RUN FOR YOUR LIFE

THE BROADER PICTURE: THE BULL-RUNNERS OF NORTHERN SPAIN

Matthew Tassio, just graduated from college and with a job waiting for him back in Illinois, was in Europe for a summer holiday. The 22-year- old stayed up drinking all night and around 7am on 13 July, 1995, left his buddy at the bus station, rucksacks and all, and went off to "run the bulls". Half an hour later he lay bleeding to death on the ancient cobblestone streets of Pamplona, northern Spain. His friend was still waiting at the bus station.

Over the centuries, a fair number of Spaniards have been killed dur- ing Pamplona's week-long fiesta, but Matthew Tassio holds the dubious honour of being the only foreigner to have had his guts ripped out by the horns of a bull. This is all the more surprising when you realise just how many young, Hemingway-inspired travellers now regard the annual encierro as one of the top "been-there-done-that" events. They go to New Zealand and bungee jump; they go to Spain and run a kilometre through narrow streets in front of six killer bulls. But only 13 people, including Tassio, have been killed by the bulls in Pamplona since statistics began in 1924, an astoundingly low number considering that thousands of thrill- seeking runners pack the streets for each encierro.

Yet it's difficult for runners from other cultures to even approach the experience, expertise and emotional investment in running the bulls that a Spaniard possesses.

Most Spanish or Basque runners in the Navarra province will begin to run in their early teens: first with young, small bulls and later with full-grown, four-year-olds weighing up to 700 kilos. As children, they are tempted onto the streets by their parents to run alongside a toro del fuego or "firebull": men wearing a bull's head loaded with firecrackers and shooting sparklers.

By contrast, most foreigners enter the encierro completely unaware of what they are about to encounter. Many haven't reviewed the course beforehand, don't know where the bullring is, or even which direction the bulls will come from. Some are seen running with cameras dangling from their necks, as if there might be time to stop in front of the charging pack and take a quick snap (these pictures, by the way, were taken from behind safety barricades).

A young foreigner wishing to learn about running the bulls won't find much technical information. This is not a sport and there are no "how- to" books on the subject. The best place to look for guidance is at the Bar Txoko on the Plaza Castillo, where experienced runners gather after each morning's run. Over a cafe con leche or a kaiku con Cognac (an iced Spanish Cognac sprinkled with either sweetened vanilla or chocolate milk) experienced runners occasionally take an eager would-be under their wings. If Matthew Tassio had known this, he might have learnt a few tips that could have saved his life.

Experienced runners know that once you hear the thunder of the approaching hooves you have a split second to force your feet to take you where rational thought screams you should not be - into the centre of the street, right in front of the herd of bulls. Either move in close and be one with them or get out. Old hands know that a toro bravo is an extremely agile beast with fine eyesight, and will avoid anything that appears to be uneven terrain: the animals commonly jump over and dart around downed runners who are knocked over by fellow competitors jostling for position, lose their footing or who find, simply, that their legs give out when faced with the immediate threat of a herd of charging bulls. This, combined with the fact that fighting bulls only attack moving shapes that they perceive as threatening, means that if knocked over for any reason a runner must remain down until the herd passes.

Unfortunately, Tassio knew none of this. In his one, brief encierro, he first chose to cross the course rather than run with the flow of the crowd. This caused him and another runner to collide and they both crashed immediately to the cobblestones. Once Tassio was downed, he made the fatal mistake of returning to his feet. It was this action that caught the lead bull's attention: he saw Tassio's upward motion in front of his path and, in an unconcerned movement, deftly hooked and dipped his right horn to clear away this unknown, annoying threat. The horn ripped directly into Tassio's lower chest. It was like walking into a 575-kilo punch.

Later that evening experienced runners sat around a table at the Cafe Iruna talking about the tragedy. Some said it was Tassio's destiny. Others expressed the opinion that the death of a young foreigner was inevitable as more neophytes entered the course. Yet those around the table that night were veterans of many encierros, men who knew why people return to do this over and over again. They knew that, if you can force yourself into that place in front of the herd, the panic decreases and the streets suddenly, miraculously empty. The commotion ceases, time slows, and you are floating next to, or in front of, one of nature's most dangerous animals. You are running together with the bulls. You are in their aura. They sense it, too; you are all running noble y bravo. Man and bulls. Man with bulls. Many runners, locals and foreigners have been seen with smiles on their faces while in this position. They know the danger, the risks, the absolute unpredictability of the encierro and they know it well. It is a terrible beauty.

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