“We came all this way and not a single broken neck,” one reporter lamented.
We had come here to cover The Great Bull Run, the first 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 Pamplona. 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 super athlete 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 super athlete 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 Number 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 Number 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 Number 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 aged 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 super heroes. One guy wrapped a sling around his torso that carried a life-sized 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!