Running with the Bulls—on a Virginia Racetrack

A watered-down version of the classic Spanish tradition comes to the U.S., but can it offer comparable thrills?

For some, life just isn’t complete without partaking in a beer-soaked rodeo and food fight modeled after a centuries-old Spanish tradition. And so on August 24, the inaugural Great Bull Run thundered into central Virginia, the first of nine such events that will take place in cities nationwide between now and next summer. The franchise aims to bring a taste of Pamplona, Spain’s famous San Fermin Festival to the United States, on the premise that being chased through a crowd by a herd of livestock is just so thrilling that it ought to be commercialized, made accessible, bottled, and sold to anyone over the age of eighteen who can sign a waiver.

The guy behind all this is 34-year-old Rob Dickens, a North Carolina native who started the Rugged Maniac race series – obstacle-course adventures much like the well-known Tough Mudder events -- in Boston three years ago.  Last summer, Dickens and his business partner Brad Scudder wanted to travel to Spain for San Fermin, but logistics proved too tricky – “You need about $3,000 a person for your flights and your trains and a week’s worth of hotel rooms in Pamplona during the busiest time of the year, and then you’ve gotta be able to get away from work for seven, eight, nine days… which for a lot of the people here in the U.S. is pretty difficult,” he said. “Being event organizers, we started joking around about bringing it here to the U.S., and at some point it morphed from a joke into reality.”

Dickens actually isn’t the first to try this. Phil Immordino, from Phoenix, Arizona, hosted three bull runs in the Southwest in 1998, 1999, and 2002. Those efforts were foiled by mishaps and Immordino struggled to turn a profit. In 2011, he tried again; now the Running of the Bulls USA is going on its third year in Cave Creek, Arizona. Runners compete for cash prizes, and the event is backed up by a handful of million-dollar insurance policies.

As for the Great Bull Run, Dickens declined to disclose the specific details of his race’s insurance coverage but did say that getting insurance was “probably the biggest challenge” he and Scudder faced in the event planning process. “It took us a lot of knocking on doors, probably trying 30 different companies before we found one who did want to insure us,” said Dickens. “But I think that after our first few events, when [they] see that people are not dying [and] are not getting very seriously injured, then other insurance companies will come knocking on our door trying to give us a better rate.”

People are drawn to the Great Bull Run because they want to take risks, but no one wants to actually suffer the potential consequences posed therein, so Dickens had better keep those risks tightly controlled.

 “The biggest worry is that somebody would get seriously injured, or killed,” he said, stating the obvious. “That’s the worst thing that could possibly happen – that, or a bull getting seriously injured or dying,” he added—a heartening note for animal lovers.

He said he’s confident that neither of those things will happen. Only 15 people have died running with the bulls in Pamplona in the past 102 years, after all, and that’s with certain elements of danger that won’t be found at any of Dickens’s events. Instead of city streets walled in by buildings, the Virginia Great Bull Run is set at a drag racing strip, “where we create a track enclosed by cattle fencing,” Dickens said, “which people can climb up on and hop over if they want to. There are also nooks along the way where people can sidestep an incoming bull if they have to. You don’t have those in Pamplona.”

“I imagine people will get tossed around,” he admitted. “People will get hurt. Bruises, scrapes, maybe a broken bone or two, but I don’t expect people to get seriously injured. I don’t expect people to die.” Ultimately, this is the “same thing as skydiving or driving a racecar or bungee-jumping,” he said. You know that there’s a risk there, but you don’t care. You want to do it anyway.”

The Great Bull Run website is pretty snazzy, peppered with dramatic photographs from Pamplona – to be swapped out once images from the new events come through – and promises of fun. “Face the adrenaline rush of a lifetime”; “It’s not as dangerous as you think”; it’s a “massive festival” and an “epic day of fun!” The rhetoric on display, upon closer inspection, approaches that persuasive trifecta of appeals to emotion, logic, and even ethics: a combination of cheesy marketing slogans, no-nonsense facts, unapologetic respect for the value of cheap thrills, and details about the bulls' humane care and home on an "open-air ranch." 

As of Friday, August 23, the website showed that nearly four thousand individuals had registered to run with the bulls in Virginia, sight unseen.

Petersburg, Virginia is 131 miles from Washington, D.C., 23 miles south of Richmond. On Saturday morning I drove past Cracker Barrel after Cracker Barrel, Civil War landmark after Civil War landmark, with my 14-year-old brother in the passenger seat watching Derek Thompson’s economic explainer videos on his iPhone and occasionally griping about the distance we were traveling.

Around 11:30 a.m. and approximately two miles from our destination, we stopped at a gas station for water and snacks. Inside, the two cashiers behind the counter, both girls about my age, craned their necks to watch a video on a customer’s cell phone. The man had just run with the bulls, and he told the girls that it was “crazy.” The girls relayed his other comments after he’d left: “He said he wouldn’t do it again,” and “he said that you can feel the hooves thundering on the ground beneath you.”

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Svati Kirsten Narula is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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