Seven in the morning, sun just up. I walked with Ron and the pilots down an alley built before Columbus discovered the New World. None of us had gotten more than two hours of sleep. We existed in that gray netherworld between violent jetlag and hangover, pretending to be coherent when, in fact, we were less than half awake.
The post-bullfight dinner had been thin cuts of grilled steak--not that evening's bulls, we were assured--served with a full-bodied red Navarre table wine. We sauntered from the second-floor restaurant at midnight, when Pamplona just starts waking up.
I was exhausted from the travel and food. But even if I'd wanted to sleep it would have been impossible. Too much excitement. Too many bodies swaying in the streets. Some danced as couples, though most were just grooving alone, bouncing hips and shoulders off total strangers, digging on the weird craziness of Pamplona at full throttle. The night air was warm. It smelled of sweat, expensive perfume and stale wine.
At about two a.m. it had become sport to hurl empty wine bottles to the cobblestones. The early morning air was rent by shattering glass. By four there had been gin with a lemon mixer called Kas, scored by techno music. By the time we stumbled off to bed, the town was just kicking into that partying mode reserved for true professionals. Even the pilots, who treated revelry as a birthright, were wrung out.
My motivation for coming to Pamplona, truth be told, wasn't running with the bulls, but to blow off steam. One thing was certain as I lay down to sleep that Pamplona night: I had blown off a great deal of steam. We all did.
In the morning the cobbled streets and narrow medieval alleys were puddled with red wine, vomit and swaths of urine so vast they could have been considered estuaries or lakes and given their own geographical place names. Thick green shards of broken glass rose from the vile puddles. The march from our hotel to the run course was like tiptoeing through a minefield.
For all those sensations, what had me reeling were the white pants I wore--the tight white pants. Borrowed from Ron, they clung to my thighs like sausage skins. It had been a struggle to button the waist.
Sometimes it's a major event that provides the impetus for change. Say, the death of a close relative. Sometimes it's something very small, like being confronted with a forty-pound weight gain moments before being chased down a narrow, crowded, cobbled, wine-sticky, piss-slippery stretch of cobblestones by a half-ton killing machine.
I remembered a moment the year before, standing at the headwaters of the Yangtze River while covering an adventure race. "So Martin," asked a Chinese colleague with typical Oriental directness, "when did you get the belly?"
And there was that book signing during the summer thunderstorm in Albuquerque, when the Border's manager took one look at me and chuckled, "You sure don't look like your author photo."
My answer to both was the same: I've been lifting. It's muscle.
So, no, I wasn't the skinny blond kid who ran NCAA cross-country anymore. That much I could deal with. The weight gain didn't trouble me as much as what it implied. Career-wise, I was pushing myself to be my best. The Africa project I had just finished had been all-consuming. I had been determined to write the greatest book of which I was capable, and I felt like I had succeeded. But in all other areas of life--family, appearance, fitness, spirituality--the desire to be my best had imperceptibly been replaced by a lowering of standards. And I couldn't explain why. The dissipation of Pamplona and my life were not mirror reflections. They were close enough to the truth, though, to sting.
My ruminations came to an end as we reached a high wooden barricade near the Plaza Consistorial. It was the moment of decision. On the other side were the runners, awaiting the eight a.m. release of the bulls. On our side were spectators and would-be runners in the throes of second thoughts. I climbed over. Ron and the other pilots clambered up and over the rails, too.
The tightly-packed scrum inside the barricades was claustrophobic. The street was so narrow, and the sea of red and white so great, that there was no room to move. I can't imagined what would have happened if the bulls had been released at that moment.
Lowering my shoulders, I forced my way down Mercaderes Street, into the heart of the mob. Apartment buildings rose three stories up on either side, casting us in shadow. I felt I was in an urban slot canyon. Spectators looked down with bemusement from balconies. I twisted my neck to look behind me and realized I had lost Ron and the pilots. When I didn't see them after a moment standing on my tiptoes, I pressed forward.
Then, a miraculous coincidence. I came to a line of policeman. They stood abreast, arms linked, facing the crowd. Behind them, runners were being cleared from the course to ease congestion. And just like that, I stood at the front of the mob, toeing the cobblestones like a racer at the starting line.
Behind me were thousands of runners and a dozen bulls waiting to be released. Before me--and the dozen others standing alongside me up front--was nothing but the empty cobblestones of Mercaderes Street. Six hundred yards and several sharp turns out of sight was the bullfighting coliseum. As I stared ahead, unable to believe my good fortune, a street cleaning truck rumbled down that corridor, sweeping up glass and hosing away puddles.
To top it all off, Ron and the pilots suddenly appeared at my side. I was glad to see them, for I was getting very nervous indeed. "Hey," Ron said. I could tell by the rapid way his eyes shifted and the clipped patter of his speech that he was getting nervous, too. "We thought we lost you."
A CNN crew stepped out of an apartment building. They filmed us until a cop told them now was the ideal time to scram if they wanted their cameras to remain in one piece. They hustled away. The crowd surged forward. The police held their line. Then the rockets went off back by the bulls' corral, signaling their release. The policemen, suddenly looking very afraid, dashed to the side of the street and pressed their bodies into a vestibule.
The run was on.
At first I sprinted just to avoid being trampled. Then, as we settled into a powerful pace and I found myself drafting on the tail end of a small lead pack, I reveled in how incredibly surreal it felt to be leading the charge during the running of the bulls.
The cobblestones were slick from the street washer (television footage would later show a bull slipping and nearly crushing a half-dozen runners during the ninety-degree right turn from Mercaderes Street to Estafeta Street). I was careful with my footing as I rounded the turn. I stayed to the outside, lest I get pinned against the fence. I never looked over my shoulder, but I was always listening for the clatter of hooves. The average time it takes the bulls to go from their enclosure to the Plaza de Toros is three minutes and fifty-five seconds. I didn't know how many minutes had passed since the rockets went off, because time had become fluid and compressed. But I knew they would be coming soon.
The charge up Estafeta Street was made tougher by a two-percent grade. Runners started falling back, me included. The weight had become an issue. No longer was I in the lead, but ten yards behind the pack. I struggled to maintain contact, if only for the sheer thrill of running up front. At the top end of Estafeta, where it meets Bajada de Javier, barricades had been installed on both sides. Uniform-clad spectators hung sidesaddle on the horizontal slats like cowboys cheering a roundup. Just like in a roundup, the fences were narrowing into a funnel. The run was at its most dangerous in this telefonica as bulls and runners were compressed into the thin passage. There would be no escaping an angry animal. I sprinted through, always listening for, but still not hearing, the thunder of hooves.
Then there it was: the Plaza de Toros. The finish. Some spectators dropped down off the barriers and ran those last hundred yards into the coliseum. This struck me as cheating -- they had taken no risk, but could forever claim to have run with the bulls. This area, known as the Callejon, was as far as Hemingway got.
It's ironic that Hemingway wrote the definitive text on running with the bulls, yet missed the best part.
We raced single file down the Callejon, into the darkness of the stadium tunnel. I could see the light at the end of the tunnel, then the dirt of the arena straight ahead. Patches were still stained crimson from where bulls had died the night before.
That moment where we burst from the tunnel into the pastel sunlight of the bullfighting arena will stay with me forever. Thousands of Spaniards--a seamless carpet of red and white--stood on their feet cheering and waving their arms.
I recognized the roar. It was that splendid peal reserved for the very good matadors. Even though it wasn't directed at me alone, such sublime glory occurs infrequently in life. It must be cherished. When I reached the center of that dusty ring I stopped, then twirled slowly to take it all in. Ron made it a few seconds later. So did all the other pilots. We smacked each other on the back and captured the moment with Ron's pocket digicam.
Then the bull charged. An offshoot of the herd had come in right behind us. One singled me out. Just in time I heard the hollow thunder of hooves, and a subtle gasp from the crowd. I sprinted like a cowardly matador for the red arena wall. Vaulting the barricade, I landed atop two Pamplona policemen. They pummeled my hamstrings with billy clubs in the international gesture of benevolence then lifted me off the ground and threw me bodily from the coliseum.
Regardless, I was awash in grace, as if something special had just taken place. Encierro legend says that a runner surviving a close brush with a bull has been protected by the cloak of San Fermin. That's how I felt.
I wandered, riding an adrenaline high, to a café. There I sipped an espresso at a tin table festooned with a single red ashtray, and read an American newspaper. It was the same plaza as the day before, but now empty. And silent. I put the paper down and ordered another espresso, then sat for an hour, just thinking. Something had happened back there in the arena; something had changed.
I came to the conclusion that it wasn't the cheers which had made my time on that dirt floor so wondrous, it was the taking part. The pushing limits. It's one thing to write about the exploits of others, as I'd been doing for so long. It was quite another to get out there and do it myself.
Then sensation had been so fulfilling that I wanted to make it a regular part of my life. Not as an occasional experience, but on a daily basis. So as I at there in the pale blue Pamplona dawn, wired on caffeine, adrenaline and the aura of San Fermin, I made a resolution: Every day for a year I would focus on pushing my limits. Being the best I could be. Not just in work, but in all things. I didn't know if it was possible but I figured it couldn't hurt to give it a try.
I had no idea what would happen next.
Martin Dugard is an Active Expert and the New York Times bestselling author of Chasing Lance (Little, Brown, 2005). Contact him at www.martindugard.com.