PETERSBURG, Va. -- It was here, out in the sticks of southern Virginia, on a drag strip covered with dirt on which man tempted beast at the Great Bull Run -- the first event of its kind held on American soil -- that I learned the consequences of insatiable bloodlust.
For centuries, thrill-seekers from all over the world have flocked to the Festival of San Fermin in Pamplona, Spain, to run with bulls through a winding track of cobblestone streets. The event is infamous for its brutality and just as beloved for never wavering from it, for not giving a damn about how many animal rights groups gripe, how many tourists get hospitalized or how many bulls gore how many bothersome human obstacles. A reported 15 people have been killed at the festival since 1910. After each race, held every day for a week, the bulls are killed in the arena. Then the masses celebrate and binge on rotgut sangria.
I am as culpable when it comes to this barbarism as anyone. I ran in Pamplona in 2011. I narrowly escaped a life-threatening ramming after three steers stopped a few feet in front of me and sent me recoiling into the fetal position up against a brick wall. And I loved it. I felt changed by it. I discovered some hidden hunger for cheating death and being able to brag about it, even though the cruel ordeal is designed to handicap the animals. But there was something acceptable about thriving on that sort of sadism since it is nestled deep in the hills of Spain, far from my less-adventurous, better-behaved self in my own country.
Alas, joining this savage revelry requires a costly trip. So a year ago, Rob Dickens, 35, and Brad Scudder, 31, co-owners of Rugged Maniac, a series of 5-kilometer obstacle racing events held across the U.S., conceived a classic idea. Why go abroad, when we could just try to outrun death right here in America? Furthermore, why hold just one race a year, when several races could be run in one day several times a year? As with egg rolls or pizza, in America, inauthenticity doesn't matter if the bootleg version delivers gluttonous pleasure on the cheap.
If the Great Bull Run, as Dickens dubbed his event, could offer frequent, accessible danger -- particularly the near-death kind -- then it would be a success.
The tour scheduled three events for 2013 and another nine for 2014. It broke ground this year in August on a Saturday in Dinwiddie County -- 30 minutes south of Richmond -- at Virginia Motorsports Park, with 4,000 runners (each of whom paid between $25 and $75 to run) and another 8,000 spectators (who paid $10 to watch). Framed with the same metal railing used for rodeos, the track was the width of a small-town street and ran for a quarter-mile -- just a few feet wider and half the distance of the route in Pamplona. Organizers spent $40,000 on rodeo-regulation dirt to ensure the safety of the bulls, which was clearly a politically-correct (translation: American) touch. After all, the animals are the glorified wrecking balls, not the object of demolition.
"It's like NASCAR: Everyone wants to see a wreck," Dickens said. "I don't want to see a goring. But would a goring be bad for business? Probably not."
In Pamplona, they use six bulls and six steers. Dickens raised the bar. He brought a combination of 24 to Virginia. Unlike bulls bred for bullfighting, rodeo bulls, despite their bucking, are not trained to trample people. They are more accustomed to us and, thus, thought to be safer for this spectacle. But inside the bullpen before the race, they flashed their quick-trigger aggression and potential for destruction, rattling the railings of the bullpen with mere shifts in body weight.
"See right there, he's shredded," said one of the uniformed policemen standing beside the bullpen. He was gazing in admiration at a brindled 1,700-pounder. "Just a beautiful animal."
Beauty must be in the eye of the beholder who is not trying to outrun these Volkswagen-sized animals. All I saw was nearly half a ton of stink, snot and bulging muscle. Watching them was rather nauseating. When one bull urinated, another ducked into the stream to cleanse its face. Feces piled up in layers. The fetid odor seemed to penetrate brain tissue. The bulls mounted each other with alarming regularity, as if they did not recognize they were among their own, impregnable kind. Or perhaps these brutes simply didn't care. The sight reinforced an already strong impulse I had to stay clear of them.
With a GoPro camera strapped to my chest to capture the pandemonium, my plan was simple: see the bulls, dash to the rails and let them go by. I employed a similar scheme in Spain. If I could say I stood in the way of the herd even briefly, that I participated in this lunacy, hell, had this entire mad dash (and undeniable compensation for some deep-seeded insecurity) documented, I could gloat.
But I, along with every other daring sprinter, did not know Dickens would call an audible. Although he had already secured 10 Bull Run events through next year, he was still experimenting, still adjusting the ratio of runners to bulls, still searching for the sweet spot of terror. It has to be safe but still stupid and dangerous -- still desirable. Having originally scheduled four races with 1,000 participants and two-dozen bulls in each, Dickens divided everything in half. Now the event would feature eight races with 500 people and 12 bulls running the track. The math held true, but there was clearly no science behind this. It was a cage match. It would be a victory to escape unscathed.
Runners lined up before the track gates, and the giddy energy spread like contagion. There were men in tie-dye speedos, clown wigs, day-glow body paint, capes, luchador masks, one with braids curled into enormous Satanic-looking bull horns and another in a shirt emblazoned with Justin Bieber's face. There were women not wearing much at all. I must have had a mischievous grin on my face, eager to capture that naughty thrill of doing something I shouldn't be doing, the thrill that could result only from condoned chaos.
But once I stepped inside the rails and settled halfway up the track, seeing the lip-smacking, eye-bulging crowd of thousands, apprehension crept in. I saw the grim faces of the runners around me. I heard their doubts and started to share them.
"My sister said she gets my Camaro if I die," one scrawny, slouched sap said to his buddy, who laughed nervously.
I took a quick informal poll and no one else had a strategy, no one offered up much more than a shrug. Another guy crossed himself and said a Hail Mary.
Some misguided 54-year-old confessed that he was only running this because he idolized Ernest Hemingway. There was nothing romantic about this, I thought. I remembered my primal fear from Pamplona: I had pinned myself up inside a shallow doorway when the sea of starchy white-clad runners ripped open, a massive brown blur flashed by and frightened me with a ferocious hiss of bovine breath.
Now, in Middle-of-nowhere Virginia, I wondered if I would relive that rare jolt of sheer terror.
The gates opened and the bulls trotted out in a cluster before quickly accelerating to a gallop. Then the herd segmented unexpectedly. A young, brown bull jetted out in front, swung his head wildly back and forth and sprinted forward, alone, like a fear-seeking missile. Screams erupted and runners diverted to the side or leapt up over the railings.
I reached behind me for the nearest pole, clenched it and stood my ground, letting what seemed like a flood of panicked people sweep past me. Sure, I panicked a bit, but I stood at a comfortable distance. I wanted the fun of seeing the bull bob and weave and maybe even bulldoze someone less fortunate. Apparently, my instinct was not to run for my life but to ogle.
I had a clear shot of the rogue bull, a mean-looking bastard. The rest caught up shortly after. And then, as quickly as that forbidden excitement came, I watched the flopping tails fade into crowd and the thrill left me.
"Is that it?" said a nearby runner, who wore a shirt that read Balls Deep.
There were more grumblings than just his. Runners wandered the track wondering if another group of bulls was yet to be released. But that was it. The announcer instructed everyone to exit so that another group could jump on.
Initially, I figured I would run the next heat and maybe the one after that, starting at different points and employing different strategies to see whether the experiences might vary.
But they didn't. I crept a bit closer to the middle and watched another batch of bulls go by. In the next run, the bulls encroached a bit closer to me, but still, that was not enough.
I ran for a fourth time. And then a fifth. And then a sixth. With each run, the thrill diminished and my arrogance swelled.
Something about it was just ... too easy. There was a bit too much room to wriggle away, a few too many chances to hop the railings. Without the fear of feeling trapped in a gutter with a bowling ball barreling from behind, runners can respectfully share this track as they would a street with a bike lane.
It's a strange thought -- a sick thought -- but I wanted to be afraid. I could not feel courageous. I was unsatisfied. Many of us were.
I did meet one man, Brent Morris, a 44-year-old designer for Hewlett-Packard from Raleigh, N.C., who squeaked with joy upon comparing his experience to swimming with dolphins. This was all the evidence I needed to determine the Bull Run was lukewarm at best.
Throughout the day, Dickens debriefed with a brain trust of event staff and the contractors who'd shipped the bulls in from Kentucky. The bulls had head-butted a few people, but the men agreed that the format had to change for the final heat.
One coordinator removed his cowboy hat, waved it over his shoulder, as if throwing caution to the wind, and said, "Let's give 'em what they want."
In the seventh and final race, they ripped off the safety seal. They would release 24 bulls at once into a swarm of 700 people. Runners panted with renewed excitement and filled out the track more densely.
But these were almost entirely people who had ran earlier, who sought redemption for the letdown and perhaps felt like taking some more liberties on this final shot. I know I did. I planned on venturing further into the middle of the track -- the line of fire -- than I had before. I wanted to feel the ground shake and the bulls whisk by. I needed more contact. We all did. Or thought we did.
It was impossible to recognize then that this ambition was foolhardy. A collective ego ballooned as the opening of the gates neared. Most runners surely believed they were getting better. But on the whole, we were lulled into a false confidence.
They let out the bulls and this time more people stood waiting than before. Instead of darting down the sides, the crowd lurched and stalled in large, sluggish clumps. Suddenly, everything felt faster than before. The crowd split more violently, the screams traveled faster, from further away, and the bulls appeared closer. The bulls swept through the middle in tandem file in one large group, followed by another and then, finally, another. This was the high-risk recipe for which we yearned.
I did in fact step closer into the middle and enjoy an overwhelming rush to the cortex that for a second or two allowed me to focus solely on the bulls. I heard the hiss of the stampede and felt a pleasant chill.
I sprinted to the end of the track, glimpsing the bulls' backsides one final, glorious time. I fist-bumped a shirtless stranger.
Then the not-so-unthinkable happened. Rumors of injury traveled quickly. I turned around and saw that a crowd had gathered three-fourths of the way up the track, with everyone looking down at the ground. Seven people surrounded a young man. He had bushy-hair and a ragged beard to match. Scratches and scrapes on his knees trickled blood. His shirt bunched up in his neck, exposing his belly. Event staff would later say they watched three or four bulls stomp him, that they saw the hoof-prints and bruising on his arms.
At first, the young man was non-responsive, his body splayed as if it had fallen from a building. A shirtless meathead standing next to me gazed down awestruck at the human wreckage, feeding off the voyeurism. He hooted, raised his arms and ignited applause, glorifying the brutality. He bellowed: "All hail the bulls, baby!" And then he gave his expert medical assessment: "This happens in football sometimes. They get blown up."
When the surrounding people managed to awaken the trampled young man, he squirmed. They tried talking with him, but he attempted to fight them off. They had to physically restrain his limbs for his own protection.
He looked deranged, likely having been concussed. Now he was aroused and completely unaware of where he was or why strangers were grappling with him. His eyes darted back and forth rapidly. He let out a gravelly, bloodcurdling squeal: "Pleeeeeeeeeese! Heeeeeeeelp!"
I recorded it all on my Go Pro and have since watched the footage of him several times. Unlike with the number of races I ran, seeing the man in pain has not gotten easier. Event staff later gave an injury report for the day. Two people were carted off in an ambulance and both suffered concussions. I don't know if the man I saw on the ground was one of them.
The final run had proved to be the peak of a depraved fantasy and a more depraved reality, for which I feel somewhat responsible. It was too dangerous. But too dangerous was what I wanted.
"Hell, it was fun," Preston Fowlkes Jr. said with a cackle. Fowlkes is a bushy-eyebrowed stock contractor from Crofton, Ky., who owns Lone Star Rodeo Company. If the stampeding beasts are the monsters of this grand experiment, Fowlkes is its Dr. Frankenstein.
The demand for more danger was clear, so at the following race a month later near Atlanta, Fowlkes brought more-hostile bulls, including two that were bred for Mexican bull fighting. And whereas in Virginia the animals were released a dozen at a time with the exception of the final heat, in Georgia they stormed out in packs of 18 for each race. Still, of the 3,200 participants, only one man suffered serious injuries: his pelvis was broken in three places.
"After Atlanta, it still wasn't quite enough," Dickens said on the eve of the final Bull Run this year, which will be on December 7 in Houston. This begs the urgent question when confronted by any instance of reckless adventure, of unhinged desire, of blatant greed: Will it ever be enough?
The new plan is to multiply the devastating final event in Virginia: 24 bulls will be unleashed for each run.
Oh, and there will be more Mexican fighting bulls, of course.
"I don't know what he has found for us," Dickens said of Fowlkes, his supplier. "But he has supposedly found more aggressive bulls."
Fowlkes has, in fact, been withholding his most destructive artillery.
"Son, I got 15 at home," he said, grinning and boasting about his merciful restraint. "It would've been like a lawn mower."