When I arrived in Pamplona, my first port of call for accomodation and advice – even though I had been to the town before – was Graeme Galloway’s excellent ‘Pamplona Posse ‘(website here). It was there that I met the remarkable bullrunner, and one of the UK’s finest policeman, Gareth Cooper, pictured above toasting the photographer – me – alongside his roommates. I’ll leave him to describe them…
Going left to right on the photo, we have Blake, or ‘Tex’ as we Christened him. Our new found friend and room mate from, you guessed it, Texas. A really good lad, who ran Santo Domingo with me. Next to him, concentrating hard on his breakfast is Mark Stevens, the CEO of his own Bluetooth communications company. (and former Captain of Chester Rugby Club). Sitting opposite Mark, is Peter Miller, a University Lecturer and Planning Consultant. Then moving down towards me is Gareth Thomas, a Pilot on the river Mersey. (He’s used to handling 300 metre oil tankers in confined spaces, so he coped with the narrow streets of Pamplona quite well!) Then we come to me, doing my best Oliver Reed impersonation…. A bit of a mixed bag, but you never know who you’ll meet at the Fiesta San Fermin.
We ran the streets together that morning, as we will again next year. However, below is his account of the year he got trampled (and tragically, an experienced, Pamplona-born runner also died). It was 2009, the year I myself first ran, as pictured in the masthead of this blog above. Back to Gareth…
The Fickle Flip-Flop of Fate
by Gareth Cooper
SAN Fermín 2009 was a year of tragedy, record breaking runs and for some, concussion. Indeed, two of our very own Pamplona Posse members were treated by Doctors for non-alcoholic dizziness following clashes with gates and bulls.
The first, a veteran of a mind boggling number of runs [Referring to Graeme Galloway – Ed.], fell foul of over zealous officials who appeared to be trying to break the world speed record for swinging a huge metal gate across a street. The second, a relative newcomer with only a handful of runs under his belt, was brought to the ground by nothing more sinister than a discarded training shoe.
You could be forgiven for wondering how a simple trip over a trainer could land a chap in the Bullring’s Infirmary. Under normal circumstances of course, it wouldn’t. However, if you step on said trainer as you emerge from the tunnel and into the bullring, with a 635kg Fuente Ymbro bull hot on your heels, it can happen.
The day had started painlessly enough. Phone alarms trilled and the urgent quest to simultaneously lose fluid and re-hydrate began. Minutes later our little band of bleary-eyed brothers emerged from our fabulously convenient digs, straight onto the street at La Curva. The short stroll down to the Town Hall allowed time for some intense chatter between me and big Peter Miller. The talk was all about fashion of course. Was his retro Sunderland shirt appropriate attire? Did my bum look big in my XXXL England rugby top? The answer to both of these important questions was in fact yes, but our silent friends had rather more pressing issues on their minds.
Three of our little group were first timers and they were first timers of the very quiet variety. Some newcomers to the Encierro can’t stop talking, but the majority I find go a little bit quiet. I chose not to disturb their period of silent reflection. I believe that your first time on that street is a very special moment in your life and I feel that every first time runner should be allowed to savour that unique experience in peace. After all, there’s nothing more terrifying than your own imagination.
I passed the time people watching, as the usual rituals played out. The stretching, the jumping and running on the spot were all performed with customary vigour. Newspapers were rolled to the point of strangulation as the balconies above filled up.
It was the 13th, but as it was a Monday rather than a Friday, I saw nothing ominous in the date. In fact the only disturbing thing I did see was a gentleman in a pristine Judo suit performing some rather ambitious warm up moves. In addition to washing and ironing his immaculate white suit, it was clear that his other burning passion was personal grooming. He must have risen no later than three o’clock that morning to ensure that every single hair was carefully coiffed into place.
In due course the Bobbies allowed us to start walking up towards our chosen starting points. A few youngsters jogged past, nervously shooting glances back over their shoulders as they trotted. A forest of camera lenses bristled from the top of the boards at La Curva, poised to capture the mayhem. We turned the corner and drank in that remarkable view along Calle Estafeta. The balconies appeared to sag under the weight of the noisy spectators as we strode up the slight incline.
As we halted at the second line of police, dozens of youngsters stared anxiously at their watches, the time and the fear reflected in their wide eyes. The line of uniforms eventually moved aside and we walked a little further towards Telefonica. Our Encierro Virgins had mentioned that they were keen on getting themselves into the bullring on their first run. And, as Peter and I had somehow neglected to tell them about the post-run bullring shenanigans following the final rocket, I was pretty keen to see them all in there as well.
Given the advancing years of our party and the alarming selection of old war wounds we were all carrying, our attempting a long section of the run was out of the question. I decided we’d gather, rather appropriately as it turned out, under the illuminated green cross on the left side of Estafeta, near to Telefonica. I had already made careful calculations, taking into account the speed of everyone’s particular limp, hobble or shuffle. I had paced out the distance to the big red doors of the bullring and then factored in that extra burst of speed and adrenalin that six fighting bulls can suddenly inject into tired old limbs. The plan worked a treat, with everyone setting off at Peter’s command and making it into the ring.
I had decided that I needed to be a little further up into Telefonica. My long held ambition to run through that sloping, narrowing tunnel just ahead of the bulls, then emerge triumphant to the roars of the adoring crowd, had not yet been realised. I was the fattest man I’d seen on the business side of the barriers that morning and at fifty years of age, with a very dodgy knee, I knew my glorious run would, by necessity, have to be a short one.
By the time I’d started to move up to where I wanted to be, the rocket had already exploded; and with it the pack of jumping, shouting, panicking youngsters. In fact by the time I had sauntered just a few yards, they were already in the bullring soaking up the savage abuse of the Pamplona crowd. Suddenly the pogo jumping runners around me ceased their bouncing and started to surge along the street with an urgency that could easily have been misread as panic. I allowed this human wave to roll away, looked above the crowd for my cue, then moved off. Staying left against the barrier I turned the angle at Telefonica and started to descend towards the bullring. Camera lenses started to rise and I took this as the signal to change down a gear and launch my considerable bulk down the slope towards the ring and certain glory.
As regular participants will know, things happen very, very quickly at this stage of your run. As I entered the tunnel, the amplified noise level told me that those magnificent beasts from Fuente Ymbro were getting extremely close. As I neared the opening into the ring the thunderous racket right behind me told me that I had timed things beautifully. I was about to enter the ring directly ahead of the bulls, in company with some of the very best runners. In short, the old fat bloke had blagged it.
Having hugged the left side of the tunnel as I passed through it, I stayed over there. I intended to peel off to the left as soon as I hit the sand, allowing the bulls and steers to head straight down the middle. I felt this to be a perfectly reasonable and sensible tactic and one that should work. However, at the precise second my brain sent a signal down to my body instructing it to steer hard to Port, disaster struck. You tend not to look at your feet much on the Bull Run, as there are many other things you need to be aware of, but a quick peek at my tightly laced Sebago bull-running slippers at that particular point in time might well have averted disaster.
Suddenly and inexplicably, I hit the deck like a proverbial sack of shit. (Only subsequent study of the sequences of professional photographs revealed that I’d actually been brought down by standing on a trainer) I lay there face down, winded and confused and covered my head with my hands. Even on sand, it’s amazing what a racket three steers make when they run over you. I can also assure you that not all of them have been trained to skip lightly over you like nimble gazelles.
A split second later, two huge beasts clashed. One was a twenty stone bloke from Stoke, the other a 635kg Fuente Ymbro bull, whose name escapes me for the moment. He had been following the steers very closely and he wasn’t about to let some old git in an England rugby shirt stand between him and his new found friends.
Sadly, for us both, he had not been trained in the art of gracefully leaping over prostrate humans either, so I received what can be fairly described as a fucking good trampling. Obviously, said trampling happened very quickly, but I believe the bull adopted a methodical, ‘toe to top’ approach to the task, making contact with my right calf, upper right thigh and then the right side of my back and finally my shoulder. The good Doctor in the Bullring’s Infirmary also found a decent size egg on my head and strapped up a small wound on my arm, as I had politely declined to go the main hospital to have it stitched.
You may be forgiven for thinking that the bull had things all his own way, but far from it. Such is the bulky and lumpy nature of my body, he found the going particularly difficult, lost his footing and came crashing to the ground with a bone-jarring thud. We both lay on the sand for a second or so, stunned. I do recall squinting at the huge black shape lying next to me and thinking, quite calmly really, given the circumstances; (A) Can I get up? (B) If so, can I make it to the barrier before the bull? (C) If I do manage to get there first, can I get over or through the bastard thing?
Fortunately, the answer to all three questions was yes. There was a fabulous full page photo spread of the incident in the newspaper the following day, the second picture of which shows me and the bull on our knees as we struggled back to out feet. I’m delighted to report that once we were both back on our pins, we went our separate ways and I somehow squeezed through the barrier.
The clash had taken place right in front of a group of paramedics and they came over and cleaned up my arm. They tried to persuade me to go the hospital for stitches, but I already had a prior engagement at Bar Txoko. I felt as though I had been in a car crash and the pain in my right leg was excruciating, but I triaged myself as walking, or rather limping wounded and shuffled away. Fortunately, I bumped into Peter and some of the other lads. They took one look at me and immediately appeared concerned. Apparently I’d turned the colour of boiled shite and my eyes were rolling around like marbles on a tin tray. Concussion was diagnosed by my friends and shortly thereafter verified, as I hit the deck for the second time that morning. To cut a long medical story short, I now have a fabulous opinion, based on first hand knowledge, of the Spanish Red Cross, the Pamplona Paramedics and the two brilliant Doctors that gave me a thorough going over and a free MOT in the Bullring Infirmary.
So, I was late and moving along like a ruptured slug, but I did eventually make it to Bar Txoko. The lads had clearly been very shaken up by my experience and were tucking into their brandy and vanilla milk drinks to calm their jangling nerves. In the interests of pain management; and of course to be sociable, I joined them.
Now that should have been the end of the story, but it wasn’t. Later that day we all trooped down to the Bullring and took our seats in the shade. There was food and drink aplenty and the crowd was on great form. About halfway through the evening a certain big, black Fuente Ymbro bull came hurtling out of the gate and charged at a swinging pink cape. He made a few passes, but it was clear, when he tried to stop and turn sharply, that all was not well. The bull was clearly carrying an injury and could not fight on. So even before a Picador clambered into the saddle, the bull was withdrawn and, for the second time that day, we limped away from each other.
©2010 Gareth Cooper