Legal Wranglings

The tradition of the Pamplona running of the bulls is coming to the United States this weekend. Denis Doyle/Getty Images

When my friend Boog and I were walking through the streets of Pamplona on our way to run with the bulls eight years ago, we discussed how one of the event's major appeals was the certain knowledge that such a thing would never, ever, under any circumstance, be allowed in the United States.

"Johnnie Cochran would have loved this event," I wrote in my account from Pamplona for ESPN's Page 2. "... Just to watch a baseball game we have to listen to a disclaimer of legal boilerplate warning about the hazards of foul balls. If a U.S. city held a bull run you wouldn't be able to even get onto the route because of all the lawyers blocking the way."

Chalk this up as just one more thing that I was dead wrong about.

Pamplona comes to America this weekend (sort of) when the first Great Bull Run will be held Saturday near Richmond, Va. The first of nine scheduled runs across the country, this first run won't be through the narrow, twisting streets of an historic Spanish city but on a quarter-mile stretch of frontage road alongside the Virginia Motorsports Park NHRA drag strip.

Ernest Hemingway won't be there to write about it for posterity, but Great Bull Run co-founder Rob Dickens said that a Hemingway impersonator did offer to show up for a fee. (They turned him down.)

The Great Bull Run series is the brainchild of Dickens and Brad Scudder, two lawyers who have run the Rugged Maniac Obstacle Races the past three years. Dickens said they came up with the idea of bringing Pamplona's famed bull run to America when they were repeatedly frustrated by their inability to get to Spain for the event because of lack of time and the high cost.

If you can't bring yourself to the bulls, why not bring the bulls to America?

"We're pretty representative guys -- most of the things we like to do, most other people like, too,'' Dickens said. "We figured if two people like us wanted to run with the bulls but couldn't make it to Pamplona, there had to be thousands of others, too.''

That makes sense, but how is such a thing possible in lawsuit-crazed America? I mean, this is the line of participants I envision Saturday: the runners sprinting ahead furiously, the bulls thundering close behind them, and then several hundred attorneys chasing them all down.

As lawyers, Dickens and Scudder know the legal issues and liabilities of holding a run in which several very large bulls chase thousands of people, at least some of whom probably had something to drink. Thus, participants must sign a waiver that is three pages of eight-point type specifying every possible hazard and risk.

"The waiver can't stop people from suing us," Dickens said, "but it will stop them from winning."

There has been roughly one death a decade -- and many more gorings -- at Pamplona's running of the bulls, but the Great Bull Run sounds like it will be significantly safer. Rather than the fighting bulls and steers with sharpened horns used in Pamplona, this run uses steers with unmodified horns and rodeo bulls. Such bulls are still menacing -- "If you've ever seen a rodeo and seen a bull toss a rodeo clown in the air, you know what they can do," Dickens said -- but they are not as aggressive. Plus, the bulls and people will be running on a dirt-covered roadway with no slick areas and no dangerous twists, turns and corners.

And yes, Dickens has heard from animal rights activists. Unlike Pamplona, where some of the bulls are killed later in the bull ring, Dickens insists they will be treated with great care to protect them from any injury during the event.

The Humane Society of the United States asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture in June to investigate the bull runs. The USDA says it will be "investigating the 'running with the bulls' activities planned in the United States to better determine, what, if any, jurisdiction we have to regulate them given the novelty of these events in the United States." The USDA also strongly encourages individuals "to educate themselves about the risks" before participating in a bull run.

Dickens said he expects 6,000 participants to run with the bulls Saturday and that the number will increase at later scheduled runs near Atlanta, Houston, Sacramento and Minnesota over the next year.

Running with the bulls in Pamplona has held an exotic and thrilling allure to Americans ever since Hemingway brought it worldwide fame. The nine-day San Fermin festival is a grand party -- Mardi Gras with bull runs each morning rather than bead-tossing women in slow parades. But what is the appeal of a bull run next to a drag strip in the United States?

"I think it's because it's an adventure and people don't have adventure in their lives anymore, as cheesy at that sounds,'' Dickens said. "They go to work, maybe work out before dinner and that's the extent of their routines. And people are looking for more than that. Even a 5K or 10K is just running down the road.''

We see this appeal in the increasingly popular mud and obstacle races. "You're running through the mud, running through streams, climbing over walls, crawling through mud and running through fires,'' Dickens said. "It's a return to primal nature. It's like being a kid again, and playing out in the mud, only not having your mother yelling at you to come inside.''

And a bull run just adds another level of adrenaline.

"A bull run is truly a dangerous event.,'' Dickens said. "It's not like a roller coaster where the danger is imagined -- it's truly dangerous. It's about people wanting to test themselves against the dangers, emerge victorious and unscathed and with a sense of accomplishment."

And, hopefully, with no lawsuits.