Monday, July 10, 2006

Savage Tom & Loads of old bulls

Loads of old bulls

An Smuigin would like to warn readers, that what is detailed below is a true story, Savage Tom did indeed run with the bulls despite his natural frame acting as Gods greatest hinderance. Fair play Savage!

It dawned on me, what I was doing, looking up at the smug people on their balconies. I was packed with thousands of revelers into Pamplona’s central square at about 5.45am. I imagined the Pamplonians overhead taking bets on which one of us wouldn’t survive the next five minutes.

The crowd was fused together with tension. The atmosphere was niggly, like a football match on the verge of violence. Scuffles. Curses in many languages. Everybody afraid and trying not to show it.

We were about to do the bull run - the infamous centerpiece of the St Fermin festival held every year between the 7th and the 15th of July. In three minutes a firecracker will go off and this immovable mass of people would tear down 800 metres of smooth slippy Spanish street pursued by ten half tonne bulls.

They will have one thought racing through their mind faster than they run down this alley – “I’m not faster than a bull!”

I was there as part of a stag weekend. What better way to celebrate a ‘rest of your life’ event by putting yourself in mortal danger. Before leaving many of my friends had helpfully emailed me many pictures and clips of bulls goring people, their horns through indescribable places, trampling people on the hard cobblestone street.

Many of the lads promised spouses, mothers and employers that they would only watch the run. They would definitely not take part. Under any circumstances. No way.

And yet I knew they were in the crowd somewhere, wishing they had room to stretch their hamstrings, nervously awaiting the firecrackers that would signify the bulls’ release behind them.

A young local, who looked much faster than me, cleaves a path through the crowd laughing at us and calling us ‘loco’. The Spaniards in the crowd say a prayer to St Fermin asking that his cloak protects them from the bull. Not wanting to be at a disadvantage I threw down a blend of the Our Father and a Hail Mary – my first prayer in a decade.

It’s unclear where the savage tradition of the run comes from. The tourist literature says its origins ‘reside in the mists of time’. Some people believe it was spawned from a reenactment of the death of St Fermin who was assassinated by atheists in the 15th century. After his murder his body was dragged along the streets by bulls.

It is one of the most popular fiesta in Europe with 250,000 people attending the weeklong party every year. Many of these people will use the kerb for a pillow for one night at least in the week.

The first firecracker goes off: the first bull has left the enclosure. The crowd surges forward. Some at the front sprint ahead. They will arrive in the stadium well ahead of the bulls. The crowd will greet these ‘cowards’ with boos and jeers.

Being at the front has another more practical drawback. The worst panickers are likely to cause a pile-up - target from the bullseye view. Some locals are moving through the crowd towards the bulls. They have sticks they will use to whip the bulls as they run past. Towards us I think with dread.

The crowd frees up and I begin to move. I cannot explain the feeling without reverting to clich├ęs; blind terror. I welcome it; I allow it to wash over me. Terror is the only fuel that will see me through the next 600 metres.

The second firecracker goes off signifying the last bull had left the pen. Every runner now knows that wherever they are the bulls will catch them.

I make it round the first corner; it’s called ‘Hamburger Corner’. Six hundred kilo bulls tend to slide on the slippy cobblestones trying to navigate it. Sometimes people get between it and the thick wooden struts that line the route.

I can’t see the bulls, I can sense them. A wave of panic precedes them like the blast of heat you feel stepping off a plane onto foreign soil. People are now running with their arms, literally swimming through people. I almost surf on the swell of people surging behind me.

There is a great fear that my legs will become tangled up with others and I’ll fall. I remember the advice – lie down, cover your head and don’t ever move. You put your faith in St Fermin’s cloak and hope the bulls or the runners didn’t trample you. I don’t fancy that.

I can hear the bulls now like low-rumbling orchestrated thunder. I catch a Mick Lyons on the cheek from a friendly local. I begin to realise it’s the humans that are the real danger during the run, not the bulls.

I run faster.

But I can hear the bulls behind me, they are running faster.

Amidst the panic I see a fence in front of me. A scaleable fence. Escape. Two of my fellow runners are thinking the same thing and mount it. Two police officers push them back into the run – too many climbers and the fence collapses freeing the bulls.

I realise I will have to run to the end. Or until I’m gored, whichever comes first.

On cue the bulls catch up to me. One passes on my right. That leaves at least six. Maths on the run. They tend to run in diamond formation. In other words there could be two directly behind me.

A couple of metres ahead I see the stadium. I’m gasping and my thighs are burning.

A tourist falls in front of me presenting me with a deadly Multiple Choice Questionnaire.

You’re on the bull-run and someone falls in front of you. Do you:

A. Stop to try to pick them up, risk getting floored, trampled and gored yourself?
B. Do you try to run around them and possibly out in front of a bull?
C. Do you stand on the person using them as a springboard and hope the bulls don’t get them?

The answer I’m afraid is obvious. St Fermin protect and save him.

The bulls overtake me. The danger passes. I enter the stadium in a chariot of elation. Thousands of spectators greet us with roars. It’s over. Gasp. I’ve survived. Gasp.

Looking around as I try to slow my heart down and breathe again. I don’t see many other smiling faces. People – you’ve survived a bull run, smile a little.

Then to my right two people fly into the air. The crowd surges in one direction, away from an unseen terror. A bull has been released into the crowd and is dunting anyone it can. The crowd cheers each time it sends a reveler into the air.

I’ve had enough. I perch on a fence to watch the macho locals and drunken tourists teasing the bull, hitting it with newspapers. This highlights the brutality of the festival.

In the arena, like on the run, humans are the big danger. One tourist pulled the bull’s tail - a sign of disrespect – for which the locals gave him a beating. Hitting a bull with newspapers, rubbing Vaseline in its eyes, and killing it monstrously is fair game it seems, but never pull its tail.

I was told all the bulls involved in the run would be killed by the matador that night and felt a twang of regret. But this was Pamplona. The next day I awoke to run again – the bulls trampled my sympathy into the cobblestones as they chased me up the narrow street.