A Run with the Real Bulls

One American has been trekking to Pamplona since 1985 and having unbelievable fun, especially when he dodges death with his daughter

By Thane Peterson

If you're like me, the running of the bulls at the annual bullfights in Pamplona in early July seems like one of the looniest ideas ever. Perhaps you saw the TV clips a few days ago -- people sprinting down the cobblestone streets in front of rampaging bulls, a few being gored, others stumbling and nearly being trampled. This isn't my idea of a relaxing vacation. I've read my Hemingway, but I still find bullfights (which take place after the run to the arena) disturbingly cruel.

Then there's Gary Gray, 52, a onetime investment banker who now teaches finance at Penn State University. He loves running with the bulls so much so that he has done it every year since 1985. His wife, Katie O'Toole, also loves the encierro, as it's called in Spanish. She has not only run with the bulls, but once was presented with the ear of a bull by one of Spain's preeminent bullfighters. This mother of six, who hosts a local public television show in State College, Pa., became so exhilarated that she leapt out of the stands and -- to the wild applause of the crowd -- planted a peck on the bullfighter's cheek.

Last year, the couple's oldest daughter, Alison, an undergrad at Penn State, ran with bulls with her parents for the first time. She had just turned 18, the youngest age you're allowed to do the run. Even Graham Spanier, president of Penn State, did the run last year after coaching by Gray.

You'll start to understand the infectious appeal of the event if you read Gray's book, Running With the Bulls: Piestas, Corridas, Toreros and an American's Adventure in Pamplona (Lyon's Press, $22.95). One of the book's best lessons is how much a person -- a whole family in this case -- can get out of being open and adventurous while traveling abroad.

Gray got into the Pamplona event in 1985, when a group of fun-loving Spaniards saw him trying to buy a ticket to the bullfights from a scalper. Rather than mock the bumbling tourist who barely spoke Spanish, they gave him one of their impossible-for-a-tourist-to-book ringside seats. The gregarious Gray and the Spaniards soon became fast friends. His family and the families of those Spanish strangers are now godparents to each other's children and visit one another frequently.

On July 11, I caught up with Gary Gray by cell phone at this year's festival in Pamplona. Shouting into the cell phone over the din of the revelry around him, he discussed the appeal of the Pamplona festival. Here are edited excerpts of our talk:

Q: How did you originally get the idea of going to Spain?


I was always a Hemingway fan. I loved The Sun Also Rises. So, in 1980 we planned a 17-day trip to Spain that included two days in [Pamplona]. We partied through the night and wound up on the streets for the encierro. I had no idea what I was doing or even which direction the bulls were coming from. I almost bought it on that first run. But it was unbelievably exhilarating. I ran again the next day. It's an unbelievable event that, unless you attend, you can't even imagine.

Q: What do you say to the concerns of animal-rights activists?


Well, look at the way a steer is treated in the U.S. He's born, castrated at birth, put in a feedlot, force-fed for 12 months, then he's stunned, his throat is slit, and he's cut up for meat. Is that a nice way to go? I don't think so.

What if you could be a bull instead? You'd have four years, roaming wherever you want to go, liaisoning with a cow every once in a while. And in exchange for those four years of freedom, you'd spend 20 minutes in a bullring. It's not a pleasant 20 minutes for the bull and it is bloody. Not that either [fate] is particularly attractive, but I'd choose the life of the bull.

Q: There's a photo of you in your book where there are bulls behind you, bulls in front of you, and you're leaping out of the way of what looks like certain death. It seems crazy.


You can actually learn to avoid danger [by starting well ahead of the bulls and running along the side of the road]. And it's a lot better -- and a lot safer, I think -- than getting a high taking drugs. Everyone who has done it and come through it O.K. remembers the experience all their life. I've done it maybe 50 times now, and I hope to continue.

It's the same with bullfighting. It's not a sport. It's a spectacle or play or something similar. The matador is putting himself in danger if he's performing properly, trying to dominate a 1,200-pound animal that's nasty, fast, huge, and strong, and has daggers for horns. It's [a matter of] life and death the whole time.

Q: Aren't you a little worried about your daughter running in front of the bulls?


My wife basically told me that if anything happened to our daughter I was dead. So, I tried to moderate the amount of danger she would put herself in. A lot of people would think it's irresponsible parenting -- and it probably is. But she had a great time. If you asked her if she would she do it again, I'm sure she would say "absolutely."

Q: Given the increasing crowds of people doing the run and the rising numbers of deaths and injuries, do you advise people to come?


That's one of the reasons I wrote the book. Serious runners want other runners to know what they're doing so: A) they won't be hurt and B) so they won't put the other [runners] in danger. The last section of my book is a sort of guide for what to do if you're thinking about running.

Q: Any other advice for people thinking of making the trek to the Pamplona festival next year?


You'll never get a hotel room, so don't bother trying. People party through the night and sleep through the day. If you have a car, keep your things there and maybe sleep in the car every once in a while. If you have to [pay a scalper] to get into the bullfights, do it. Definitely participate in the encierro, and moderate the risk if you like. People who come here and don't do the run kick themselves for years for not doing it. It's just unbelievable fun.

Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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