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A Supposedly Fun Bull Run I'll Never Do Again
Adam L. Brinklow | Photo: Courtesy The Great Bull Run | July 28, 2014
Twenty-eight bulls. One reporter. No excuses.
I am on the track at the Alameda County Fairgrounds in Pleasanton, with thousands of witnesses watching. Over two dozen 1,800-pound bovine Goliaths mull around about 500 feet from where I stand, waiting for the signal to smash me so hard that all that will be left behind is a battered press pass. I'm wearing the same black slacks, black workboots, and black t-shirt ensemble I wear into the office every day. I left my long overcoat on the back of a seat in the bleachers in hopes that it might serve as a somber memorial to my passing. Have I mentioned how hot it is yet?
Golfers on the neighboring course stop practicing their drives and line up to watch. The track is a quarter mile of rodeo fencing with a corral on either side. Staffers had earlier told me that it was about 20 feet wide, but it sure as hell doesn't look it now. I scamper up the fence to get a feel for how I would bug out if I needed to, then drop to my knees and rub dirt on my palms to look cool. I am not cool. Rob Dickens, co-founder of the Great Bull Run, is on the PA, prepping us: "I don't want to see you all killed. Although the folks in the stands probably do."
The crowd begins to count down from ten. When they finish, the corral gates will open and release a thunderous reckoning. A group of bros in Cobra Kai t-shirts are flouting the warnings about standing in the middle of the track, openly taunting the bulls. Their legs will be swept. I reflect on my sins. Could I get right with God in the next ten seconds? I try to remember anything helpful from The Sun Also Rises. All that I can think is that Hemingway would have been drunk on absinthe right now. Then the gates open.
Lawyer-turned-adventure sportsman Rob Dickens, COO of Great Bull Run LLC, once aimed at traveling to Pamplona for the Running of the Bulls, but balked at the price. So he put together an American version of the Spanish tradition that allows the 99 percent to toy with death for only $75. I asked him for advice that morning. "Don't run," he said. "If you run right at the start you'll have bulls running 30 miles per hour behind you and no idea where they are, and that's not going to end well." Instead stand your ground, and then—once the herd gets going—run with the bulls instead of from them. This is all very Zen, and much easier advice to take if the bulls were to be metaphorical.
Dickens's inaugural stampede went down in Virginia last August, where a crashed photo drone injured more people than the bulls did. The affair in Pleasanton on Saturday was his ninth. It lacked the romance of Spain. It's a hot, dusty, yanqui carnival, more NASCAR than Grand Prix. But it's ours, and 3,000 Bay Area thrillseekers (plus 1,500 more who watched from the stands) decided to save on air faire in favor of it.
The same stable of 28 Kentucky-bred bulls clocks in at each event, so I knew that the bulls I'd be running from—excuse me, with— were the same ones I'd seen clobbering runners on YouTube the night before. No one has died yet in the Great Bull Run, and only fifteen people have been killed in the last century of Pamplona runs. Dickens structures his events to be less risky than the Spanish ones, particularly if you're not stupid. Go back to the Cobra Kai guys for more on that. They're still non-metaphorical bulls and we're still non-metaphorical humans. If safety is your agenda, stay the hell away.
Not everyone thought the bull run was fun and games. PETA filed a lawsuit to hold up Saturday's event. Forty protestors from the animal-rights group Direct Action Everywhere picketed the fairgrounds with signs reading, "If you think the bulls don't mind, that's bull." Spokesperson Priya Sawhney told me, "These animals are being exploited for entertainment. It's nothing more than animal slavery." Sawhney compared the run to the treatment of orcas at SeaWorld. Dickens insisted the bulls weren't abused and that the "regular work" of the bull run kept them out of the slaughterhouse. A Change.org petition decrying the event drew 1,749 supporters.
Reggie Washington, a 25-year old who installs fire alarm systems for a living, came all the way from Sacramento for the bull run. His agenda? "Adrenaline. I always wanted to go to Spain. Now Spain came to me." Mel Orpilla, who works in the office of North Bay Congressman Mike Thompson, said that at 53, he maintains an appetite for adventure. "Every year I try to do something new to push myself." Sizing me up, he pointed out my usefulness as a human shield. "We need people like you in there to put between us and the bulls." I thanked him for his support. Most amazing was Vern Chatfield, an 82-year-old retired restaurant supervisor originally from Hawaii, who said that his daughter was the reason he signed up. "She told me not to do it. That was all it took." The crowd is heavy on 20-something meatheads. White guys with sombreros (potentially confused about the bull run's country of origin?) appeared in possibly record numbers.
Then there is me.
And the bulls.
When the gates open the herd trundles forward a few tentative steps, shaking their ears and wondering if this mob of ill-mannered humans is here for their entertainment. Then one of the cowboys cracks his lariat and a biological Rube Goldberg device goes into motion. In front, the steer—a castrated bull, smaller and more excitable—bolts. The larger bulls behind him give in to the stampede instinct. They run so close together and at such blurred speed that they look like one huge animal, some sort of mythical beast with seven heads and seventy horns. As the juggernaut bears down I remember that over at the San Francisco Zoo they are doing the penguin march. I like penguins. They top out at like fifty pounds. Just imagine it's a flock of adorable penguins, I tell myself. It doesn't help.
Here come the bulls.
And before I know it, there go the bulls, scattering costumed frat bros like beer bottle tops. They pay no mind to me. I feel snubbed as they run by—almost. As the sleek black one at the back of the herd passes I take Dickens' advice and go for a jog. This lasts around two seconds, since they're going thirty miles an hour and I have the body of a professional writer (non-Murakami division). But with those powerful haunches pumping—machinelike—only a few feet away, for a moment I imagine I am running like the wind. I laugh, relieved. Safety.
Then from the grandstands the PA squawks. "Here comes the second wave!"
Twenty-eight bulls can't fit on the track at once without killing every one of GBR's customers, so the handlers stagger the release. I turn around to catch a blinding wave of dust in the face. The second group runs abreast, and this one swings its horns in my direction with every step. The #YOLO crowd have their own priorities, but I'm uninsured. So, dear reader, I bail. I jump halfway up the fence and wait for most of them to pass before dropping down and running alongside. A woman with smartphone in outstretched hand runs behind the rear bull, trying to touch its retreating flank.
Up ahead, three guys fall over like bowling pins. They try to stand before the next wave comes but blunder over each other, tripping. I lose sight of them as the bulls thunder by. A trampled black t-shirt lays in the dust at my feet, mysteriously divorced of a body. I look around for a bull dragging a shirtless dude to the finish line, but see nothing. Then, after 80 seconds and four waves, it's over.
I am sore, rattled, dust-choked, and sunburnt, but alive. It wasn't until watching the video later that I realize how fast the bulls are and how close I'd been to them. For the record: Too fast. Too close. As witnesses to disasters often recount, time had seemed to slow. The runners file out, shouting and laughing, high on adrenaline. Kristen Jensen, a 28-year-old medical assistant from Sacramento who had come for her birthday, says that the bulls were "actually pretty cute." Vicente Borja, a math teacher from Pittsburg High, carps about back pain but shows off the photos he'd taken for his students.
By the end of the day, the bulls had run four times. Let the record show that the reporter dispatched by the Chronicle did not run with them. Neither cattle nor human died, though a man in the 12:30 run was trampled and carted away in an ambulance with a concussion and gruesomely bloody face. Organizers told me that no one else suffered a significant injury.
I run into octogenarian adventurer Vern Chatfield on his way out of the track. I ask him how he felt. "I had a ball," he says. In fact, he's signed up to go again the same day. Maybe by the time I'm as old as him, I'll be ready for another one too.