Conyers hosts Running of the Bulls, a scene wholly unlike Pamplona

Story highlights

  • Conyers, Georgia, holds first in series of bull runs, kicking off nationwide tour
  • Event is quite unlike the Pamplona, Spain's Festival de San Fermin
  • Pamplona has pageantry, parades, bullfights; Conyers has free beef jerky
  • Pamplona vets attending the Conyers running complain bulls are pansies
Why the hell would anyone drink two liters of beer at 6 in the morning before running with wild animals through the streets of a strange city?
This was the first of many questions I posed to myself upon dusting off a journal from 1997, the year I (kind of) ran with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain.
I went looking for the journal after photographer Clint Alwahab and I were assigned to cover a rendition of Pamplona's famed Festival de San Fermin in Conyers, Georgia.
This wasn't Pamplona.
That was apparent as soon as we arrived at Conyers' Georgia International Horse Park, a far cry from Pamplona, where the "encierro" is run on a half-mile of cobblestone streets through town.
There's a good deal more pageantry in Pamplona, as you might expect, with the rockets, or txupinazo, counting down to the running, the Giants and Big Heads Parade and afternoon bullfights. Conyers had free beef jerky.
But was it ever going to measure up?
Relying on a journal from a seemingly constantly inebriated 22-year-old, I realized that outside of bulls and beer, the events are nothing alike.
Pamplona's pageantry: The Giants and Big Heads Parade.
(Author's note: Many of the revelations in the aforementioned journal were long forgotten by the writer until it was discovered in his home office last week. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are from the journal.)
The purpose
The Great Bull Run is nakedly a for-profit event. It will visit nine more cities between now and August before returning to the Atlanta area in October 2014.
To merely spectate cost $10, while running alongside the bovine herd cost anywhere between $45 and $75. Those enchanted by the experience could run again for $25.
This isn't to say Pamplona isn't a moneymaker. There just isn't a fee for anyone bold/dumb enough to get in the street with bulls, but the encierro is still a major cash cow for Pamplona (terrible pun intended).
Pamplona's infrastructure is so unequipped to handle its San Fermin visitors, which can quadruple the city's population, that makeshift shops and beer stands pop up all over town.
The hotels are booked far in advance, so my cohorts and I "walked down to the park (Vuelta del Castillo) and found a nice corner under a tree where we'd reside for the weekend." The park was packed with revelers, most of them charming, but one who "was sniffing cocaine off of a paper plate" and another "bastard who tried to pick (my pal's) pocket while we were sleeping."
Taking in all the revelry was great fun, but sleeping in the park took its toll, as washing up in a plaza fountain over a long weekend left me feeling "like I'd been dipped in mayonnaise."
But I digress. The purpose, as it were, for the festival is to honor the patron Saint Fermin. It dates back to the Middle Ages, as opposed to 2013 for Conyers, and many locals told us at the time that Fermin was killed and dragged through the streets of Pamplona by bulls.
It appears he was actually beheaded. Which also sucks.
Getting there
Traveling to Conyers involved driving 25 miles east of the city in a Saturn. Done and done.
Pamplona, however, required a hellish trek after a language barrier resulted in us showing up two hours late for the express train. The slow train took 10 hours to make the 250-mile trip from Salamanca, where I was attending school. Fortunately, it had a bar car where we imbibed Cruzcampos and Carlsbergs before returning to our train car for a siesta.
Fences separate the spectators from the bulls in Pamplona.
We continued our naps in the Castejon train station, where during a two-hour layover, I awoke to find "a guy with a Mohawk and a safety pin through his cheek who had decided to micturate on the floor of the train station."
On the last leg, we hopped a "train full of ... Spaniards who sang all the way to Pamplona," then caught a bus downtown to find "(expletives) partying like it was Dec. 31, 1999."
The bulls
The Conyers bulls were pansies. This isn't merely my observation.
Not only did they have the ends of their horns shorn off (the tips of a Pamplonan bull's horns resemble pitchforks), but they're also a good deal smaller than the Spanish species.
"More like running with goats," said a man named Frankie, laughing and beer in hand. "I think if a bull hits me, I might do more damage to him."
Glenn Gentle, 72, a retired Navy diver who has been to Pamplona eight times since 2000, told me a bull broke three of his ribs in 2004.
"I just was in the way, I guess," he said. "It's hard to escape over there."
After the Conyers run, Gentle seemed unfazed that the bridge of his nose was bloody and most of the skin was missing from one of his elbows. He said he didn't know whether a bull or the crowd ran him over -- "it was awful hard" -- but he expressed relief he'd taken a tumble on a horse track rather than Pamplona's cobblestone streets.
Still, the "adrenaline junkie" was unimpressed with the Conyers bulls' ferocity.
"In Pamplona, those bulls are bred at a special place in the south of Spain to be mean and aggressive. The bulls there will look for you and run you down," he said.
The actual running
As the bulls and their white-and-red-clad entourage galloped toward Pamplona's Plaza del Toros, the streets trembled. Wooden fences separated the bulls from spectators, and Red Cross paramedics were stationed along them to tend to injured runners.
As the bulls neared -- and I saw how big these beasts actually were -- I chickened out and sought refuge behind the fence, the crowd erupting in glee as they thundered past.
Once the bulls and runners blew by the clock tower where I was catching my breath, "I jumped the fence to find my amigos. All of a sudden, everyone screamed and darted for the fence. A wee bit dazed, I turned around to see a million-pound bull standing 20 feet from me."
The sight apparently conjured my Catholic upbringing as "I hit the wall of people like a battering ram, asking God's forgiveness for all my sins, as I desperately tried to swim over the people and the Red Cross fence."
Pamplona's run ends at the city's Plaza de Toros.
Where Pamplona's streets were narrower, offering few options for escape, the Conyers event was run on a wide, dirt track with several nooks in the steel gating.
I jogged on the fringe of the Conyers running, experiencing virtually none of the raw fear that had possessed me 16 years before. As the bulls neared, I dipped into one of the nooks and watched, amused, as the cattle passed.
The grand finale
The Conyers running was capped by an enormous tomato fight, which is reminiscent of another Spanish festival, La Tomatina in Buñol. I've never been.
They basically dumped 50,000 pounds of tomatoes in a parking lot and let attendees have at it. It was hilarious watching participants emerge, covered in seeds and red tomato excrement.
The Pamplona running happens every morning for eight days and culminates in a series of bullfights. The runners and bulls spill from Calle Estafeta into the stadium, where the bulls are corralled.
Runners scramble around the bullfighting ground tussling with smaller bulls, which were described to me as babies.
"These were NOT babies. The baby had a three-foot rack and was flipping full-grown humans through the air with ease."
After watching the spectacle for about 20 minutes or so, we left the stadium and "found a nice plot of grass in front of the stadium to take a nap. When we woke up, we made our way to one of the makeshift bars and drank Aguila."
Conversely, in Conyers, Clint and I hopped in the Saturn and drove back to Atlanta. I made it home just in time for the Auburn game. Sober.
Follow Eliott C. McLaughlin on Twitter: @CNNWriters