Running With The Bulls

A Dangerous Pastime -- But What A Rush!

When bar owner Joe Distler leaves the mean streets of New York City, he's going to a place that is even more dangerous. For eight days straight, he'll be running from killers, running with 1,000-pound bulls at his heels. Erin Moriarty reports from Pamplona for 48 Hours Adventures.

"Running bulls, to me, is a passion," says Distler. "You're in the street with these incredible, phenomenal animals that are prehistoric creatures. And you're running along with them at 8 in the morning when most people are going to work. That's a fabulous way to start a day."

When Joe started running here 29 years ago, he was one of a handful of Americans. Now there are hundreds. What brings most Americans to Pamplona is a famous novel largely about bullfighting and fate: The Sun Also Rises, written by Ernest Hemingway in 1926. Hemingway never ran with the bulls himself, but for the last 70 years he has convinced thousands of other thrill seekers to try it.

Warren Parker is another American bull-running veteran. He says Hemingway inspired him to try running with the bulls. Before they actually run, Warren takes his best friend's son, Michael Leblatt, for a tour of the half-mile route from the corral to the bullring. Leblatt is running for the first time. He points out where the Red Cross station is.

Thirteen runners have lost their lives since Hemingway's day. The first American, 22-year-old Matthew Tassio, was killed just last year. What happened to him? Says Mr. Parker: "He stood up when he should have stayed on the ground. He stood up before the bulls finished passing by. He stood up in their path."

But isn't there an inclination, if you fall down and you know there are so many people running, to get up? Not if you know what you're doing, Mr. Parker says.

Joe Distler was gored four years ago. He says he broke his own rules. "The minute I got up and the bull saw me, he went down and that's when I got gored," he says. "He hit me in the back, picked me up and threw me."

But Michael, a pharmaceutical salesman from New Jersey, is attracted by this danger: "I've been waiting 10 years for this," he says.

The day before the first run, the party begins at noon and goes on through the night when the bulls come into town. At dawn, they'll begin the run of their lives. It is a nervous time, says Distler, who thinks a lot about getting gored. In just a few hours, Joe Distler will be running through the streets of Pamplona just steps ahead of stampeding bulls.

"The more you know about it, the more you realize the dangers and the problems," he says. "The more years you run it, the more difficult it becomes."

Minutes before the run, Michael decides not to run. He says he drank too much the night before, and doesn't feel ready to risk his life. But a hangover doesn't stop hundreds of others. Distlers says many don't have any idea what they're doing.

The entre run takes less than three minutes. The runners are safe as long as the bulls feel they are part of the herd, but if a bull gets spooked, the runner is in trouble.

As the run began, some people unused to the stress panicked. Within the first 30 seconds of the race there was a casualty. A first-time runner from South Africa was gored. But Joe came through fine: "I took the last bull and I took him in the ring, the black bull. So for me, el stupendo."

As for Robert Thirwell, the runner who got gored, he's just out of surgery and he won't be sitting down anytime soon. Looking at a picture of the goring, Thirwell says: "the bull's horns are right up my bum then, 14 centimeters deep."

The second day it rains, which makes running even more dangerous. Mr. Parker decides not to run, as does Michael. Joe, though, runs rain or shine.

Just minutes before the bulls are released, Michael shows up and runs. Afterwards, he is exhilarated. "It was awesome. I waited and I waited. And I was close to the bulls, which I wanted to be. One behind me, one in the front and I was like in the middle." Mr. Parker is proud of his young charge.

Joe Distler will stay and run the risk the rest of the week. Here in Pamplona, for this week, he is a star, well known for his dedication.

During the eight days, two runners were trampled and seriously injured and five runners were gored. By the end of the week, 44 runners were treated in the emergency room, including an American woman, Gail Leader. She thinks she won't run again. "I won't need the excitement again," she says.

For Distler, the excitement is almost a drug: "I do it because I love the feeling I get. It's this incredible rush. And then when it's over, I mean, I can't tell you the feeling. So as long as I can do it, as long as I can walk, I'll be out there."

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Produced by David Kohn