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Bullish on life

July 08, 2006

SOME PEOPLE RUN MARATHONS when they turn 60, or climb a mountain, or give up caffeine. But here's a thought: How about Pamplona? Contrary to popular belief, not everyone who runs with the bulls is young, male, drunk and stupid. Some of them aren't so young.

President Bush could have spent his birthday weekend running with the bulls -- the nine-day Festival of San Fermin started Thursday, and the running kicked off the next day. Although many might think of the event as merely a beneficial way to weed the human gene pool of unworthy specimens, it is more than that. To Ernest Hemingway, the whole thing was somehow tied up with male virility, at least if we're remembering our high school American-lit assignments correctly. But it's more than that too. It also is a way for people of a certain age to do something extraordinary before their last roundup.

"I've tried anything in my many years, but there's nothing like running with the bulls," said Don Smith, a photographer for the Record in Bergen, N.J., who was 62 the first time he dodged horns in the bull run in 1999 -- and who plans to do it again next year after he's turned 70. Smith says that the last time he fled the beef, in 2003, he was accompanied by a 75-year-old friend.

Running with the bulls was an extreme sport before anybody had ever heard of snowboarding, serving both to get the animals to the ring before the festival's bullfights and to allow folks to demonstrate their toreador-like courage by stumbling away from them in a panicked rush. Unlike other extreme sports such as paragliding or skating down giant ramps, where participants stay alert so as to avert death or injury, the aim of many bull runners is to impede their own reflexes and decrease their odds of survival by getting as drunk as possible beforehand. In Spain, this is known as cerebros del burro, or "brains of the jackass."

Yet the devil-may-care attitude might help explain the sport's attraction for older runners. Smith, who disdains those who drink before stepping into the bull run, points out that if a young person gets gored or trampled by a bull, the injuries could mess up his whole life, but with someone his age, it would only mar whatever years he has remaining. "That's the great thing about it -- how much more time have I got left anyway?" he said.

Then again, runners like Smith are almost certainly more sober and thoughtful than the average. As Hemingway famously wrote about the Festival of San Fermin in "The Sun Also Rises": "It seemed out of place to think of consequences during the fiesta." Pass the sangria and strap on the Nikes.

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