“Are you ready to run with the bulllllllllls?”
This is the first thing that Rob Dickens, chief operating officer of The Great Bull Run LLC, says into a wireless microphone on a Saturday morning in August. People are cheering at the sound of his voice. Some have been drinking, even if it is just past 11 in the morning. Ennio Morricone’s theme from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly blasts from the loudspeakers.
Almost 12,000 people have driven past the gaggle of animal rights protesters holding signs (“BULL RUNS ARE NO FUN FOR BULLS”) near the front gate, found and paid for a spot in the cracked asphalt parking lot, waited in line to get a wristband at the registration table, maybe bought a Coors Light tall boy, and taken a seat on the long unshaded aluminum grandstands that look over Virginia Motorsports Park, about 30 miles south of Richmond. These people are listening to Dickens but they’re also watching a select 500 runners approach a high-fenced dirt track measuring 30 feet in width and almost a quarter mile in length. Many are wearing white clothes with red bandannas — traditional attire. There is palpable anticipation. People are leaning forward in their seats. Any minute now, a dozen car-sized, four-legged animals with horns will be chasing these runners within an inch of their lives.
The bulls arrived in the morning via a tractor-trailer adorned with a pair of horns as wide as the truck itself. After backing into place, five men in white Stetson hats arranged a ramp at the truck’s rear and released the gate, allowing the bulls, 24 of them in total, to rush down into a shaded corral. The bulls were also here yesterday for a dry run down the track, but were quickly loaded back and lodged overnight at a nearby farm due to worries that animal rights activists might try to sneak in and free them. Where exactly a trained rodeo bull would go if released into the wilds of suburban Virginia was unclear. (The Humane Society took a more pragmatic approach, requesting that the Department of Agriculture launch an investigation, sending out press releases reading, “These events are a shameful example of cruelty for the sake of nothing more than entertainment and profit. […] These companies put the health and safety of both humans and animals at risk, without the required federal oversight.” Nothing came of it.)
The media has arrived as well — no fewer than a dozen national and international outlets, who knows how many more local. They had been chattering about it for months, marveling at this curiosity of American entrepreneurialism, that a couple of guys living in Boston had convinced thousands of people to pay as much as $70 for the privilege of risking their life in a vague approximation of a festival in Spain where mostly young, mostly male risk takers have been running through the narrow streets with angry bulls for centuries. Kenny Mayne of ESPN is wearing a red do-rag. A tough-looking photo crew from Sports Illustrated, bearing beards and tattoos and cigarettes, is jockeying its cameras into the prime spots. A few guys with a camera-mounted drone helicopter are fiddling with a remote control.
Everyone is listening to each word echoing from the loudspeaker, vaguely aware that what we’re watching is, at least according to the media, history in the making. This is, we’ve been told, the first time that this grand European tradition has been imported to the United States.
For Dickens and his business partner Bradford Scudder, the moment has a slightly different significance. They’ve spent months of planning and a million dollars of their own money just to get here, the first run of The Great Bull Run. For the next year of their lives, they have plans to replicate this moment in nine more cities throughout the United States. If something goes wrong today, it is going to go wrong in front of the entire world.
“So, here are the rules for The Great Bull Run,” Dickens announces. Ticketholders have each signed a waiver that thoroughly covers the rules he is about to read out loud. Given that liability insurance has been the single largest expense, with the bulls in the corral and the runners on the track, Dickens is going to make sure that no one can say they didn’t know what they were getting into.
“If you have a camera in your hand or anything in your hand, you will be thrown out of this event! You need those hands to climb. If you have a bull bearing down on you, you do not want something in your hand!”
He’s speaking the way that you might speak to a small child with a short attention span. As he dives into the long-winded list of rules, people start to sound restless. They talk over him.
“We’re going over these rules before we race those bulls,” Dickens reminds them.
“I need another beer,” someone cries from the crowd.
“I’m glad you just said that,” Dickens fires back over the microphone. “If we see anyone who is visibly intoxicated, our security staff will come in and take you out. We want to make sure that everyone is safe out there, because the danger is not just the bulls, it’s also all of you other runners.”
At this point, the crowd seems to realize that Dickens is not a guy who likes to be misunderstood.
“So, here’s the most important rule: Do not touch the bulls. If you touch a bull, we’re going to have to escort you off the property. We don’t want that to happen.”
How exactly is one able to avoid touching a bull when the general concept involves being chased by one in dangerously close quarters? Dickens does not explore the complications of this logic.
“Stand against the fences, leaving the middle clear. Don’t stop in the middle of the track. You gotta let the bulls run by, that’s what running with the bulls is. We gotta make sure there’s enough room for the bulls to get through.”
All of this talk of physical peril seems to have revived the crowd’s spirits. The tension is building and the music continues to play: Wah-wah-wahhnn.
“Now, this last rule is not really much of a rule, it’s just some advice: If you find yourself on the ground with bulls coming by, curl up and protect your head more than anything else until the bulls go by. You do not want a bull’s hoof on your head and I do not want a bull’s hoof on your head.”
That gets everyone cheering. The runners are all spread along the track. Dickens has one more thing to add. “We’re going to honor these bulls before we run,” he says, and then asks for the crowd to repeat after him.
“Here we are!”
“Here we are!”
“The courageous few!”
“The courageous few!”
“To test ourselves!”
“To test ourselves!”
“And honor the bull!”
“And honor the bull!”
“From those that run!”
“From those that run!”
“And those that fall!”
“And those that fall!”
“We honor the bull!”
“We honor the bull!”
“And salute you all!”
“And salute you all!”
The bulls are released.
While bullfights have existed in Spain and elsewhere, including southern France, for centuries, Spaniards have been running with bulls in the northern town of Pamplona, most famous for the practice, since at least the 14th century. The tradition likely began when locals wanted to follow the animals as they were moved from a corral on the edge of a city to a bullring at its center, where they would be fought and slaughtered for the festival of the town’s patron saint, San Fermín. Many of the running mozos still wear white with red scarves, which might pay homage to the saint’s pure life (white) prior to (bloody) martyrdom, or because butchers, who wore a similar costume, were said to have traditionally run with the bulls.
At 8 each morning for nine days in July, six steers and six bulls with sharpened horns run through the narrow, cobbled streets, goring or stomping whoever gets in their way to the Plaza de Toros. Human fatalities are rare (just 15 in the past century, as touted by The Great Bull Run’s site), though it is typical for more than 100 people to be injured in any given year. In the afternoon, the crowd packs into seats to watch the same bulls in the corrida, a ritual during which a bull is stabbed repeatedly until the torero, or matador, gets close enough to pierce a saber through the spinal cord and into the bull’s heart, ending his life. The bull is viewed as a respected, worthy opponent, then sacrificed ritualistically for the crowd.
The international — and particularly American — interest in the Pamplona bull run, though, mostly dates to Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises. In it, a group of expats living in Paris take a vacation that culminates in the San Fermín festival, during which they drink massive quantities of wine and cocktails, watch as the matadors expertly kill bulls, and fall in and out of love with one another. Hemingway writes:
Aficion means passion. An aficionado is one who is passionate about the bullfights. […] Somehow it was taken for granted that an American could not have aficion. He might simulate it or confuse it with excitement, but he could not really have it.
Of course, Hemingway’s character Jake, a stand-in for himself, is the one true American aficionado in the book.
When they saw that I had aficion, and there was no password, no set questions that could bring it out, rather it was a sort of oral spiritual examination with the questions always a little on the defensive and never apparent, there was this same embarrassed putting the hand on the shoulder, or a “Buen hombre.” But nearly always there was the actual touching. It seemed as though they wanted to touch you to make it certain.
The culture of the corrida is theatrically serious. The matador is judged for the fluidity and grace of his movements. If he does particularly well, he’ll be presented with his conquest’s ear. Likewise, a bull that fights the matador with enthusiasm and strength will have his lifeless body dragged around the circumference of the arena to honor his vigor.
This summer, as I was walking the streets of Pamplona, where a million visitors descend for the festival each year, I noticed a shop selling Hemingway-branded red bandanas. The strange logic of American exceptionalism allows for any of us to think of ourselves like Jake: We can see our own throngs acting foolishly, walking with unfounded confidence into a messy world that we understand little of, and rarely consider ourselves as part of those other Americans. If we lack something, like passion or expertise or bravery, we usually will find someone selling an approximation of it, even if that’s just a little square piece of red fabric with old Papi’s white face printed on it.
Bringing the running of the bulls in from Spain has never been illegal, exactly, but importing a cultural event with centuries of history tied to a specific place is more than a little impractical. Bullfighting, of course, is very much illegal in the United States. The Great Bull Run LLC advertises a more humane premise: No sharpened horns for the bulls to gore runners with and none of that bloody bullfighting and death. For the danger-averse, Dickens and Scudder have also borrowed another Spanish festival: La Tomatina, a big food fight that happens annually in Valencia, which they’re calling “Tomato Royale.” (Several thousand have bought tickets to just that, in addition to the 3,000 who’ve signed up to run.)
In fact, the creators of The Great Bull Run have never been to the San Fermín festival. They have never run with the bulls through the streets of Pamplona. When I ask Dickens if they would sell bota bags of red wine, the traditional gallon-sized leather bladders that are popular for big events in Spain, he looks at me blankly and says, “No, we’ll have beer and it’ll be cheap.”
Of all Dickens’ rationalizations for undertaking this venture, his most spirited centers around value and convenience, about how expensive it would be to go to the running of the bulls in Spain, about the price of plane tickets, the difficulty in scoring the right hotel room, the wages lost from taking a week off of work. “We’re talking at least $3,500 right out of the gate,” he says.
Dickens and Scudder are passionate about creating something affordable, convenient, and that can be accommodated by any chain-link-fenced suburban venue with enough parking. The Great Bull Run is not about the traditions of the encierro, the bull run itself, it is about people paying for kicks, for the rush of weird danger. They have the afición of American businessmen, the afición for value.
Dickens and Scudder are tapping into a very different, distinctly American tradition. It is the tradition of walking into the Venetian from the sidewalk in Vegas to listen to a gondolier serenade us from the canal while eating a Cinnabon without having to endure the stink of Venice in the summer, the tradition of paying admission at Epcot to take a boat ride through Mexico before having a cup of tea in China. Those who want the culture of San Fermín, who want the bota bags and the jamón ibérico and the bloody, guilt-inducing bullfighting, can max out their credit cards for a summer vacation in Spain.
The day before the run, the Virginia Motorsports Park could have been an empty parking lot anywhere in suburbia. There are long stretches of fence, big swaths of dry green grass, black-gray expanses of asphalt, a run-down chalky white concession stand, and a tall wedge of empty bleachers. All of this faces a long stretch of clean drag-racing track, though it easily could have been a high school football field or a state fairground. There are places like this in every corner of the United States, a fact that fits neatly into the plans of The Great Bull Run.
Dickens is 34, though his smooth face could pass for 10 years younger. That morning he’s wearing Abercrombie & Fitch khakis and a clean chambray button-down that neatly fits his slight frame. It’s the way he speaks, not the way he looks, that indicates his former career as a Wall Street lawyer, drafting and negotiating complex liability contracts.
In April, Dickens and Scudder announced that not only were they bringing the running of the bulls to America, they would be touring the event around the country for the better part of the next year, as if “running with the bulls” were a carnival ride that could be dismantled and moved along to the next town. I pepper him with a few questions and he shoots back answers with the speed and skill of a media-trained entrepreneur who’s heard each one before and is resigned to keep hearing them.
What does he think of The Sun Also Rises?
“I read Hemingway in college, but it didn’t hit me then.”
What’s the worst thing that could happen tomorrow?
“We’d be in trouble if a bull got loose in the festival. People didn’t sign up to get gored in the festival, they signed up to get gored on the track.”
Did they expect all of this attention?
While living and working in New York in 2010, Dickens got an email from Scudder, 31, whom he had met during a study-abroad semester of law school, asking if he was interested in helping to launch a new business venture he was calling Rugged Races. Rugged Maniac, as the operation is now known, puts on almost 20 obstacle-course races a year, where weekend warriors pay for the privilege of scaling barricades, crawling through mud, and sprinting through gauntlets of swinging tires before throwing back a few beers with their friends.
At the time, Scudder’s idea was still novel, though in the years since, the market has become crowded with competitors looking to differentiate their races with increasingly complex and dangerous-sounding obstacles. Tough Mudder, probably the industry’s most popular, boasts live electrical wires and monkey bars greased with butter. This April, a runner died after competing in a Tough Mudder run, an incident that has put some scrutiny on the industry. Scheming for a way to set themselves apart from a crowd, Scudder and Dickens happened upon their million-dollar idea: Why not do away with the whole obstacle-course race format and just chase people with people with massive, unpredictable bulls?
“We had tried to go to Pamplona the year before, and then we couldn’t figure it all out in time,” says Dickens. “One of us joked, ‘Oh, we can’t go to Spain, so we’ll just bring it here.’ Eventually, it just switched from a joke to being an actual project.”
After researching the logistics and trying to decide if it could be plausibly profitable here in the U.S., they committed to the project in November 2012, investing together a million dollars of their own savings from Rugged Maniac to make it happen.
“I’m not a wealthy guy,” Dickens insists.
This is, though, an investment that could make him one. Dickens is shy about exactly breaking down the numbers, but a little cocktail-napkin math shows that they could net a few hundred thousand dollars in ticket sales on a single event. On top of that, they’ve got revenue coming in from parking and merchandise, though the venues keep the concession money from those very reasonably priced beers. If all goes well in one town, Dickens expects that to add to the draw for the next event and so on. After Virginia, they’ve got 10 more on the books, starting in Georgia in October.
Dickens walks us up to the top of the aluminum bleachers, where we can see the whole expanse of the venue — a crew of about a dozen guys in black T-shirts working away at various tasks, a long truck flatbed being built out into a stage for a classic-rock cover band. Some inflatable plastic is being spread out for the mechanical bull rides. Supplies are being loaded into the concession stands. Tents for selling Great Bull Run T-shirts and red bandanas are being erected. And, of course, there are a few guys spreading out 50,000 tomatoes (overripe, not fit for human consumption) inside a fenced area for the tomato fight. Somewhere down there, one of the guys wearing a Rugged Maniac crew T-shirt is Scudder, making all of this happen.
Dickens and Scudder divide the labor this way. Dickens keeps the face of the business; he takes of the front of office tasks and keeps the contracts sharp, while Scudder is muscle behind managing the crews and constructing the courses where the actual events happen.
Dickens points to the jagged edge of a nearby hill and then at the dirt track where the running of the bulls would happen. For the past week, they have been digging dirt out of that hill, over 30 dump trucks’ worth, to build a dirt track immediately adjacent to the racetrack. They could have run the bulls on the asphalt, but that would’ve been hard on their hooves and legs. “Why would I spend $50,000 to move dirt around all week long if I didn’t care about the welfare of these bulls?”
Around 3 p.m., the tractor-trailer operated by Lone Star Rodeo Company arrives. The track isn’t quite ready for the dry run yet, so, while Scudder’s crew hurries to get everything in place and some EMTs gather for a briefing on what they’ll need to know about working the bull run, I wander over to the corral to get a better look at the bulls. That’s where I find Preston Fowlkes talking to some cameras.
Though Dickens and Scudder had this bright idea of running with bulls, they didn’t actually have the first idea about bulls themselves. So they found Fowlkes, a big, sturdy man of 68, with a rounded-off nose and belly that precedes him, whose Lone Star Rodeo Company has been in operation since his father started it in 1949.
Fowlkes is natural raconteur, perhaps unsurprising for a man who has worked in rodeos his entire life, and he eagerly fields questions. “No, I wouldn’t pay any money to let a bull chase me,” he says to anyone who would ask. “But I wouldn’t pay money to jump out of an airplane, neither.” The variation he gives me, when I ask a similar question, is that the rodeo has always found people who wanted to be clowns and get paid to be chased by bulls. The organizers of The Great Bull Run, as he sees it, have just done a great job finding a lot of people who were willing to pay for the privilege of acting like rodeo clowns.
Fowlkes also explains to me that “bulls” is actually something of a misnomer. His company had brought both bulls and steers, who are shorn of their testicles and as a result develop to be smaller and more agile. This is how it is done in Spain too, with the thought that that the faster steers will guide the bulls along. After finishing with Fowlkes, I crouch right next to the corral and stick my hand through the fence to take a picture. That’s when a big black one starts looking right back at me — he narrows his gaze and slowly starts to inch backward, as if trying to get just a little more space with which to charge at me.
Finally, someone announces that it it’s time for the dry run. As the gate is getting ready to be opened, Dickens himself jumps over the fence and stands in the track. Just him and the bulls on this first dry run. He looks tense. Then the gates open and bulls come out all in one pack. They pass Dickens without giving him a second glance. It looks about as perilous as standing on a sidewalk and watching a car drive by. The EMTs break out in laughter. One says, “After seeing that, I’m more worried about the ‘mater fight.”
As it turns out, the most dangerous part of running with bulls isn’t the bulls as much as the people around you. With just one person on the track, like Dickens, it isn’t dangerous at all. As you add more people, though, that means the distance between any given person and any given bull gets smaller. On the day of the dry run, there had been some debate regarding exactly how many people would get to run with the bulls at a time. Though tickets had been sold for runs of 1,000 people at a time, the venue had pressured them to cut it to 500.
As the EMTs laugh, Dickens seems genuinely concerned that the run won’t be dangerous enough. As he sees it, he has a contract with these people to deliver a dangerous event. Business, as he has mentioned before, is nothing without contracts.
Shouldn’t he be afraid of something going wrong on the big first day, with all of the media here to document it? “Sure,” he says. “There’s some pressure, but I don’t consider someone getting injured to be something going wrong.”
The morning of the big run, there is a lot of waiting. The bulls flick their tails back and forth in the corral. The crowds line up for those very reasonably priced beers.
I’m standing around the media registration table and trying to eavesdrop when one PR flack announces to another that “those people from the Humane Society” had arrived, and I follow quickly behind them, assuming that there’ll be some kind of confrontation. As I trail them, the PR flack walks over and just stares at the three people who are apparently from the Humane Society, who in turn just kind of stare back. In the middle of this standoff, one of the guys introduces himself to me as Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society. When I ask if they have any specific goal in being there, he demurely says, “We’re just having a look around.” Now the PR flack is staring at me too. After a long, awkward moment, we shrug our shoulders and walk our separate ways.
After that, there wasn’t anything to do but wait around for Dickens to grab the microphone and give his spiel, for the theme song to play, for the bulls to finally run.
No one but the very first line of runners can see the bulls coming. Bulls are shorter than people, even if they do weigh a half ton. So, as the bulls come down at the track, slow at first but soon gathering steam, the runners know only what they’re hearing and what the other people packed in around them are doing.
It builds like a wave, the first line of people yelling, “Holy shit” and “Jesus Christ” and pushing into a sprint at the people behind them who push and yell at the people behind them until the whole track is a running, yelling chorus of “HolyfuckJesusshit,” and, somewhere in among them, the bulls are running about 35 miles an hour, faster than any human could.
This is not a foot race, there is no start or finish for registered runners to clock their time. When the bulls hit their stride, they do not linger. They are just a flash of hide and horn cutting a line through the wave of bodies. This lasts maybe for 30 seconds until, finally, no one is yelling obscenities anymore.
The bulls have run. The people have dodged them. A few pick themselves up off the ground and look around. There are a few bumps and scrapes, nothing more.
And so, that group is hustled off the track for the next 500 and the next group after that, like the line for a roller coaster. Many are clearly pumped up by the adrenaline afterward — they cheer and grab their friends, thrilled to have cheated death and gained a war story. Others, though, look confused. I hear from a few people the same question: “What was that?”
When I run into Pacelle from the Humane Society again, even he doesn’t have much to say after watching the bulls run. “I’m thinking that the bulls run down the middle and try to avoid hitting people,” he tells me.
“Yeah, I think it’s just a bunch of hype,” he says, looking ready to pack up his crew and go home.
There’s a break around 2 p.m. for the Tomato Royale. For 20 minutes, the speakers play “Judy Is a Punk” and other pumped-up rock songs while tomatoes fly through the air with the frenzy of a small-scale tornado. After a day in the sun, the tomatoes have ripened into soft balloons, descending and splashing their seedy mess on anyone in chucking distance. It also happens to be the most athletic moment of the day. Some people go to their cars to change out of their tomato-soaked clothes; others just leave.
The attention is obviously waning. What seems to have overwhelmingly brought people to Virginia today is the idea of danger, and maybe seeing a little blood. People have sat in the stands and stood on the track for hours now and have not found much of that. After today, Dickens and Scudder will still be $700,000 in the red; they’ll still need people’s attention at the next event and the next after that if they ever hope to get out of that hole.
But there’s one last run at 3:30 p.m., even though it seems like no one still has quite the energy to do it. Even the bulls, after being run again and again throughout the day, look worn out in their shaded corral. A few have decided to just lie down and take a nap.
The last run, though, is a big-money ticket. All day long, they’ve been advertising last-minute sign-ups for the final run, hoping that a few spectators might sign up after seeing the first few runs or even that people who ran earlier might want to run again. So, as it happens, for the last run of the day, they decide to break the 500 limit and let as many people in who want in. On top of that, Dickens and Scudder make the decision that the last run should release all 24 bulls.
From the fence, this run is a little more frenzied. People seem more disoriented. As each wave of bulls is released, the run goes on longer than before, there are more screams, more commotion. Then, just as it seems to be finally over, the crowd notices a guy who’s face down in the mud. If he’s moving, it’s hard to tell.
People crowd around him. A photographer jumps the fence, trying to get a clear shot. Someone tries to fight the photographer, and a cop has to break it up. We all stand around as the guy is loaded onto a stretcher, then slid into the back of an ambulance. Some guy in a black shirt leans over to his friend and says, “I mean, that’s why we came here, right?” The injured man’s friend, covered in tomato mess, lumbers into the front seat as the ambulance speeds off toward the hospital.
Finally, all the camera crews have something to grill Dickens about. Of course, he doesn’t know more than anyone else — the injured man obviously just left in the ambulance — so he can’t actually say anything other than he hopes everyone will be all right. Someone from the PR team offers to let me just take a picture of the prewritten script that they’ll be emailing to various news outlets: “IF INJURY: The Great Bull Run team wishes a speedy recovery to the injured runner(s). We will release the names of the injured runner(s) once the police have notified the runners’ relatives. Southside General Hospital will be providing updates as to the condition of the runners. We will provide further updates as they become available. Thank you.”
A few days later, when I email Dickens to get the latest status on the injured runner, he replies, “We had two people transported to the hospital, including the guy during the last run. Both had concussions and bruises. That’s it. Not as gory as some had hoped.”
We speak again briefly before the Atlanta run slated for Oct. 19. “After Virginia, we listened to our customers, and the number one complaint was that there wasn’t enough danger,” he says. “So, from here on out, we’ve increased the number of bulls.”