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It’s no Pamplona, Spain, but the Great Bull Run will thunder into Virginia

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 14, 2013

You could shell out thousands of dollars for a flight to Spain and a hotel room in the historic city of Pamplona, fight your way through the maze of mid-July crowds and wait hours to sprint along the cobblestones for mere seconds of pounding adrenaline as 12 bulls gallop alongside you.

Or you could make the short trip to Petersburg, Va., this summer and take a chance in the inaugural Great Bull Run — the brainchild of a Boston entrepreneur who plans to replicate the thrilling and dangerous running of the bulls in Virginia as the first stop in a series of events in cities across the country.

But don't worry. In the 103 years on record at the Spanish San Fermin festival that made the bull run famous, only 15 people have died. Hundreds, though, are injured every year — mostly cuts and bruises from falls.

"We certainly don't hope for any injuries, but we do expect injuries to occur," said Rob Dickens, the mind behind the Great Bull Run. "Until recently, all we had were marathons, 5ks, triathlons. You can run down the street anytime. People want more than that. They're doing things that involve more contact with the environment."

A 1,500-pound animal running next to you is about as close to your surroundings as you can get, which is one reason why the century-old tradition consistently entices thousands of participants each year.

The running of the bulls is a focal point of the weeklong festival in Pamplona, which celebrates one of the city's patron saints. Twelve bulls are unleashed each day from July 7 to 14. Runners cram themselves into the narrow stone streets of the city, while spectators pack small balconies overhead.

"The course is generally bound by buildings, and the runners really have nowhere to go," Mr. Dickens said. "We're building slat fencing and nooks along the way to duck in to let the bulls pass by."

Mr. Dickens helped start Rugged Races, a Boston-based company that specializes in the obstacle racing that has become popular across the country.

"Through that experience, I started to think about what other types of events we could do," he said. "It just so happened a friend of mine invited me to go run with the bulls. It's something I've always wanted to do, but finding people in the U.S. to go with it, it really was impossible."

Mr. Dickens said about 1,000 people have signed up so far for the Virginia race in August. Participants pay a registration fee of $55, and spectators pay $10. All participants are required to sign a waiver of liability.

In coming months, he plans to hold similar races in cities including Dallas, Chicago, Houston and Atlanta.

To ensure runners get the most risk for their money, the bull run at Virginia Motorsports Park has been split into eight hourly runs. Each run has two waves of six bulls that will be released about 15 seconds apart.

The bulls for the Virginia race will come from a ranch in Kentucky. About 60 were ordered, Mr. Dickens said, so that the animals aren't running all day.

Unlike the fighting bulls released in Spain with their horns sharpened, the bulls selected for the runs will have blunted horns.

"They've been blunted but not chopped off," Mr. Dickens said.

The bulls in Spain meet a gruesome death at the hands of matadors. No bullfighting is planned in Petersburg, though. Instead, runners and spectators can join a giant tomato fight like the popular La Tomatina festival each August near Valencia, Spain, about five hours from Pamplona.

The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has sent a letter to the owner of the Little Everglades Ranch in Florida, where a bull run is scheduled for February, asking her to cancel the event because while "the human participants are warned of the very real danger, the bulls are not able to opt out."

Voluntarily acting as a moving target for a 1,500-pound horned animal might be dangerous, but Cindy Ackrill, a physician and board member for the American Institute of Stress, said that need for adrenaline is common.

"It's human nature that we keep pushing limits," she said. "There's an excitement to seeing what our full potential is."

Setting a dozen bulls loose in a crowd of people is high on a scale of excitement, and it's not without risks. Mr. Dickens did not elaborate on the insurance policy required for the race.

Rick Lindsey, president of the Utah-based Prime Insurance Co., said a policy for a year's worth of the type of rugged obstacle races that have become popular might cost from $15,000 to $20,000, while rodeo insurance might run from $10,000 to $20,000 for an annual contract.

"It depends on what events they have, how they construct the course, and what types of safety measures are in place," Mr. Lindsey said. "The biggest factor is how many participants, but it's all basic common sense and good, fundamental business practices."

Although the Great Bull Run might be the first of its kind for Virginia, adrenaline junkies out West have been running with bulls for the past 15 years.

Phil Immordino got the idea for the Running of the Bulls USA in 1997 while helping to promote a rodeo tour in Southern California.

"I suggested we let the bulls go in the street and then thought, well let's put up fencing and let the bulls run down the street," Mr. Immordino said. "Just the fact we were thinking about it got us on the front page of the news. It was so unique and different."

The race was a success, and aside from a few venue changes and a hiatus after Sept. 11, 2001, the run has been going strong. In the past two years, it has been held in Cave Creek, Ariz.

"In 2012, I found the biggest, baddest, meanest, ugliest bulls. They sent three people to the hospital," he said. "But we've never had anybody sue us. Runners sign an in-depth waiver. They know what they're getting into."

Similar to what Mr. Dickens is planning, the Running of the Bulls USA has escape routes throughout the fencing, as well as on-site emergency personnel. Professional bull handlers run with the crowd to help any runners who are stuck in a jam or end up facing off against a bull.

"About 80 percent of the runners are locals and about 20 percent are people from around the country," Mr. Immordino said. "It's adrenaline junkies, people looking for a thrill, people who want something to do, people who can't afford to go to Spain. It's a full range of kids right out of college and guys going through midlife crises."

Dr. Ackrill said the popularity of these races stems from the desire to experience what she called the "rush of being alive."

For Mr. Dickens, it was inevitable.

"This isn't a new trend, it's not really a trend at all," Mr. Dickens said. "This is an evolution of activities."

NOTE: An earlier version of this report misidentified the location of the race. The error has been corrected.

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