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An Excerpt From 'Bulls Before Breakfast'

This article is more than 6 years old.

This excerpt appears in "Bulls Before Breakfast: Running with the Bulls and Celebrating Fiesta de San Fermín in Pamplona, Spain" by Peter Milligan, published by St. Martin's Press, LLC.

Check out Milligan's conversation with Only A Game's Bill Littlefield.


A Perfect Day:

On July 14, 2011, Ari and I slept later than any other day that fiesta. We had reached that transient state of exhaustion one finds only during the Pamplona fiesta. In nine days we had less than thirty-six hours of sleep. It was the last day of the famed Navarran festival, and then everything would come to an end at midnight. Tossing aside our lassitude, we stepped out onto the cobblestones in high spirits wearing crisp, brand-new, perfectly ironed white linen pants. This would be our fiftieth run with the bulls together in the streets of Pamplona. We made our way to the town hall, and there was already a human traffic jam waiting to enter the course at the entrance we usually use. But we caught the eye of a member of the Policía Foral who had gotten to know us from our morning frolics during prior years. He waved us over to the side and held everyone back to let us climb under the barrier. We shook hands with him and pantomimed a discussion, and thanked him, and we told him we would see him next year. “Próximo año, mi hermano!” We would say this over and over during the day to our huge Pamplona family, before the day ended with burnt fingers and firework ashes raining down into our tear-filled eyes.

Together Ari and I had set this artificial fifty-run goal sometime during our third fiesta, but privately. It is bad form to brag about how many times you’ve run, and what really matters to those who run annually is having one perfect run in a lifetime. An artist does not brag about the quantity of his art but the quality. My children have (and probably yours will or have) brought home hundreds of “artistic” creations, but this does not make them artists. Pablo Picasso only needed Guernica to be considered great. To wit, there are ballet lessons, and then there’s Baryshnikov.

In our forty-nine runs up until that date, we’d come close to what could be considered a perfect run (to us), and we had also just horrifically missed but always longed for better. At the very least, a good run requires one to get close to the bulls, to place one’s body and soul in front of the herd and the horns, and to run a good distance in front of these marvelous killers. A perfect run? Well, I have no idea what that will be as I still rally my old bones from a couple hours of sleep and roll into the streets to find out.

That morning, Ari and I briskly walk down calle Estafeta, decorated festively with all its bunting and flags, and with the hordes of locals and visitors who have come to watch and (unsafely) hang from balconies the entire stretch of the street. There are thousands and thousands of onlookers. For some that morning, merely coming to see and not run is a lifetime dream come true. We run. We look for friends above and wave to them, and find friends in the street and hug them and quietly wish them suerte as we continue down the cobblestones. We make our way down to the end of calle Estafeta to where the road gets wider on the right-hand side. This is where we have agreed to wait. All around us runners are elasticizing their legs and jumping high into the air and checking their watches. They are stretching their necks and arms and taking small practice dashes down the middle of the street. As 8:00 a.m. approaches, activities stop; there is less and less talking, and even less eye contact among the brothers who have gathered this morning to face this charge together. Ari and I clear the street where we are standing for the moment of the last few pieces of debris. He wanders over to the left side of the street and I stay on the right. I say, “I will see you in a couple of minutes.” When the rocket explodes at 8:00 a.m. the entire city shakes. Many frightened runners pass us by in terror, but long before the bulls arrive. I start my stopwatch and know that in about two minutes, the entire herd will be on top of us. Down on the other end of calle Estafeta I can see camera flashes—the bulls have turned the corner and are on their way. Ari and I start running before we even see the bulls. We have practiced this timing over many mornings in Pamplona and know by the actions of the runners in the distance when to start. We might be able to do this with our eyes closed—using only our ears. Nevertheless, we sensibly do not try this.

Now at a full gallop, we see people all around us falling or dashing to the barricades or crashing into the crowds of runners shrinking to the sides of the running course. We slap their grabbing hands off our shirts and leap their fallen forms. We watch bodies uncontrollably slide as runners tumble and heads hit the cobblestones with a beautiful thud. There is screaming all around us from onlookers, many of whom suddenly realize that this is no merry-go-round. At every step, at every turn, at every moment, the bulls are this close to killing runners all along the streets. It is a miracle that dozens do not die every morning. Many will survive by luck, despite stupidity, or by skill. Those watching from the balconies, seeing each and every close call, and realizing how close the delightful morning is to becoming tragic, are often more terrorized afterward than the runners.

This excerpt appears in “From Bulls Before Breakfast: Running with the Bulls and Celebrating Fiesta de san Fermin in Pamplona, Spain” by Peter Milligan, published by St. Martin's Press, LLC.

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