A fantastic story on my summer in Spain made the back cover of Diario de Navarra September 29th 2016.
This is the final wrap-up of my Dangerous Summer blog, exploring my adventures running with the bulls in the Pueblos of Spain for the Chicago Tribune RedEye.
I arrived home to Pamplona. It felt great especially after all the ups and downs I’d gone through that summer, the depression, the injuries, the peaks and valley of my passion for the bulls and the nasty backstabbing from some of the British and American runners. I got up to Tom’s place and crashed. The next morning, I was sitting in front of my new favorite café in Plaza de Castillo writing when a rich and gravelly voice flowed from the stone archways.
“Back in Pamplona again… Back where a friend is a friend… Where long horned cattle feed on the lonely mozos deed… Back in Pamplona again…” Gowen emerged from the shadows and gave me a sound pat on the back and the overwhelming musical hilarity that is being in the company of Tom Gowen commenced.
He had a shirt designed by a friend of his, it read “Trump Putin ’16, Make Tyranny Great Again”. I bought one and we went on his regular day in Pamplona going to his favorite restaurant where he basically waits on himself and hardly eats while bantering with the owner and friends. An older couple walked in from the next room with Gowen at one point and he said “Bill, meet my friend Atanasio”. I shook his hand and he was a very friendly guy, his wife was nice too. Then when he went to sit, it dawned on me that the man I just met might be arguably the greatest bull runner of the past century. I asked Gowen “Is that Atanasio the bull runner?”
“Yeah, it’s Ata, the seventh bulls, well that’s what Carney used to call him anyway.”
Later when we went to the balcony for a smoke I shook Ata’s hand again and told him it was an honor.
Gowen was like that though, no pageantry no BS just hey this is my friend meet him. Gowen hated the hand job stuff that most of the regular foreign runners played into. For Gowen, Spain was just about friends, fun, and stories.
That night Maria, Tom and I headed to Novallas where I’d run earlier in the summer and had some fun. We headed home and found out that JuanPe had invited us to go to Lodosa with him for the bull on a rope festival. Tom was excited to meet JuanPe and hang with him.
That night Tom pulled out his copy of the famous Matt Carney USA sweater. He said he wanted me to wear it for my final runs this summer. I of course said, yes. I was deeply honored to wear it.
JuanPe picked us up and we headed out. I kept trying to tell JuanPe that when Tom was out of ear shot that Tom was kind of a legendary runner from the 70’s but it didn’t sink in right away. We went to the big square and as they prepared to release the bull, one of JuanPe’s friends asked if Tom wanted to watch from a balcony and Tom said no thank you. It started to set in that it was about to get extremely dangerous and I began to worry about my 70-year-old friend’s safety. I started to try and take Tom to the fence while he told me “I’m fine!”. Then the brown bull shot out of the truck like a rocket and I got between the bull and Tom and it luckily shot off past us at light speed with Miguel Leza and JuanPe on the horns.
They disappeared and Tom and I had a not so nice conversation about me trying to protect him.
“You gotta stop this trying to protect me crap!”
“What if you get gored or die, Tom? All of the blame will be on me.”
“Like hell it will. If it’s my time to go. It’s my time to go.”
“Alright, you gotta absolve me of any sin if something happens.”
“You are absolved, I know what I’m doing and if something happens it was my time.”
“Alright.” I shrugged.
We shook hands on that and I went and found JuanPe as Tom stayed behind. Two guys had been seriously injured, one gored badly and the other with a major head injury from being tossed. There was a big trail of blood on the street and medics rushing around.
I got in the action a little bit and JuanPe took this picture of me with the gorgeous animal.
They put the bull on a truck and we picked up Tom and headed to the Plaza de Toros. That’s when Tom started to really shine. All the older guys in Lodosa realized who he was and then phone calls started coming in and suddenly Tom was the new king of Lodosa. They took us back behind the scenes in the Plaza de Toros and it was pretty cool. We got to see one of the bulls up close and the guys who handle the ropes were doing some fancy work with him. JuanPe drove us home and Tom and had a great talk and really hit it off which was nice. I hoped they would. They are two of my favorite guys in the world of the bulls.
After so many runs in Valladolid I was jones-ing for some serious running. That evening I headed out alone and went to a little suburb of Pamplona called Zizur Mayor. The course was four streets that made the shape of a rectangle, the longer streets where about 60 yards long. They released vaca, two at a time and the streets where full of kids from about 13-18. We ran vaca for an hour. I recognized a bunch of kids from all over the place they recognized me too, one was the young kid from Indian decent, I’d observed in Puente la Reina and he was running really well. There was another Basque kid running with a lot of passion reminding me of a young Aitor. It was nice to see the tradition so alive there were easily 400 kids in the streets and another 400 watching on the fencing. This had a serious feel to it, a lot for fierce energy, like the kids where pushing each other to the limit to get close and control the animals.
I took off with vaca still in the street and headed to Olite. It was night by then and I started running vaca into this little square and there was a family and a few little boys hanging behind a chest-high wooden wall like they have at the openings in the ring. I was running the vaca very close with the teenagers and I got a little too close one time and barely escaped and the teen aged mozos got together and told me sternly that I had to slow down give more space or I was going to get hurt. I humbly said ok and thanked them for their advice. The very next time we ran together with this lead vaca that was really vicious and she followed us to the fence in the little plaza and we hit the fence and for some reason I just stood there gripping the barricade. The vaca was hooking l like crazy as the boys climbed the barricade and hitting their legs with her horns before she ran away and they scrambled up the the barricade. They were all ok but shaken and I grinned and wagged my finger at them, telling them they were running too close and we all laughed.
I passed my 200th run that run and that’s when I stopped counting. It was never about a number to me, it was just a silly thing to do to catch the eye of the media in the USA, in order to help promote the culture in the Pueblos. And 200 runs in one summer does do some justice to how many times you can run with the bulls in one summer in Spain though if I had the money I could have run a lot more. I started the summer with 99 runs experience and now I’ve cleared more than 300 runs total in my life but number’s like that really don’t matter. So after that I stopped counting and had a blast running with the kids until the very last run of the night.
The next day Tom and I headed to Sanguesa and met up with Carmelo and I left Tom with Carmelo and tried to run the later stretch but Sanguesa was just too chaotic and I didn’t get off the fence hardly. We had breakfast and headed to Olite. I hoped the family and kids would all be there but they weren’t.
We got on the course and the plan was to get Tom behind the little wooden wall and to do some running to impress him. He was disappointed with my efforts in Sanguesa, but I didn’t care, and he really didn’t either, there were many layers to our friendship, sometimes he’s my guru grampa, others I’m his mom, and often times we’re both mischievous twelve-year-old knuckleheads and sometimes he’s an older brother to me jabbing me any chance he gets. I’d nicknamed him Don Tommy Boy, in Spain and Latin America “Don” is put in front of a highly respected elder’s first name and calling him Tommy-Boy was my way of showing that deep down he’s still just a boy. I have the utmost respect for Gowen, he’s arguably the greatest American Bull runner since Matt Carney but I also want to celebrate his boyish nature.
A woman in Olite was yelling that Tom was drunk and for me to get him off the course. I can assure you Don-Tommy-Boy was very far from drunk, he had a cocktail in his hand but it was the first of the day and this was about noon so there was no chance of him still being drunk from the night before. And he had only taken few sips of the cocktail he was far from finished with it. I will admit that Tom’s gregarious and loud manor and my constant laughing at his commentary might have caused the confusion which was later falsely reported in the Olite local paper. So he was drunk on life and not intoxicated.
An officer did come and remove Tom from the course and I did tell Tom “Why not stay out there? I’ll run right here.” But if you know Gowen at all you know there is no telling Gowen anything and when the officer walked off Gowen climbed the fence and growled “If you don’t catch me I’m gonna…” then he fell on me, I did catch him and we set up behind the chest-high wooden wall. I will let Gowen tell the rest.
“We were having a nice morning in Olite. So there we were in Olite Bill and I. There was no music yet so we decided to do the encierro. It was Bill’s 200 and first this summer and my first in a while. There was a barricade in front of a doorway like there is in a Bullfight so we were behind it watching a big Novillo come through. I wanted to see him closer, so I draped my red raincoat/cape over the front of the barricade and cited him and he came. He was banging against the barricade with his sadly blunted horns, while I watched from the distance of a foot or so with Bill behind me ready to yank me away through the barricade if he got through. So I got to see him close up and personal.
He was banging his right horn against the wall, and banging his head against the sharp end of barricade, the left horn was inside the barricade searching for me. I got his size, the muscles in his shoulders and back.
Then he left.
He passed another time going down the street. Bill went out to check his trajectory and distance and I came out behind him, we walked down the street waiting for him to come back. Bill went down ahead. I stood like a tree in the pasture with my coat/cape waiting in front of me ready to be opened. That’s the last thing I remember until waking up in a doorway with Bill and the animal was gone. The next thing I remember was being in the ambulance talking with Bill, in no pain whatsoever and off we went to the hospital end of story.”
My side of the story is titled ‘How I saved Tom Gowen’s life four times’:
I have saved several people’s lives over the years, usually during drunken escapades or violent situations, car crashes, guns, stuff like that but I have never saved anyone’s life more than once until that day Olite.
(1) The first one was when Gowen chose to stand still like a tree in the pasture in front of a wooden door. As I led the Bull and vaca down the street past him, the bull gave Gowen a hard look and slowed. I shouted loudly and waved my paper and kept the bull moving.
I ran into the plaza and dove behind the wall we’d been using earlier. The bull looked at me behind the little wooden wall and I swear to god, I saw the animal thinking, remembering the guy with the red jacket and he turned around and ran right back to where Tom was in the street. I followed shouting and clapping trying to get his attention. The animal came right up to Tom, dropped his head and barreled into him. Tom seemed to be weathering the storm well when the bull dug his horn into the back of Tom’s knee and flipped him into a terrible cartwheel. Don-Tommy-Boy went for a ride that ended with him unconscious on the sidewalk.
(2) The bull continued to try and gore Tom as I rushed up and grabbed the base of his nearest horn. The Bull lunged at me tossing me backward. I stumbled but stayed up then he charged at me and I dashed away hoping he’d follow. He looked me in the eyes with a look that said ‘I can’t catch you but I can fuck your friend up some more’. He turned back and continued to gore Tom picking him up and breaking the door open with his body. (3) I stomped into the animal’s space again screaming and waving my arms as the other runners rushed in from all around and the bull took off with the vaca behind him. Tom was unconscious and not making a sound. The animals had gone in a direction I knew they would return from. (4) I quickly took Tom and drug him into the opened doorway then closed the broken door behind us. It wouldn’t close properly and the bull and vaca returned trying to find Tom. Their horns hit the door and I smashed the door shut and screamed at them to go the fuck away and they finally disappeared. And for a moment we were alone in the dark entry way, Tom’s blood oozed from several places and was smeared all over me and the white tile floor. It was very quiet. Regret filled the darkness. Then Tom started moaning and I was very grateful he was a live. I knelt down and took his hand in mine and told him I was there. Other’s came to help and Tom came too and immediately gripped my hand and told me.
“Help me up, Goddamnit!”
I was really happy he felt good enough to try and stand but I just ignored him because I was not helping him up until he was seen by medics! He continued to yell at me and the other guy who was helping Tom put his knee in Tom’s chest to keep him from getting up.
The ambulance pulled up and the medics moved in. I stepped away to not be in the way of their work.
Then to my astonishment with the help of the medics Gowen stood on shaky legs like a new born fawn. I couldn’t believe it. For a 70-year-old man to stand up after such a brutal mauling and being unconscious for nearly a minute was without a doubt the greatest act of pure toughness I have ever witnessed in my life.
They helped him onto the stretcher.
That’s when the real fun started. Gowen began cracking jokes and hitting on the female medics.
I followed the ambulance to Hospital de Navarra in Pamplona. I found Gowen singing telling stories and bantering as the doctors and nurses worked on him.
He’d received three horn wounds, the one on his head was probably the most impressive. The worst injury was probably the ribs which were later diagnosed as fractured front and back.
No one suffers like Gowen he made some of the most hilarious noises you will ever hear often times turning groans of agony into songs.
His jokes and hilarious banter never stopped. He got crabby at some points and really dug into me but we weathered it all and I took him to Hotel La Perla where he got a room because he they had an elevator and he’s friends with the owners and staff, although one lady was really rude to me but Gowen later straightened her out. I was wheeling him around in a wheel chair that night and his friend took him to dinner and I crashed. The next day Gowen walked over and snuck up on me I turned to see him standing on his own. I couldn’t believe it. Gowen is one tough motherfucker.
That night we headed over to the Toki Leza and Gowen got a young woman to come who he’d met and charmed a few days before. She was obsessed with Janice Joplin and Gowen of course knew Joplin. Gowen got her to get up on stage and sing, something she hadn’t done in a while but Gowen was like that, he drew your best stuff out of you.
Then Gowen got up on stage and sang one of my favorite songs a John Prine classic then he sang “The City of New Orleans”.
It was unreal for me that Gowen had survived the mauling let alone was here in his favorite bar in Pamplona singing with so much heart. I couldn’t help but love the man, who is at once a Maestro of the highest regard and a young playful child, Viva Don-Tommy-Boy.
Tordesillas is famous for its ancient festival of Toro de la Vega this is the act of a single man engaging a fully grown bull on foot with only a spear. The bull of course had two spears (his horns) and more than a thousand pounds of muscle more than the man. If the man is skilled and lucky he kills the bull with the spear. Similar rituals are carried out all over the world, in Africa tribesman kill Lions, in North America tribesman kill wales. Whether or not flimsy, modern-day pop-culture accepts these traditions is not important. The fact that hunting is an innately human right is completely undeniable.
Either way human culture was dealt terrible and tragic blow this year when the regional government banned Toro de la Vega in Tordesillas. The mayor of Tordesillas lashed out against the ruling and the fight is far from over but this year the town was forced to put on a bloodless version of the great tradition called Toro de la Peña.
This was the heart of a huge global story on the tradition and the future of the taurine world in Spain. Ten thousand animal rights activists planned to attend Toro de la Peña, I assume, to rub it in the locals faces that they’d won. There was a group of boxers and mma fighters (who were also animal rights activists) planned to attend, threatening violence against the locals. The leader was a washed up boxer with a crappy record who was trying to use their participation in the protest as a way to publicize a fight he wanted with the Spanish champion who was actually a good boxer and would easily kick the leader’s ass. I had always fancied a professional career as a boxer and if I crossed paths with this loser and he was bullying or getting violent with the locals I planned on knocking him out cold. It would be about as close to a professional boxing career as I could get and the right thing to do, no trained boxer should ever bully innocent people.
I headed to Tordesillas the next day for an encierro. Tordesillas has an incredible tall and beautiful bridge that spans a huge fast moving river that was glowing in the afternoon light. Cars and horses passed by along the bridge. The town sits high on a hill on the far banks and it is truly spectacular. The run was with horses and had an embudo that funneled into a circular intersection with three big rocks in the grassy field in the center right before the bridge into town. I was hanging out trying to figure out a way to film it, when three ten-year-old boys walked up and started trying to climb one of the rocks to sit on it and watch during the encierro. I gave them some help and hoisted them up. They were very impressed with me and said I was a badass. I thought about it and realized the little boys probably could do a live feed video on facebook with my phone because kids that age are more tech savvy than me. They agreed and when the first few sueltos came through they captured some great video. Their commentary is really hilarious and some of it is in English. Then when the feed was getting hundreds of viewers they dropped the phone down to the grass below! The dialog in that moment was really funny, then they even convinced a runner to pick it up and hand it back to them!
The first video is very good:
Second video has the drop in it! Happens at 2:15 seconds it’s truly hilarious to hear them bickering!
I was having some really nice runs with the Sueltos and a photographer named Jonathan Cid, who was on an adjacent rock captured this beautiful photo.
In the midst of the long run with Sueltos and long pauses between animals coming through the embudo a friendly group of locals started chatting with me. One was a gregarious guy named Teo Diez Lopez. The other was humongus he looked like a World’s Strongest Man champion his name was Antonio Diez Posada but as big and mean as he looked he was equally nice. They invited me to their Peña for a meal and I agreed.
I helped my young film makers down from the big rock and thanked them heartily for their help. It was pretty impressive work and the drop was a nice splice of humor and they thanked me for the help climbing.
Their clubhouse was a nice little spot with a backyard and a big grill and all their families were there and I drank a bunch of zero beer and ate some great meat listened to their stories and then we got on the topic of Toro de la Vega. Teo was especially upset about it and called the new version the politicians had forced on them, Toro de la Pena “Bull of the shame”. He also had this to say.
“When we learned that there wouldn’t be a Toro de la Vega we had a mixture of feelings. Mainly a lot of anger. All the defenders of the Vega bull, feel cheated by politicians when they presented the decree that there would be no tournament. The Toro de la Vega tournament is regulated so that the animal is in the same conditions as the lancers. Face to face, body to body. So the La Vega bull song says. La Vega bull is much more than what they show on the TV, which edit the material to make Tordesillas look bad.”
They showed me footage of the animal rights activists trying to break the fencing protecting children and old people from the bull. I can’t believe the Animal Rights Activists escaped prosecution for attempted murder. Not to mention that breaking a fencing like that was a form of attempted suicide as well. It was a terrorist attack on the culture and people of Tordesillas and potentially a suicide attack. The video really disturbed me and I felt very sorry for the people of Tordesillas. They were nice, simple, wholesome people and they and all of Spain had suffered a great loss in the forced ending of a many centuries old tradition. I promised my new friends I would return for Toro de la Peña.
I went over to Cuellar to see Dyango that night. I got a little food poisoning and as we were chilling out at the park playing with his dog I suddenly got the urge to vomit. I puked three times and decided to head back to Medina to sleep. I was in bad shape.
I woke and was still sick but decided I had to go and see the front lines of this cultural battle front anyway. I drove to Tordesillas and there were police everywhere. I parked a mile outside town and started walking in and was happy to see Antonio Diez Posada stomping around angrily with a flag protesting the end of Toro de la Vega. I walked up and at first he didn’t recognize me and grimaced but then he did recognize me and told me to come with him. He marched into the woods. I figured if the gang of boxers and mma fighter anti taurinos where lurking around it was best to be with the biggest badest guy in all of Tordesillas, him and I could probably of kicked that whole crew’s ass.
As we stomped through the forest a big cold wind rushed up and the sky darkened and suddenly cold and heavy rain poured down on us. I decided to head out on my own as Antonio stomped off into the woods again his protest flag waving wildly in wind. I got to the circle intersection with the three big rocks and the bull was there trotting through a sea of mozos. There was a large group of Animal Rights Activists obnoxiously chanting in the rain. A huge group of police stood between them and the ancient culture they hoped to crush completely.
There was a dark sadness in the air as the bull scanned and trotted through the people. I was soaked to the bone and trembling in the cold wind. My stomach was really upset and I thought about going to see if the anti-taurino boxers and mma guys were there then an image flashed in my mind of one punching me in my upset stomach and my bowels emptying through my shorts onto the wet pavement. I decided just to leave. There wasn’t any point in making myself sicker than I already was and the activists weren’t being violent at that time. I wanted to tell the activists that the bull used in Toro de la Peña was not going to live happily ever after like in a Disney Film, it would eventually be slaughtered either in a ring or in a factory. He was still cattle, he would still be consumed by humans. No one was more heartbroken and angry than the locals including Teo Diez Lopez.
“The day of the Toro de la Peña was very hard, because in addition of not having the tournament the anti-bullfighting protesters were there to bother us, even without a tournament. And the worst is that they were there just there to insult us, assault us, and to disturb, if not worse. I would tell to the animal rights activists to inform themselves before protesting. Toro de la Vega is much more than what they show on the TV, which edit the material to make Tordesillas look bad.”
I hope that this is not the end of Toro de la Vega, I hope that the people can rise up and fight and protect the ancient culture they’ve inherited from their fathers and grandfathers down through countless generations. If it really is the end of Toro de la Vega it would truly be a Toro de la Pena (shame) for El Mundo de Toro and for human culture as a whole.
I was planning to leave Medina del Campo after the festival ended it but my friend Luis Antonio Prieto asked me to come to his festival in his hometown of Laguna de Duero. Larry Belcher had told us about a Valladolid Circuit and how you could run a lot of runs in one night during it. I researched further while hanging out at Bar Castellano and found that sure enough the circuit was in full swing. There were four towns that night I could run, they were spaced out and timed just right. I went to Laguna de Duero first. Laguna de Duero is a nice town just south of Valladolid city. There is a a huge and beautiful lagoon, and the main strip is full of tall buildings and food and drink tents and wild parades, it’s really happening. I waited for Luis on the course. Luis is a really warm spirit, we’d bonded on the course running the horns of bulls in Cuellar and we’d met up in Pamplona too. He had a really calm strong presence.
Luis appeared on the clean streets of Laguna and we greeted each other warmly. Luis explained that the four bulls would run up and down the street anywhere from 4 to 8 times depending how tired they got. As we prepared to run a mother and her two grammar school aged daughters came up and started bantering with us. They playfully didn’t believe that I was a runner so I showed them some pictures on my phone and they were impressed. They lived right where we were going to run and got in there window to watch and Luis and I set up so we could put a show on for them. As the rocket went off the already nearly empty streets in Laguna completely cleared. It was just Luis and I. The four bulls came into view around a corner about 300 yards away. We watched them swing and hook for a few runners cutting completely across the street. We prepared to run shoulder to shoulder and as they closed in to about 15 yards we started running. We lead the four black bulls in a tight group finding their pace and rocketed up the street with them. I chose to exit into a big hotel door with a lot of drunken guys standing in it, Luis took the bulls up another thirty yards before he hit the fence. Then a few minutes later they came back and we ran them again. When we passed the window the mom and little girls were in I was feeling pretty comfortable and said “Hola Chicas!” and gave them a little wave as they giggled. This time we took them another hundred yards and I cut out to some fencing and Luis took them another twenty or so. We ran two more times and it was so quiet we could hear the bulls breathing and the hooves clapping and we were communicating with them and each other as we went and it was a very special half hour with the animals and with my friend Luis.
Afterward we did a little interview with the local paper in Laguna and then I took off for Boicillo with a warm goodbye and a sincere thank you.
I arrived in Boicillo with about 30 minutes to spare. Boicillo was really interesting they had sand in most stretches of the street. There was a residential area at first with fencing then it got real dark and went past a park into an interesting ring.
They ended up letting somewhere around 15-20 animals loose; bulls, steers, and vaca from both the ring and the pens. So I was running one bull toward the ring when the local runners shouted at me to look out when a bull came flying directly at me and I had just a split second to hit the fence. There was a big group of young local runners and they were doing an excellent job of communicating or else there would have been a ton of injuries in Boicillo. After 10 long runs on the horns of bulls and vaca and ridiculously large packs of both I decided to head out to the next town of Simancas but I couldn’t get off the course because there was a traffic jam of animals blocking the way. That and the grip the bulls had on me was really strong and made it very hard to leave a place I was on the horns to drive and find another place to run. But after two more dashes on the horns I escaped the taurine clutches of Boicillo and got on the road for Simancas.
I found Simancas and got on the course right next to the bullring and looked up at a hill so long and steep it rivals El Pilon. I ran up the hill and bumped into Chucky from Bar Castellano and then the kids I was running with from Boicillo. It was a nice welcome and they explained that the bulls were Sueltos and refusing to come up the street but they could at any moment so be ready. After 45 minutes of waiting I got restless and started walking the incredibly hilly course of Simancas to find out what was happening.
I made a livestream video the next night of the dramatically hilly course and one of my high school football buddies started heckling me and I was responding when little boy attacked me with a explosive (:a firecraker:) then laughed at with a wicked little giggle. I think Matt Thomas and him were conspiring against me! As you can see I still haven’t fully recovered from the shocking surprise bombing! (Firecracker incident takes place at 3:36 in video).
That first night as I walked up and down the hills I finally saw the nervous runners cutting back and forth and shouting and then of course the bulls came charging up the street and I had to run about three quarters of the course with them. When I got to the final stretch I led the first bull who was giant with wide horns down the very steep hill with a couple of my friends from Boicillo. We took him right onto the sand and after a few high fives I took off for Navas del Rey. I got to the course and parked illegally and dashed over and jumped the fence, the run was already going and I saw a young Pastore and asked what to expect and he shouted 6 vaquilla and I looked back and they came flying out of the callejon. I ran them with the local tenagers and it was a lot of fun. They started running the vaquilla back and forth with little five minute breaks in between. I managed to order a Kebob sandwich in between one of the runs then ran the horns of the Vaquilla while taking bites of the sandwich. The local teenage boys where running impossibly close to the vaquilla’s horns then making out with their girlfriends between runs. This was 2:30am but Navas del Rey was in full fiesta mode with toddlers in pajamas watching, cheering and dancing on balconies and old men standing with their canes in their doorways that opened onto the course. I ran eleven runs before they finally shut it down for the night in Navas and all total I had run the horns of animals 28 individual times that night. I was on the verge of hitting my new goal of 150 and so I set a new goal of 200 runs in one summer.
I was able to return to Laguna de Duero the next night and this time Luis had his friend and girlfriend with him and they watched. Luis’s girlfriend made some videos of us. We ran a different section and this night there were way more people on the street but we kept having the same kind of runs shoulder-to-shoulder for long stretches with the pack of four bulls. I ran into another one of my friends there Javier Delgado who I ran with in Pamplona and he was having some sensational runs, we’d hand the bulls off to him and he’d run them all the way out of sight into the ring.
Luis and I just kept laughing in between runs and high-five-ing, it was so much good fun it was hard to believe how smooth it was going with no problems or injuries. Then after the runs ended a fat drunk guy came up and started to complain to Luis, that Luid and I were hogging the horns of the bulls. We weren’t and were actually transitioning on and off with the other runners very seamlessly and generously. The guy was just being a jerk. I was astonished by Luis’s grace with the guy. He just explained that he was welcome to run with us and that if he thought it was difficult to get a good run in Laguna, he should see what it was like in Pamplona. A younger more reckless version of myself would have probably knocked the guy on his ass, but that night I wasn’t going to let anything ruin the fun night Luis and I had on the horns. We both just laughed at the guys nonsense and went to watch the Capea.
I returned to Simancas and led a big Suelto down the hill with the older runner with glasses and a shaved head, I’d been running with a lot in the Callejon in Medina. I never got to greet him so I figured I’d say hi to him as the bull paused and we led the bull into the ring.
Then I shot over to Arrabal de Portillo where they had sort of a mixture of a run and a recortador exhibition on the streets. I was running with a local kid and we where taking bulls at full sprint 80-100 yards to the arena. He was also doing some fancy work as a recortador and I asked him and he said he liked being both a mozo and a recortador. I ran there with my new friend well into the night. He reminded me of a teenage version of David Rodriguez.
The next day Dyango wrote me telling me there was some trouble brewing in the nearby town of Tordesillas with animal rights activists. I decided to head over the next day and check it out.
My Spanish friends were always saying amazing things about Medina del Campo. It was very high on my list of runs I wanted to experience.
I arrived to town and located the main square. The size and beauty of it appalled me. It was old and gorgeous and immaculate and it rivaled Plaza de Castillo for beauty, didn’t beat it but rivaled it for sure. Medina like Pamplona is more of a city than a town.
Dyango Velasco and Juan Pedro Lecuona both highly recommended Juan Carlos Rebollo as a person and in Spain you cannot possibly come more highly recommended to me. I was lost however and a little late and received a message from Juan Carlos to meet him at the Plaza de Toros. I found the barricades of the encierro and parked thinking the Plaza de toros couldn’t be too far. I was wrong because Medina del Campo has one of the longest encierro courses in Spain measuring around 2 Kilometers from embudo to plaza de toros. I realized this and started jogging trying to not keep Juan Carlos waiting.
I got to the Plaza de Toros and Juan Carlos greeted me warmly and brought me up to the ring where his family was watching in the stands for all the bulls of feria to be released into the ring. The drive the truck containing the bulls into the ring then build a ramp and release steers into the ring then open the doors one by one and the bulls storm out and chase and poke at the steers sometimes battling each other. Then they bring them into the pens and the old truck leaves and a new one arrives. The bulls where magnificent a really strong showing from some impressive ranches, Juan Carlos’s young son was very excited about the animals and we exchanged a few high fives as they stormed out of the trucks. Afterward we headed to my book event that Juan Carlos set up in the Town Hall near the main plaza. It was set up in a fancy courtroom or possibly where to local town government holds meetings. The crowd was very friendly. I was having trouble expressing myself in Spanish I have good days and bad days and this was a very bad one for my Spanish. A local woman in the front row asked if I wanted her to help and she came up and did a fine job translating. In the end I was very pleased with the event and we headed to a local bar for a few drinks and a chat afterward before I drove back to Cuéllar to sleep.
The next morning I got up early and drove in to Medina del Campo, they hold their encierro at a very relaxed 9am. I am not a morning person, so I already liked Medina’s encierro a lot. I arrived and parked near the arena and realized that the embudo and the plaza where only about two blocks away from each other. Dyango had mentioned that you could run both and it was clear that it would be very easy to run both the embudo and callejon every day because of how incredibly long the course was.
A couple of the foreigners had made the trek over and it was nice to see some familiar faces in such a new place. Then I started seeing familiar faces of the local runners, Pablo was there and he started giving me the low down on what to expect in the Embudo.
After a while I got restless and decided to walk out about a hundred yards into the field where a couple hundred people stood. Everyone out there peered into the fields and suddenly the calm peaceful horizon began to move erratically cars and then the poles of the horsemen began to appear. And then I realized the dark spots on the horizon line where hundreds of horsemen and the herd of bulls and steers and they were closing in fast. I ran back to the embudo and the horsemen began to flood into view in the fields.
Ran the horns of the first bull then ran the horns of the second bull then ran down to the plaza de toros and ran the horns of the first bull there and then sat out the third bull because they didn’t have the doors to the plaza open with Anthony. They did open as the bull approached but it was always better to air on the side of caution when it’s your first time in a town.
I’d been feeling this strange sensation as if the animals were drawing me. I wasn’t choosing to run this way, in fact every morning before the run I was doing everything I could to talk myself out of running at all. You don’t have to, go easy today, you went hard yesterday, take a day off, you’re sore, and then the bulls would come and there I was on the horns again and again in the same morning. I didn’t want it or try to do it. The animals called to me and drew me close to lead them. I take no responsibility for it.
Maybe that’s how Atanasio or Carney or Rodriguez or Gowen or JuanPe or Turly or Aitor felt and feel all the time, like bulls are drawing them close, I really don’t know, because I am not great, nor will I ever be great like those runners. But for the ten days or so it lasted it was a very exotic, beautiful, nightmarish and intoxicating Taurine dream.
I don’t know if I’ll ever fall into that trance again and I don’t know if I want to. There’s just more to life then bulls or at least that’s what I keep telling myself.
The animals never cease to amaze me. Their intellect, the variance in temperament and agility and the complexity of each individual animal, how it’s mood can shift so dramatically in a split second and how other times they can almost speak to you with their eyes and their faces, they can almost trust you. I am very much in love with this animal.
That night I met Juan Carlos and his family for the Cortes championships of Medina de Campo. In Medina del Campo they don’t call them Recortadores they call them Cortes but either way Medina had the finest bull dodgers in all of Spain.
It was a thrilling spectacle. I recognized a lot of the Cortes from places like Iscar and other nearby towns. In one of the semi-finals a Corte was gored and tossed terribly. I closed my eyes and listened to the crowd’s anguished roars and opened them to see every single Corte in the competition and others who weren’t competing in the animals space attracting him away from their fallen friend. They carried him away to the infirmary, he’d received two cornadas. Later another incredible Corte made an impossible Corte and when he arched his back it struck the bulls head who’d leaped up toward him. The collision broke ribs and canceled him from competition but the crowd really loved him for the spectacular display. After the Cortes champion was crowned they called all the old champions down from the crowd and they all made Cortes with the final bull the capacity crowd in the big Plaza de Toros was rocking and rolling. It was quite a sight and I eagerly thanked Juan Carlos for inviting me.
Chapu Apaolaza was in town with his journalist friend Juan Ramon Lucas and we started to really bond running together. I ended up being part of Apaolaza book event and wanted to say something at the event but the conversation was flowing and I didn’t want to bog it down. My book is interesting because it is about how the heart of the tradition changed my life for the better. Apaolaza’s book is great because it is the heart of the tradition. I’m grateful for Apaolaza’s friendship it is already changing me for the better.
That night I met up with Chapu, Juan Ramon, and their group in the main plaza in Medina. Chapu and I bonded more over our mutual admiration for Tom Turley who is a true guru of the encierro. We joked how he even sometimes looked like a Buddhist monk or a younger American version of Ghandi.
I’d found a restaurant bar near the course that I really liked called Bar Castellano. I took Chapu there for a breakfast of Huevos con Picadillo it was really astoundingly good and incredibly cheap. The owner Don Antonio and his son Chucky were bull enthusiasts and really friendly. I started to eat all my meals at Bar Castellano the coffee is strong, the churros and the fried calamari are really good, and they sell lose mini cigars. The little patio out front is nice and the Wifi is high speed. I got a few writing gigs during feria and started writing and making a lot of money right there on that patio.
The runs in Medina del Campo continued to be incredible and I was able to lead the bulls in the embudo and through the callejon every day. My two favorite places to run encierros are the embudo and callejon so running in Medina was like giving a crackhead two hits of crack cocaine every morning, I was completely addicted and sky high on bulls and the fantastic encierro in Medina.
They had other runs scattered throughout the day and I was compelled to run close in the smaller runs too. I made friends with another runner named Luis Rico he was a smaller really quick guy and he’d been having epic 200 yard runs in the middle of the course.
He had a radio and was always listening to his ear buds and giving Pablo and me updates on the location and status of the herd while we waited in the embudo. The local runners had really embraced me and I was very grateful for it. I saw Juan Carlos every day and he even got pictures of me running in the callejon and the embudo. Everywhere I looked in Medina del Campo I saw smiling friends. I’d heard stories of Carney patting guys on the back and talking to them as he ran the horns with friends. I never thought I’d be comfortable enough to even think of doing something like that but I realized I was running shoulder to shoulder with Pablo one morning in Medina and patted his back and said “Aye Pablo” as we ran the bulls into the tunnel.
I lead a bull into the plaza one morning and a couple runners fell then one foolishly got up and the bull nailed him and sent his shoe flying into the air.
Another morning I ran a bull in then ran right back out and was still in the callejon when the next approached and there were vertical bars in the callejon and I waited it out and when I saw the opening I darted in front of the bull and led him into the ring. I didn’t plan it, I didn’t feel like I had to or wanted to. I just couldn’t help myself. I was possessed.
The final morning I was close to running well but another runner had a good position and I tried to squeeze in next to him and he pushed me a few times and I almost fell when we got to the ring. It was the first day I hadn’t lead a bull into the ring in Medina and it began to gnaw at me and I was planning to leave that day and then decided to stay for the evening run. Don Antonio had given me a yellow Bar Castellano shirt and I wore it for the run. It was just one huge bull running the course that evening. I prepared to run and bumped into Juan Carlos on the fence near the callejon, he had his family with him and a bunch of kids. They were excitedly waiting the final bull of feria to run into the ring.
I was waiting about 80 yards from the callejon and suddenly saw Chucky running the horns of the bull and then Jose was there leading him as well. I set up to try and run him and was doing my slowdown kind of reverse into position thing that was working for me when Jose chose to cut out hard and as he did three of the other guys on the horns cut out and Chucky cut out to the other side. That pretty much left me and the bull. I lead the bull toward the callejon and in the callejon it was pretty much just us. I was almost laughing at my absurd luck looking the bull in the eye as I lead him into the sand.
It was a fantastic end to fiesta, it felt like Chucky and Jose had cleared the street of runners, like it was one final gift from the people of Medina del Campo and I cherished it.
I left the ring quickly hoping to catch Juan Carlos and his family and exchanged excited high fives with all the kids. It was a nice goodbye to a guy who’d treated me like family and shown me a terrific time in his hometown.
I was so grateful for all the warm welcoming spirits I’d encountered in Medina but none of them more than Juan Carlos. I have to say it even though there was plenty of competition this summer and some incredible experiences in some incredible places; Medina del Campo was my favorite fiesta in my dangerous summer. I came to Medina with high expectations and the fiesta, the people, the bulls, and the encierro surpassed all of those expectations by a very long ways.
Stephanie and I got to Cuéllar and had a fun time that evening at the patio across the street from Bar San Francisco as the rest of the group arrived.
After Dyango Velasco sparked my fascination with his town in 2011, it became a kind of quest for me. I first visited Cuéllar’s fiesta in 2012 and have since written about it for the Chicago Tribune, Outside Magazine, Washington Post and Toronto Star and spoke about Cuéllar in multiple TV, Print, and Radio outlets and most importantly returned without fail every year since and encouraged others to come as well.
It was nice to have the nearly 20 foreigners in town and I was grateful that they were staying and eating at San Francisco because it meant more money for my friend Elisa and her father but the foreigners bring a whole different set of problems and the bickering and backstabbing and nastiness came with them. At one point one of them who has no experience in journalism whatsoever began to give me completely unsolicited and idiotic advice about my writing career in a bizarrely aggressive way. I almost snapped on him but luckily Mikael Anderson was there to distract me with his friendly and heart felt banter.
There was a new Swedish kid in town. He was a bit awkward but he had genuine passion for the encierro and the corrida and Mikael, being a pillar of the Swedish contingent in fiesta was taking him under his wing and it made me very happy to see the joy Mikael poured into him. Mikael was one of the few and true, bright spirits in the foreign contingent. A genuine Maestro, Mikael has been an ace runner for several decades and beyond that, is humble, open minded, loyal and fun and warm company. He’d had many health struggles over the past few years and I suffered with him and sent him prayers and encouragement and his struggles reminded me that in this life nothing is guaranteed, every fiesta could be your last, every conversation with a dear friend, the final one. I chose to cherish my time with Mikel and ignore the nonsense.
I checked into my favorite room in Hotel San Francisco. It’s a gorgeous and simple room with two big doors that lead out onto a little balcony. You can see the old rooftops of Cuéllar and hear the street music of fiesta. I push the beds together and move the desk to the balcony and it is a place of solace to me. A place where I’ve come to terms with the death of dear friends, reminisced about the wonders of Cuéllar’s fiesta and written some of my best writing.
The next morning I took Stephanie, Mikael Anderson and his really hilarious Swedish friends to the Suelta at the corrals and had Stephanie climb an electric pole to be safe. The bulls came and they were splendid and disappeared into the foggy dusty haze one veered into the cars and a horseman materialized out of nowhere to lure him away from the people and toward his brothers. We went down to the Embudo and I put Stephanie on a fence and gave her a back up escape incase a bull came that way of climbing on a nearby roof.
The initial herd came charging in with one bull swung out my way and I was able to run his horns for several yards before a steer cut in front of him.
Then the bulls were split up and separated. At one point a bull came into the hillside and dipped under some caution tape and ran into a small patch of trees. Stephanie followed my guidance and went to the roof. I was very happy with her and after a lot of waiting I went into the trees to try to get the bull out. There were several drunken locals who’d climbed up in the trees and were having a silly conversation with the bull, telling him to “go to sleep lazy” and calling him names while they chuckled. I tried to get the bull out of the trees. I talked to him calmly and tried to urge him out. He stood and at times I had him moving but the commotion all around him kept distracting him and they came to dart him and I gave up. On the way in to town we ran into Jim Hollander whose photos in Cuéllar were going through a renaissance. It was his fourth year in Cuéllar and the shots were just astounding. He told us he was getting into some trouble with the horsemen for being so close but he had skirted the danger and the results were amazing.
I took Stephanie to the train and she headed back to Pamplona with a warm goodbye.
The absence of Dyango Velasco in the fiesta in Cuéllar was very painful. He was in Castellón finalizing a deal to sculpt a huge bronze sculpture for a town there and spending time with his family. It was a great reason to miss his own fiesta but Dyango is part of what Cuéllar means to me. Dyango is at times dark and brooding, at others jovial and excitable in conversation with his goofy chuckle and his big smile and his pure love for the bulls. His passion for his town’s fiesta is absolutely contagious and he is a devoted servant to his culture and his encierro and one of the finest runners from Cuéllar ever. Even though I’m afraid of the curve at San Francisco because of it’s difficulty and the fact that Dyango was seriously gored there several years ago, I really missed running the hill into the curve with him, something I would only do for Dyango because he is my brother and it is his favorite spot to run.
I did however have new friends in Cuéllar and they made special effort to spend time with me and bring me to see everything. Later that day I ran into Diego de Diego and his girlfriend, Nathalia Escudero. They invited me to go to the Suelta with them and to run with Diego the next day and I agreed. The Suelta was fun but then we stopped where the bulls cross the road and we had to run to see them. And we got there as they passed and the dust cloud was enormous and chalk white with a slight orange haze from the rising sun and a white bull materialized alone and scanning in the center of it and it was a breathtaking vision of the animals that will be burned into my soul forever.
We prepared to run the final quarter of the course. Before the run started I bumped into my friend Luis Vicente. We started talking and joking and he said he was gonna run the horns and I said no I was and then we decided we’d try to run the horns of the same bull shoulder to shoulder and all the way into the plaza de toros if we were lucky.
The bulls came I had to run 100 yards before the excellent Cuéllar runners on the horns passed to the side and let me run the horns and I did for a few yards with one of the very best runners a blonde haired rocket shoulder to shoulder in font of a white bull called a Jabonero.
Then they passed and I ran beside them into the arena. If I had run smarter I would have waited because Luis was running a later bull all by himself for a long ways and he scolded me that we could have run together! Later there was a Suelto and I ran with him and the pastores. The pastores were very excellent athletes, Kike Bayon Brandi was there and they were turning the bull in tight circles and the bull was twisting with them and falling on his butt. Sometimes a suelto finds good purchase on the street and needs tight fast circles to stay under control, other times they need a slow steady jog to keep them moving. I read this bull as the slow steady jog type and as he came through the tunnel and approached the ring I calmly eased onto the sand at almost a walking pace.
Afterwards we had a chat with Diego. Diego was really becoming more than just a friendly local guy to me. His joy for the traditions of his town is very similar to Dyango’s and even though Diego couldn’t fill the missing piece Dyango had left, Diego was bringing a new joy and spirit to my fiesta in Cuéllar and there’s no denying Diego is a very dear new friend of mine. His father Bias (a legendary photographer) is also very fascinating to me and Diego’s passion for the history his father’s photos told was great. All I can really say is I’m grateful to know Diego, Don Bias, and Nathalia. They’re good people and my kind of people.
I was buzzing after the good morning and wanted to get over to the children’s run with the Vaquilla in the afternoon. I had promised all the little kids in Craig Stables summer camp that I would run with them so I headed over. All the little boys were very nervous and I went around shaking their hands and wishing them Suerte. I couldn’t help it and when they released the Vaca I started running with the little boys. It was hilarious and so much fun. And many of the little guys had terrific runs with the Vaca and I congratulated as many as I could.
I kept running into Diana Gozalo, my Cuéllar sister. She is really nice. She was working in Minnesota when I first came to Cuéllar and freaked out when she found out a guy from a Chicago was in Cuéllar for fiesta. We sparked a friendship and she was a lot of fun. Her accent is really midwestern and only rarely can you tell English isn’t her first language. I was lucky to have a meal with her one night and she was always offering good and friendly advice and logistics of the animals in the field from her contacts who had access to the police radios during the tense hours of the encierro. She really loves her town and her fiesta and the bulls.
We headed down to run the Embudo the next day and I was running and leading the first two bulls in and there was a runner beside me in a red shirt. I was very impressed with his bravery and thought he was a local Spanish runner. I ran with him shoulder to shoulder leading the first two bulls through the Embudo and the bulls started swinging and hooking and I got out under the barricades. Later I got word the other American kid Anthony Fizer got hit by a bull. I went and looked at the tape and the guy I thought was the Spanish runner in the red shirt wasn’t Spanish. It was Anthony! He’d run shoulder to shoulder with me through the Embudo in just his 7th run ever. He’d run way up the street and later as a bull was about to pass him, the bull saw him turned and Anthony tried to cut away and the bull hit him with his horn and sent him flying under the barricades.
The horn passed through the butt of his jean shorts but miraculously hadn’t gored him. He was extremely lucky and at that point I realized he needed some guidance and I took him under my wing. He was incredibly brave and athletic but didn’t know how or when to get out when in danger.
Sometimes there’s too many Maestros in the kitchen, in the group of foreign runners in Cuéllar there were really only two, Larry Belcher and Mikael Anderson, there were two others who fancied themselves as Maestros but all they were, were my old students (their word not mine) who’d I’d flunked. They’d gone on to spread their nonsense as much as they could but mostly failed to inspire any new runners. I knew they would try to undermine the advice I’d give to Anthony but I didn’t care. I couldn’t control whether he listened to me or not.
For me giving Anthony advice wasn’t about polishing my shiny ego or trying to entice a competitive streak in him. Giving him advice was my duty because if Anthony kept going with the advice he had, he was going to get gored and probably soon. The fact that he wasn’t gored the day before was just sheer luck. The bulls had a strong hold on him. The kind of hold that can get you killed. His knowledge and experience didn’t match his strong passion and that can be deadly.
The next day I took Anthony out to the Suelta and later we parked and walked through the fields with the horsemen and bulls. In the fields there were a few times when we were walking along with the locals and there was nothing between us and the bulls twenty yards away. The animals were under control and peacefully walking, so there wasn’t much danger. I just kept trying to pound the idea of ‘knowing your out’ into Anthony’s head, saving that last burst of energy to escape the danger cleanly by getting completely out through the barricades. I also tried to remind him there’s more to life than the bulls. Don’t ever feel like you have to get in the street, there’s nothing to prove, if it doesn’t feel right don’t do it. Finally we chose to jog into town and Anthony wasn’t feeling like running too hard and I told him that was fine. After a scare like he’d had there’s no reason to push it.
A lead bull shot out way out in front and two horsemen closed in on him and slowed him but I couldn’t see it from my position on the street. I ran his horns into the Embudo and a Spanish runner cut out across me and I had to slow down and lost contact with the bull but still ran his horns and could have done much better but the disorientation made me say get out and I did following the Spanish runner to the wall. It was a nice place to leave off. I’d run pretty well in Embudo but there was a lot of room for improvement. My fascination and passion with the mysterious beauty of the Embudo in Cuéllar has never been higher. I can’t wait to get back next year.
One of the foreign group in Cuéllar tried to throw a runner’s lunch for us and the local runners at the most expensive restaurant in town. He is extremely wealthy and out of touch with the local runners who almost always come from the most humble backgrounds and are young and have young families and work during fiesta. He was also the most destructive guy in the group in terms of nasty talk and backstabbing. He wanted these working class guys to cough up 20 Euros to have lunch with him. Not a single Spanish runner showed up, which didn’t surprise me at all.
I might throw one next year for the local runners. Free pizza after the, encierro at bar Paralex by the Plaza de Toros; I know a good pizza place right there, the guy loves bulls and is really friendly, I could spare some Euros throwing a pizza party for my friends. I bet the local runners will flood in.
Later on the last day, I did my first TV interview in Spanish, which actually went over really well.
I used the word Barato to describe my passion for the encierro. I meant it as inexpensive. My passion for the encierro had been expensive in the past. In 2014 when I took two horns in the leg and almost lost my marriage in the process, my passion was very expensive. Now though it was breezy, in fact my passion was only giving me things, precious and priceless things.
I hit my 101st run in Cuéllar. Of course the number doesn’t matter to me. It’s just a silly number. But like I’d said before that goal helped me get out of bed in the morning some days when I was sore and tired. It helped me get on the road it helped me get through dark patches and it gave me some incredible experiences along the way. So in that same spirit I decide to set a new goal of 150 runs before I left Spain.
First Nuria at Es Cuéllar wrote a nice article about me hitting my goal.
Then Ignacio at Cuéllar 7 wrote an absolutely hilarious piece about it comparing me to Micheal Phelps, Forest Gump, and a lonely cowboy in a western film.
All the attention was just another splash of love Cuéllar has given my life and a reminder of why I love Cuéllar so much. It is a very special place for me. I hope with all my heart that I never miss a fiesta in Cuéllar. It’s my favorite town in the world. And of course I had Dyango Velasco Pilar to thank for all of it.
That night I headed to Medina del Campo but that is a story for another post…
Paciencia Juan Carlos!!!
After the mid evil fair I spent a couple nights in Cuéllar at Hotel San Francisco. I was enjoying my time when things turned south.
A handful of nasty people banded together to form a smear campaign against me. They were snobby foreign runners from the USA and England. They took a loving and generous act of compassion and twisted it into a nasty attack on a person I care for deeply. This lynch mob began to harass me online. It hurt because they were people who were supposed to be my friends. One of them should be careful because he’s been arrested for that kind of behavior in the past. The only way to defeat that kind of toxic nonsense is to ignore it. When you engage it, you throw yourself into a pit of fire, and the people who are going after you succeed in harming your happiness. And the thing about those types of nasty people is, they destroy themselves anyway, their careers, their relationships and when they turn that nastiness on pure innocents, (decades more innocent the me) they destroy their own souls for eternity.
So with the help and support of my wife, Enid, Tom Gowen, Dyango Velasco and Craig Stables, I ignored them and focused on really enjoying the rest of my time in Spain.
And even though I shouldn’t have given this, this much attention, I do have one thing to say. He took the book off of his table and placed it on his own chest. But you probably never asked him, did you? It was never about him or me or what happened that day. It was about you, your jealousy and your ego and your false purity.
I found an encierro near Madrid called Añover de Tajo online and got on the road.
I found the town but couldn’t find the Plaza del Toros. Far away from the center of town I finally found it. It was about a 3 thousand seat plaza and there had to be five thousand people in it.
I walked the streets and got three different versions of what to expect in the encierro. The street was full of sand. It made me hesitant to push it because I didn’t know what my footing would be like at full sprint and I didn’t know what the bulls would be like on the sand either, they’d probably cut harder and I just didn’t want to risk it.
I chose to run the last section and as the bulls came there were steers out front with a bull snug in behind them. The second group looked good but there was one suelto between them and he was cutting and zigzagging the course hooking for everyone. I didn’t want any of him so I just ran with the first pack into the arena. I felt kind of disappointed because I hadn’t run very well when they started releasing bulls out of both ends of the course. There were sueltos everywhere and I started running with them. Several times I was caught between two animals and had to cut out. Then I started running them into the arena. It got really hot. I took my shirt off and used it as a cape and the fourth time I led a suelto into the arena in Añover he was right on me in the tunnel and as we entered the arena the crowd’s cheer rose and as I stepped and cut right on the sand I whipped my shirt up into the air and the bull surged into the arena hooking for the shirt and the thousands in the stands erupted into an excited roar.
I jumped in the car and drove to the book event for Chapu Apaolaza and Fernando Corella (who had published a beautiful illustrated children’s book on the bullfight) at El Foro Real 52, my favorite bar in San Sebastián De Los Reyes. I got there late and it was packed. It hurt because I could have been part of the event but I miscommunicated with Dyango and ended up declining being part of it. It sucked because I’d made so many mistakes throughout my book launch this summer in terms of sales. I just always zigged when I should have zagged. Either way, I held it together and walked in. As I was making my way through the thick crowd of people I suddenly saw Paco Foro standing before me. He’s the owner of the bar and was for many years the head Pastore of Sanse. The Sanse Pastores have a special place in my heart because of their excellence and my friendships with them, especially Miguel Angel Castander and the new head Pastore in Sanse, Jose Manuel Pereira. Don Paco had made a special invitation to me to be part of the event and I’d still somehow messed it up. Don Paco looked at me with a stunned excitement, then he came up and said “He’s here… He’s here…” He hugged me and took a photo with me. As we were standing there David Rodriguez walked up. I have a very deep admiration for David Rodriguez and his running. I’d witnessed him save many runners lives in Pamplona and written about it with a lot of passion in my memoir. He walked up to Don Paco and I and said some very nice things about my book, which is a moment I’d imagined in my wildest dreams when writing it.
That’s when the disappointment about not being part of the event began to lift. In life success isn’t measured by the amount of sales or the money in your pocket. Life is measured by moments of deep and pure joy. That moment with David Rodriguez and Paco Foro couldn’t have been equaled by five thousand sales.
I brought my copy of Chapu’s book and got in line to have him sign it. Chapu was becoming a kind of guru for me as a writer and a runner. He has a warm and big brother type of presence and I really wanted to get to know him better. We chatted and I got to talk with Emilio Sánchez Mediavilla, Chapu’s publisher Libros del K.O. and I was very intrigued by their publishing house, they have a very ambitious and vigorous vision of what they want to do and they’ve cut out a strong position in the publishing world in Spain in a short period of time. Chapu mentioned he didn’t like the change of title of Mozos to Corriendo con Hemingway and I agreed. It was just one more moment when I zigged when I should have zagged. I should have fought harder to keep the title as it was. But I was letting go of the past and my feelings of regret and feeling like I had much better footing in the present and my vision for the future was brightening.
I had a day off before Sanse began I found a run in Arbancón about an hour north of Madrid. I took off and got lost in this beautiful canyon that reminded me of northern Colorado. Finally, I found Arbancón about 20 minutes before the run was set to start. I was walking the village and it was a ghost town and I figured the website was wrong and I’d come all this way for nothing. Then I found the course and walked the impossibly tight winding streets until I came to a steep ramp and what looked like a parking garage ramp with a low ceiling. People started to mill around at this point and I realized that there might be a run after all. I walked down the ramp, it was the Callejon for a small concrete square shaped Plaza de Toros. The roof of the ramp is so low if you’re running and not paying attention you would smash your head into it and I imagined knocking myself unconscious in front of a charging bull and the consequences of that.
A truck with cattle in it showed up and I realized that the run would start about a half hour late. People finally came out and the fences stood and they released the animals from the ring. I tried to run the bull up the ramp but it was too chaotic.
Later after the bull’d slowed down some with the recortadores turning him repeatedly I led him down the ramp with a local boy and it was very beautiful. I ducked the low roof when I got into the tunnel. We lead him out of the ring and then a few minutes later we led him out then in again and I was feeling very comfortable on the steep ramp because the bull slowed to keep his footing and I slowed with them and it was a nice jog into the plaza. I took off with the bull still in the street and headed home to Sanse.
I enjoyed Sanse’s opening ceremony and the fireworks where very good and there was a big presentation by Antena3 who was broadcasting Sanse’s encierro that year nationally.
That night my friend Carlos Manriquez wrote me that something terrible had happened to Julen Madina, he’d had a swimming accident and received critical injuries and was left on life support. It was so hard to believe it. The last time I’d seen him he was so full of life, so happy and healthy looking. I remembered the strength he’d hugged me with and the vibrant life in his eyes. People where giving him very little chance of survival and I hung my Gohonzon and prayed for him with special hope that he would survive to be with his young daughter as she grew up. The whole thing was just heartbreaking.
The next morning I prepared for the run. I wanted to run good on Calle Estafeta. I hadn’t run good there or in Sanse ever. My first year I was in a terrible montón in the callejon in Sanse, I managed to jump over it then came back and helped pull people out of it. Then a bull came back on the crowd and Miguel Angel Castander saved me by grabbing the bull’s tail and turning him. All of that traumatic experience left me completely blocked in Sanse. I had tried more than ten runs over four fiestas there and hadn’t had a single success.
As I warmed up I told myself “You don’t have to. Only do it if you feel it.” The pressure evaporated as I took a deep breath and knew I would run.
Then the rocket sailed into the sky and I said “Do it for Julen.”
I climbed up on the fence about thirty yards from the curve onto Estafeta. I looked and saw some steers out front and waited until they where parallel with me. A set of bulls surged behind them and I jumped down and started running. I hugged the inside of the curve as the first bull and a steer passed. Everything slowed and spread and I ran straight for the last steer’s ass. I followed that steer without looking back. As I did everyone started pushing and pulling. I just focused on the steer’s ass and something told me follow them, the bull with follow their scent trail. I ran directly in the center of the street. The bull zoomed up behind me and I ran his horns for a long ways down Estafeta with Aitor and a few of the Sanse runners. I couldn’t believe I was fast enough to keep up with the bull but I was. I entered the arena with the bull close and peeled off the to the side.
Afterward Aitor was very happy with me and congratulated me. I hugged him and shrugged. I wasn’t sure how good the run was. It hadn’t really looked but I felt the bull link with me.
Later photos appeared everywhere that were very rewarding. I’d tried for 5 years to run well and finally it happened.
Afterward I had a signing at Pernatel Bookstore that Luis Barbado had set up for me through the help of Dyango Velasco and Paco Foro was an advocate of. The owner and his family were very warm and kind to me. Fernando Corella drew an awesome illustration of me and they presented it to me during the signing.
The bookstore was located on the curve on Calle Real. They had put up a dozen photos of me and my book cover in the window display and two big posters. They also had a TV screen showing the photos from Sanse Pasion website and they were showing several of the photos of me on the horns of the bull from that morning.
Dozens of people came to buy books even the Mayor of Sanse came in to buy one. It was overwhelming I’d strived and suffered so much to run will in Sanse and now I’d done it and the whole town seemed to be singing my praises and patting me on the back and buying my book.
One of the lynch mob had written me a long bizarre email, in it he said that I would “never sell another book in Spain ever again”. I guess the Mayor of Sanse disagreed.
The guy who wrote the bizarre email is jealous of me because of the attention I get for my writing and my running but men are jealous creatures. Jealousy is a constant for men but there are two kinds of men in the world, the ones who battle those feelings of jealously and turn them into inspiration to strive harder to succeed, then there are the other ones, who believe they are owed success and when they feel jealousy, they lash out at and try to sabotage the person making them jealous. The ones who continue to turn jealously into inspiration eventually conquer the world. The other ones turn bitter and cold and sneer at the world from the shadows of who they once were.
The next morning I ran down at the beginning of the course in Sanse with Piwi a legendary Sanse runner with long hair and a bandana. He has a really stylish and daring way to run the outside of the first curve in Sanse. As the herd approaches he weaves in and out of them his hair and hands whipping into the air, leading the pack for a long stretch before hitting the wall with the animals hooking for him. I was lucky to run the horns of a bull on the inside curve. As I jumped out I slipped on the fence and a Spanish runner caught my arm to help me and I thanked him as the bulls soared past.
Then Stephanie Mutsaerts came to town and we chose to stay in Sanse one more night and Steve Ibarra who is like the ambassador for Sanse took her out for a long night of fun. The next morning I was running Estafeta when a Spanish friend of mine shouted “Corre Bill!” I sprinted onto the horns of a bull, then the same runner a few seconds later shouted “No! No! Bill!” I looked back as the bull accelerated and dipped his horns to gore me and I cut out to the side and he passed.
After the run we got news that an American kid named Gab was gored. We went down to see him and it turned out it wasn’t too bad of a goring he’d taken it in the butt cheek.
Stephanie and I stuck around to see him in the hospital and after some struggle we got in to see him. Stephanie helped him communicate with his doctors. She just can’t help but help people in need, she is a very kind and generous person. A few days later Gab would ask me why was she so nice to me? I just shrugged and said she’s just good people, man.
When I first got in to see him Gab was very gabby and happy the adrenaline was really flowing still but he asked for it and I showed him the video of the goring online and he sobered some. He started to talk to me and give me a glimpse of a 21-year-old kid growing up before my eyes.
“The horn was an inch away from changing my life forever. When it almost wrecks your life it makes it different. Now it’s more real. Well my scrotum is bruised. It sounds like it will be very painful when the meds wear off. When they told me it was an inch away from my balls. I thought right away, can I have kids?! I realized in that moment I want to have children.”
“I dropped out of college and came to Europe because I didn’t want to have regrets. I came to Europe after Christmas last year and I’ve been using Work Away to pay for everything. I’ve been in London, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Morocco. Now my Grandfather is sick, my brother’s football season is starting, he’s growing up and I don’t want to miss it. I don’t want to live with regrets. That’s why I left and that’s why I’m going home next week.”
It was a beautiful little talk. It reminded me of all the things that flashed through my mind the moment I was gored. Kids, my future, what was important. I was happy for him in a way because he was so young and to have those kinds of big epiphanies at that age was a blessing. On the ride to Cuéllar Stephanie slept off her Ibarra induced hang over and I thought about her, she was a great mom. Her boys where really beautiful kids and they had awesome spirits and hearts. I want to be a father and time is starting to get tight. My wife and I want kids and maybe this summer was a blessing too. Maybe it was my last chance to really run a full summer. My last chance to live with the kind of abandon, that a only person with out children relying on them can. It made me cherish what I’d had that summer and savor the few weeks I had left.
Tudela de Duero
Dyango took me into work with him in Valladolid for an hour then he closed shop and we went to McDonalds where I learned that fast food isn’t very fast in Spain. But McDonalds is actually much better in Spain. The encierro in Tudela de Duero was at around midnight. The first half of the course is spectacularly beautiful with winding streets, balconies and festive neon lights, the second half is wide and not so pretty and it ends in a dirt path going into the small plaza de toros. Dyango wanted to run the splendid 100-yard bridge at the midway point of the course. There was no escape on the bridge and the fall was about 40 feet to the river and there was a nearby damn you’d have to navigate if you went in. I chose to run from about the halfway point on the bridge. As three lone bulls galloped into view, a few brave mozos chose to run the entire bridge. I gave those runners space but still managed to run one of the bull’s horns for 15 yards before cutting out to the side at the end of the bridge.
The next morning Dyango took me to Peñfiel. Dyango had taken me there at night, weeks before to see the course. The plaza de toros is spectacular; it is an ancient square with two story buildings and balconies facing in. The red wooden ring stands in the center of the square. The long boat like castle sits high above on a narrow ridge all lit up in white light. Peñafiel is in the center of one of the greatest wine regions in the world and it is as if the castle there, is a ship floating in a sea of wine.
It was August 15th and the biggest day of festivals in all of Spain. The town was bustling with thousands of runners and spectators in the street. A runner was gored to death near the callejon the year before and they had a memorial set up for him. He was younger than I’d imagined from watching the video and I said a quiet prayer for him. The Callejon is especially tricky because it is a hard 90-degree turn into a very narrow tunnel. Every single runner I met that morning warned me not to run the Callejon, that it was very dangerous and I agreed but knew deep down that if it looked safe I might.
The bulls came and I hugged the inside of the final turn about 60 yards from the callejon. The lead pack thundered past and many runners battled it out to run the horns and I wasn’t interested in that crowd. Then there was an opening behind the initial pack and two beautiful bulls galloped alone in the street. I eased my way in front of them and ran their horns for thirty yards then as we neared the callejon I chose to cut out. But as I did they made the turn easily on their own and I cut back in and ran beside the second bull with my hand softly on his back through the clear callejon and into the plaza.
Afterward they released one bull into the ring and another into the square. It was quite a spectacular thing to see the people handling the animals on either side of the wall. Dyango and I walked around the square to see it from all angles. It was a fantastic morning. Then I jumped a bus to Valladolid to rent a car and headed toward Navarra for the encierros of Tafalla and Falces.
Tom Gowen invited me to stay in his beautiful apartment in Plaza de Castillo with his girlfriend Maria who I’d become very fond of. She is like a favorite aunt who won’t hesitate to set you straight about any silly ideas you might have but at the same time is mothering and can throw together a very good and tasty meal for you in ten minutes flat.
I left early the next morning but had Google Maps problems and arrived in Tafalla with just three minutes to spare. I ran to the course and arrive with just one minute before the rocket went off. I swiftly jogged the path the bulls would follow in seconds. It was quite a ghostly experience. There is a silence that falls over Tafalla in the minute before the encierro. It is a precious town and the silence is powerful. As I jogged every face of every runner stared stoically past me looking deeply into their fate, their thousand yard stares seeing their life and their death on the horizon. I passed Miguel Leza and he shook my hand. Further up the course I saw Miguel’s son Mikel, (I hadn’t recognized him a few weeks before and saw that it hurt his feelings) and so I made a point and stopped, grabbed his shoulders, looked him in the eyes and told him, “Suerte, Mikel”, he looked away shyly, then looked back and smiled. As I jogged further up the course the rocket went off, I approached the Huarte crew their eyes gazed deeply into the horizon, then Aitor saw me approaching, he grinned at me as he bobbed on his toes, then beside him was Xabi’s stoic face, he winked and mouthed “suerte”, as I closed my eyes and gave them a heart felt nod. I prepared to run but was too disoriented to gear up for it. The bulls thundered past with Xabi and Aitor on the horns. Afterward Xabi was sky high! All the runners where coming up to him and greeting him. I’d never seen him happier, he was beaming and all the runners were feeding off his good mojo. He is an easy guy to be happy for and he’d had an excellent run.
Xabi asked if I was going to Alfaro and I tried to ask if we could do Falces and Alfaro and I thought he said yes but we miscommunicated and I ended up having to take off to get to Falces by myself in a rush.
Falces is a town that sits at the base of a mountain. There is a beautiful chapel on top of the cliff and the path up the cliff is winding and treacherous and called El Pilón. The day before a woman had fallen off of El Pilón along the path after the encierro and sadly she would pass away later this day.
They run extremely fierce Navaran Vaca down the winding path from the cliff. These Vaca are capable of tremendous speed and terrible violence. In 2014 I was watching the run with Juan Pedro Lecuona, in Falces when a Vaca gored a runner and smashed through a barricade launching herself and two photographers off the cliff. Miraculously all survived though the injuries were severe. I was simultaneously terrified and fascinated with the epic and insane beauty of El Pilón. It was at once spiritual and impossible.
I walked up the mountain and bumped into one of my favorite of the Huarte crew Mikel Izco he is a really warm spirit. He greeted me excitedly and gave me some good advice about what to watch out for in El Pilón. I headed up the mountain and found Aitor facing a grassy mound in prayer, I told him Suerte and he turned and grinned then went back to praying. My friend Jose Antonio and his brother greeted me excitedly and gave me advice. Then when I got to the top I found Chapu Apoloazo and he also gave me some advice but also told me he had only run there a few times. I felt like I had a good grip but when the rocket when off and all my planning went out the window as an astonishing avalanche of people and vaca tumbled down the zig-zag path toward me with Aitor directly in front of the animals, his arms out and flapping like he was some kind of a mountain condor swooping away from a predator. A runner fell next to me and grabbed my Al Limite running shirt and the material stretched elastic and as he fell flat on his back he released and my shirt shot back to normal. I ran and made it to the bottom of the mountain and kept going as the hooves of the vaca rang on the pavement like bells behind me and at the last curve I cut off the side and the vaca soared past me. There wasn’t any images of the end of my run because Aitor was doing some incredible things, all the photographers turned their cameras to see Aitor in the middle of the pack of Vaca behind me, it looked like he was dancing with them as they darted around him and he swung his hips to avoid their horns.
I stayed in Falces and ran with the Vaca a few times then headed to the town of Lerin which is breathtaking on the top of an incredibly high white rock cliff. The entire town is on a steep tilt and there is a big wide look out point above the cliff and you can see for miles into the Navarran countryside and the Pyrenees. I ran there two times, my foot was hurting a little from my exit in Falces. Then I’m following my Google Maps path back to Pamplona when the fences of an bull run block my way. I’m exhausted and my foot hurts but I can’t pass up this opportunity, so I get out and run four more times with vaca and bulls that they were letting out of a make shift ring and a big white barn. The local kids where really into it. I never found out the name of the town and don’t want to. I love that I was stopped on my way home by an bull run, parked and ran it.
Headed back to Pamplona and hung out with Maria. The next morning I made it to Tafalla with plenty of time to spare. I walked a long a river path which was quiet and pretty and peaceful, suddenly I heard the loud greeting of Jose Antonio’s brother, he was backpacking around and stopped in Tafalla for a run. It was nice to see him. Three pretty girls walked past us and he started cat calling them, for those who know him, you can imagine, the girls actually liked it and turned and smiled and he laughed and nudged me. We walked the long river path and he suddenly turned before I wanted to and I turned with him. We walked together and a young drunk guy saw him and ran up to him and I paused because I wasn’t going to let anyone mess with Jose Antonio’s brother because he is my friend. But the drunk was nice and playful and Jose Antonio’s brother scolded him to be quiet because we were preparing for the encierro. We parted way’s to run with a wave.
I warmed up and felt right. I ran and as the bulls approached I realized I would miss the first batch because there was a thick flock of runners on the horns with Aitor closest. As I neared the callejon a bull and steer approached and as runners cut off the horns, I saw the opening and accelerated. Mikel Izco shouted behind me “Ir Bill!” (Go Bill!) just as the animals entered the callejon I lead the bull and steer through the dirt path and into the arena.
Afterwards a lot of the guys where patting me on the back and congratulating me, a photographer nearby was looking through his shots and told me to look. I did and the photo was pretty good but then he flipped to the previous shot and there was an astounding photo of Aitor on the horns. We all laughed and shook our heads looking at the amazing photo. It was a very nice thing for me to always have Aitor’s runs in my mind to put everything in perspective. I was an pretty average foreign runner who got lucky and had good runs sometimes but Aitor was a historic Navarrese Runner. All the exhilaration I enjoyed to run on the horns in a competitive and difficult encierro like Tafalla was beautiful but with Aitor around I couldn’t get carried away thinking I was a big shot. He was a constant check on my ego but at the same time and much more importantly, Aitor was living history, he was unfolding history, every step another sentence, every astounding run another moment of him striving to fulfill his destiny and equal the greatest runners of all time. Seeing the magic he made on the street with my own eyes was an honor. Seeing his humble shrug and the huge grin on his face after the run was just excellent, it was the tradition in its highest form. As strange as it might sound it was as exciting to watch Aitor running the horns as it was to do it myself.
On my way to Falces, Google Maps went haywire and sent me onto a goat trail through the mountains. I only saw one other person on this twenty-minute trek on the bumpy dirt road and he was a construction worker and he looking at me as if I was totally insane to be on that road with a new Audi rental car.
I parked about two hundred yards from the base of the mountain with less than a minute to spare. As I ran toward the course the rocket went off and a bunch of old ladies saw me running and started clapping and laughing and cheering me on. I stepped through the barricades and ran up the hill and made it about 40 yards up when the vaca began avalanching down. I tried to cut in after the first vaca but couldn’t as they were hooking for me.
I had breakfast in a nice little restaurant and afterward was doing some writing when I felt someone standing over my table. I looked up and Julen Madina had snuck up on me he stood there with his big bright grin. I jumped up and he gave me a big hug. I couldn’t believe how good he looked. It looked as if he’d never been hurt at all and was ready for a run. I told him I couldn’t believe how good he looked and we took another photo together before he headed off. Tragically, it would be the last time I would see my friend and Maestro.
That night I hung out on the balcony with Maria and the Pamplona Choir was practicing and every few minutes their heavenly voices flowed out of the windows of their practice room across Plaza de Castillo in divine harmony as Maria and I chatted and it was a nice final night at Tom’s.
My final morning I ran poorly in Tafalla. I just didn’t feel it. There was a big shout and two-dozen runners fell simultaneously at the curve. No one was seriously injured luckily.
I headed to Falces and bumped into Juan Antonio Garaikoetxea the Diario De Navarra photographer who put me on the cover back in July. He called me over and told me he had photos of me and I thanked him. He was shooting sort of the middle section of the mountain. I started to consider running the top of the mountain there weren’t many runners up there just a few old men. They wore these big white and blue, checkered button up shirts, open. I wanted to run this rocky curve with the Vaca, I saw in the video that they tended to come through that section slowly and I figured I could pace with them. There was a 60 foot drop if I went off the cliff. It was almost certain death. I practiced my run a few times hugging the mountainside of the curve and felt kind of confident. As the seconds closed in I stood at the beginning of the rocky curve. The old men lined up closer to the corrals. They looked at me and shouted “Are you going to run?!” I nodded yes and they agreed that was ok. The rocket went off and they came running toward me and kind of pushed me down the hill.
I still hadn’t seen the vaca and I ran around the rocky cliff. I was kind of frustrated that they’d pushed me further down the course so I stepped to the side and let them all pass. Once they passed I looked and the Vaca rounded the rocky cliff. I got in the path and ran and the Vaca rocketed up behind me. I ran as fast as I could and they closed in and I found the grassy little spot Aitor prayed at and I dove off into it as the Vaca soared past me.
Juan Antonio shouted to me and came down to show me the most spectacular photo I’ve probably ever been part of in an encierro. The whole herd of Vaca are in perfect view. They are bunched up and I am the first person they’ve encountered closely and they all seem to be looking and arching up to see me. They are very beautiful girls, the lead vaca is bathed in morning light, her sisters in the shade behind, she is fierce, the most dangerous of the gang and ready for battle and yet pretty in the same moment. I loved them and cherish the moment but if they had the chance they would have torn me up.
I sent the photo to Tom Gowen and he wrote this poem about it.
The old men in the checkered shirts where very pleased with me and came up to greet me and pat me on the back. They wanted me to run with them the next day so they could show me more of how to do it right. I sadly told them I had to leave that day but maybe next year, they grabbed me by the face and told me “You will run with us next year!”
I drove all the way to Valladolid dropped the car off and headed to Cuellar. It was nice to be back and the Mideval Fair started up and I spent three days dressed up as a Knight and sold a ton of books and saw a lot of cool stuff at the fair with Ernes, Diana, Craig, Reme, Bethany, Diego, and Dyango. All of Cuellar seemed to come up to greet me and it made me feel very special.
I would like to thank Matt Dowsett for his advice and contributions to the is blog on Falces. Naw, on second thought he’s nothing but an arrogant idiot.
This is a continuation of my Chicago Tribune RedEye Blog about my Dangerous Summer here in Spain. The Final installment will be published at the RedEye.
Find Post 1 here:
Post 2 here:
On my friend Graeme Galloway’s suggestion, I headed to Puente La Reina a small town nearby Pamplona. The bus soared through a deep tunnel through the Pyrenees. The town was nice, old and beautiful. The sun was dropping in the sky and lit up the facades of the narrow streets. A pack of 8 Vaca soared through the path into the make shift square ring in the center of town. I walked the streets waiting for the later runs and bumped into Aitor Aristregui and we had a nice greeting. An old man was singing a raunchy song with a big, deep and powerful voice in front of a bar as men crowded around him and laughed at the lyrics. In front of the bars and club houses the people had built big wooden shields with grips for four people. Old women and kids alike planned to stand in the street as the Vaca ran past and protect themselves with the shields.
The boys of the town prepared stoically. They were 12-15 years old and very nervous and brave. The gates to the plaza opened and the Vaca erupted out at outrageous speeds and I hit the fence as they zoomed past. Afterward they began releasing Vaca in pairs and I ran them up and down the streets with the boys for an hour and it brought me a lot of joy. One of the young teens was dark, skinned and looked to be either of Indian or Nothern African decent, though he appeared to be born and raised in Spain as he spoke perfect Spanish. He was very brave and fast and it was nice to see a kid taking a strong interest in the traditions of his town even if he wasn’t of Spanish decent. I hope to see him running in Pamplona in a few years.
Stephanie Mutsaerts invited me to stay with her and her family in her small, beautiful, village of Mendioroz outside of Pamplona. I went and when I got there her son’s Tasio and Oliver invited me to play a game of two on two basketball with their friend. I paired up with Tasio who is the younger brother and we smashed Oliver and the other kid by about 5 points. And of course because Oliver is the older brother we had to rub it in his face.
The next day I headed to Lodosa. I got there thirty minutes before the bull run started and none of the barricades where up. I worried that I’d come on the wrong day. I went for a coffee and came back to see the town crew swiftly erecting the barricades. Runners flooded in just 15 minutes before the bull-run started. The last section is curvy and difficult but I chose it anyway. I ran into the arena between the first bull and a second pack. I afterward I bumped into my friend Miguel Leza and he took me all over. We walked his dog down to the pretty riverbanks with a big 800-year-old bridge spanning the waters. His dog was old and leash-less and behaved well. Then we went out with his wife and visited every bar in Lodosa, twice. Leza’s son Mikel worked at one of the bars and Mikel was turning into quite an impressive runner. Miguel took me to see a beautiful bull mount near the curve I like to run. We went up to his apartment and from his balcony I could see the large white cliff that ran behind the town with caves lining it. Lodosa wasn’t the kind of Navarran town that was spectacularly beautiful from the first moment you saw it. Lodosa’s beauty was elusive but then when it was ready, it showed its beauty to you in all its splendor.
Later we ran Vaca in the streets and some kids in the house where the bull mount was, the kids eagerly asked me questions about why I was there and if I liked bulls and I asked them similar questions as their parents laughed and I took off for Pamplona with a quick thank you to Leza.
The next morning was very special. Toro Passion was in town and I didn’t realize legendary runner Miguel Angel Perez was a major part of the organization and worked as a pastor for them and my friend Raul was a pastor too. Toro Passion provided bulls for bull runs and recortador exhibitions. Recortadores are skilled athletes that dodge bulls in the ring and sometimes do flips over the animals.
I thought it would just be one run. The first was good. The bulls came in a nice herd. I was running with them when they sort of closed me off and I cut out as they rounded a turn wide. But then there was a lone bull coming and I ran with him into the callejon and the plaza with a couple other runners.
Afterward the runners remained tensely in the street. They told me “dos mas encierros!” two more runs. I couldn’t really grasp what the plan was until Aristregui walked into the tunnel into the Plaza de Toros and looked into the ring. I walked over and stood beside him. They released the bulls from the pens. The bulls and steers ran around in circles in the ring. Then the doormen unlatched the doors to the tunnel and swung them open. The entire herd appeared at the mouth of the tunnel. The animals roared aggressively and then streamed out of the tunnel at Aristregui and I. I gave ground as they flew out incredibly fast. Aristregui, to my astonishment, stood his ground, then like a wizard with a rolled newspaper as his wand, Aristregui entranced the lead bull and slowed him and the entire herd down slightly as he led them in a wide curve and through the street into a hard left turn. All the other runners gave 15 yards of distance between the herd and themselves.
Aitor had his wand of a newspaper inches from the lead bulls snout the entire time. The herd soared past me as I watched befuddled by Aristregui’s magic with the animals, when a black bull stumbled on the curb and fell right in front of me. I attracted his attention as he rose, seething angrily. Then he shot into gallop as two other runners and I lead him forty yards up the street to the next bend.
The last run another bull separated near me and I helped lead him into the arena. The incredible day of runs ended with Aitor leaded a beautiful grey and black speckled bull into the arena. Afterwards all the runners where just shaking their heads and breathing hard and grinning. Some of the young guys where sitting on the side of buildings exhausted and suddenly all the runners of different ages and groups where grinning and greeting me and offering me sips of water from their bottles. I was walking around with Aristregui and his friends and the old men where greeting Aristregui with such an amazed joy at what he’d done that morning. It was really awesome to see.
Here is video of the Lodosa 2016 encierros. The Toro Pasion runs start at the 2 minute mark:
This run was extremely special not just for the unusual nature of the three bull-runs back to back with sueltos and drama. But because of the way many generations had come together, there were runners ranging from their 50’s to teenagers and a fairly equal number of each, they where all working together seamlessly. Aitor wasn’t the only runner to have an exceptional run that morning, several of the runners did, including Mikel Leza.
Back in Pamplona I ran into a 19 year old kid named Samir Fadil in the middle of town who had run the Suelto with me. He was on his way to work and it was awesome to see him and how he’d come right up to me. I felt as though I’d gained deeper access to the runners of Navarra. We’d shared a special day together and now we were all bonded on the streets for life.
Next up was Estella, I’d been to Estella before it was one of the most beautiful towns I’d ever visited. When I was there it was shortly after my goring and Juan Pedro Lecuona brought me. He’d offered to look out for me if I wanted to stand in the street but I said no because I didn’t want to put him in danger trying to protect me if something went wrong. I had a couple days off from running and started going through runner’s withdrawal. The lack of adrenaline had me flirting with depression again.
I was thinking about one of my friends named Tom Gowen and hoping to run into him when I walked to Plaza de Castillo. Gowen suffered from the same mood swings as me. He was also one of the greatest American bull-runners ever. I sat down at Bar Windsor smack dab next to Gowen. We started talking.
Gowen was a decorated war veteran though he insists after receiving two medals in his first two battles; during his third battle they found him in a hole eating rations. “I guess I got hungry.”
A large caliber bullet during battle seriously injured Gowen and after his duty in the war, Harry Hubert, a historic personality in Pamplona’s fiesta, brought Gowen to San Fermin where he introduced Gowen to Matt Carney the first great American bull runner. Carney brought Gowen out to run two days in a row and on the third Carney told him “You know what you’re doing now, you’re on your own kid”. That morning Gowen was running when a lone bull dug his horn into Gowen’s shoe and threw him way up over the barricades to where the crowd watching, caught him and threw him all back onto the course. Then Gowen ran with the rest of the herd into the plaza.
I brought Gowen and his girlfriend, Maria, out to Stephanie Mutsaerts’s place where they were having a party. But I’d gotten towed Pamplona is famous for not writing tickets, they just go straight to impounding you. Tom and Maria helped and we laughed our way through the ordeal. They told me the pound is called “La Grua” in Spain and it is a tradition every Pamplonica has gone through. It was 130 Euros to get the car out somehow didn’t hurt so bad having them along with me for the adventure. Tom and Maria where a big hit at the party with their hilarious bickering.
I invited Gowen to Estella with me. He’d been before and wanted to go. I crashed at his place the next night, which is like a bull running museum with photos dating back decades, and we took off early and made it in time for the run. As we were getting ready for the run a I saw a English runner on the course who we knew. We went over to say hi and the English runner began to instruct me on what happens in Estella. I didn’t ask for his advice.
There was a little peña clubhouse on the course, they had the big wooden shields set up. Gowen went in to get me a glass of water and they gave him a cup of Patxeran. He came back and prepared to run in the pillars, on the course.
The vacas came flying up the street and I ran and found a little spot near a Colorado vaca. She was throwing her head and even gave Gowen a head fake before I ran her horns a little while she hooked wildly for me. Suddenly the English runner smashed into me and started telling me how the vacas where coming back. They didn’t come back. I walked over to find Gowen and he was happy with my running.
After the run we had a drink with the English runner. He continued to try to instruct us about the runs in the pueblos of Navarra. Of all the snobby foreign runners and about half are snobs, this guy took the cake; he’d written a book about the bull-run in Pamplona after his very first fiesta. He’d been essentially run out of town because of how bad it was and now he only goes to the pueblos of Navarra and fashioned himself as the great expert of the pueblos. He wanted to force his mastery of the pueblos on me but I didn’t need a teacher like him, especially when there was a true master like Gowen around, not to mention my ever growing group of Navarrese friends who where some of the greatest runners ever.
Gowen started to lay into the Englishman hard making fun of his book, and finally getting down to it and calling him out on his arrogance.
Gowen told him “Shake his hand!” Nodding toward me. “Maybe a little bit of the humility will rub off.”
I didn’t consider myself the greatest example of humility but I try. I couldn’t miss out on this moment so I reached my hand out and the Englishman reluctantly took it. I drove Gowen home and as we bantered I could genuinely feel his spirit shielding me from the depression that was lingering. I dropped him off and headed for the train.
On the train back to Cuellar, my spirits, which were already in a pretty good place slowly lifted until I arrived. I had way less problems getting around this time with much less books and a lot more energy.
I arrived at the Hostel and walked smack dab into the middle of a party for blind teenagers they didn’t notice me because of the loud music. They sang pop songs all night which made it hard to sleep but I was up early for Dyango to take me to Iscar. Iscar was interesting for a town of 5 thousand people they’d recently built an enormous 15 thousand seat domed plaza de toros. It was very modern but strikingly beautiful when you got close to it. The domed roof had windows in it. It was the first domed plaza de toros I’d ever seen.
On our way in we stopped at the tent for the clothing line Al Limite they had colorful running clothes with spectacular photographic images bulls on the shirts. They were funny and jovial salesmen and were also selling copies of my book.
The run in Iscar was broken into two parts, first the embudo, the funnel where they ran the bulls with horses through the fields into the streets at the edge of town. They penned those bulls then released other bulls from other pens into the street to the plaza de toros.
The Embudo was pretty but I didn’t get too close to the bulls. Then later in the second bull run we ran the bulls into the arena and I did a little better. As I ran in there were three runners running in front of the herd. They were talking to each other. I saw an opening to run with them. Then one closest to the bulls shouted to another and he closed me off. As we ran into the ring he gave more orders. Then when we entered the arena he put his arm around me and explained what I’d done wrong and if I wanted to run with them I had to do it different. I didn’t understand it all but I took it as a lesson to ease off pushing to hard in Iscar. It was the first time I’d seen runners working together so well. I really wanted to run with them. Then a couple hours later they released two lone bulls into the street and I helped lure a suelto into the arena.
Somewhere around then I fell deeply into the Bull trance of Iscar. Iscar is a runner’s Fiesta. It is a circus of bull runs. Iscar is a runner’s wet dream, and I fell in love with this bull dream. The next morning we had two runs I got a ride home with one guy, then later Ernes Fernandez picked me up with his girl friend we drove into Iscar in the middle of the night. Approaching Iscar in the night is spectacular. The small castle sits high above town on a dark cliff. White lights illuminate it. Then as you get closer you see the enormous Bullring, it looks like a beautiful alien spacecraft, which has landed for an invasion. The contrast of the two structures is quite surreal. And in some ways there had been an invasion of sorts, an invasion of galloping bulls.
Fernandez and his girlfriend brought along a nice meal and it was good. We did two bull runs in the middle of the night. I was preparing and expecting the bulls to come toward the arena when suddenly everyone looked at the arena and I realized no, they where coming out of the arena. I walked into the gorgeous tunnel with the Bullring all lit up bright. The bulls rounded the sand and then started to run into the tunnel. The pack was hugging one side of the tunnel and some of them smashed into the wall and the heard seemed to be crawling over itself trying to make it into the tunnel instead of the herd breaking apart they stuck together like they were glued. I waited then ran them out and around the bend. They ran them back in a few minutes later and I managed to fall over two runners that tripped in front of me. The lead bull passed over me close behind.
I was busted up and bleeding from my arm when I saw a final lone bull approaching. I was able help lead it up the street with a group of runners. The bull was brown Colorado with black spots. The animal was huffing and puffing and moving slowly but I could sense he was trying to lull us into a false sense of security. He took a deep breath and charged hard through the arena as we sprinted in front of him.
A few hours later I returned to Iscar with Ernes Fernandez. This time he was there to take photos for a website. He set up near me luckily because some spectacular things happened that morning.
They released the bulls from the arena again. I stood in the Callejon waiting there was another runner standing beside me and we started chatting. Everyone cleared out as the bulls approached and we led them out of the Tunnel onto the street shoulder to shoulder.
I looked back and slowed some and the animals again seemed to be crawling all over each other as they ran. It was utterly spectacular. One steer ended up floating way up over the pack and falling. A lead bull popped ahead and I lead him around the bend.
We ran the bulls back to the plaza and I was in the thick of it. Then they said they were going to do it all over again. My friend in the tunnel and I set up again. He spoke a little English and I spoke a little Spanish it was good talk.
We did pretty much the same thing leading them up the street accept this time I ran them much further down the street.
My good friend and Eh Toro organizer Ernes Fernandez captured these incredible photos.
I got to helped lead the last Suelto into the plaza on the final run.
I returned in the afternoon with my friend Diego de Diego Repiso whose father is the great bull-run photographer of Cuellar and has documented the town’s bull run for decades.
His name is Jose Luis de Diego Carabias but everyone knows him as “Bias”.
They planned to release five bulls one at a time from far away from the Bullring. I didn’t know what to expect so I asked Diego if we could watch the first one released and then move down the to our regular stretches. It was a mistake. The bull exploded down the truck ramp and blazed through the street. I ran as fast as I could but only made it to near the half-way point of the course leading the bull when I cut out to the fence. I kept running and the bull quickly disappeared into the plaza. As I got near the final quarter of the course the next bull blazed past and I didn’t get too close. The third bull I prepared myself properly and ran the bulls horns headed into the plaza but was on the outside of the curve as the bull accelerated and I leapt and hit the barricades as a local runner took over leading the bull all the way into the arena.
Later Raul Lasierra who’d been working the past two days as a pastor came up to me. He told me “Bill, this is your tramo (section) of the course, we’ve talked about it and this is your tramo, but running the outside of the curve like that, is very bad, it is very dangerous. You should run the inside of the curve.” I nodded and agreed it was a bad idea and a dangerous one. It made me wonder if I had earned the respect of the runners in Iscar, for someone like Lasierra to say I had a tramo there. But more importantly, I planned to never run the outside of a curve again.
I was able to help lead the fourth bull into the arena but couldn’t get back out in time for the fifth bull. I was really happy when all the sudden I realize they planned to release the bulls again out into the street one last time from the plaza. We ran them out then a few minutes later we ran them back in.
On the way out of town I bought an outfit from the friendly guys at Al Limmite and planned to wear it in my next Bull-run. That night I went over to my favorite establishment, Hotel Restaurante San Francisco and ate my favorite meal in the world, Rabo de Toro, (Bull Tail Stew), in the outdoor seating. It was cooked perfectly the meat feel off the bone with the slightest touch. It was the perfect string of Fiestas.
I don’t know if I’ve ever been much happier than I was in the aftermath of those days. I was exhausted but happy. I was writing every day on this blog and my new project Unknown Pueblos part travelogue part philosophical, poetry prose, magical realism, book. I realized in life you can’t control weather or not you’re rich or successful. All you can really do is strive for happiness. I didn’t write because I wanted to be a Nobel Prize winning, millionaire. I write because it makes me happy.
Still, I missed my wife terribly but we were in close contact and very much in love she was living her dream as well in Peace Corps in Panama. The fact that I have a wife who would let me go out on a limb like this, is astonishingly lucky. She is probably the luckiest thing that ever happened in my life.
My mind feels as though it’s leveled out. I’m cruising ahead deeper into my Dangerous Summer, the runs are coming easier and my love for the bulls, Spain and the bull-run is as strong as it has ever been.