“I’m a bull running rockstar!”
These are the words I use to describe myself these days, but on July 11, 2012, the only words I could speak with certainty and sincere humbleness were, “Jesus keep us near the cross.” You see, before my rockstar status kicked in, I was just one person in a group of people from the Nomad.ness Travel Tribe heading to Pamplona, Spain to participate in the annual running with the bulls.
Yes, you read that right.
Led by our friend and leader Evita Robinson, our group prepared to go where very few minorities have gone. To say we were scared out of our minds would be an understatement. We were scared — not just by the thought of being gored by a bull, terrorized from the knowledge of its own impending death, but by the fear of the unknown. There were no other black people to ask for detailed advice (although we got some help from our friend Oneika, who participated a few days before). Even watching countless videos and maps of the route and previous runs did little to squash our fears.
As we sat in our house in Madrid waiting for our bus and making small talk, you could feel the nervousness of uncertainty in the air. Even I had to admit that I was ready to punk out at the last minute when talk began of writing down everyone’s travel life insurance information “just in case.” The bus arrived and we scurried towards it. We were aware of our fate, but determined to go strong until the end. We tried to ease the thick air on the bus by taking pictures and cracking jokes, but it was clear by the bible nearby and the recently purchased rosary around my neck that our minds were elsewhere. I couldn’t hear the thoughts of my friends, but mine were loud and clear “Should I do this?,” “We are crazy! Black folk DO NOT run with bulls!,” “I can’t believe we’re doing this! I can’t believe I WANT to do this!,” “Jesus, just keep us all near the cross and help us make it out safely.”
When the bus made a pitstop only a few miles from Pamplona, the individual talks with God started. We peed, we prayed and we prepared our legs to run for their lives. By the time the driver pulled into the city, darkness had turned to light and people dressed in red and white as far as the eyes could see stood before us. We hopped off the bus quickly and after adjusting to the smell of vomit and urine that perfumed the air from all the celebrating the last few days, we tried to figure out which way to go, stopping non-English speaking Spaniards along the way for directions. Once we hit the main square we stopped only to buy traditional red sashes at a nearby stand, the final piece to accompany our all white outfits.
Then we were off! Those not running barely had time to wish us luck before the rest of us dashed off, hearts pounding and minds racing towards our unknown fates. In the haste a few of us get separated, but myself, Evita and our friends Kelly, Bayyina, Tomika, Claire, Shaquay, Nailah and one of the two men running, Antoine, managed to stick together. We pushed past onlookers and ducked under barricades to head into the street where hundreds of drunk men and maybe two women (who were on our end…there were multiple starting points) sang in celebration. It wasn’t until the police officers came and pushed us all back to the start of the barricades that the reality truly hit us.
Standing there, packed in with a bunch of men behind a police wall was the first time we noticed all the people in the balconies above us. Men, women, and even babies, dressed in red and white, perched high above the cobblestone streets staring down on us with the same anticipation. Two young women in the balcony directly above us screamed down at us for some photos, and we screamed up with our email address. Behind us, hundreds of men chanting Seven Nation Army by the White Stripes and pierced the air with their rolled up newspapers. To our left, a kind, short man who had participated in the run for years and had done it over the previous few days. He gave us tips on how to run and told us about some of his past run ins with el Toro. To our right, hot Australian men, shocked not only to see women running, not only to see black women running, but American women running nonetheless! He asks us where we were from in that seductive accent only Aussies can produce and when we told him we’re American he says “I like you. You’re American women with balls!” Aussies… Gotta love them! It was in that moment we realized something else. Now minus Antoine (who had gone off to find his only other male companion, Blue) we realized that not only were we running with the bulls, an insane, yet astonishing feat all its own, but we were women, black women running with the bulls. Here we are in Spain, somewhere statistics would have you believe we don’t belong or aspire to be, doing what other black people, minorities, non-minorities, aunties, uncles, mothers and fathers said we don’t, won’t, couldn’t and shouldn’t do…we’re running with the bulls!
Our nervous excitement was starting to get the best of us and we knew it. So Tomika led us in a group prayer. As we stacked our hands one on top of the other (still to this day, the realist moment on our adventure) we inhaled the significance of the moment and the prayer. Just as we let out a hearty “Amen” the police dismantled their human barricade and allowed us on to the street ahead to pick our starting locations. With news cameras from across the globe capturing each runner’s move, and strangers and friends in balconies above cheering us on, fear turned into courage and determination. The time between the police releasing us and the first rocket going off signaling the release of the bulls felt like an eternity, even though in reality it was only a few minutes. But once we heard it we knew, and once we heard the second rocket sound less than a minute later we really knew. There was no turning back now. It was time to come face-to-face with true Taurus power. It was time to run with the bulls, and for our lives.
Everything happened so quickly, yet in slow motion. First a trickle of runners, likely startled by the first rocket, then the second wave of runners came, bigger than the first, but failing to bring with them any sense of concern. And then we saw it, not the bulls, but faces. The faces of hundreds of people running towards us, their once happy features now replaced with etchings of terror and fear….
The bulls were coming.
Before we knew it there was one horn, then two, then six, and attached to them the creatures we’ve been waiting to see. The bulls ran towards us with remarkable speed, their hooves scraping the pavement as they ran, parting the crowd like the Red Sea with their very presence. This was the moment we’d been waiting for and we took off running like our very lives depended on it, because they did. Next to us, the short man got tossed like a football, behind us, a man curled in the fetal position as bulls run over him, in front of us, runners now able to see the terrified faces that moments ago belonged to others, but now belong to us. We ran fast and we ran hard, some ducking behind the safety of the barricades lining the route and the rest, towards the finish line, towards the bull ring.
Inside the ring, thousands of people waited for our arrival and as the first bull entered followed by those who dared to run, the crowd erupted in thunderous applause! A run that felt like it took several lifetimes was over in less than three minutes and just like that life went back to normal. After separately watching the frenzied excitement in the ring, which included our boy Blue bravely and literally grabbing the bull by the horns, we all headed to our designated meeting place at the Ernest Hemingway statue. As we walked, we each prayed that we would see at the end all the faces we saw in the beginning. Waiting for our arrival were our friends who didn’t run, but were no less a part of the process. They congratulated us as we walked to them grinning like Cheshire cats. The first words out of Evie’s mouth “Yo, I saw a bull yo. I saw a bull!” As the final runner in our group arrived at the statue we praised God that we were all still alive. Then the silence came and the weight of the moment hit us yet again. We were all still alive! We sat in a kind of stunned excited silence for just a second and looked at each other with expressions that said, “We really just did that!” Then the silence was broken when one of us exclaimed loudly “We just ran with the bulls! We did it!”
We came. We ran. We conquered!
After a few hugs, pictures with a stuffed bull and many “I’m safe” text messages for family and friends back home, we spent the rest of our time in Pamplona eating, drinking, playing with local children, enjoying a carnival and reveling in the fact that we did something that day that some people dream of, but never dare to accomplish. On the bus back to Madrid the mood was very different. All the praying had paid off and now we were riding home happy, thankful and triumphant. I didn’t know about anyone else, but after coming face to face with my astrological namesake, I felt empowered. I was a bull running rockstar! Hours earlier I was considering backing out and resigning myself to watching this incredible once in a lifetime event from the sidelines. I’m glad I didn’t. Choosing to run birthed another event in my life that helped me realize that I’m stronger and more fearless than I admit to myself sometimes. Individually and collectively, we each have a story, and I guess we could all come up with a million words to describe the experience, to describe the rollercoaster of emotions we felt that day. However I think Evita summed up it up best when she said “Fear challenged Faith on that Pamplona street….and Faith won.”
Faith won indeed. Life lesson learned.