Robin runs race of his life

July 12, 2008

Published: Belfast Newsletter, 12th July 2008, page 3

The world renowned festival of San Fermín is held annually in the city of Pamplona, Northern Spain. Orginating in the 15th Century and made famous in Hemmingway´s 1926 novel, The Sun Also Rises, the festival has become synonymous with one event – The encierro or The Running of the Bulls.

At least one person is seriously injured every year, and there have been 14 deaths since records began in 1924. The last person to get killed by one of the bulls was Matthew Tassio, a 22 year old American tourist in 1995. This is no picnic, and many of the locals refuse to participate in the event where they claim naive tourists are just as dangerous as the 1100 lb bulls.

At 6.30am on the Wednesday of the San Fermín festival, the crowds begin to gather. Three-quarters of an hour later the police have hemmed them in in the square at the centre of the half mile stretch while the street cleaners clear the way of food wrappers, beer bottles and the comatosed.

And here in the midst of all this madness is little old me. A 22 year old Ballynahinch boy with a pair of trainers and a heart beating faster than a New York rapper. Why am I here? Because many years ago I started to draw up a list of things to do before I die and somewhere amongst Own a Ford Capri and Kiss a Nun lies one chilling task – Run with the Bulls.

I know that as I grow older my illusion of invincibility will disappear and I need to run now while my limbs lack stiffness and my head lacks sense. I have been warned by both those at home and the locals about the dangers of it, and 13 injuries on Monday´s run will have done nothing to allay my mother´s fears.

I´m travelling with my friend Mark and we managed to get a few hours sleep in a nearby park – Getting accomodation during the festival is impossible unless you are willing to sell a kidney or two. We missed breakfast so I have a few sandwiches in a plastic bag with me but for some reason neither of us are hungry. As we stand packed in like sardines the nervous energy is evident. A few people burst into song as a way of easing the tension. I look around at the faces. Some are grinning, eagerly anticipating the run. The veterans look determined and focused. For the majority of the crowd however, the colour of their face has drained to match the bleach white top and trousers which is traditional San Fermín garb along with a red necktie.

About 15 minutes before they release the eight bulls the police step back to allow us to move to any chosen point on the course. I will be running on the notorious Estafeta street which is a 400 metre stretch with only a few chances of escape. Behind me stands an Australian cowering in a shallow doorway for whom the glorious idea of running with the bulls has just met reality. I meet a Dublin guy called Emmett, who is also running for the first time. We pray.

At 8 o´clock exactly the first rocket goes off, signalling that the bulls have been released from the pen. Some runners sprint off straight away. They will arrive in the stadium before they even see a bull and will rightly be booed by the crowd already in there waiting for their arrival. A second rocket should follow shortly signalling that they have all left the pen. The bulls will run safely if tightly packed a herd, but if one is separated it can become afraid and highly dangerous. We wait for the second rocket to come but it doesn´t. Finally after 20 seconds or so we hear it. Emmett and I look at each other, knowing that our pipe dream is now very real and very dangerous.

Shortly after the thunder of feet and hooves is heard and the adrenalin has very much kicked in. A mass of people burn around the corner below us, terror evident in their faces as they look backwards at what is to us an unseen enemy. The sound of the now overtaken bell oxen reminds us of what is coming. I turn upwards and run, glancing back for a glimpse of the bulls. I get what I asked for and my pace increases. In front of me people have tripped and wisely remain on the ground. My selfish nature kicks in and I trample over them determined to keep on running, my heart now beating loudly. As I reach the escape point half way up Estafeta the bulls pass by me safely on the other side of the street. The crowd follow them, hoping to get into the stadium to witness the rest of the morning´s festivities. I let them run ahead, as I make my way back towards the Town Hall area where Mark was running. As I dander back down the now half empty street I hear a familiar sound. Around the corner comes a raucous roar of people, with that terrified look in their eyes. Of course – The second rocket. In my adrenalin craze I had forgotten that there must have been some bulls slow to leave the pen. I can see three of them, their horns glaringly close to some of the runners coming straight for me. I turn again and this time run more daringly in the centre of the street. These bulls seem slower, so I can run ahead of them for longer, allowing them to get within 10 metres or so before deciding that is enough danger for me and peeling off to the side to watch them sprint past.

I peer warily to check that they are the last bulls coming for me, and once happy that that is the case I dander back down to the town hall, adrenalin still pumping, hand shaking as I grab a pen and stroke it off my list.