For nearly fifty years, Brooklyn-native Joe Distler has been one of Pamplona’s most ambitious bull runners. In a True exclusive, Distler reveals the roots of his taurine obsession, and the secrets of getting out in the street and in front of the herd each morning in San Fermin.
History Teacher, Veteran Bull Runner
The running of the bulls in Pamplona, also known as Las Fiestas de San Fermin, is one of the most dangerous spectacles in the world and greatest parties. The author has been gored countless times, and advises aspiring runners to be cautious, sober and fast.
I am not afraid of the bulls. When I am in the middle of the herd, I feel very safe. I feel an aura around me. I feel like I am part of the herd. The animals never feel threatened because when you are running along with them, you are part of the herd. The animals get threatened when somebody pushes them, or hits them, or touches them. That’s why we say, “Never touch the bulls.”
Let me say: the adrenaline rush is inexplicable. The five minutes before the rocket goes off, you can’t think of anything else. It’s one of the few times in my life when my mind isn’t drifting. You are thinking of nothing else but the herd coming up the hill and coming towards you.
When they do, when you see this enormous herd of wild animals and you are close to them, and you begin to run with them, and you know your life is going to be in danger with these incredible prehistoric animals, it’s exhilarating. I am nervous now, just thinking about it. I’m nervous even talking about it.
I never imagined being a bull runner. Before I came to Pamplona for the first time, I was working at an ad agency in New York, selling advertising space for the yellow pages, working fifty weeks a year. I got on the train every day like everybody else. Life was not exciting.
One day, I strolled into the Strand Bookstore and saw a book called The Swords of Spain. I started looking through it, and thought, “This is insane. To be in a street with wild bulls? Someday I have to see that. I have to watch the running of the bulls.”
The more I thought about it, the more it got in my head. That summer, I went to Pamplona. The place was magical. The Spanish people had this whole aura about them. Everybody seemed to be in a good mood, smiling, laughing. All the bars were crowded. Everybody was dancing in the streets. People were partying. They were handing bottles of wine back and forth, passing sandwiches back and forth. Guys were walking around with strings of garlic around their necks. The fiesta was just beginning, and I had never seen so many open people before. I was from Brooklyn and I was like a Brooklyn fighting kid. I had this chip on my shoulder.
I didn’t know anyone. My goal was to run one time and leave. As soon as I heard the rocket [to signal the run in the morning], I ran as fast as I could all the way up the street into the ring. I must have been the first person in the bullring. I didn’t even see a bull. And then hoards of people started running in, and I saw these bulls come in and I literally wet my pants.
I was so frightened. I tried jumping out of the ring and people were pushing me back in. I thought, “You have to be out of your mind.” These bulls were huge. Enormous animals. Once I got out of the plaza, I grabbed my backpack and hitchhiked out of town. Then, standing on the side of the road, I thought, “There has to be more to this. Maybe I’ll try one more time.”
The next day, I slept under a tree in the park. I had a towel over my head. When I got up, it was still pretty dark out and I went in the street.
“Hey, you are an American?” one kid said.
“Come with me,” he said. “We can stand at the top of the street. There’s a little alley, and the bulls come right by you. It’s a safe place to stay.”
He took me up the street and into the alley. Sure enough, I could see the bulls come up the street. I could hear them, hear the cowbells tinkling back and forth. And then these animals passed me like giant mountains in motion. The minute they passed something exploded in me. I thought, “This is unbelievable!”
So I stayed. On my third day, I saw Matt Carney walk into the street. You couldn’t miss him back then. Matt was the only foreigner that was known to be a good runner. Here he was, six four, good looking as hell, with a rose in his hand. He was smelling the rose. Matt was a very dramatic character. I thought, “Whatever he does, I will do that.”
Matt started jogging very slowly, dead center in the middle of the street. All of a sudden, I turned around. I saw the entire herd of bulls coming up the street and there was Matt Carney, very casual, jogging as if he was walking in the park. And finally, as the bulls are just about in front of me, he takes off in a tremendous burst of speed. I try to run. The bulls pass me by, and the last thing that I see is Matt Carney in front of the entire herd. He’s got the rose in his hand. I’m looking at the assess of bulls. And I say to myself, “Joseph, you have a lot to learn about bull running.”
The run changed my life forever. I left the advertising world. I started to teach. I wanted to learn about bulls. I became an aficionado. You get hooked on bulls and it’s like an obsession. There’s a whole world there. The breeding of bulls, being around people who love the bulls. Getting to see the matadors. I traveled to Europe and went back to Pamplona. I saw Matt Carney again in the street.
“Buddy,” he said, “We are going to run together.”
I learned how to run from Matt, and over the years, I’ve taught countless runners how to do it. Everybody can be on the street and they should be. If you just want to be on the street with the bulls and tell people that you ran the bulls, that’s fabulous. Anybody who goes in the street, I respect, because it’s so dangerous. But then there are people who want to really become great runners.
Being a great runner means getting as close to the bulls as possible and running “on the horns.” That’s what you want to do. That’s the great thrill: to get as close as you can and run with them as long as you can. To do that takes a tremendous amount of learning and practice. You can have one good lucky run, say, when the bull happens to be close to you. But if you do it day after day after day, luck has nothing to do with it. Look at my photos. You don’t have three hundred runs “on the horns” because you are lucky. You have three hundred runs because you have studied it. You know how to get in front of the bulls.
The first and most important thing to understand is how dangerous the bull is. If you run consistently, sooner or later you are going to get hurt. You are going to be gored or trampled or something is going to be broken. Every single runner I know has been hurt at one time or another. I have been gored four times. I’ve had a hip replacement as a result of a goring. I was hit once in the rear end with a horn. I took a horn up my back. I was close to the bull and the bull just lifted his head and I happened to be in front of him.
The worst goring took place when I was running and I knew the bull. I couldn’t speed up because there were people in front of me and the bull kept hitting me with the front of his nose, pushing me. I knew that I was going to get hit and finally the bull just threw me. I flew through the air and landed on the ground, hit my head on the curb and knocked my front tooth out.
I have been teaching people how to run for years and the one thing that you do not ever want to do is to get up once you are down. You stay down and you cover your head and you don’t move. Well, I knelt up in the street, and the bull that had hit me stopped running and everybody around the bull was standing perfectly still. The first thing he saw was me, kneeling up with my tooth in my hand. He saw movement. He went after me again, and he hit me in the back. That’s when my hip went out. That was the worst that I have ever been hit. I broke my arm too. I had my arm in a cast and my tooth was out and my lip was all swollen but I learned my lesson. You have to practice what you preach: if you hit the street, stay down and cover up.
If you want to be a great runner, you have to run in the center of the street because that’s where the bulls are going to be. A runner is considered a maestro because he has developed a running style in which he gets in front “of the horns” almost every single day. I can show you 100 photos. The same 10 people in every one. That’s not by luck.
You should also watch the runs several times. Watch how the bulls run. Watch their speed. Then get as many photographs as you can and look at the bulls. Where do they turn? Where do they separate?
Then get some feeling for the street. If you start to run, you have to find an area you feel comfortable in. Everybody feels comfortable with a different area. You may want to run ten yards. You might want to run fifty yards. But you have to find an area in the street. Everybody finds one eventually that makes them think, “I feel comfortable here. When the bulls come, I feel like I can run here.” And then you just have to start running. There is no other way than to run.
How do you know where the bulls are on the street? You can watch the flashes from the cameras. People are taking pictures of the bulls and you can see how quick the bulls are moving. That’s pretty much it.
There is no way to practice. No matter how fast you are. It takes a lot more than just speed. You have to learn to work your way to the middle of the street. You have to conquer your fear and just stay there until the bulls are on you and once they are on you, you have to just go as far as you can. You have to know also, when the bulls are catching up to you, when they are pushing you, you have to know when to get “off the horns” of the bull.
I keep a rolled up newspaper in my hand. A lot of people don’t know what that is for, but the real terrific runners know exactly. You fold it in such a way—and I take time folding mine—so that if you are isolated with a bull, in a split second you flip the paper open and you hope he goes for the movement of the paper. Just like he would with a cape.
I also rip off my sleeves. I don’t wear a sash either. The reasons are the same. People used to grab at my sash or grab at my sleeves in the run, and then I heard about a football player for the Oakland Raiders who wore a skintight jersey with no sleeves because then the other linemen couldn’t grab his sleeves or his jersey. So I cut my sleeves off, not to show my arms but so people couldn’t grab anything on me if they panicked.
You want the bulls to separate. Better yet, you want them to get isolated from the herd. You have a better chance of getting in front of a bull. For years, down on the corner, we had it down to a science where the bulls would fall around the corner and we would shoot right in front of them and take them.
If you can get directly in front of the bull, right in between his horns, you probably are in the safest place. Because they do see to the sides. However, getting in front of the bull is the problem. They want to stay in the herd. They have a herding instinct. They want to keep going.
Nobody thinks of it as a sport. But if a man runs a hundred yards in the Olympics and is considered great because he is fast, what about a man who runs a hundred yards with a 1600 kilo bull behind him? Is he not a great athlete? Of course he is. But he doesn’t get credit for it because people don’t consider it a sport. I understand that, but I have been privileged to run with great runners and these men are just marvelous athletes. They take it seriously. I stay up and go out to dinner. I dance, I sing. I do the whole bit. Most of the Basque Runners I know, the greats, they go to bed at night at 10 p.m. In the middle of Feria! Why? Because running bulls is why they are there.
You don’t do it to prove your masculinity. That is a lot of bullshit. You don’t do it to prove your bravery. You do it because it’s fun. Guys don’t race cars because they want to prove that they are macho. I don’t think guys climb mountains to prove that they are macho. They do it because intrinsically they get something out of it. They conquer their fear. They are experiencing something very few people experience.
I don’t have the legs that I had anymore. But I still know more than ninety-eight percent of the people in the street. I know I am in the top echelon. I know bulls. I know what they are like. I feel confident in the street. I can’t run the way that I used to anymore. But I am still in the street every day, out there with the animals, feeling the rush. It’s like Ernest Hemingway once said about the thrills of life, “There is nothing better than to be shot at and missed.”
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