Edinburgh-based comedian Kai Humphries has heard the expression “dying a death” before when talking about stand-ups having a bad gig. Little did he know that when he and fellow comedian and flatmate Daniel Sloss went to Pamplona with a group of other friends to celebrate Kai’s 30th Birthday that he would literally have a near-death experience….
The Spanish festival of San Fermin is a heady mix of fiestas, fireworks, music and dancing in a euphoric atmosphere that goes all day and all night. It is best known for The Encierro… The Running of the Bulls, and has been immortalised by the works of Earnest Hemmingway. I had always wanted to go and my 30th Birthday celebration seemed a good excuse to head over.
My group of seven consisted of four comedians (myself, Daniel Sloss, Milo McCabe and Tom Haughton) and three old friends from my hometown. We arrived late on the second day of the week long festival and got straight into the spirit of the carnival, drinking sangria and listening to tales of the mornings run from adrenaline pumped runners with all levels of experience.
Two Veteran runners, one a Scotsman from Paisley with a beer in his hand, no fear in his eyes and a face that’s been lived in called Gus Ritchie, walked us from the start to the finish of the 825-meter stretch, telling us matter of fact accounts of death and triumph and advising us how to lean towards the latter on each section of the course. We watched people dancing, singing and spilling their drinks under the streetlights as the wise men spoke, and it all seemed so surreal – and so easy.
We started our first run about three quarters of the way in, on a street named Estafeta which is a long straight run to the arena where the bulls would end up. It was 7:45am, we’d had a late night but the adrenaline super-charged us to a heightened state of consciousness, the 15 minutes wait for our part of the run felt like 15 hours as we exchanged firm handshakes with Spaniards, Americans, Australians and each-other, making eye-contact and saying “Suerte” as a heartfelt good luck.
BANG, the first rocket went off, the bulls were on their way but we did as we were told, “HOLD” we shouted as bodies ran past us, flashes of white and red as we held our composure against every natural urge to run… BANG… “HOLD…” they were nearly here, everyone was running except us, BANG, “Go… Go… Go…” I turned and ran and clashed with another runner in the mayhem, I was losing my balance and falling, I did as Gus told me and used the last bit of my balance to dive towards the wall, I huddled in the doorway as bodies stacked up against me. Then, in a flash, the bulls had passed - I hadn’t seen them, but nevertheless we sprinted and got into the arena just before the doors shut to the rapturous applauds of 10’000 onlookers.
We partied so hard into the night that we deemed it unsafe to run the next day but I couldn’t help but dwell on the fact I hadn’t got close to the bulls. I wanted to feel the exhilaration of being that close to the beasts, not the same as the vast majority who, like me, huddled up against the walls of Estafeta as the bulls passed by.
Dead Man’s Curve
We had one day left. Milo, the only experienced runner in our party, was keen to leave our group at the safe(er) section of the run and progress onto a section dubbed “Dead Man’s Curve” which is the approximate half way point of the course. The curve is almost 90 degrees and the bulls always over shoot it due to their momentum and run wide, the idea is to start opposite the curve wait for just the right time, run out in front of the bulls aiming for the apex of the bend so when they go wide, you are on the inside, and you get to run alongside them for as long as your legs will carry you at that speed, when they pass you can get in their slip stream and take it all the way down Estafeta into the arena… Perfect adrenaline-cloe-to-bulls-type experience.
Thus, on the fifth Encierro of the festival and our third and final morning, Milo and I headed for Estafeta, and into a doorway that would soon be packed with bodies avoiding an unfavourable fate. Gus emerged looking like he was about to have a game of football in the park, both in attitude and attire, he was wearing a Partick Thistle top and a smile, he cracked jokes, laughed and then led us into battle. We were running with Gus, he ran Dead Mans Curve every day, of course he did.
As we walked the course in reverse from the doorway on Estafeta to the curve almost everyone stopped to shake hands with the Scotsman who had bucked the trend of block white with a red sash to wear his yellow team colours. 51 weeks of the year, Gus is probably just the nice bloke down at the pub, but for this week in this town the man was nothing short of a hero. While he was chatting to a big burly Mexican guy with braids a police officer tried to shepherd me and Milo back up the street to Estafeta, but when he realised we were with Gus he apologised in English.
We eventually got to our spot with 5 minutes to go, Gus pointed to a TV camera on the balcony down the road, it was on a tripod with a crew member operating it, “As soon as you see that camera start to pan, count to 6, then that’s when you run” he said. Milo responded with the same question that was in my head; “Will you tell us when to run?” Gus looked at us both and said “I won’t have time for that, I’ve done all I can for you, this is your run now”
Our elbows come up to deflect the premature runners trying not to be distracted by the scramble as I watched the camera, did it just move? Hell, it’s moving, do I go on 6 or after 6, damn, I haven’t started counting yet, Gus is still here it’s fine, it’s not fine, how can this be fine… Milo made a break for it, thank goodness someone was counting. I ran after him, my body heading towards the apex of the curve but my head fixed over my right shoulder looking up the street. It was bizarre, all I could see was people and they were running in every direction except my direction, this only meant one thing; the bulls were coming my way! I looked forwards to check the distance I had to close - I was half way. I didn’t get a chance to look back at the parting of the waves because the unthinkable happened, I was stumbling forward, I CAN’T FALL HERE, my body was trying to run faster than my legs could carry me. I was stumbling, now I was falling and I was nowhere near a wall or barricade to throw myself towards like I did yesterday. My right hand hit the ground, it was like one of those bad dreams where you are running away from something but your legs are jelly, except I was wide awake and the monsters were very real. I’ve taken tumbles in football and rugby before and I know how quick I can get back up and chase the run of play but time stood still there on the cobblestones and I remembered the advice from Gus. “A hoof can hurt you but a horn can kill you, the bulls will try to avoid tripping over you so if you go down you stay down” I lowered myself to my knees, tucked my head into my arms and felt remarkably composed as I waited for the 24 ton wall of flesh and bones to hit, then, the sound and smell of 48 hooves pounded the cobbles around me, the noise was peaceful, the noise was welcome, the noise was letting me know I was still alive! In that instant I remembered something I read in a book about philosophy that I bought in an Airport before a long haul flight but never read past the first chapter which I scanned in the departure lounge.. Cogito-Ergo-Sum “I think therefore I am”. The noise stopped but I was still thinking, I don’t know what it’s like to be dead but I imagine you don’t think much. Confirmation that I was alive came in the shape of a stranger who pulled me to my feet without so much as a word then disappeared into the crowd. I wandered shell-shocked up the street, none if it was quite sinking in, time still moving slow, sounds muted, then the adrenaline hit me like a 20 foot tidal wave - I WAS ALIVE!!!
My near-escape made the news around the world, in print and on TV. I read yesterday how some poor guy got killed by a cow falling into his house. I got run over by 12 charging bulls and came away with a small scrape. I’m 30 now, I’m taking stock. I’ve done skydives and bungee-jumps and as much as those controlled near death experiences show you what it is to be alive, nothing quite gets you all the way to your bones like the unpredictability and genuine risk of running with the bulls. And the luck of getting away with it.
• KAI HUMPHRIES – SHAMELESS is at the Gilded Balloon venue from 31 July – 26 August at 8.45pm. Tickets: https://www.edfringe.com/whats-on/comedy/kai-humphries-shameless