Pamplona, tucked into the northeastern corner of Spain, is a long ways away from Petersburg, Va., home to Virginia Motorsports Park some 25 miles southwest of Richmond. But as of this Saturday, the towns will have one distinct thing in common — the desire of thousands of people to run among a bunch of bulls, and the equal desire to live to tell the story.
Rugged Maniac, the Boston-based adventure racing company headquartered nearly adjacent The First Church of Christ, Scientist, recently announced plans to stage 10 Pamplona-like bull runs across the US over the next 11 months. Petersburg is the leadoff runner, followed by Atlanta (Oct. 19) and then Houston (Dec. 7).
Boston is not one of the Great Bull Run’s 10 stops. The closest will be the Philadelphia area (Maple Grove Raceway) next June 7.
“Believe me, we’d love to find a venue to have a bull run in Boston,’’ declared Rugged Maniac’s chief operating officer, Rob Dickens, a former Wall Street attorney. “But where?’’
The obvious answer, of course, would be to loop it around the State House, a place full of bull and stacked cheek to jowl with dodgy characters. But I digress.
Dickens and his business partner, Brad Scudder, a Stonehill grad originally from Conway, hit upon this Pamplona knockoff of an idea as an outgrowth of their burgeoning adventure racing business. Both men, said Dickens, shared a dream of one day running in the legendary Spanish event, romanticized decades ago in Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises.’’
Pamplona’s running of the bulls (generically known as an “encierro”) is staged each year, July 6-14, as part of the town’s cherished San Fermin festival. Saint Fermin, born in the late third century, was Pamplona’s first Catholic bishop. Contrary to a long-held misconception, he did not die in a bull run, but rather was beheaded while preaching God’s word in Amiens, France. Emphatic proof that words can be far more dangerous than running with bulls.
“The thing with going to Pamplona,’’ mused the 34-year-old Dickens, originally from Southport, N.C., “is that it gets pretty expensive. You need to book the flight, the hotel room, take a week off of work . . . and then you need a friend to take a week off of work to go with you. So Brad and I figured, ‘Let’s try to bring it here.’ ’’
By the first week of August, some 5,000 runners were signed up for the inaugural event in Virginia. With some 50-75 new registrants a day, said Dickens, he expects upward of 8,000 runners (minimum age: 18) to participate, at $35-$60 each, price varying on how early they bought tickets. A huge tomato fight also will be part of the show, in keeping with Pamplona’s “Tomato Royale’’ tradition. All runners are entered automatically in the food fight. Those slow of foot or simply too timid or not interested in running can buy a separate ticket to it. Showers will be on site.
“Well, wait, what’s your definition of a shower?’’ cautioned Dickens. “If you want to rinse off, yeah, there will be running water with a garden hose.’’
Sounds totally romantic, in a European way, doesn’t it? Bend it like Beckham. Hose it down like Hemingway.
The bulls will be imported from a ranch in Kentucky that supplies the ornery beasts for rodeos around the country. Unlike the San Fermin festival, the run is not what amounts to a death march. In Pamplona, the bulls run a half-mile through the streets, amid the scampering two-legged thrill-seekers, and eventually make their way to the local bull ring, eventually to die at the end of a torero’s sword before a delirious crowd.
In the 10 Great Bull Runs, the animals will romp among the runners over a fenced-in quarter-mile stretch, then get crated up and either returned to their Kentucky ranch or shipped to the next stop on tour.
“The bulls are not tortured,’’ assured Dickens. “But I bet I get, oh, 10 kneejerk e-mails a day, saying, ‘Oh, you’re disgusting . . . you’re going to set the bulls on fire . . . you’re going to stab them.’ Not true. When I explain it to people, in most cases the anger dissipates right away. But there are others, no matter how you explain it, they just don’t want to listen.’’
It is a risky business, however, which in part is why someone will pay $35-$60 a head to get out there and flirt with danger, if only for a few seconds. In Pamplona, based on records kept since 1910, there have been 15 fatalities, the first in 1924 and the most recent in 2009. Deaths are not always due to gorings. Some of the 15 have died due to asphyxiation, the result of occasional huge pileups of man and beast at the gates of the bull ring.
Given the inherent danger, as well as the fact that such events are untested in the US, insurance premiums are high, according to Dickens.
“We got a lot of doors shut in our faces,’’ he said. “But you know, eventually [an insurer] is always willing to take a chance. That’s the nature of the industry. But I don’t expect any fatalities or gorings.’’
Preliminary plans are for no more than 1,000 runners at a time on the track, participants allowed to pick their spots where they choose to play this game of, if you will, dodgebull. A timid runner can pick a spot along the fence, where an ample number of exits will allow them to escape and bulls not to enter. The more courageous will pick a point in the middle of the track and await the rumbling herd.
Bulls typically top out around 15 miles an hour, the size of their horns varying, wildly. Race organizers are expected not to release more than eight bulls per race.
All in all, it sounds like a load of fun, a little piece of Pamplona served up on USA turf. Now we’ll just have to export some of our bull to Pamplona. Let the race to the State House begin.