Thursday, August 11, 2005

Gladiators

Part 5



There are five minutes until the rocket goes off. Damon and I are crammed shoulder to shoulder in a crowd several hundred, maybe a thousand or two strong. Either way, apparently it’s the largest single running of the bulls in the event’s history. La policia have cleared the course and the sanitation workers have used water to blast the cobblestone streets free of plastic cups, vomit, urine, wine bottles, shoes, clothing, broken glass. I feel like I’m on some sort of mood-levelling drug. I’m not scared. I’m not tired. I’m not worried. I’m not particularly thrilled about being chased by six bulls and six steer, each weighing over 1000 pounds and able to run faster than any fast human. Dennis Rodman ran on the Friday morning that I got there.The newspapers all had pictures of him in the crowd. We heard he was supposed to run again this morning, but we didn’t see him. Knowing Rodman ran did manage to upset me a little, since he’s not necessarily a person I consider among my role models. The cobblestone is soaking wet and slick. La policia remove three guys who were drunkenly passed out on the side of the course, right near where the bulls would be let out. I’m just blinking (I think) and breathing (I think) and existing. There are a good number of people in the crowd who look woefully unprepared for what’s about to happen. They don’t know that in about 30 seconds, la policia will leave, allowing the runners to move to any point on the course they want. Some think this means the run has started. They don’t know what the first rocket means, now about four minutes away They don’t know what the second rocket means, now about four minutes and ten seconds away. They don’t know how far away the stadium is. They don’t know the stadium doors get closed on those not fast enough to enter with the bulls. They don’t know to stay right because almost every turn of the course leans to the right--Centrifugal force sends the speeding bulls careening toward the left at every curve. I’m going over in my head where I’m going to be at 10, 20, 30, 40 seconds after they let the bulls loose on that first rocket. I double knot my well-worn new balance running shoes and tuck the long loops underneath the top laces. Damon asks a Spanish guy who looks like he knows what he is doing if he is nervous. He said he was very nervous. He hasn’t ever run before. Two minutes left, by my watch, which I think might be fast. Or a minute slow. I’m not sure. I haven’t seen an accurate clock all weekend. La policia is off the course. We’re surging forward in a crush of red and white to find our places on the route. Stay right. It was like we were in the mosh pit of a rock concert, and all of a sudden the lead singer said, “Sorry everyone, we have to move this show into the other room, all at once, thank you. Right through that narrow hallway, over there, yeah, that’s the one, all of you at once, please.” The hardcore Spaniards and a fairly large contingent of no-nothing dumbshit tourists hang back at the first leg to face the bulls head on to almost certainly be injured, whether by bull or fellow human in that first seconds of chaos and terror. For the locals, the start is one of the best places to run because one can get closest to the bulls’ horns before attempting to jump out of the way. The first leg is also uphill. I can see the people on the balconies lining each side of the street, staggered at different floors, waving flags and yelling. Stay right. Everybody watching the runners move into position is yelling. We’re yelling, repeating the prayer to San Fermin, the patron saint of the festival, who is supposed to watch over and protect the runners. We’re still packed tightly in the crowd, moving past the market square, and then past the course’s famous hairpin turn (if you’ve seen a picture of the bulls sliding out of control on the heels of terrified runners, it was taken at this spot). Damon and I decided ahead of time we weren’t going to try and stay together during the run. Too dangerous. We’d meet up after. At this point we lose each other in the crowd. As per our plan however, we were both to start at about the same place: about 200 meters from the stadium entrance--the last leg of the course’s most dangerous section (because for 600 meters there are no wooden barriers to jump over to get off the course, just walls of storefronts and apartment buildings reaching five stories up). We’d wait for the bulls to come to us, then run like hell and hope to make it through the gates. Stay right. A lot of the locals have brought newspapers with them and rolled them up to slap the bulls as they go by, in direct violation of the “official rules” of the encierro, which say not to taunt the bulls. We’ve been made aware of the “official rules” by a tiny paper booklet that some official looking people handed out to those they saw wearing running shoes, and especially to those who were on the course and weren’t wearing running shoes. The booklet, titled, “advice for runners,” gave directions in English and Spanish. The first rule was that running with the bulls is dangerous. “The bulls can kill.” One minute left. Stay right. Second rule: don’t run with a camera or anything that will impede you or others. I tried to convince Damon not to snap pictures while we ran, but he would have none of it. Thirty seconds left. I’m in position. Scores of the no-nothings, thinking the bulls had already been let out, high tail it past me into the stadium. Shoulda googled the running of the bulls and fucking learned something about it first, goddamn.

The first rocket goes off. The gate is open. I’m jumping in place on the course, facing the direction from which the bulls will come. I’ve been told I should turn and run at the first indication the bulls are anywhere near. If I hesitate and jump up again to make sure they’re coming, by the time my feet are back on the ground the bulls will have run past me or run me over. I hear the second rocket in the distance, a muffled noise like a firecracker exploding in a cardboard box packed with pillows. All of the bulls are in the street. There are people jogging toward me and past me. I’m jumping up and down, trying to stare down the 600 meters for signs of the herd. I shift to my right and left to let people pass. Now there are people running, not jogging, toward me, shooting glances backward and forward as quick as they can to prevent getting trampled from behind or tripped up in the front. I’m watching their faces. I can’t see very far down the course, maybe 10 meters ahead of me. The crowds are too thick.

Then the faces change. People are running for their lives.

I felt like I was a cameraman, who while filming a disaster, realizes he’s about to be trapped himself by the approaching flames. The pyroclastic flow. The tidal wave. The cloud of debris. He picks up the camera, our last view a shaking, flickering image of the chaos closing in as he slings the tripod over his shoulder and takes off running himself. I’m now running with the crowd. I’m not really sure how fast, but---holy shit there they are. On my left, flying by in a tight pack. They are passed. I thought I’d be able to count them to be able to tell if there were still more behind me. No chance. Better just book it. Stay right. Two steer, each the size of a Volkswagen bus and probably heavier, are running behind the black blur of bulls up ahead. I can see their big gold bells clinking, but I can’t hear them. I’m focused on running as fast as they are in order to follow them into the stadium. Don’t fall down. At top speed, we’re all pushing and shoving. Some people go down. Stay down, as the booklet advises. The last guy to be killed was an American who fell during the 1995 festival. He tried to get back up right as the herd bore down on him, and the lead bull put its horn clean through his back and out his stomach, throwing him about 40 feet forward in the process. The stadium is about 20 meters ahead. The wooden gates are funnelling everyone down through the narrow entrance. We’re running full speed, shoulder to shoulder. There’s the gate. And it’s fucking closing. It’s made of two doors. The left side is already closed. Stay right. The right door is closing. I’m 10 meters out. No one slows. In the next instant, we slam up against the orange wood, forcing our way through...A second gate! No one said shit about the second gate, a metal barrier to keep what’s in the ring in...the left side is already closed, Stay right! We slam against it, again overwhelming la policia trying to get it closed...we shoot through the last tunnel and burst out into the light of the bull fighting ring, which is packed to a capacity crowd of over 5,000 people screaming their head offs like we were gladiators waiting to take on some wild beasts for their amusement. Oh yeah.

I had decided ahead of time that I wasn’t going to hang around in the ring. After the bulls are herded into their pens (to face certain death later that night at the hands of a matador), they let fresh bulls out one by one to trample people. The bulls dart around in circles, thrashing anyone trying to taunt it, and many other who are just trying to get out of the way. Bulls can turn on a dime and have much better peripheral vision than humans. When you come at a bull from the side, to slap it with your newspaper he sees you and will turn and throw you up in the air. He won’t be finished with you until you stop moving. Stay down.

I move to the outside of the ring. Don’t see Damon. All the bulls have been herded. Okay, compromise, I won’t leave yet, I’ll hang on the edge, and if a bull comes I’ll jump over to safety. La policia would have none of it. They came and shoved people one by one off the edge and either pushed them into the ring, or dragged them out into the stands if one indicated he wanted out. When an officer got to me, I held out my hand and he pulled me over the wall. I jumped down the other side and looked myself over to make sure I was really all still there.

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