PETERSBURG, Va. – It was nearing the end of a long day full of booze, food fights and group runs alongside 1,000-pound bovines, and no one had been sent to the hospital. Yet.
“We came all this way and not a single broken neck,” one reporter lamented.
We had come here to cover the Great Bull Run, an attempt at an American version of the traditional Spanish "running of the bulls" made famous by Ernest Hemingway in which thousands of thrill seekers flee from massive charging animals with sharp horns.
Held on a drag racing strip at the Virginia Motorsports Park on Saturday, the American bull run came complete with a massive tomato fight — just like the annual festival in Buñol. The event was the brainchild of Rob Dickens and Brad Scudder, two extreme sports organizers who wanted to host a Yankee-style bull run after they saw the whopping price tag of traveling to Spain, where residents have hosted a similar event for more than 100 years. Saturday's event was similar to the Spanish festival, but our bull runs have rodeo clowns and more Budweiser.
Scudder and Dickens figured that they could find enough idiots to shell out 80 bucks to risk getting gored in the stomach in the comfort of their own country for the thrill of running from a storming herd of bulls.
They were right. And I was one of those idiots.
Before I left for the run, I did my homework. (And no, that does not mean I trained by running regularly or exercising. Please.) Instead, I asked my friend Andy Harris, a serial marathon runner and superathlete who has actually run with the real bulls in Pamplona, for tips on how to increase my chances of survival.
First, it helps to be a serial marathon runner and superathlete who has actually run with the real bulls in Pamplona. Since I am none of those things, I paid close attention to his other advice.
Rule No. 1:
“Know the course and your possible exit points and stay to the perimeter for the most part because the bulls tend to go in a straight line down the middle. Be careful around corners because the bulls can't corner at all and usually fall.”
Thankfully, this event would be held on a straight quarter-mile drag strip, so I was good to go.
Rule No. 2:
“Always keep a fellow runner or two nearby to position between yourself and a bull because if all else fails, human shields are a nice last resort.”
OK, but what if I’m the one between some other guy and the bull? This does not sound comforting.
Rule No. 3:
“They tell you over and over not to show up inebriated or wearing anything but good running shoes. For some reason, drunk people don't fare as well.”
I ignored this sound piece of wisdom and took a shot of tequila before my race. (Spoiler alert: I survived.)
An announcer went over the ground rules on a loudspeaker as I lined up alongside the hundreds of other participants preparing to run.
“There’s no shame in being sane,” the announcer said to a group people who signed up to be willingly stampeded by bulls. He advised us to stay on the sides of the narrow, quarter-mile track, which had been covered with 300 truckloads of sand for the event. He too warned us against imbibing beforehand and forbade the use of cell phones and hand-held cameras on the track.
Both of these rules were widely flouted.
Most of the runners with me were young men and women who apparently had not heard that human beings are weak, fragile things that break easily. There was a sprinkling of baby boomers who never had the chance to scratch Pamplona off their bucket list.
While many in the crowd donned the traditional white clothes worn by the runners in Spain, some showed up wearing just speedos and running shoes. Others dressed as superheroes. One guy wrapped a sling around his torso that carried a life-size baby doll, which he used as an adorable shield.
As we piled onto the track, I looked up and saw a remote-controlled camera helicopter hovering in the air, a uniquely American contribution to the tradition. The drone crashed into the bleachers and hit a spectator in the face. A fine omen!
“If I die,” a man wearing a full-body hot pink jumpsuit said to his friends, “this is how I want to go.” (Seriously?)
After a countdown, a group of cowboys released the bulls at the far end of the track. We were ready, but had no idea what to expect.
As the giants rushed toward us, I felt the sand shift beneath my feet. I heard the pounding of their hooves. Hundreds of people in front of me began to scream, but I still couldn't see any bulls.
Like a good horror movie, what you can’t see is almost always the scariest part.
Before I spotted the animals, runners began to turn and speed toward me, their eyes blazing with fear and adrenaline. Behind them, rising from the crowd, I saw the horns of the first bull barreling straight toward us. As they charged through the middle of the track, runners sprang for the side rails.
The bulls came in groups of threes and fours, charging at speeds of up to 35 miles per hour. It is called running “with” the bulls, not running “from” the bulls for a reason. They will always outpace you. Embrace it, and run for your life.
While the bulls charged past, a man stumbled over his feet and nearly pushed a woman toward the center. A bull’s horns missed her by just a few feet.
As the second wave charged toward us, a bare-chested frat boy jumped into the middle of the track in front of two sprinting bulls, planted his feet and flexed his arms. They lowered their heads and aimed toward his torso. He fled out of the way just as they ran past him. He was not gored, alas.
The final bulls in the line swept passed me and I breathed a sigh of relief.
At the end of the path, two cowboys on horseback from the ranch that brought the bulls from Kentucky smirked at the wailing city slickers who were rushing past them.
“These people are crazy,” muttered Preston Fowlkes.
When a guy who works with bulls for a living says you’re crazy, well, you’re probably crazy.
This act of insanity was repeated every half hour, broken up only by a Pamplona-style tomato fight in the parking lot in the afternoon in which I received a black eye from a large, red overripe flying projectile.
Once we were bruised and drenched in our own homemade ketchup, it was time to head back to the bulls.
On the final race of the day, the event organizers decided to up the ante. Instead of releasing just 12 bulls into the crowed, they let all 24 run at once. Instead of 500 runners, they squeezed 700 people together onto the track.
Just like every other run earlier that day, the bulls were released on the crowd. Standing with their muscles clenched, the late-day runners hooped and hollered as the bulls galloped toward them — bulls that by now were tired and, more likely, grumpy.
Two men in the center of the running track tripped on the dirt just as a massive black bull stomped behind them. Both men buried their heads in the sand and the bull leapt over them. One man rolled away toward the side. The other man, perhaps not aware that there were bulls still behind him, sat up and knelt on the raceway.
Event organizers said that despite the one incident, they considered the Great Bull Run a success. After all, until then, the worst injury of the day had been overripe tomatoes to the face.
“It’s not fun for him; it’s not fun for me,” Dickens told me after the final run. “But it’s part of the event, and I expect it to happen every now and then.”
At least it won't happen to me: I've been informed by my loved ones that I will be disowned if I ever try this again.
This article originally stated that the annual Spanish tomato fight known as La Tomatina is based in Pamplona. It is held in Buñol, Spain.