Two heroes turn running with the bulls into savage art
Dennis Clancey stands in the center of the ancient cobblestone street in Pamplona as the bulls approach. As people on either side scatter and panic and tumble over each other to flee the charging beasts, he begins to run while remaining unwaveringly in their path. They close the gap and a few strides later, he's on the horns of a 1300lb bull running almost 20mph. It's exactly where he wants to be
Suddenly, six are directly on his ass as he sprints past Town Hall at la Plaza del Ayuntamiendo and across the ancient cobblestones of Calle de los Mercaderes. But right before La Curva, where the course veers right at about 90 degrees, he slows up in that fleeting millisecond that protects a runner in Pamplona from having a horn driven through his back, and pushes off the speeding bull to help himself float out of the way to the left. He knows they are going too fast for the turn, and will skid into the temporary barrier. They always do. Some seem to take a seat for a quarter second as their rear legs collapse on impact. Others spin their hooves like a launching dragster while regaining forward momentum, as Dennis deftly weaves between two, gently touches one's side just because he can, and turns up the long straightaway of Calle Estafeta
Now he's mixed in with the herd, with the two lead bulls a few yards ahead and the rest hellbent on catching up. He veers left to inch closer to the third, but gets passed without incident. Seeming almost bored, he intentionally slows to let the rest gain on him. But the tame steers the bulls always run alongside, the dullest animal in the world to a truly daring bull runner, or mozo, shield him from the final three bulls. He's desperate to get into trouble, not out of it.
He can't find any, pulls up along the right side of Estafeta, and watches countless lunatics in white outfits and red neckerchiefs -- the traditional outfit of the Feast of San Fermin, the religious festival that brackets these daily runs, even though Dennis personally insists on a black buttondown with its sleeves rolled up -- sprint in a way only people being chased by a half-ton-plus bull can sprint, and tumble over each other, and hurl their bodies under fences. His run for the day is over. He was directly on or near a bull's horns for well over 100 yards. He brushes himself off, glances around to ensure runners he knows are ok, and heads to Bar Txoko for a chocolate milk and cognac
The 7.12.12 encierro. You can see Dennis and his black shirt starting at 2:08. Just look where the action is.
Thanks to Ernest Hemingway and the world media's yearly horn-induced-blood lust, most people are aware that Pamplona's Running of the Bulls exists, that runners often get gored, and that the most unfortunate runners -- 15 since statkeeping, for lack of a better word that doesn't conjure up baseball or other similarly non-deadly pursuits, began in 1924 -- get killed. But that's about it.
Now for some stuff you probably didn't know, but that Dennis wants you to, which is part of why he's spent the last five years filming a documentary about the fiesta and the bull-running experiences of himself and five others, entitled Chasing Red. For starters, there's not just one bull run. Each morning of the festival's eight days, a rocket is fired at 8am sharp to alert the runners -- and the tens of thousands who watch from behind the safety of huge wooden fences workers erect each morning -- that the herd has been released from its pen at the bottom of Cuesta, or hill, de Santo Domingo. The encierro, or bull run, has begun. Said herd comprises six bulls, each of whom will be killed at that afternoon's bullfight for their troubles, plus six tame steers. The steers are castrated, which renders them highly uninterested in goring people, unlike the bulls, who're bred and trained to do exactly that to bullfighters. Their viciousness on the run route is just a byproduct of a lifetime chasing capes
The steers keep the bulls in check. If they're around, the bulls remain considerably less dangerous, and continue onwards with a single purpose: get to wherever the hell the rest of the herd is going, which in this case is the Plaza del Toros, or bullfighting arena. Bulls are cattle. Cattle are herd animals. Amongst a herd, no matter how small, they forge ahead. If you're a runner unfortunate/uncoordinated enough to find yourself lying on the ground, they'll almost definitely jump over you -- it's entirely possible that their favorite leisure activity is viciously stomping humans, but said stomping would keep them from their destination.
Hence the eternal master rule of bull-running preached by Dennis and literally everyone else who's ever run: if you go down, stay the fuck down. And if a bull somehow separates from the herd and you're still on your feet, find a fence and Fosbury yourself over it. A solitary bull is confused, terrified, and without direction. He'll form a perimeter around himself in the most intimidating way possible while figuring out where the hell to go. Luckily, highly trained green-shirted pastores wielding long bamboo sticks are ever nearby to direct him to places safer than through somebody's chest. Hopefully.
The course itself would make Formula One proud. Elevation changes, tricky corners, long straightaways, and a dangerous, unpredictable final stretch that provides explosive daily finishes. Firing out of their pen with the rocket, the bulls are at full speed by the time they round the first curve up Santo Domingo and reveal themselves to runners who've positioned themselves at the man-barricade of police about 50 yards up the hill. If you start further up Santo Domingo and look down, you see countless heads bobbing up and down like a giant Whack-a-Mole game, as mozos jump to get a glimpse at the oncoming herd and determine how long they can suppress their innate flight reflex.
As the bulls bare down on them, the police spin to the sides at the last possible second, and the run is on. Many of those brave enough to push towards the front realize they're actually hugely misguided, and fling their limp bodies out of the path. Others flee well before the bulls arrive, sprinting up the hill and causing pileups of panicked humanity. This brings us to Infallible Bull Running Rule No. 2: the people are always more dangerous than the bulls. Especially along the sides of the course, beware the people.
The steep hill, now a briskly moving white glacier with flashes of red, continues around a few minor bends until it reaches Plaza del Ayuntamiento, home to the beautiful, ancient Town Hall. There the first major curve, a lefthanded sweeper, sends the bulls wide. After a short dash down Calle de los Mercaderes, runners fall back in anticipation as the bulls encounter the most intriguing and dangerous part of the course, where Dennis pulled off his balletic weave: La Curva.
Also upliftingly known as Dead Man's Curve, La Curva redirects human and bull traffic alike up Calle Estafeta, the long straightaway that leads almost all the way to Plaza del Toros. The charging bulls see it coming but can't process what's about to happen, mainly because they are bulls, most of the time leading them to skid into the barrier that blocks off the rest of Mercaderes. While this couldn't be more beautiful to a photographer, and quite the opposite for an inexperienced runner who's drifted to the outside and is now in the path of a sliding beast, it has another effect: the bulls have different levels of folly and recovery, which tends to split up the herd, resulting in added, if smaller, pockets of danger all the way up Estafeta. And on top of that, if everyone is unlucky enough, a lone, confused bull flailing his way out of La Curva. The barrier is slammed closed once all the bulls are through, so a dangerous renegade can only terrorize half the course.
From there it's the long dash up Estafeta, a street that just minutes after the run will be bursting with shops selling posters of encierros past alongside churros and cheeky t-shirts splattered with fake blood. David Ubeda, one of Dennis's Chasing Red subjects, always runs Estafeta. A native of Madrid, David ran his first Pamplona encierro in 1995, after telling his parents he was heading to the Pyrenees. Of course they saw him running on TV days later, and not through the Pyrenees. While he's skilled enough to brave any section of the course, he prefers Estafeta because the bulls are tired from their initial sprint -- along with the whole having a wall slam into their faces thing -- and their pace becomes more even and predictable, allowing for potentially longer and more "beautiful" runs. Charging beasts and piles of panicked humanity may not sound pretty, but if while watching you focus on the middle of the street, where the top runners have plenty of free real estate to work in lockstep with the bulls, you'd have a tough time calling it anything but.
By the time they make the final left that brings Plaza del Toros into view, the bulls seem to know they're almost home. Following a pitch down a hill, it's time to enter the Callejon, the short tunnel leading leading into the bullring, whose entrance is only about the size of a garage door. For runners, there's suddenly no option besides making it into the arena. Bail-outs now consist of extremely low slivers about the length of a few men right along the ground. Besides those, it's go down, stay down, and pray to San Fermin.
It may sound indulgent, but entering the Plaza del Toros is something like being born: suddenly your formerly dark and confined world is huge and bright, and a circle of people around you are celebrating wildly and popping bottles of booze. Runners look up and spin around in wonder at the throbbing arena as adrenaline rockets through their body and they attempt to process what the hell just happened over the last three minutes of their lives. Once the entire herd makes it to the pen, another rocket goes off, and smaller calves -- with taped horns but just as much engineered determination to run people over -- begin flying around amongst the hundreds of mozos, who get flipped in the air and drilled into the manicured-dirt floor. But now, it's all in good fun.
Fun is not why Dennis Clancey runs with the bulls. With the slight, lean-muscled build of the high school track and soccer athlete he once was, Dennis is unagressively handsome, with a dusting of a goatee and the consistently focused gaze of a man who isn't the least bit confused about what he's doing. His face looks younger than his 29 years, but his steely eyes feel infinitely older. An almost unnatural dependence on world travel brought him to Pamplona. Both during and after six years in the Army -- including a tour in Iraq as an infantry platoon leader and executive officer in the "Triangle of Death" outside Baghdad -- he got hopelessly hooked on the idea touching every corner of the globe, and had his passport stamped in 58 countries by the time he made it here, on just one more adventure. You can hear his voice dripping with the same addiction when he talks about the bulls.
Especially for an American, Dennis is something of a bull-running mystic. He somehow manages to speak of his runs with the conviction of Malcolm X and the placidity of Deepak Chopra on Xanax. His pronunciations of Pamplona streets and bull breeds and revered runners are all perfectly enunciated in the dialect of northern Spain, or at least he's damn good at faking it. Six years ago he came to San Fermin with an idea: film a documentary about running with the bulls. Of course, he'd never run before. Or made so much as a YouTube video, for that matter. Now, with more than two dozen runs under his belt -- and an encyclopedia of filmmaking experience acquired -- he's capable of being one of the encierro's top runners on any given day. While the underlying reasons push infinitely deeper, the most immediate and public confirmation of a mozo's daring is to have his photo published in one of the Pamplona newspapers whose headlines are surely awesomely clever bull puns I don't understand, or make it onto the television highlights. In each of the three days I'm there, Dennis accomplishes one or both.
When he's not drinking the traditional post-run batido y cognac at Bar Txoko, or reviewing footage for Chasing Red, Dennis spends his days in Pamplona walking new runners through the encierro route, so they can approach it armed with course familiarity and a sense of how to react when the worst happens, since it often does. He estimates he's trained between 500 and 600 runners over six years, and has never accepted the Euro equivalent of a penny from a single one. This is the spirit of San Fermin. When he first arrived in Pamplona with a few cameras, the vision of Chasing Red, and very little idea how exactly to make any of it happen, a family showed him the same hospitality, letting him grab his first much-needed siesta on their couch. Today, he's paying it backward to them, and forward to the spirit of the festival itself. He points out that this overriding sense of kinship is the very reason that a fiesta bursting with 1.5 million not-exactly-sober people remains so placid throughout, with nary a fight to be heard of -- if you disrespect San Fermin, you may very well lose his protection. And you're damn sure gonna need it if you're going to be on the run route at 7:59am the next day.
Dennis' training is extremely straightforward. He teaches crucial basic rules: Go down, stay down. Never assume you can be both on the run route and a spectator -- find a balcony to watch from if that's your plan. Following that comes a walk down the route, with talk of which section might fit each runner's skills and goals, plus tips: watch out for the slight incline at the beginning of Estafeta, stay away from the Callejon if you're a beginner ("things get ugly there"), and before you get going, stretch more than you've ever stretched in your life.
No matter how much footage you watch, or how many times you walk the course, nothing can prepare a first-time runner's mind for the frenzied deluge of panic they must somehow gain mastery over within seconds. But even a few ingrained touch-points to fall back on while reacting can be the difference between a successful run and getting tossed in the air like kid on a bouncy castle that for some reason has very sharp horns. Dennis's seriousness helps students comprehend the graveness of the situation, while his reverence and passion for the experience makes you see no option other than getting out there yourself. So far it's been a potent and effective cocktail: to his knowledge, none of the hundreds of runners he's trained have been seriously injured
His star pupil this week is Andy Bell. A boisterous brick of energy, grins, and hair, Andy is a professional stupid person, and a very good one. You may remember him as the guy who did a motorcycle base jump in Jackass 3.5. You almost definitely don't remember him as the guy who set nine world records in one day, including the world's longest motorcycle nose wheelie and world's fastest speed in a towed trashcan (61mph!), but he did that too. Andy's been hired by Hotels.com to star in a viral ad, in which he's meant to run on a bull's horns while booking a room on Hotels.com's mobile app, to show just how easy it is. Only problem: Andy's never run with the bulls, let alone directly in front of them while looking down at an iPhone he's not allowed to drop
Andy gets rigged with GoPros galore in the home base above La Curva
At about 6-1 and 200 thickly muscled pounds, Andy seems big for someone who used to fly hundreds of feet through the air on a dirt bike for a living. This also makes him big for someone planning to run on bulls' horns four days in a row while a team of 15 or so films his every movement. At least he'll be eminently recognizable due to the green track jacket he's been outfitted with, and even more so due to the thick, curly mullet flopping over his shoulders. But there's zero need for the cameras to even find said mullet if he's not thoroughly in the midst of the action
His first day, despite literally having Dennis at his side, Andy encounters the same problem as any first-time runner amidst a chaos of humanity and 8000 pounds of charging beast: not having any idea what the fuck to do. He never gets on the horns, but still turns in a run that most novice mozos would consider the best of their lives. This isn't enough for the ad, which needs him on the horns to be as effective and absurd as the Hotels.com team wants. Luckily it's not nearly enough for Andy either. This is a man who twice swam 55+ feet under four feet of ice on lake in Utah -- the second time because someone lost the original footage, the first for basically no reason at all. He's broken 45 bones ("of course not counting fingers and toes"), had three knee and one achilles surgery, and suffered at least 22 concussions. When you say "jump," Andy says "off what?
The next day, on a "practice" run that's luckily being filmed anyway, Andy gets on the horns, then off them barely in time to avoid a goring through the lower right back. "I'm pretty sure if I hadn't sucked my gut in at the last second, he would've had me good" he grins before bracing as the team tears off the thick, super-sticky tape securing his deftly concealed shockproof GoPro HD sport cameras -- Pamplona police will do not-nice things to to if they find you on-course with a camera, or drunk, for that matter. He's seemingly more afraid of the tape removal than the bulls intent on doing the same to his spleen.
While sucking down a can of San Miguel beer at 8:30am, he catches himself on the TV highlights. He was right, the bull's left horn missed him at La Curva by an inch at most. After spending about a half-hour on the phone with his wife, who will give birth to their first daughter just days after he returns to the US, he puts his arm around his mother, who -- once the all of the bulls passed -- shot down the stairway from the apartment the production team is camping out in, found Andy, and ran into the Plaza del Toros with him and the final steers. It's her 60th birthday.
The third day, it's full-on Andy time. The whole team is ready to go full-speed, especially him. He gets on the horns outside Town Hall and stays there as he motors down Mercaderes as fast as his mullet's wind-resistance will allow. (Another grinning, beer-in-hand post-run quip: "My buddies were all confused when I got this gig. They were like, 'Hey man, that's really great, but shouldn't you have told them tell them you don't know how to RUN?'" Most of the production team laughs. A few look concerned.) iPhone out, he books the room. His wrist-mounted GoPro captures it. He pulls off to the right side of the course, hops a fence teeming with sangria-splashed human ivy, and jogs to the famed La Perla hotel, where the cute woman behind the desk displays the keys waiting for him as he says his funny lines in Spanish. Aside from a couple on-course intro shots he'll handle over the next few days, the ad is complete.
In the apartment basecamp's kitchen, Andy and Dennis debrief while eating a highly non-Spanish stromboli that's been sitting in the oven for an indeterminate amount of time. "Man, I saw the highlights, and I was the best out there today. Nobody was doing what I was doing." He's not bragging, just amped, and deservedly so. He's also right. But this is where him and Dennis -- who himself is nursing a seriously cut and banged-up knee from a rare fall that morning, luckily the worst injury sustained in his bull-running career -- diverge.
They're both incredibly good at this: Dennis because of his litheness, experience, and focus, and Andy because his cognitive and physical faculties somehow accelerate when most men just want to fling themselves through the window of a churro shop. The switches in our brains, the on/offs we frantically flail at upon realizing things just got very bad? Andy doesn't have those. Or, his circuits have been irreparably frayed by years of racing motorcycles at their absolute limit, and sprinting trucks through raw and unpredictable dessert in the Baja 1000, and, again, getting pulled in trashcans at 61mph as the plastic bottom visibly melts away, fast. That fraying, though, couldn't be more beneficial in this situation. A single doubt about whether or not he could pull it off, a single flinch and moment of "why?", is the difference between slamming stromboli in the kitchen and that bull's horn slamming into his back at La Curva.
Dennis has this same ability, but his outlook on the run itself couldn't be more divergent. In his years of preparing for and creating Chasing Red, he dove right into the deep end of the bull-running culture, while Andy -- since he's only been here four days -- still sits on the side of the pool with a Mai Tai and his feet in barely the water. All told, Dennis has spent months of his life in Pamplona, and visited the ranches that raise the bulls, and is close with many mozos who have participated in runs in the countryside towns where hundreds of other, much smaller encierros occur over the course of the year. (He estimates that if you time it right and your body/Peugeot doesn't break down, on right right days you can run in four or five different encierros in different towns.
Before the first rocket is fired, Clancey (black shirt) gives some last-second words of advice to our terrified writer, who totally ran with the bulls much worse than anyone else in this story.
When achingly but straightforwardly recounting the details of a top runner who got gored non-fatally a few years ago, Dennis stops himself mid-sentence: "One of the best runners on Estafeta, one of the bes... I'm sorry. A very fine runner, a very brave and noble runner..." This remarkably talented and accomplished man can't be the best runner, because to Dennis and David and many other Spaniards, there is no best runner. The runners don't compete with one another. They don't attempt to best one another, or even best the bulls, the noble and somewhat godlike animal Spanish runners are just respectfully overjoyed to be in the presence of. Dennis doesn't want to be the best because he doesn't believe anyone can be. Andy firmly believes he was the best, and considering he couldn't rely on experience and time-ingrained knowledge, if he didn't believe that, he might be dead right now. They're two extremely different outlooks, and they both worked wonderfully
The next day, Andy turns in another hellraising power-run after getting those final intro shots for the Hotels.com ad, then heads back to Long Beach, CA to cradle his newborn daughter Charlie just days later. This fall he'll pilot a Toyota Tacoma across the desert in the Baja 1000. He'll continue to do remarkably dangerous things with motorized vehicles on buddy/moto demigod Travis Pastrana's MTV insanity-fest Nitro Circus. No matter how many times he calls her to confirm that yes, he's still alive, his wife will never stop worrying, but she understood what she was getting into -- being married to Andy is like being married to a firefighter, who insists on entering blazing buildings in a t-shirt and flat-brimmed cap.
But his daughter has to soften Andy's berserker resolve to some extent, and at 35 he knows he's only got so many shoulders left to separate and bones left to snap if he hopes to even twist a motorcycle throttle for a spin around the block 10 years from now. Luckily he's remarkably smart for a professional stupid person and has planned accordingly, founding a production company called Sweatpants Media six months ago, which has already put together a national Toyota ad (for which he called in extreme sports buddies like skateboard legend Bob Burnquist and BMX vert god Jamie Bestwick), in addition to spots for RedBull and Mitsubishi, and the web series On Pace With Pastrana for his fake rival Travis. He's already planning a return to Pamplona, as his wife was furious she didn't get to come time around. This doesn't guarantee that he'll run again.
Dennis Clancey claims he definitely won't run again. He's got all the Chasing Red footage he needs, and plans to release the doc next July to coordinate with the San Fermin festival. His retirement isn't due to some flash of mortality when he went down and injured his knee -- while bloody and hobbled, he ran every day for the rest of the fiesta. It's more that even something as consuming and primal and magical as the encierro can only grab him for so long. It's time to move onto country 59. After six years on the horns, he wants to be somewhere else.