After the initial inquisition, I was ushered over to sit next to Miguel, John’s brother-in-law and an aficionado of the encierro for years who knew the ins-and-outs of the course and its dangers. He pulled out his phone and loaded a map of the encierro and then expostulated on elements of the route. As he spoke he would slap the back of his hand into his palm as he laid out a series firm guidelines for the run.
“First - You should be sober – is too dangerous if you are drunk… also is illegal now as of a recent law.” (OK, “check.)
“Second, is not so much you must outrun the bulls – you cannot – instead you must outrun the other drunk crazy men and not get pushed into the bulls' horns. Please, John, avoid the horns… hooves too” (OK I’m pretty fast - “check”)
“Third, there are three sections to the run, you must absolutely avoid the first section of the course– the uphill is steep, all the young men are drunk and the bulls are angry and their are no barriers to jump over and there are two sharp corners – this portion is 250m long.” (OK, “check.”)
“Fourth, you also want to avoid the middle part of the course this is 400 meters long and lined with stone walls – also there are too many people and not enough barriers to jump over if you get into trouble – this part is very dangerous. So don’t run this portion.” (OK, “check”)
“Fifth, you must avoid the last part of the run – the last 200 meters and the final corners and tunnel are dangerous and people fall down and the bulls run over them.” (Um…???)
“So, in conclusion… John… my advice to you is you should not run any part of the encierro… any other questions?”
We all had a laugh at this point as his advice was translated and I again affirmed my intention to run. Eventually we settled on the notion that I would run the final section and then into the bullring. “It is the only place that it will be possible to get a picture of you – the barriers will be lined w/ spectators starting 5:00 a.m., and the balconies rent for $1000 for 5 minutes for the encierro. Your friend John can show you the way and where to line up.”
Three hours after dropping into a dead sleep the morning of my run, my alarm went off at 6:00 a.m., and John knocked on the door shortly thereafter. I stumbled about mumbling to myself “sleep when you are dead, sleep when you are dead” and clumsily dressed in the traditional garb of San Fermin purchased the evening before. I donned the wine stained white pants, white shirt, red sash and red bandana and then a pair of running shoes. Sadly I had failed to find an identifiable piece of clothing for Alba to find me; so in generic garb I followed John quickly through the streets to catch the bus to town to fight our way through the throngs to join the encierro – the running of the bulls in Pamplona. It was a Saturday – perhaps the busiest day of the 8 day event.
At about 6:45, John and I found the spot where I would run. There were two layers of heavy wooden barriers, and I had to climb through on all fours to enter the course. John wished me luck, told me he would be in the stadium, and that we would meet afterward at “Hemingways,” a bar just outside the “plaza de toros.” I moved out into the cobbles and throngs, and I was now fully awake and alive. I muscled through to the final barrier blocking the final 150 meters to the bullring by 7:00 a.m. Perfect position.
There I met two English speakers: Bill from Ireland who was clearly drunk, and Greg from the UK who was sober but easily 6’7” tall. We talked strategy. We agreed we would wait for the bulls to arrive and then run with them into the stadium – it sounded simple.
Then we waited. I wasn't nervous. I "got this," I thought. Then at 7:30 a.m., the police formed a cordon and kicked all of us out – aggressively shoving all of us outside the barrier and off the course. "Too many people" they said.
I had flown 4000 miles for this, and I wasn't accepting no. Greg and Bill felt the same way, so we ran full tilt down the hill trying each barrier – each time thwarted by the EMS and police who waved us away. Finally we reached the set of barriers right at the base of the hill, right at the very start, right by the corral itself. As we arrived, a fight broke out in the street and the police and emergency workers were briefly distracted. I threw myself to the ground and belly crawled through the legs of a policeman inside the first barrier and then across the wood of the second barrier to enter the surging throng. Bill and Greg followed suit and then we were in!
We had to move – now! We knew we didn't want to be at the bottom of the hill at the most dangerous place - no barricades to climb, fresh and angry bulls, and mostly drunk young men. We had regained the course at 7:48 a.m., and needed to push through the throngs of more than 1000 people if were to regain our original position. This is where my inebriated friend Bill’s aggressiveness combined with Greg’s height became the perfect combination - Bill unrelentingly forcing his way through the throng yelling ahead and waving saying “We are coming Melissa!!” as though we were joining an imaginary friend, and Greg shouting directions based on the vantage point his height provided. Eventually we were able to shove our way through the throngs to regain our former positions 175m from the bullring. We arrived right at 7:59 a.m. and slapped high fives. One minute later, the fireworks went off – the bulls had left the corral.
In that instant everything went to hell – everyone panicked and started pushing and running pell-mell, some jumping over the barriers and others falling and running over each other. It was complete hysteria based on nothing. There were no bulls and wouldn’t be anytime soon. I knew from Miguel that it would take about 90 seconds to 2 minutes for the bulls to arrive, yet everyone was already running toward the bullring looking over their shoulders in sheer terror. Over and over again people slammed into me sprinting forward while looking backward, bruising me all over while I barely maintained my grip on the barricade. After the first wave, Bill and Greg were gone but there was a small group of us still in place. I left the protection of the barrier to join them in the street: all of us jumping up and down in place like Masai warriors trying to see the bulls coming over the crest of the hill. Then there was a second surge of runners and my adrenaline started flowing. Surely I thought, this must be it. I dropped from the barrier and thought about running, but again I could see no bulls, so once again I waited and for the first time I felt some trepidation. I was on the inside of a corner . . . if the bulls came tight, I could be caught in the horns and die . . .. Fifteen people have died over the last 40 years or so, and about 300 are injured each year.
But I was there to run WITH the bulls not in front of the bulls, so I waited. By now mostly everyone around me had run off, and for a few seconds I was almost alone except for a trickle of frightened runners threading single file in the center of the lane sprinting towards the stadium.
I breathed deep, slowed my heart rate, and focused my attention. It was exactly like the last lap of a bike race . . . then I saw them. The massive toros and larger steers mixed together galloping full speed up the hill with their heavy ponderous gait, the bulls with their heads down and massive wide sharp horns ready to pierce anything in their path and the massive steers mixed in, unstoppable. There was a small cadre of runners just ahead and beside the bulls and a massive sea of white following in their wake.
In the moment I began "thin-slicing" time. I could see the lumbering propulsion of shiny hooves striking cobbles, massive muscular flanks glistening and quavering in the light, murderous eyes behind the needle sharp points of horns tilted to give death’s blow. I was no longer myself - I was unraveling of my awareness into the events unfolding in front of me. This was my time - to stop time.
Time slows down. Self vanishes. Action and Awareness merge. Welcome to Flow. -Steve Kotler
They headed right at me, right towards my barricade. All sound stopped and I grabbed the barrier, preparing to launch myself over the heavy wood and steel crossbars. Arms and hands stretched my shirt and grasped my arms attempting to pull me over. I fought them off and could see the mouths of the watching crowd moving in unison – they were chanting something. Then the herd was upon me: at first steers running 3 abreast, and then 2 bulls passing just behind them, their lethal horns clearing my soft abdomen by about 2.5 feet. The steers’ horns were taller than my head.
There was a small space, a gap, after the second bull and in slow motion I dropped, bent and sprang into a sprint, running parallel to another steer and just ahead of two other bulls as I reached full speed. Sound and motion returned and now I was in the tail end of the “peleton de toros” preparing for the final sprint into the ring. I could see the hooves flashing, the rapid gait of the gallop, the ominous flanks of the steer just to my right and a bedlam emerging of runners from the widening sidelines attempting to join the herd. My spidey senses tingled - bad things were about to happen . . . .
We crested the hill. To the left and right larger remnants of the throng ahead that had stopped to wait were either attempting to run or jumping the barriers, or falling down on the stones. The steers up front were still running 3 abreast, and as the lane narrowed towards the plaza del toros the animals formed a gigantic snowplow: there was no room for the runners ahead, and so the detritus piled up like a bloody snowbank, white bodies punctuated with their red sashes layering and stacking to the left and right as the bulls and steers momentum continued unabated. As we headed down the cobbles, I was still running full tilt, un-afraid, seeing and predicting everything with precision– it was both fast and slow. Now we were about to enter the tunnel itself and ahead 100 men in a complete panic were scattering in front of 11 bulls and steers running 2 and 3 abreast at 15mph in a 15 foot wide tunnel with narrowing barriers to each side. There was perhaps 5 feet of open space in the middle. The steers attempted to shuffle and reposition to thread the needle and slowed as did the bulls behind them. I knew the runners behind could not see what was happening and arms out I fought off the onslaught from the rear. As we slowed I felt the flotsam and jetsam of the river of humans behind me buffeting my outstretched arms, my heels kicking backward into shins, my elbows striking faces. In that moment I realized that in order to survive I would have to actually accelerate into the madness in front of me if I was not to become one of the trampled. The crescendo started – a combination of the cartwheeling of dozens of men falling to the left and right, stacking, screaming; the bulls and steers driving up and over the bodies, heavy sharp hooves on ribs, faces, groins, a pileup becoming 3 deep, 4 deep, 7 deep, 8 deep. Only a narrow lane of visible pavement remained as the first steers cleared the tunnel and scrambled into the bullring itself.
Once again time stopped: I could feel the press of flesh behind me, I could see every movement of the bodies in front of me – the peleton of runners all crashing, hands high and then fingers twitching as they were tripping, falling, being trampled by steers and toros and men, the few remaining runners still vertical like me scrambling up a lattice work of white limbs. I had no choice – in slow motion I placed my feet on body parts and ran across a jumble of men like so many fleshy stones. I climbed up and to the right to avoid the impaling horns of the bulls behind me and ran over top of a writhing sea of humanity and down the other side. I was 15 feet behind the last bull when I broke into the light of the bullring . . . .
"There's this sense that sometimes time slows down and sometimes time speeds up, and sometimes when we are in the zone and lose track of time, or when we are doing an activity that elicits an adrenaline rush, time slows down. There's time dilation - altered states of consciousness..." -Jason Silva, Shot of Awe
I once raced a bike race in Downers Grove, IL, where in the final corner every single rider in front of and around me crashed in a huge pileup except me. In a weird denouement I coasted down the finish stretch to the roar of the crowd alone bewildered, bemused and eventually triumphant.
Entering the bullring was a déjà vu of that race. No one behind me survived the pileup, and I entered to the massive roar of 20,000 people just behind the bulls and steers. I ran full tilt into the middle of the stadium and then slowed and stopped, arms in the air as the handlers billeted the bulls and steers into the corral. Perhaps 300 other runners had made it into the ring and I was one of the last. I was euphoric. In a gladiator-like moment I turned and just kept my hands up enjoying the noise, the atmosphere, the joy of being “really alive.”