Three Central Texas friends vacationed in harm’s way . . . by choice
Pamplona, Spain—July 2015 (and several centuries back): Narrow streets, blind corners, roaring crowds, huge animals, thundering hooves, and a run for one’s life! For some, this scene is perhaps a bucket-list adventure, and it’s definitely an adrenaline high and an unforgettable memory compressed into less than three minutes and half a mile. The running of the bulls each morning of Sanfermines highlights an annual nine-day festival honoring Pamplona’s patron saint, San Fermin. There have been fifteen deaths and many, many injuries during the run (encierro) over the past century. Though celebrants enjoy fireworks, music, parades, and religious events, it is encierro that brings fame to Pamplona, as immortalized by Ernest Hemingway in his 1926 The Sun Also Rises.
Brian McMinn, then a social studies teacher at Georgetown’s Richarte High School, and two friends, Marcus Melant of Georgetown and Kevin Bartz of Belton, enjoyed a whirlwind European trip last summer: Belgium, Greece, Monte Carlo, France, and Holland, each place unique and interesting. But it was Kevin’s desire to “run with the bulls” before turning 40 years old that led to their highly-charged adventure in Pamplona. They were surprised to learn that fewer than a thousand people a day actually participate in the run, while the festival draws nearly a million visitors. Some run each day, but the three men ran only in the first encierro, the day after opening ceremonies. In remembering the emotional high of his experience, Brian says he’s glad he did it, but he’s not sure that he would do it again. Brian describes himself as a “cautious adventurer [who] doesn’t see a lot of merit in doing something entirely foolish just to say you did it.”
After arriving in Pamplona, the three met Chris Howard from Michigan, a veteran runner for several years, who walked them through the course beforehand, pointing out particularly dangerous areas along the route and helping them choose a viable post closer to the final entry to the arena. Very few runners start at the beginning and go all the way to the end, and Brian estimates that their total run was about 150 yards.
After a restless night, the Texans donned the “whole deal,” traditional encierro garb: white trousers and shirt punctuated with a red sash and neckerchief. Brian, Kevin, and Marcus then reported to the corral before locating their chosen position. Narrow, twisting streets were sectioned off, lined with protective fencing and buildings that funnel the runners, six bulls, and six steers toward an open arena at the end. Spectators packed the balconies overhead. Camera flashes announced the approaching bulls. Excited cheers permeated the air. Survival instincts kicked in for the final surge.
“I looked over my right shoulder and saw the first bull pass me no more than an arm’s reach to my right,” Brian remembers. He and his buddies, separated for a time, reconnected in the arena with other “comrades in arms,” strangers only moments earlier, all survivors of the run. Relief was palpable, emotion was high, and each knew he had experienced something extraordinary. The bulls, cleared into a back corral, would await the matadors’ challenge later in the day.
In retrospect, Brian says, “Sometimes it is very healthy to do something that completely scares you, even if that means putting yourself in harm’s way. It shows that maybe you’re capable of more than you think. I want my students to understand that most places around the world may be very different from the places where we live. And for some students, graduating high school may be their version of running with the bulls.”