On Wednesday at exactly 8 A.M., a rocket will be fired and a corral door opened and six fighting bulls and a herd of steers will be released into the streets of Pamplona, Spain.
It is a tradition that has taken place every July for hundreds of years. If luck holds, I will be in the street, once again as I have been for every “encierro” or “bullrun” as it is commonly known, since 1967.
Why would a man in his 60s with two small children, who has been gored by those very same bulls three times, who had his ribs and his arm broken and his hip replaced as the result of a goring, be doing such a seemingly insane thing?
A question I have been asked for years. My sainted mother used to say every year before I would run, “Son, why didn’t you take up the piano?”
Like most people, I first read about Pamplona in Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises,” but it was another book that turned running with bulls into an obsession for me.
It was in the pages of Robert Daley’s “The Swords of Spain” that I first saw actual photos of men in the streets of Pamplona in close proximity to bulls.
I was incredulous. Like most Americans I was living a sedate, so-called normal existence. I went to work every day on the subway, read books, took vacations and had a nice life. Going to Spain that first summer changed the way I would view things for the rest of my life.
To stand in the street, with a huge knot in the stomach, afraid of the possibilities of what six fighting bulls can do to you, is unimaginable. Yet the feeling is one I would not trade for anything.
The rocket explodes and you wait for the bulls to come rambling at you and you swallow your fear and you are alive as you are few times in life.
As the years went on I learned it takes great skill to become a good bull runner. It is not mere chance that one sees the same runners, year in and year out, in front of the bulls. It takes years to learn how to position yourself, when to take off, how to get close. Yes, close to the bulls. It is there where you feel the incredible adrenaline rush and where you feel most alive.
The men I began running with are now married with their own children. They are doctors and lawyers and famous journalists and yet there they are every July, as am I, waiting in the street for that rocket that signals life.
If you have something in your life that gives you that same high you are blessed. Don’t question it, just respond to it and let others think what they want.
The friendships I have made with others who share my passion are the greatest in my life. We all share a love of an arcane and unique happening. One cannot imagine, in this day and age of boring conformity, that there is still a place left on earth that allows such an elemental event to take place. Thank heaven for Spain.
So I have been working out in a civilized gym in Paris, all the time thinking of Pamplona, trying to get my aging body into good enough shape for still one more year on the streets, one more run, one more memorable morning when men and bulls tumble together in a celebration of life.
Joseph Distler, a native New Yorker and retired university lecturer who has been running the bulls in Pamplona since 1967.