Friday 20 September 2019

I ran with the bulls . . . and I'd do it again!

Not even the risk of death could put Irish participants off the San Fermin festival

A bull careers towards runners at Pamplona's San Fermin festival
A bull careers towards runners at Pamplona's San Fermin festival
Revellers are pushed by a bull at the end of the 2013 festival
Dubliner Dave Humphreys, left, with fellow runner Simon Kelly
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

It starts with an explosion of fireworks and thousands of foolhardy men, and a few women, run like hell for their lives. For Dubliner Dave Humphreys, charging along with the bulls in Pamplona was another box to be ticked on the bucket list of life.

The small detail that 15 people have been killed – tossed, gored and trampled – since the event began in the city in northern Spain was not going to put him off.

A man is gored during the bull run
A man is gored during the bull run

"It was mad enough, it was crazy enough for me to do it," he told Weekend Review after he returned unscathed from a weekend taking part in the bovine stampede.

"You can feel the vibration from the charge of the bulls before you see them come towards you. It's quite surreal.

"Then you are running with bulls alongside you. People were tripping and falling everywhere and I was jumping over them. Fortunately I didn't get hit."

Another Dubliner, Robert Thackaberry, was not so lucky when he joined in the daredevil rampage last week.

The 28-year-old engineer, who was there for a friend's stag party, was gored by a rampaging bull and knocked out cold.

It was initially feared that he was critically injured. Friends, who were separated from Robert in the stampede, first realised what had happened when they saw TV footage of him being pulled unconscious out of the melee.

Robert later took to Facebook to declare nonchalantly: "Bulls 1 – Robbie 0!! I'll show them next year."

When push comes to horn-rimmed shove, the stag party might have been considered a remarkable success.

The bachelor party scenes involving a tiger in a bathroom in the movie The Hangover seem tame by comparison.

Ultimately, it is the American novelist Ernest Hemingway who is to blame for turning the centre of the Spanish city into a scene like Temple Bar with bulls in mid-July.

The place is filled with American jocks, drunken stag parties as well as the traditional thrill-seeking Spaniards.

Hemingway himself was too wise to go for a saunter with the rampaging herd. But when he turned up in the 1920s and described the scene in his novel The Sun Also Rises, he transformed the bull run into the ultimate macho ambition in America and beyond.

Dave Humphreys, a 30-year-old motoring journalist from Portobello, was not there for a stag party. It was just a bit of a dare between him and his friend, Simon Kelly.

"We talked about doing it during a conversation in January and before I knew it he had booked the tickets," said Dave this week.

"It helps if you are a good runner, but how do you train for an event like that?

"Everybody dresses in a white shirt and white trousers with a red neckerchief. When you are there it's like being part of some bizarre cult.

'When you get there at seven in the morning there is this crazy carnival atmosphere. There is music pumping out of nightclubs, and bands playing out on the street.

"At eight o'clock there was a huge firework explosion indicating that the bulls were released. We were about 150 metres away," Dave said.

"There is a tradition that you don't run until you see the bulls, but that is tricky because there are a lot of bodies in the way and you might not see them coming. The lead bull has a bell around its neck, and when you hear it you know they're close.

"People try to go to the side to avoid the stampede, but then they get pushed back into the middle. Some people just run, others try to stare down the bulls."

Dave added: "Some people in the stampede have been out on the sauce all night, people are tripping and falling everywhere, while others go hell for leather.

"You start running. I looked to my right and there was a whole herd of bulls running alongside me. It happens very quickly. The whole run was over in just four-and-a-half minutes."

Some men are lifted by the bulls with their horns and carried along by their shirts.

The old hands in the stampede are known as "los divinos" (divine ones). They weave their way along from side to side in the herd to avoid getting gored. These experienced runners are said to have religious feelings of serenity.

The most recent death in the stampede was four years ago when Daniel Jimeno from Madrid was gored in the neck by a bull called Capuchino.

In the event's history, 14 of the fatalities were caused by goring, while one man suffocated in a pile-up.

In an average year, as many as 300 runners are injured.

Robert was trampled in the massive crush at the end of the run at the entrance to the bull ring.

He was among a group of 18 friends from Dublin and Scotland who travelled for the stag weekend for his friend, Rob Smyth.

Happily, his injuries turned out to be not as bad as originally thought.

Dave said he didn't find the event as terrifying as he thought it would be.

"When it was actually happening I didn't really feel anything. It was just about survival.

"Five minutes beforehand my stomach was feeling very nervous. People were sending me YouTubes of people being gored. They were telling me I was crazy to do it. I would do it again. Having done it, I don't find it as scary."

The outcome for the bulls themselves is not as benign. After the run they are all slaughtered.

Animal rights activists have tried in vain to put a stop to the event and have even tried to thwart it with a rival spectacle in Pamplona – the "running of the nudes". All to no avail.

The run is, if anything, growing as an attraction for young, macho men, and the odd woman. Its critics would say that Ernest Hemingway has a lot to answer for.

Irish Independent

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