Are you supposed to run with the bulls or away from them?
For thousands of participants Saturday at The Great Bull Run at Hawthorne Race Course, it was a little of both.
The event, which is intended to capture the excitement and danger of the bull runs in Pamplona, Spain, drew thousands of participants slopping their way through a muddy track, all in an attempt to get up close and personal with some raging, 1,500-pound bulls.
“I’m here to have a good time, run with some bulls,” Nick Burri, of Grand Rapids, Michigan, said. “I touched one, so that is the highlight of my day.”
While most participants were wearing white T-shirts and red bandanas in a show of solidarity, Burri opted to go with a full cow costume.
“What better way to attract a bull than with a cow, right?” he said.
Prior to each run with the bulls — consisting of three waves of animals stampeding down the quarter-mile track — contestants were given some specific instructions for the highly choreographed runs.
Rob Dickens, co-founder of The Great Bull Run, stressed it’s important to stay out of the middle of the track so the bulls have a lane to run, while also looking behind you to avoid getting run over.
But most importantly, be nice to the animals.
“They can hit you all they want, I don’t care,” Dickens told the rowdy crowd before one of the runs. “That’s what you guys signed up for.”
While it was impossible to not feel a huge rush of adrenaline during each of my four runs, there was little fear I’d fall victim to the same fate as Chicago’s Bill Hillmann, who was gored last week in Pamplona.
That’s because the animals used for bullfighting and the runs in Spain have their horns filed down so they’re razor-sharp, while the bulls being used for this Americanized version have horns that are “about as dull as three knuckles,” Dickens said.
“Your real risk here is getting trampled or rammed by bulls,” he said.
On a few of the runs, it seemed like a solid risk. Right out of the gate, you hear the hooves hitting the ground in rapid-fire succession, followed by a swarm of people screaming, running and swinging their arms wildly.
I knew that all it would take was one misstep, one slip in the thick, soupy mud, and odds are I’m doing a face-plant, with charging bulls heading my way. And on one run, as I looked back, a bull took a slight step away from the group, heading right toward me.
What did I do? I took a disappointing step toward the gate on the side of the track. Natural instinct, I guess.
Luckily I, along with almost every other contestant, escaped unscathed.
You definitely don’t want to be on the ground when one of these fellas comes charging down the course. But don’t worry, Dickens told participants that if they did fall, stay low, because then the bull “would most likely” just jump over them. | Peter Holderness / Sun-Times
“To be honest, we had fewer injuries than I expected,” Dickens said. “I think I only saw two or three people get hammered by the bulls, which is about half of what we usually get.”
Many people, including Tom Dalton, of Lemont, came prepared for anything. In addition to the Dick Butkus jersey, he also wore a helmet emblazoned with a Chicago Bears logo and some boxing gloves, just for good measure.
“This is my second time,” he said after one of the early afternoon runs. “It was just as crazy as the first.”
But he did not take the bull by the horns.
“I didn’t grab the horns or ride them, but you gotta draw the line somewhere,” Dalton said.
Dalton and I weren’t the only ones doing more than one run. Dickens estimates approximately 40 percent of the runners opt for an encore. And really, there’s good reason to, because with each run, you can come up with a better strategy.
Believe it or not, there is strategy when it comes to coming dangerously close to a bull charging at 30 mph.
And here’s where you’ll want to take some notes, in the event you’re doing the run next year, which Dickens said will return to Chicago.
For example, after two runs, I figured out you’re better off to line up closer to the gate the bulls are coming out of. As they charge down the course, people run after them, which naturally thins out the crowd at the back while creating a mass of people farther down the track.
By the time the third wave of bulls was released, I was only about a third of the way up the track doing exactly what the event pitches — running with the bulls — instead of getting knocked around by everything except a bull.