Chi Running Ain’t No Bull!

Keith Making Friends Before the Race

On July 7, 2007, I entered a footrace unlike anything else I have experienced. This footrace would involve thousands of runners on a beautiful summer morning. Oh yea, did I mentioned it also involved “BULLS”. Yes, I was going to run with 1200 pound animals that don’t even have shoes. However, before I tell you about this special race, let me go back and tell you how I got to the starting line.

I look at life as a series of adventures and challenges. One of my challenges has been running. I have been running all my life, which has included 27 marathons and other various races. However, I also have dreamed of other adventures in my life. One was driving a race car which I did. However, I do not have a desire to jump out of an airplane or bungee jump; I would prefer to keep my feet on the ground. Now that I have given you a brief overview of where I have been, let me tell you where I went.

It started about two years ago with a conversation I had with one of my co-workers. He too is a runner and we share many of the same interests. We were talking about many of the races we had completed, including many different marathons all over the world. As we were talking, he shared with me a trip he was planning to Spain. While this was not his first trip to Europe, he was very excited about going to Spain and attending the fiestas of San Fermin which is celebrated in Pamplona every year in July.

Keith is in there some where, maybe climbing over the fence
The festival of San Fermin in the city of Pamplona (Navarre, Basque Country, Spain), is a deeply-rooted celebration held annually from noon July 6, when the opening of the fiesta is marked by setting off the pyrotechnics (a rocket) accompanied by music, to midnight 14 July, with the singing of the Pobre de Mi. While its most famous event is the encierro, the running of the bulls, the week-long celebration involves many other traditional and folkloric events. It is known locally as Sanfermines and is held in honor of Saint Fermin, the patron saint of Pamplona and of Navarre. Its events were central to the plot of The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway, which brought it to the general attention of English-speaking peoples. It has become probably the most internationally renowned fiesta in Spain.

As a child, I remember reading the book for an English assignment and the adventure always was in the back of my mind as something I would like to do someday. When my co-worker returned from his adventure and the tales of the encierro, I thought I need to do this. So we began planning, as a family, to take a vacation which would involve this adventure. However, my wife and daughters never thought I was serious. Fast forward to 2007. After 18 months of planning and saving, we were going to Spain and I was going to run.

On July 5, 2007, we arrived in Pamplona and began to explore the city and get ready for the fiesta. What I was about to learn and experience was unlike anything I had done before in my life. The Encierro involves running in front of bulls down an 825-metre (0.51 mile) stretch of cobbled streets of a section of the old town of Pamplona. I walked the entire section to see what I was about to do. The next day, we celebrated the start of the fiesta which is another story all together. After enjoying all the activities, it was time to get ready to think about the next days run.

On July 7, 2007, I awoke at about 6:00 a.m. for a race which would start at 8:00 a.m. I would spend the next 2 hours on the cobbled stone streets anticipating the start. Everyone is clad in white, with a red handkerchief (the panuelo) tied about their necks, and a red sash (the faja) tied around their waist. The runners are all gathered in an area at the beginning of the route and all along the 825 meters of street. It is so packed you cannot even move to look behind you.

The encierro begins with the letting off of two rockets at precisely 8:00 a.m. However, on this day, 2 minutes before the start, something spooked the crowd and we started moving. I’m not talking a gentle walk, it was pushing and shoving and panic. It was all I could do to stay on my feet. Then about 90 seconds later we stopped. I looked back to where I had started and I noticed the street was clear, so I began to walk back. It was about this time when I heard the first rocket which announces the release of the bulls from their corral. A few seconds later, a second rocket signaled that the last bull had left the corral. They were on their way. I was about 100 meters from the start and I could not see anything however that soon changed. All of a sudden I noticed a mass of people moving toward me. Before I could even blink, the bulls were here. I started to run, but before I knew it they ran past and I mean they were moving. I was within arms reach of the bulls when they passed. As I started after them, I had to start looking out for all the other runners in my way. This was actually more dangerous and stressful then the bulls. As I approached a particular stretch of the course called Mercaderes, which is also known as “dead mans curve”, I noticed everything had stopped. This is the most notorious portion of the course where most injuries occur. However, as I approached this curve, they closed the fence to prevent the runners from going forward. The main reason is to prevent the bulls from turning around. After about 30-45 seconds, they reopen the street and you can then try to catch up. However, you cannot catch the bulls. The only thing you can do is try to get to the bull ring which is the finish line. So I began to sprint down the street. Forget my posture, forget Chi Running, it is simply a footrace to the finish. As I closed in on the doors to the bull ring, I thought, I can get in, but just then they closed the doors and my race was over, or was it. Just then the doors reopened and I thought I’m in, but wait, something didn’t seem right. Something was missing, but what was it? What I forgot was the “second wave” of calmer and older steers that run the streets in order to collect any stragglers. On this day there were no stragglers, just three 2,000 pound animals running behind me. As they started to enter the bull ring doors, I got within inches of these animals. It was then I decided to get out of their way and let them finish their run as I had just crossed my own finish line.

Once all of the bulls have entered the stadium, a third rocket is released while a fourth firecracker indicates that the bulls are in their bullpens and the run has concluded. The rockets had sounded and the run was complete. I had done it! I had survived a close encounter with a bull and as the legend goes, I was now protected by San Fermin’s cloak.

In closing, I know life is an adventure and you need to enjoy every minute you can. The adventure of San Fermin is something that will stay with me forever and I am glad I could share it with you. Let the celebration begin!

Keith, Beach Runner Mentor


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