First thing that crossed my mind was that I was an idiot. Honestly, how else can you describe a man whose alarm clock starts shouting at five in the morning. On a vacation.
My second thought, some two hours later, was that I was an idiot.
This can happen when one watches police and security as they barricade the exits from a street. And when one finds himself within the said barricades within the said street. And when one knows that said barricades will be removed only after six raging bulls are done stampeding through the said street.
Between 7:15, when I realized I was in a cage, and 8:00, when the loud bang announced that from that point on, I was sharing the streets of Pamplona with some of the most aggressive creatures ever to inhabit Earth, most of my thoughts were eerily similar to the Thought Nr. 1 and my Thought Nr. 2 of that July morning.
Forty-five minutes is a hella long time.
Enough to to repeat to myself all the advice my Basque father-in-law gave me. “Guide the bull”, he would say, sipping on Patxaran and watching the faded, black and white photographs of his own races. “Of course”, I would respond, without the faintest idea what the hell he was talking about.
“The newspapers are the extension of your arm, don’t forget that”. I haven’t. Aside from everything I ever learned in the chemistry classes and the names of my ex-girlfriends, I never forget anything. Certainly not the pictures of the people who looked exactly as I do today and who were hanging from the bull horns. With and without the papers.
Exactly, I think I’m an idiot.
But, hey, at least I’m an idiot with newspapers. For the fourth time, I roll the morning edition of Diario de Navarra in my palm, and I can’t help but notice that my arm fails to appear significantly longer because of it.
I’m awaken from the complex calculations including the angles, arm and horn lengths by the sound of my cell phone.
“When it says F 2.8, is it good or bad?”
My wife, situated on a balcony just above me, waves with one hand, while holding my Nikon D3 in the other. Contrary to me, she remembers the names of all of my ex-girlfriends, but not how to operate my camera.
“It’s just swell, love”, I answer, losing any hope that I’d be able to accompany the story about the new scar with a matching set of slides. My thoughts wander from horns and angles to why my wife sounds so calm and confident.
I reach conclusion that she must be convinced of my skill, speed and quick decision-making, and that the peace she radiates has nothing to do with the fat insurance policy I took to sweeten the news that I was crossing Atlantic two weeks after we married.
“You’re fast. Go to Estafeta, where the bulls are already a bit tired and slow. You might have a chance to run into the stadium”, Fernando’s advice flashes again. Ok, fast, Estafeta, stadium – I am reaching the phase in which the thoughts have to be reduced to the most basic pieces of information.
The path from where the bulls are at before the race and the stadium goes through four narrow streets and a small square, totaling over 800 meters. Every year, there are eight races, every morning starting with July 7th, the day of Saint Fermin, till July 14th. Most of the bulls finish their uphill run on slippery cobblestone streets under two minutes.
I’m having a hard time applying the attribute “slower” when I know that 1400 pounds of mean meat will run that route faster than the world track and field record holder.
I remember how I insisted on running on the day Jandilla bulls run, the fastest and the most aggressive ones there are. I remember I’m an idiot.
Time for a first prayer. We gather on Santo Domingo and sing the traditional verse:
A San Fermín pedimos
por ser nuestro patrón,
nos guíe en el encierro
dándonos su bendición.
My thoughts about my own intellectual capacity are briefly replaced with a question about Saint Fermin’s stance towards Croatian infidels.
We look good, I think. We’re all in white trousers and white shirts, with red belts and red bandanas to match. We move our fists with rolled newspapers in the rhythm of the verse. For the first time, I feel the magic. I feel one with other runners and bulls.
Then I slowly turn to the left and to the right, trying to guess which ones I’ll be able to outrun.
Third and final prayer. My pulse is still surprisingly low. It won’t be until years later that I’ll find out that I suffer form bradycardia, not coolness.
No time to lose. I leave Santo Domingo and head towards Estafeta. Game time.
“Count the bulls and beware of the people”, the last of Fernando’s wisdoms I can process coherently flashes in my head as I choose the starting position. Nobody can run the whole route, so people spread along the path, waiting to run their part.
Most will be passed by the bulls at a certain point, after which the runners can no longer run. However, to know that it’s safe to stand up afterwards, one has to be sure that he has been passed by all six bulls, as sometimes they separate from the herd.
I remind myself that I could count to six even when I was in a kindergarten. Also, by the time they reach me, the bulls will be so tired that they won’t be able to pass by me anyway. Piece of cake.
First I see the smoke above the corral, then I see the flare, then I hear the bang. We are not alone anymore.
I had no idea one’s pulse can triplicate in one second.
You have to beware of people, because they are more dangerous than the bulls. When someone jumps away from the bull or slips, the chances are you’ll fall if that someone suddenly forms a human heap right in front of your feet.
Contrary to the widespread opinion, more injuries happen falling on the hard stone than from horn piercing.
I knew exact numbers for that, but it seems I started forgetting things. At least I remember in which direction to run.
I have no idea what it looked like when Moses parted the sea, but it must have been damn similar to what I’m looking at right now. Behind my back, the red and white mixture is splitting, leaving the middle free for an angry black mass speeding up – towards me.
I remember when I was little and I had this wager with Tomislav Berger, about how I could jump over the school fence scissors style. I hope my self-evaluation ability has improved since.
A glance over the shoulder, two quick steps, a new glance, and I’m off. I feel wonderful, powerful like when we were breaking Croatian juniors record in four by one hundred meters. I reach my full speed and after a renewed glance I start thinking that I sprinted too soon, how my nerves betrayed me and how I will end up running too far apart from the bulls.
About four thousands of a second and one glance later, I realize I’ve started my sprint too late, not too early. The bulls will be tired, yadda, yadda – really awesome advice, Fernando, thanks for nothing, pal. They slowed down just as much as a transatlantic freighter does when you put a bucket in its tow.
A few seconds later the bulls are on me and something strange starts to happen. As time stops, everything unfolds as if in slow motion. I have time to realize how beautiful and powerful these animals are, feel their breath, hear them stomping. And to run, run like crazy.
Idyll is quickly destroyed, because someone crashes right in front of me, of course. An idiot and a jynx, I’m a perfect combination for a long and happy life. And the guy that fell was that lanky, uncoordinated one, I knew was gonna fall. I knew!
Instinctively, I leap over him in a hurdle jump, clearing his bent head with my leading leg, while my trailing leg… Hey, you can’t have it all, he shouldn’t have fallen right in front of me at the narrowest place along the whole route.
Supposedly that was a nifty looking move, or at least my sister-in-law says so after seeing it on television.
I’m in the stadium. I’m alive.
My wife shows me shady sillhouets she recoreded during the race. She explains it’s hard to photograph bulls, because they run very fast. And she couldn’t really photograph me either, because we were all dressed the same and we were moving really fast, too.
I’m not sure whether it’s because I’m not broken or because we are in Iruña, the oldest cafe in Pamplona, where we eat Txurros and drink hot chocolate denser than quick sand.
We are on our way back to Hondarribia. The sun is shining, the sky is radiantly blue and after detailed analysis, I reach the conclusion that I am probably still an idiot. But, frankly? I don’t give a shit.