be checked in for a small price. This was a must, because there definitely weren’t any rooms available. Thousands like us were showing up at the last moment, based on decisions each one of them had made in the last 48 hours.

Nobody gave a damn about the rooms, we were there to get drunk, get laid and get our asses chased by those damn bulls. You know the ones that were made famous by Ernesto himself in his cool little book of dialogue called The Sun Also Rises. Shit, if it Ernest hadn’t written that book and put Pamplona on the party map, none of us would be drinking our way to this little hick town deep in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains. This whole festival focuses on the words of Ernesto. Everyone walks the streets with bags of cheap red wine, singing songs and getting ready for the race the next day. The race happens at 8am for 8 mornings in a row. When the cannon goes off at 8am, the bulls are released at one end of town and then make their way through the barricaded streets to the arena filled with thousands of screaming spectators. The street around the arena is called, appropriately enough, Paseo de Hemmingway. There is also a marble bust of old Hemmingway himself at the entrance of the ring. In front of these running bulls, of course, are the crazy gringos like myself running our asses off so we don’t loose them to a bull’s horn or hoof. Also in the group of crazies are Aussies, Kiwis, Europeans and seasoned locals who like to start the race within inches of where the bulls are released.

After we checked in our packs, we set out exploring the town and looking for some booze to keep the buzz going. We knew his was going to be one hell of a night and we wanted to get the full dosage. Plus, you had to get really trashed knowing that your bed was the local park and your roommates were about a thousand other people laying around, stashing their wallets between their legs to ward off the local thieves. So drink we did –all night long, barely stopping to watch the fireworks that were being shot over the local park. By daybreak our focus was on the running. 2 of our group had met some ladies and gone that route for the night, leaving me and Jim Morrison to get ready for the race. About 1 hour before the start, we found an outside coffee stand filled with eager runners, mostly locals. To get back some of our edge, we drank four espressos in a matter of 20 minutes. We also started talking to a few of the seasoned runners about strategy for the run. While this was going on, old Jimbo was lured away by a couple of cuties and soon he drifted away from the scene.

So there I stood, once again alone, and ready to take on this outrageous challenge. In fact, on the train ride up, I told my group that I wasn’t sure about running and that I probably wouldn’t do it. Well so much for that. Because at that moment when I stood drinking my last espresso and chatting with the locals about strategy, I knew that my destiny had already been played out for me. I set down the cup and walked off with my 2 Spanish companions, an uncle and nephew.

They were each dressed in the traditional garb of white shirt and pants with a red sash around the waist and neck. All I had on was a red long-sleeve t-shirt and jeans. I would acquire my red bandana later. When we reached the entrance where the bulls would come charging out in a few moments, the uncle gestured me to keep going down the street, away from the bulls. His name was Jorge and he had made this run 22 times before, with not even a scratch to show. These seasoned locals would run directly in front of the bulls, constantly snapping them on the nose with rolled up newspaper. They loved to tease them this way, it was part of the thrill and it also keep them interested in the whole process of the run year after year.

Jorge told me to keep walking down the road, to get as far ahead of the bulls as possible when they were released. Being a novice, this would give me the best chance of staying alive and still be able to enjoy the thrill. I heard the cannon go off and my heart leaped into my throat. The crowd behind me started to take off and so did I. One slip and the crowd and the bulls would be on top of you. There was no way off this street, each intersection was boarded up 8 feet high with onlookers ready to push you back down into the street. Looking back over my shoulder as I ran towards the arena, I could see the bulls making their way at a very fast pace. In front of me was the narrow entrance to the arena. This was the bottleneck area, where if you got trapped in there with the bulls on your heals, you were doomed. This was the most dangerous place to stop and smell the roses. I made it through the bottleneck and ran into the heart of the arena. Wow, what a thrill! The arena was packed with screaming spectators, cheering you on to watch your ass or probably to not watch your ass. They wanted blood, they wanted disembowelment, and they wanted your ass on a bull’s plate.

Once the runners settled into the heart of the arena floor, the 6 bulls soon followed. The crowd parted and let the bulls pass out the backside of the arena. Cool, we had made it through that scene and damn, what a thrill it was. The show was far from over. For the next forty minutes they released baby bulls for the crowd to dodge. The trick to this part was to watch which way the crowd moved and follow that lead. While dodging the bulls, I met a guy from my travels in Budapest earlier in the summer. We started shooting the shit, not paying attention the crowd movement. Next thing you know there is a bull right on us. He dove one way, I dove the other, just barely missing my ass from being ripped off. The crowd in the stands went wild, you could tell they were a bit disappointed I didn’t get a horn stuck in my ass. After it was over, I hobbled out of the arena with a bloody knee, talking with the guy from Budapest. For the rest of the day I felt like a king, the thrill of the run overwhelmed my senses. The only downside was that the cut on my knee didn’t leave a scar. Know what I mean.