Week In The Life: Ross Reilly, Bull-Runner - The fun also rises for a thrill-seeker

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ROSS REILLY is a bartender from Arizona with a lust for what he calls "high-risk life experiences". He is halfway through a three-month trip round Europe. Last weekend he - and 500,000 others - headed for the northern Spanish town of Pamplona to run with the bulls in the annual round-the-clock fiesta of drink and danger that continues till next Wednesday.

MONDAY: Ross, 29, tottered on to Pamplona station after a 35-hour train ride from Austria where he was ice-caving. He headed for the tourist office to find somewhere to stay.

"I was planning to camp out but everywhere's full. I guess I'll have to sleep in a park somewhere." But his spirits were lifted by the excitement jolting through the gathering crowds. All accommodation was taken long ago and Ross was among thousands prepared to spend the night on the street.

"Life's a checklist isn't it? Things you know you've got to try. Like every American schoolkid, I read about bullrunning in Ernest Hemingway's book The Sun Also Rises and it inspired me. He reckoned a man had to test himself with extreme experiences. I respect him for that."

TUESDAY: City authorities explode rockets at noon from the town hall balcony to start the celebrations. Pamplona's main square is jammed with revellers pelting each other with eggs, flour, saffron and sparkling wine. At the signal they explode with joy and knot scarlet handkerchiefs around their necks. The symbolic gesture honours San Fermin, an 8th-century martyr beheaded for preaching Christianity in a Muslim land. Even those crammed into balconies are drenched, shrieking and stinking.

Ross escaped the worst by watching proceedings on a giant screen in handsome Castillo Square near by, where he'd slept. "You see that bench? I curled up there in my sleeping bag with my arms round my rucksack. It was fine."

Noise buffets the city's narrow streets, traffic-free this week. As one drum-and-pipe band, or group of swigging, carolling youngsters, drifts away, another garbage truck rumbles into view, crunching shattered wine bottles - 25 tons by the end of the day - hosing alcohol and more disgusting fluids from the cobblestones.

Ross sits blissfully in the square in the sunny afternoon holding a bottle of fizzy wine, his fourth today. "I'm drinking responsibly. I want to be in shape for the bulls tomorrow. I've been to see them in the corral. They're scary, but I learnt their names, kind of bonded with them. I'm ready. See, I even have my white T-shirt."

WEDNESDAY: Thousands join the first bull run of the fiesta at 8am, a half-mile sprint through town, ahead of six fighting bulls driven from the overnight corral to the bull ring.

Ross was euphoric. "I survived. Waited till the bulls got beside me then ran along with them. I whacked four of them on the backside. I was afraid, sure, but excited. Everything's so fast, but at some points it's like slow motion, a zen moment, an out-of-body thing."

The tradition began when herdsmen drove bulls to the ring early in the morning for the daily bullfight that is a focus of the fiesta. Locals joined in, keeping just ahead of the three-ton beasts with a bravado that became an international spectacle.

Ross acquired his mandatory scarlet neckerchief. "It was lying on the ground and I whipped it up as I ran. The hardest part was waiting till they let the bulls out. Your heart's beating. It's nerveracking. But it's great, I did it."

THURSDAY: The second run. Thousands of runners, Ross among them, burst into the bull ring, ahead of six bulls who thunder across to pens from which they will be driven to the bullfight to face death in the afternoon. He slumps over the barrier, his gaze wild, his voice hoarse.

"Oh, man! I started with a military plan, you know, based on yesterday's experience, but it all fell apart. I thought I was going to be crushed. I was jumping over fallen bodies. But I was relaxed. I didn't have to prove myself any more. Yesterday I was shaking."

He joins new friends to drink thick chocolate in a cafe. Some prefer brandy. They dissect every twist and spill of the run, laughing at those known scornfully as valientes, valiant ones, who start too early, ahead of the killer horns.

FRIDAY: Time to move on, Ross reckons, his stamina sapped by ceaseless drinking and celebrating. "You can only take so much of this intensity. I'm heading for the beach at San Sebastian to have some sun and relax."

Had it been worthwhile? "Oh God, yes. I've taken some risks in the last few weeks. But there's nothing like this."

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