After a hard day at work, I love meeting friends at the local Mexican restaurant for a beer and spicy dinner. During a chips and salsa evening one hot July, I noticed a new poster near the bar. It featured a crowd of people running through the streets of Pamplona, Spain ahead of a herd of supercharged bulls. When I got home, I read about the annual Pamplona event and was immediately convinced that running with the bulls was part of my destiny. I wanted to be part of a tradition that began more than 500 years ago, born of a simple logistical need to get the bulls to the marketplace.
The modern bull run starts with the launch of fireworks rocket, indicating that the bulls are about to be released from their pen. A second rocket means that the bulls are loose. The bulls, agitated by the pyrotechnics, charge down a cordoned off street toward a bullring, about 1,000 yards down the road, where they'll be corralled for the main bullfighting events later that afternoon. A third rocket is an "all-clear" signal, meaning that the bulls are in lockdown and secured.
The goal for the human runners is to stay ahead of the bulls and arrive at the bullring area without getting trampled, then scale a five-foot fence without getting gored. It takes the bulls four or five minutes to get to the bullring, so you just need to be a little faster to survive.
The following July, I arrived in Pamplona a few days before the event and practiced the run. My times were good, and I was ready mentally, physically, and emotionally. Most important, I knew I was properly dressed for the occasion. The runners traditionally wear white paints and a white shirt, with a red scarf around their waists. Some wear red bandanas around their necks, and the gutsiest wear a bright-red shirt. I wanted my run to be a class act, especially if I might be caught on television. So before leaving the States, I swung by Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, California, and purchased a well-coordinated ensemble that included designer white beach trousers, a red leather belt, a limited edition white silk shirt, and a pair of handcrafted red and white leather running shoes. When I looked in the full-length mirror, I saw a guy who was tanned, buffed, impeccably dressed, and ready for some death-defying action.
The night before the event, the locals shared some tricks of the trade and warned me that the people running ahead of me were the greatest danger. If they trip and I fell over them, the bulls would use me for a doormat. I wasn't put at ease by the fact that none of the fifteen documented deaths related to the event resulted from the bull's hoofs -- in each case the horns were the culprits.
My newfound information kept me tossing all night. At the crack of dawn, I initiated a critical visual checklist in front of the full-length mirror on the closet door:
Shirt, pressed and buttoned. Check. Red leather belt, cinched to my waist -- looking athletic and trim. Check. White beach trousers, pressed and spotless, perfectly creased. Check. Leather shoes, laced. Check.
My bull running clothes were flawless. All that remained was a head check. I looked back at the mirror. Every hair in place. Check. Teeth brushed and white. Check.
I was now ready to engage the herd. When the first rocket exploded at around 8:00 a.m., I took off like a bullet. Within moments, I was suddenly part of a human wave. My emotions ranged from pure thrill to sheer fear. Mostly, I was driven by the primordial instinct to survive. It was fight or flight, and I left the fight to the matadors, who were part of the next act. A few people in front of me fell, and I jumped over them as if they were hurdles on a track.
As I threw myself over the fence at the bullring, I felt someone grab my shirt to assist in his own climb to safety. I was totally winded and in a euphoric state, but I now felt angry. Yes, I was still alive, and I would go down in history as another brave soul helped keep the Pamplona tradition alive. But the nerve of this panicky coward who ripped my silk bull-runner shirt! I'd never find another one like it, and even if I did, it still wouldn't be the original. I'd planned on wearing my victory shirt to barbecues and beach parties at home: "What a great shirt, Bob. Where'd you get it?" And then I'd tell my heroic tale in its full glory.
Worse, my red and white leather running shoes were ruined; caked in mud and scuffed from toe to heel. I cursed aloud, " No shirt, no shoes, no proof -- who's going to believe me when I talk about this death-defying adventure? If I wore the remnants of my outfit they'd assume I'd gone to a mud wrestling competition and then rode a mechanical bull."
In the midst of my mental tantrum, I looked over at the culprit who ripped my shirt, to give him an angry glance. What did I see? A bare-chested guy in his sixties laughing and smiling gleefully, loving the moment he'd just experienced. The light bulb went on: I just experienced a triumphant moment of beauty, and rather than celebrate it, I was choosing to get angry about trivial things.
I think back about that bull running experience and my misplaced priorities when I catch myself getting upset about foolish things these days. If I have my health, wonderful relationships, happiness and success, have I not already sailed over the arena wall? The rest is just bull.
The Myth I Believed
When feeling upset, it's normal to act distressed
The Reality I Discovered
Feeling upset sometimes may be unavoidable, but acting distressed is always optional
Adapted from And Then I Met Margaret, by Rob White