10 years and still running for Strathmore Running With The Bulls 0
Jessica Burtnick Multimedia Journalist The 10th annual Running With The Bulls was a sold-out affair for participants. Night one saw Justin Bartelen of Lyalta and Duane Mitchell of Quebec City each get $1,000 with Prairies Edge developer and judge Brett Wilson pitching extra for the tie. While Matthew Kennedy of Airdrie won night two. "I thought I lost when I got hit," he said. "But I guess I won."
It is 5:45 p.m. on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon when the throng begins to assemble on the final day of the 10th anniversary edition of the Strathmore Stampede's signature event, Running With The Bulls.
80 brave, some say crazy, souls stretch out at the northeast end of the Strathmore Agricultural Society's rodeo grandstand waiting for their shot at the adrenaline rush of a life time and $1,000.
A guy walks into a rodeo office and says, "I think we're going to run with the bulls."
Other guy says, "What do you mean?"
First guy says, "We're going to run bulls down Main Street like in Pamplona."
Everybody laughs, "Good one."
13 or so years later the first guy, Jim Cammaert, is the one laughing.
It took three years to get the event off the ground the first time, and still never reached the original idea, but Cammaert's idea is now the cornerstone of a well-rounded unique event, the likes of which isn't to be seen outside of Pamplona, Spain.
"We were looking for ways to attract people and, being in the entertainment industry I knew that your best advertisement was to get a picture on the front page of the paper," says Cammaert who was Director of Advertising and Promotions with the Strathmore Agricultural Society at the time and is currently the interim General Manager. "The picture is everything in my mind. Without the picture you don't get the front page, you get page 7 on the bottom."
His eureka moment came, as many do these days, while driving.
"I remember driving my truck out and I just got to the end of the road out of the Ag Society office and it hit me 'Running with the Bulls'. So I wheeled around, flew back into the office and I said 'I think we're going to run with the bulls."
It would be another three years before the insurance would be in place in time for the event. Even then it was a close call. Moving it to the Agricultural grounds was the eventual solution.
Rodeo and Chuckwagon Chairman Pascal Del Guercio, who along with Grant Klaiber and Cammaert put in much of the legwork in getting the event going, had a deadline on the insurance of two weeks before the event. It came in exactly on deadline.
Shortly thereafter Cammaert had his front page, a bull's head on the front of the Calgary Sun.
"The media took it like we'd baited the hook," says Cammaert. "I was doing a bull-riding event with Cody Snyder in Salt Lake City, I'd given it to a reporter I knew, and when it hit the paper my phone rang off the hook."
Cammaert's cell-phone bill was $750 that month, but he wasn't complaining.
The idea wasn't without controversy in its infancy. Backlash and backlash-to-the-backlash were both evident in the pages of the Standard.
"I sincerely hope that town council reconsiders hosting the running of the bulls, especially on Main Street. Otherwise, what's next. gladiator fighting at the Civic Centre and cock fighting at Kinsmen Park," Jennifer Keeling wrote in a letter to the editor in the July 24, 2003 edition of the Standard.
Others argued the inhumanity towards the bulls, or used the topic to drum up interested parties for their own activities. Still others were in favour, "What do you care if someone else wants to pay money to run with the bulls?" asked Dave J.R. Gallo in the July 31 edition.
The first edition went ahead nonetheless and while it never ended up on Main Street there is no end in sight.
"I knew it would work," says Bob Tallman, legendary rodeo announcer who has been calling the bulls all 10 years. ""You can't do this kind of thing in Calgary. You've got 110,000 people on the grounds and trying to organize this kind of thing just wouldn't work. In a small-town you can do it and it has quite a wide-range effect on the economic impact of the city."
"People today don't really get up close and personal with extreme things, this isn't really an extreme thing but a unique thing, but it seems extreme." -Bob Tallman, announcer
Spectators trickle in on the evening of the 10th year's second showing, as the impending moment of danger approaches, but for the most part the seats are already full. As they always have been since its inception.
"I can remember riding my horse back and forth (the first year in 2003) just watching the gates. There were thousands of people lined up. We were supposed to start it at 6 p.m. and there was no way in the world we were going to start it with all these people waiting to pay to come in. We had over 9,000 people that first night," says Del Guercio.
That first event started 45 minutes late, and pushed back all of the evening's lineup, as the organizers were overwhelmed by the response.
The throng of cars lined up on Wheatland Trail from the parking lot all the way to Highway 1 and it wasn't just a one-time fascination.
"Every time somebody got bucked by a bull or kicked by a bull, the crowd got bigger," says Strathmore Mayor Steve Grajczyk, who was involved in the Agricultural Society at the time and has been to every event since its inception.
It hasn't always trickled into the rest of the show though.
"Sadly enough after the event is done and we move into the chuckwagons, several hundred just leave. They just came to see that," says Del Guercio.
"I've got a couple broken ribs, but I'll live," -David Perehudoff, 2007 winner
One expects tension among the waiting competitors but thanks mostly to the open-air unfenced staging area it's more an air of excitement. There is no waiting in the tunnel hearing the thunderous applause and excitement of the crowd. The contestants are in it beginning to end.
The 2012 group is primarily outfitted in the pink t-shirts given to signify their pending headlong plunge into the unknown. But, as there always is at Running With The Bulls, there are a scattering of people in various stages of undress. A rolled up t-shirt here, guys in pink booty shorts there and a 55-year-old grandmother in a cow outfit.
Men seem to be the crazier dressers. One young man sticks out like a broken thumb in a sea of enlarged sore thumbs, with his cardboard Pilsner hat, Pilsner flag and underwear ensemble.
The undeniable sounds of machismo ooze from the men's mouths.. "I'm going to punch one right in the face, bam," one young man exclaims to his friends as he proceeds to demonstrate the tactic, he of course won't.
There is a smattering of about 14 women, more than usual, on this day but their bravado is tempered.
Running With The Bulls isn't a team event, but it might as well be. It's clear that the vast majority of runners are here with a group of friends. They mingle and try to quell the nervousness or excitement, the line between the two is often blurry, with small talk, machismo and cigarettes for those who are inclined.
This year's participants aren't alone in their unflinching bravery, and crazy costume choices. Many before have doffed their pants in favour of Speedos or otherwise
"A cowboy is distinct to the rodeo, you can tell the real ones from the wannabes," says Cammaert. "Then you see the kids coming to run with the bulls and they're wearing shorts and sandals or some sort of getup, you know who they are."
While the clothing catches the eye first really it's the stories that are most interesting.
In 2007 local developer David Perehudoff won the event and, in the words of the Standard's headline, "one-up(ped) Adam, sacrifice(ed) two ribs." After being treated by EMS and then being awarded the $1,000 top prize he promptly donated it to breast cancer research. According to him it was the plan all along
Just last year James Grantis of St. Catherines, Ont. put his money to good use. Grantis was travelling through Alberta with a group of friends when the transmission broke on his 1979 GMC Vanguard camper. Upon seeing the sign for Running With The Bulls he entered on a whim, hoping to pay for the transmission.
Judging for the event is based on creativity, but it's not an exact science and generally people who get hurt not of their own accord seem to have the best chance.
"The longer they do this, the longer it goes on, I could be wrong, but I think it's only a matter of time until we get a serious life-threatening injury or die," - Kevin Link, Wheatland EMS
Security personnel, bylaw and peace officers walk through the crowds interacting with the participants no doubt in an effort to gauge whether any are intoxicated, a serious no-no for the event.
Friends not running in the event slowly disperse to their seating doling out the most redundant of advice, "Don't die, eh!"
While it may seem like an obvious statement that doesn't mean it isn't top of mind for emergency personnel.
"There are a lot of people out there, there's always a potential for a large incident. Thankfully that hasn't happened yet," says Kevin Link with Wheatland EMS. Link was at the first event and his missed only one since.
"The first, probably, three years we were more expecting something bad. Not that we don't prepare for something bad now. I think we've realized that while it's a dangerous event the Ag Society doesn't want people to get injured so they don't put bulls out there that are purposefully going to try and kill people. They want to keep the public safe."
Even 10-year vets are still on edge about the possibility of drastic consequences.
"I'm scared every year," says Grajczyk. "We know it's a fun thing, but there is always a big danger in Running With The Bulls."
The biggest concern for EMS is the number of people involved at once.
"With Running With the Bulls multiple injuries are possible," says Link. "Knowing the potential (danger) we put all our resources there. They're not committed to the rodeo, should a call come in unfortunately they'd have to leave. We also rely on the town to provide us with extra manpower in the fire department and first responders."
Another challenge, which is the same with other rodeo events, is the immediacy of the treatment.
"It makes it somewhat easier because you don't need to get the history. What makes it more difficult is that when we go to a scene and someone's knocked out it's considered life threatening. But when people are knocked out it can take a minute or two for them to wake up so the question is how aggressively do you treat the patients, because they haven't had the opportunity to gain consciousness," says Link.
Running With The Bulls has never had a serious, life-threatening injury, but every year there are broken bones to deal with. Link says the most ever is about four injured people in a night.
"We're looking for courageousness, not stupidity." - Bob Tallman, announcer
Finally, around 6:20, the announcement is made that the event is five minutes away, the pre-bull motocross show now over. The pink throng inches closer to the gate, one man in a cowboy hat yells "I get the $1,000. I get the beer."
The time has finally arrived to enter the arena and the group burst through upon the opening of the gate. Hooting and hollering, waving hats, cowboy and otherwise, soaking in the adulation of the crowd.
The bulls come out in three separate groups, with the oldest, rankest coming pair coming out last. The formula was arrived at after years of trial.
"Bulls, like any herd animal, feel safer in a group so they don't break away and do much," says the Strathmore Stampede Rodeo and Chuckwagon Chairman Pascal Del Guercio. "As we've gone to smaller numbers, and then separate one or two of those animals, we can almost guarantee we'll get some action."
When they let the bulls loose much of the bravery from before the event is tempered with participants quick to jump to the safety of a nearby fence. Can you blame them? There are a few standoffs but on this night there are no serious injuries, although night winner Matthew Kennedy of Airdrie took a good lick.
Justin Bartelen of Lyalta and Duane Mitchell of Quebec City also added their names to the history books the night before.
"I respect the hell out of those kids," says Cammaert. "They have a lot of courage to go out and do that, especially because they have no idea what they're doing."
Courageous? Sure. Crazy? Maybe. Entertaining? Always.