I’ll start from the start.. Well, from the start of the middle of the craziest couple of weeks of my life. I’m sure your life has been crazier at some point, but mine got pretty intense, so I’m gonna get excited about it anyway.
I met Bec Sherwill at Luton airport. It was probably Stansted airport, but I’ve been to them all 5 times, so I don’t remember which is which anymore. When I saw her I had my video going, wondering if she’d see me before she I was right in front of her. Bec had been at the World Cup for a few weeks, managing a tour group associated with the bank she works at. It was a lot of stress, making sure the clients enjoyed all aspects of the tour and nothing went too far from plan. She was looking forward to a 3 week holiday, mainly in Croatia, with much needed sun, sand and relaxation.
She finally saw me and gave me a huge hug. I was very tired and a little stressed that I wouldn’t make the plane on time. I’d rolled out of a tent in Denmark at 6am that morning, driven to the airport, flown to London, stopped in to see my sister for an hour and dump some gear, then hopped on the Gatwick/Stansted/Luton Express (still can’t remember which).. With that hug, I realised I’d made it.. The first half of this two week tornado was all but complete. We boarded the flight to Bilbao, Spain, and caught up on news. Bec was hungover from a huge weekend with friends in London. And when I say friends, there were pictures of Prince William and a number of celebrities at a polo match that she’d just happened to be invited to.. Yep, she’d been having a lot of fun.
We got to Bilbao pretty late, hired a car and belted our way along the freeways to Pamplona. It was a longer drive than I expected and we got in around 1am. We were to sleep only till about 8am, because we needed to be in the town centre to watch the opening celebrations for San Fermin – the Running of the Bulls!!
We got up and into town at about 10am. The celebrations were to kick off at midday, but by the time we were there, things were already out of control. Kids were wildly running about with sangria and different coloured dyes, squirting each other with technicolour mayhem. Bags of flower were strewn about too, with many girls receiving cheap floury dreadlocks from their friends. Everyone was wearing white pants and shirts, with classic red sashes and scarves, the traditional dress of the festival. It wasn’t just the teenagers getting up to no good either. Locals from aged 5 to 75 were packing into the plaza, their whites streaked with the dull maroon of spilt sangria.
Of course, there were plenty of backpackers from the UK and Antipodean tour groups – Contiki, Busabout, the Fanatics, the Obnoxious Drunken Ship of Fools.. I’d always thought that this festival was almost solely a tourist thing, dragging in money from abroad, to this otherwise sleepy mountain city. But it became very apparent that the festival is a local show and the foreigners are just a side act. I’d go as far as saying we’re an annoyance.. We weren’t made to feel unwelcome at all, but the festival is made up of locals that do it every year and know the traditions and the behavioural expectations of the community. It takes a few days for the tourists to learn the ropes and I could see how that could be aggravating for the regulars.
We found the local lolly shop that had fridges full of sangria on sale. Sangria is a pretty potent mix of red wine, coke/soda and fruit punch. It’s very easy to drink and you can neck about a litre before you realise you’re drunk. Each bottle contained 1.5 litres, so I bought 3 bottles for the both of us. Should get us in the right frame of mind asap!
Back in the main square, I started asking a few questions.. “Are we definitely in the Main square?”
Bec – “Why wouldn’t we be? It’s a huge square and the place is packed!”
Me – “Yeah, but the wisest man I know, Chippa Wood, told me we wouldn’t even be able to get close to the square unless we were there at 10am… It’s now 11:30am and there’s room around us.. I think there’s another square…”
Bec – “Hmmmm. You could be right, but it’s hot here and there are a lot of people, so it seems pretty good.. Though you’re extremely intelligent, Tristan, and it seems that most of your hunches are very accurate, so I don’t want to outright dismiss your suggestion. I’d just like to try to ignore it for my own comfort..”
(Ok, there may have been a little creative license with that last statement..
Sure enough, there was another smaller square, jam packed with locals and tourists. At one end was the tall town hall, where the mayor of the town announced the beginning of the fiesta, sending up a few fireworks to set off the crowd’s mad hysteria. We got to it a little later and there were smashed bottles and broken people everywhere. It’s a very small square, with thin cobbled streets leading into it, surrounded by tall terraced houses, so those that had managed to get in were forced to stay by those still trying to push into the space. I was glad we hadn’t reached it. A huge fight had broken out and the police had entered the fray to quell the violence. Spanish policemen aren’t known for their passive aggression, so most of the bloodied faces and bruised bodies were a result of their intervention.
It was an extremely hot day, with temperatures soaring to 37˚C. Observers on the balconies above the packed streets threw buckets of water onto ecstatic, drunken punters. I took Bec’s hand just so I wouldn’t lose her in the confusion. Smart move, because the further into the town we got the more intense the madness became. And everyone is wearing exactly the same clothing, so it was near impossible to see each other when we were more than 5 people away.
It was fun.. It was a blast after I drank a litre and a half of sangria. The more we explored the town, the more parties we found in different sections. We ended up at a little dance party below the cathedral walls. I couldn’t believe the fiesta turned the whole city into a mass of drunken debauchery. No matter which street you wandered down, the bars were full and there were brass bands and flute parades touring the town with rag tag groups of chanting drunks in tow.
Never seen anything like it… Manic madness of the highest order.. Loved it all!
We headed back to our hotel for some rest later and took it easy for the evening. I was to run with the Bulls the next morning to get it out the way and I didn’t want to be drunk for the event. Seemed dangerous enough without me adding to the stupidity.
Following morning we were up early and in the city by 7am. The Bulls were to run at 8am, so the plan was for me to get down onto the track and for Bec to get in the stadium to see if I’d make it. It’s about a 1200m course and apparently you need to be halfway along if you’re to run with the Bulls AND make it into the stadium. I was going to give Bec my camera, as I knew it was an issue to hold onto them yourself. I thought the locals got angry about it, so eventually I figured I’d just risk it to get a couple of pics. Bec hugged me and told me to stay safe.. I thanked her and didn’t even try to assure her of my safety plans.. Truth was, I was scared shitless and didn’t know how to tell her that I thought I was going to die.
Now it turns out that getting there at 7am is far too late. You can’t even find your way onto the track as it’s all closed off by then, with the runners having jammed in an hour before. I darted through the streets of the city, asking locals and other frantic tourists where to go. No one had much idea and I was repeatedly told it was too late. Bullshit!?! (No pun intended). I wasn’t going to be defeated by something as stupid as time. I was getting in this race. By now I was down near the beginning of the run, where the Bulls are released. The platform I was on was a few metres above the actual run. I pushed through the crowd of observers and got to the rail. I told the Spanish guy on the rail in sign language that I was going over. He looked down and looked back at me incredulously… Then he just shrugged at me and moved aside. I leaped the rail and lowered/fell to the cobblestones below. A number of other punters took the opportunity to do the same. It was risky and probably should have resulted in a twisted ankle, but I was here and this year has taught me to take my opportunities as they come.
And with that, I was in the bullpen. The parade was only 10 minutes away. I was nervous, but excited. Plenty of people around me were taking photos, so I pulled out my camera and did the same. I knew I wouldn’t make it to the stadium if I didn’t progress up the track a little, so I moved through the streets of the death track and felt the thrill of the runners around me. I spoke to a couple of fellas and asked a few questions. No one really had any good answers, but everyone had a theory.. I was about to round a corner and walked past the entrance to one of the streets. I had my camera in my hand, as it felt like it would come out of the pocket in my flimsy white pants. I heard a shout and someone tapped my shoulder. I turned to see a cop reaching out toward me from the barricades that protect the street crossings. I couldn’t understand what was happening at first, but when he pointed at my camera, my eyes went wide and I apologised putting it back in my pocket.. He was having none of that and reached toward me to pull me out. I turned to run into the crowd, backing away a bit, but the look of anger that flashed across his face made me realize that this decision would result in a lot more than a slap on the hands if I was caught.. I gave up quickly and conceded defeat. He dragged me through the fence and with that, my assault on the “World’s Bravest Matador” title went up in smoke.. Idiot..
Minutes later the first firework went off and runners started to bolt. Another minute and the second firework kablammed across the city and the bulls began their stampede. The crowds screamed and cheered and the runners in my direct view began to move more quickly, until their bodies blurred in front of me. It was like watching an old movie reel get up to speed, the frames moving faster and faster until the vision on each frame melted into one magnificent picture of colour and movement. Then the bell of the lead Bull rang loudly and the giant horns of these fleshy trucks pounded past in front of me. A couple of runners were next to the Bulls and even mixed up in the charge, but largely the participants were off to the side, running frantically or hugging the walls and fences. It was quite a sight and in many ways I was glad to have seen it from that angle before I attempted it myself.
I went to the stadium and looked for Bec inside. The people that had run with the Bulls and gotten into the stadium were running about inside dodging some of the younger Bulls that they kept for this part of the program. Their horns were capped, but it didn’t stop the feisty little fellas from running about the grounds flipping frightened punters over his head. The groups of young men in the arena would run up and taunt the Bull, but if you got too close, grabbed its tail or tried to wrestle the horns, locals would come over and belt you over the head. There was obviously a level of respect that needed to be maintained by all participants. The crowd roared when someone got hurt and booed when the punters acted like idiots. It was an odd site that loses its appeal pretty quickly as you get sick of watching the young Bull being taunted. Each Bull was only out for about 5-10 minutes, but after watching a few, it was time to leave.
I walked around in circles for a while, finding Rebecca exactly where she said she was going to be. I was so anxious in the morning that I’d completely forgotten where that was until I stumbled upon her… Sorry Bec..
We rested up again in the heat of the day. Unless you were drinking sangria all day and participating in festivities, then there wasn’t much else to do. All the shops and businesses are shut for the duration of the fiesta. We were staying at a really lovely little hotel, almost a bed and breakfast. Anna, the owner was a lot of fun and her in-ground pool was the perfect antidote to the 38˚C day. Anna showed us her t-shirt label too, Chicas Milas, telling us it meant Naughty Girls. It was basically a brand for funky lesbian girls and she asked Bec if she’d model some of the prints for her website. Bec agreed and they got some great chest shots.. Ha!!
That night we went into town and looked for a good restaurant. It wasn’t going to happen though, with most places just cranking out tons of drinks and tapas to keep the festival goers happy. In fact, it was the World Cup Semi Final, with Spain taking on Germany in a fight to the death. The atmosphere in the main square was electric, but after days of being electrocuted by the madness in this place, I was ready to just have a quiet meal.. We ended up on the square’s edge and watched the “Oooooohs” & “AAAAaaaaahhhs” of the crowd. In the end, Spain came good and the whole place went bananas!! The biggest party in Spain just had a reason to get BIGGER!
It was the right place to be for that match, but I couldn’t imagine the tension and excitement that would now build toward the following weekend. It was going to be off the charts! We were to leave the next day and I had to admit, I was ready to get out. But I still had some unfinished business. I was going to tussle with a Bull, even if it killed me… Ok, that’s a little excessive. I just wanted some of this Bull action before I left. Some Bull time. Some Bull dust. A slice of steak off me old mate Toro…
So.. We dutifully got up the next morning. We headed into town super early with an Irish brother and sister – Keira and David – plus Anna’s French friend, Veronica. Once in town, I left my camera with Bec and headed straight down the mouth of the course from the stadium and looked for the point where the runners collected. I was leaving nothing to chance. It was 6:45am, already warm and I was ready for action. As I walked down the course, I was blown away by the sheer number of people walking drunkenly about after their night of revelry. I passed one guy who looked English or Aussie, covered in sangria and leaning against a wall, whispering gently to the bricks about all the amazing time they were going to spend together. He may not have known the Bulls were on their way in an hour or so, but thankfully the police would not miss this mess of a man, for if they let him run then he’d be a speed hump in no time.
Many other guys and girls collected down the course, in the straight before Deadman’s Corner. Some looked fresh like me, but many looked like they needed sleep, a shower, or at least a slap in the face to sober up. I was worried about the drunk looking fellas, mostly because when they spoke, they slurred or shouted… either way they were dangerous. As it got closer to 7:15, they shut off the section where the runners had collected. “It’s full”, was the shout from the crowd. We were all packed together as sardines and waited till they cleared the rest of the course before they released the gates again and allowed you to move further up the path. At 28˚C, it was getting very uncomfortable, very quickly. I worried for the girls that were jammed in with us as they began to expire.
Finally we were released and many people moved further up the course toward the stadium. The further up you went, the more likely you were to make it into the stadium before the last of the Bulls came thundering past, at which point they close the stadium and you’re stuck out in the street. There’s a danger here too, though. If you get spooked and go too fast, you end up in the stadium before the dreaded Bulls even pass you, so you didn’t really run with the Bulls, you kinda stood in there path for a few seconds before crapping out. You beat the Bulls in and you’re the subject of scorn for all the onlookers in the stadium. The chant “Puta Madre”, which I will leave un-translated for the children reading this, will ring in your head and your heart till your deathbed.. Toughen up people, get near some cowhide.
Listen to me, all tough and accusing. Truth is, when I was waiting for the Bulls on that second morning, I was fine. I was reasonably relaxed, feeling pretty much as I do before a race – I accept the inevitable and wait for the worst. There were some shit-scared faces around me and when the first “warning” firework was set off, I was amused to see many people bolt past me, around Deadman’s Corner and up the road toward the stadium. I was also a little astonished at the frightened few who clambered through the rails to safety, exiting the course before the Bulls were even let loose. They were white as sheets and one guy was hyper-ventilating. Stay calm, I thought, wait till the second warning. What was supposed to be a few minutes, turned out to be seconds before the next blast came. It gave me a shock, but I chose to wait for a few more seconds. I felt like I was in Braveheart…. “Hoooold…Hooooooooold…. HOOOOOOLD!”
I strained my ears listening for the bell of the lead bull. I eyed Deadman’s Corner and saw people skidding around the bend. Basically it’s a sharp right hand turn, so tight that the Bulls slip to the left on the cobble stones as they try to round it with their huge mass of meat. If you’re caught on the left side at the same time as the raging brutes, then you can say goodbye to your ribs as they’re crushed into your lungs… I thought I heard a tinkle and looking behind me I saw more men running like blazes. I took stock of my situation.. “Who the hell are you trying to kid, idiot…RUN!”
15 steps had me rounding the corner… It was not what I had expected. A mass of bodies huddled right around the edge, hidden from my previous view. All of a sudden, this right hand safety zone was a grid-lock of runners and they were all looking back at me, creating a wall of defense that seemed completely impenetrable. But the fear in their faces was what terrified me the most. The mass hysteria of people trying to push against the bricks on the right and the roadblock of people trying to curl around the corner. My heart rate tripled, my eyes dilated, the adrenalin exploded through my body and I’m pretty sure I exhaled the “F” word… then I just threw myself headlong into the mayhem and hoped I’d live.
The crowd caved forward in front of me… Not so much from my impact, but because everyone was ready to get the hell out of Dodge right now.. People clawed around each other and like a rolling wave, shattered along the right hand wall and spluttered forward down the thin city street. All I knew was that it was time to run and I started to grab others that weren’t moving and began to thrust them forward or to the right to get out of my way. The crowd started to move at the same speed, but not without seeing a few punters hit the cobblestones in the process. People would reach down to pull them up, but others were ramming forward so another few people were bowled over.. Mayhem..
I was now officially shitting myself. The panic around me was palpable and the air tasted heavy with sweat even though my mouth was now stone dry.. Then…. Clang, clang, clang.. The sound of a surging Bull.. The death knell… Time to run faster…
I tripped over a leg.. No idea where it came from. I kept my balance, but it reminded me to keep looking forward, which was the only real advice I’d remembered. Look forward, not backwards, while running. Pretty reasonable suggestion until you have a few ton of Bull rampaging toward your backside. At some stage you’re bound to wanna look back and make sure the spiky bit of old mate Bull is at a safe distance, or at the very least aiming at someone else’s arse.. And to be fair, mine isn’t a really big target!
So, I looked forward and surged as fast as I could through the crowd. But the clangs got louder and all I could see while dodging arms and legs was the frightened faces of the guys who HAD to look backwards, to see what was coming.. And…eventually… I looked too.. shit… There was a steam train of bovine malice heading straight up the centre of the thin cobbled street. The biggest one had the bell and it’s eyes were wide as it charged forward. The four others with it were running wildly in line, but as I turned, one of them tumbled further back, slipping on the stones and collecting a runner. They were now passing me and I shouldered my way further from the centre and into the right hand wall/mass of shouting people..
The first Bulls had passed and I was already being pushed back into the centre of the street. But Old Mate Tumbler had regained his footing and was anxious to catch up with the team, so he was charging forward and we all ran sideways and hit the wall again as he passed, riding the crowd as though we were a rampant Mexican Wave.
Ok, still safe. But more Bulls were coming and I still had more than 400m to go to get to the stadium. I ran forward again, as did everyone else. But something was wrong… I couldn’t feel my legs.. More than that, I had this weird seized sensation in the muscles at the base of my back, around my kidneys. I tried to run faster, but had no real control, except for the fact that my legs were still running. I really was scared… The flow of people got spooked a couple more times as I progressed quickly up the road, so each time I would be swept against the right fence by a crowd of people that were freaked by even one person trying to move to safety. Everyone was running forward, but it was a motley effort.
Clang, clang, clang…
Another group was coming… The screams around me were more from people just wanting to get the hell out.. They were looking for gaps in the fence, but I was determined to dodge this second onslaught and still make it into the stadium.. I kept running and looked back in time to see the next herd pass just a metre away. I was close, but I couldn’t feel their breath, so I was ok.. They passed and I saw another fella get thrown to the side by a younger, more confused Bull. The movement tripped the Bull and he slid onto his face. Everyone scattered again and I took the opportunity to keep running forward while there was a gap. I was nearly in the stadium. Some of the officials pushed me out of the centre of the road as they made room for the young Bull to find his composure and move into the stadium. As soon as he passed me I followed behind, thinking that this might be my last opportunity to get in. Sure enough, as soon as the Bull was in, they started to pull the big gate closed. I kept running in.
“C’mon, get in, get in”, I heard an Aussie accent shout out. I pushed with the crowd, the stragglers who wanted the glory of being inside. I was pushed back by an official, but the crowd behind me was bigger than his weak shove, so I was able to turn my shoulder and give him a greater mass of people to deal with.. In a second, I was through.. I ran into the arena with a sense of euphoria. I remember Benny Scudds telling me about this in Argentina. It was amazing!! The crowd around the arena were up on their feet, cheering and clapping. Yet, I also felt completely lost.. The adrenalin in my body was going ballistic, but the run was over, so I didn’t know what to do with the energy. My eyes were wild and I tried to shout, “YEEEAAAAHHHH”, but it came out as a weak and stunned, “yeeeerrrr”… Could barely manage a fist pump..
I looked about at the shocked and excited faces around me. A couple of them ranted at me, but I really didn’t hear them. One guy came over and nearly hugged me because we’d nodded to each other at the start. It was a little weird. I shook his hand instead.. Strange way to encourage mateship, but I guess this is when you truly look to others for some sense in what just happened.
I looked for Bec in the crowd. It took a few minutes, but I found her, camera shooting down. I wish I had a good camera for times like this, because it will never quite capture the moment otherwise. I waved and she came down to give me the camera. It wasn’t long before they let the young Bulls in to rampage through the crowd again. I tried to get a picture and some video, but I was feeling a little stressed and still a little terrified, so I just decided to get out of the ring. I got up into the stands and finally found Bec and the Irish kids. The feeling was just coming back into my legs when she gave me a big hug. I needed it too..
“Let’s get out of here”, I said… “Absolutely”, she replied. It was time to go.. Job done, no injuries, nothing but drunk madness to stick around for.. Time to leave.
We headed back with Veronica. We packed our car quickly, got the road map out and planned out the first few roads to France. I was still shaking a bit when we were leaving. We thanked Anna for her amazing hospitality and drove slowly away from the biggest party in Spain, in the midst of another 36˚C day.
A big road trip lay ahead, trying to cross France and get to Zermatt the following night – Friday..The marathon was on Saturday morning and we would then need to drive to Busana in Italy, for the mammoth task of racing another alpine marathon on Sunday. We had snacks and music and plenty to talk about. I couldn’t have had a better person to share the adventure with either.
And so the next phase began..
Again, this has taken a long time to get written while I rush around on planes, trains and buses, all over France, Spain, Russia and Mongolia. It’s hard to keep this stuff going without power and internet, but I keep trying. I hope you’re still enjoying the reads when I can get them up!
Again, I want to thank Krys & Associates for their amazing efforts to support me over the last few weeks. I can finally say I have a strong sponsor and I know that I chosen to team up with the right people – just have a listen to this interview with Ken:
I’ll try to get another post up by the end of this week. Things will get manic again, but I know you will all love the stories about the Alpine marathons and the 100km race in Mongolia.. Silver Medal Baby!!!
A quick thanks to people like Stefan and Guy, who were amazing new friends in Mongolia, that even donated $500 to UNICEF, finally bringing the total over $10,000!! Thanks also to my Paris Marathon buddy, Eric Heine, for a 2nd massive donation of $200! Amazing support… You can support UNICEF too at our EveryDayHero page.
And don’t forget, we now support Facing Africa too!! You can help kids in Thirld World Countries, with the malicious disease NOMA, fight for a better life. Please read more here… and consider how you could help with the donations box on the right column..
I’ve been sick all week with food poisoning in Mongolia. Not surprising, but it’s going to make this weekend’s Siberian Marathon difficult. Especially with the pending 48 hours on the Trans Siberian in the coming days. I’ll keep going, if you keep supporting though, ok?!
Thanks for all the love lately, I’ve really needed it. All the messages mean a lot and the video Pete Lockyer put together… just blew me away.
Congrats to more new babies coming into the world from my close friends, some I can’t talk about, but congrats to Cath and Haydn with one on the way!
And Happy Birthday to my parents, Gay and Bob.. I feel like I’m such a long way off at times like this..
I’ll be off line for a few days. So good luck to everyone running in big races all over the world.. Including the City2Surf!
Get Crazy, coz you’re all Champions!!
Ha! Love it all..