“So, why are you here?”
It’s a question I have been asked many times since arriving in Berlin. Before I left London the question was essentially the same, “Why are you leaving?”
Explanations often have both a short story and long story version. This is the long story of why I left a fantastic job in London to move to Berlin to found a lean startup.
Years ago when I was backpacking around Europe I visited Pamplona in Spain for the Running of the Bulls festival. The first two nights my mate and I partied all night and then watched the early morning running from the relative safety of the barricades and the upper seats of the bullring. It was thrilling, crazy, captivating and brilliant.
But we wanted more.
So on the third night, we (somewhat) wisely decided to lay off the booze to prepare ourselves to take part in the running. The ‘course’ starts filling up after dawn breaks. Thousands of runners, all decked out in white with red scarves and rolled up newspapers, bristling with nerves and anticipation. While we’d watched two runnings, we had no idea what we were doing. We didn’t know where to stand, where to start, when to run or what to do.
All we did was nervously read the morning newspaper which boasted that the bulls in today’s running were some of the biggest ever.
A shot rings out and a ripple of electricity races through the jostling crowd. We’re so naive we don’t even know if this means the gates of the bullpen are open or whether it means the last of the bulls are out and they’re running. We’re perhaps halfway down the course and the crowd starts moving, some walking, some jogging, others running, everyone looking back over the shoulders.
There are barriers on either side of the narrow street, filled with precariously balanced spectators. We are locked in. Our only choice is to keep moving forward at the pace of the crowd, throwing darting glances behind us.
It feels like we’ve only just started when I look behind me again. Everything is different. The faces are wide-eyed and people behind me aren’t jogging, they’re running hard. I break into a sprint. I’ve lost my mate and my ears are filled with muffled noise. I run hard and as the course veers slightly I can make out the bullring, where all the runners and bulls are headed, about 100metres ahead.
I’m filled with relief and the tension in my chest and throat lifts.
I look quickly around again.
Horns! Black shapes! Monstrously big. The bulls are right there. A heaving mass closing impossibly quickly. I am shocked, however ridiculous that sounds.
I have no time to think and throw myself to the barricade on the left, pressing myself up hard against the rough wooden surface. I hear the bulls rush past just a couple of metres away. A tightening sensation in my chest reminds me to breath and I suck in some oxygen as people’s cheers and shouts resonate around me.
I am OK!
I face back towards the street and am struck with an absurd dilemma. If I want to continue taking part in all this madness, I need to get into the bullring before they close it (shortly after the last bull enters). But I don’t know how many bulls have passed me. Are there still bulls, at their most dangerous when separated, somewhere behind me?
I’m unable to make a cognitive decision. But I simply find myself sprinting down towards the narrow, dangerous entrance to the bullring.
I make it inside the bullring just before the doors are closed. The arena is jam-packed with thousands of screaming spectators and hundreds of other runners who are in the actual ring.
I am awash with euphoria and relief. I even manage to find my mate and we swap stories of near misses and incidents from the run. We laugh and hug and know what we’ve done is something we’ll tell stories about for the rest of our lives.
But it doesn’t stop there.
Now starts the so-called Playing with the Bulls, where ‘smaller’ bulls (thankfully with their horns clipped) are let into the arena. It is a mark of courage for the runners to get close enough to the bulls to slap them on the rump with the rolled up newspapers. There are repeated charges, cheers from the crowd for evasive skills and near misses, but even bigger cheers when the bull manages to collect someone and send them spinning in the air.
But we’re no longer in the safety of the stands. We’re in a relatively small, contained area with hundreds of people and a scared bull.
I am way more terrified than I was during the run. We stick close to the edge of the ring in an attempt to avoid the ‘fun’.
Unfortunately there’s one particular bull, perhaps more strategic than most, who circles the perimeter between charges. I get flushed off the fence and suddenly feel horribly exposed and vulnerable.
I try to keep a close eye on the bull, difficult through all the people, and simply attempt to keep as far away as possible.
The bull cuts back in off the fence and trots on an angle away from me. I am in a little bit of space and breath a little more easily. Inexplicably the bull stops, wheels 180 degrees and catches sight of me. The couple of people nearby seem to melt away.
The bull is 10 metres away staring straight at me. It breaks into a charge. I stand rooted to the spot as the distance between us evaporates.
I know that there are thousands people in the stands going crazy. Clapping, cheering, whistling, wincing and grinning to one another as the spectacle unfolds. It’s exactly what we’d witnessed the last last two days.
But standing in the middle of the ring with the bull charging directly towards me, I hear nothing.
I watch the bull with extraordinary focus, instinctively noting its line, its shape, its speed. I’m performing some type of exquisite subconscious calculation.
I take a step to the left and transfer my weight and body position also to the left, my right hip pushed out. The bull tracks me, changes its trajectory accordingly, its head lowered, now only a metre or so away and so close I sense its power and frustration.
I step savagely off my left foot, arching towards the right, hands in the air making a C-curve of my body. The bull continues on and misses me by centimetres. And lopes off in search of another target.
The roar of the crowd suddenly fills my ears.
My heart leaps and I am awash in the perfection of a utterly aware living moment. My mate rushes over to me with wide-eyes and an almost comically shocked expression.
In the years since I have often remembered and relived the elated feeling I experienced in the seconds and minutes after that moment.
It was a sense of liberation. Liberation from expectations and cliches and rules and other people’s advice. It was a sense of raw learning (unlearning even) and hard won experience.
And so even though it’s over ten years since this day, when people ask me why I decided to quit my excellent London agency job making internet-y things for various clients in a lean startup kind of way, move to Berlin and have a crack at my own startup, I think of the Spanish proverb:
“It’s not the same to talk about bulls as to be in the bullring.”
And then I think of that day in Pamplona.
Wish me luck.