Taking the Bull by the Horns

Monty Doiel had his first inkling of trouble as he turned right at the end of Mercaderes Street onto Estafeta. The corner is hard and angular, difficult under the best of circumstances. Doiel had hoped his new black Nike Air ACG cross-trainers with the reverse-tread grip would provide an advantage on the cobblestones, but instead it was like running on a slick gym floor. He took the turn a little wide.

Most people familiar with the Encierro agree that swinging wide onto Estafeta from Mercaderes is a pretty bad place for a person to be. Even though the stone streets have been chipped away at over the years to provide the bulls with better footing, the beasts can slip, too, and they often careen left into the barriers that line the course there. There have been ugly collisions.

Monty remembers that the bulls had separated fairly quickly after being released from the corrales onto the 300-yard-long, slightly uphill-sloping street called Santo Domingo. He had waited in front of City Hall, zigzagging deliberately back and forth across the street after hearing the starting rocket fired, marking time until the bulls made their way down the narrow passage. When he saw the first bull, just past Ayuntamiento Square, he began to run in earnest. Even with a good head start, though, a man is in no way faster than a bull, and the first animal rushed by Monty's left.

There is a secret to running with the bulls: If you really want to run with the animals and not just say you did -- wait for one to pass by and then slip in behind and slap at its rear, timidly brush the danger with your fingertips and not face it down like a man -- then you must actively seek out your bull. The two of you must acknowledge and engage each other. But the odds are against this. Typically, six bulls are released each of the seven days of the Fiesta of San Fermín, held in Pamplona, Spain, each July. Although several steers are also released into the street to help control the bulls, they are non-entities, a meaningless entourage to the talent. As Monty puts it, "Cutting across a cow pasture was never a big deal to me."

So it was as he was bending right, too high against the barrier, that Monty first glimpsed the second animal -- his bull. Actually, it's not entirely accurate to say that Monty spotted the bull. It was more a sense that the beast was there, waiting for Monty to acknowledge him. "In my peripheral vision, I can see the second bull," he recalls. "And I know he's my bull -- that's who I'm gonna run with. And at the same time, I also know he knows I'm his runner. He had spotted me, and I was who he was after. Plus the black helped."

You must understand that, for better or for worse, this is exactly what Monty wanted: the undivided attention of 1,500 pounds of charging, angry muscle and sinew. He'd even dressed to promote the confrontation. Pamplona bull runners usually wear a traditional outfit: crisp white pants and billowy shirts, with a brilliant red sash tied rakishly about the waist. Monty had even worn that unofficial uniform the day before, but thanks to confusion over the starting line, he'd missed the festival's first day of the running.

"So the second day, I changed into all black," he says. "For one, I hate wearing dirty clothes, and the whites were dirty. But I also thought, 'Hey, why not wear something that will get you noticed? I'm here to run, after all...'" It worked. And so at that moment, the instant when the two animals, Monty and the bull, connected on a very basic, primal level and agreed to stay with each other until this thing was over, Monty was content. "I knew that him and me were going to go for it," he says.

Yet as he skidded around the hard right, regained his footing and began the long, 480-yard straightaway toward the gentle left that begins in front of the Telefonica building -- the telephone exchange -- Monty's plan began to quickly break down. When you mix people and danger, you never know what behavior to expect. Monty looked ahead, down the street, and spotted...a mess. "I look forward and I see all these other runners in front of me. They had fallen down, all the way across the street," he recalls. "I had started recovering from my wide turn, began to cut across to the right, just as I had planned. And suddenly, there's I-25 in the winter spread out in front of me.

"And I can feel every bit of this guy gaining on me. There's no side mirrors, no rearview mirrors. But I can feel it. Butterflies, adrenaline. You can call it what you want. But I know it was fear. FEAR! And I was handling it, man! 'Cause you gotta understand that without fear there is no bravery!"

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer