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The Iron Man of Pamplona

FOR THREE SEASONS of each year, Joe Distler resembles a few million other New Yorkers, riding the subway to and from work, anonymous. But every summer in Spain, he’s transformed. There he is celebrated for his skill and courage during the Fiesta de San Fermín, when men and women run with enraged bulls through the narrow cobblestone streets of Pamplona.

"Craziness done by crazy people," is how my Madrid cabdriver characterized the fiesta, but he immediately recognized Distler from my brief description: an American who has been running in Pamplona for 31 years. "Oh yes, he is very famous," said the cabbie. "There are many stories about him."

Every morning at eight during the weeklong fiesta, six fighting bulls escorted by an equal number of steers stampede through Pamplona. Distler, a six-foot, graying 55-year-old with the rolling gait of an ex-ballplayer, hasn’t missed a single day’s running in 31 years. No Spaniard has ever come close to that, or is likely to. He is the Cal Ripkin of corredores—bull-runners. In 1995, when Cambio, the Time magazine of Spain, named the fiesta’s five greatest living runners, the list included four Basques and Distler. He is feted by the mayor of Pamplona, interviewed often, and featured on posters and postcards about the fiesta.

For Distler, the real honor seems to be that Basque runners have embraced him as an equal. Among Pamplona’s many social clubs, called peñas, is one called Anaitasuna. It’s known as the runners’ peña, and only three foreigners have ever been invited to join: the legendary Irish-American runner Matt Carney; Gerry Dawes, an American aficionado of Rioja wine, and Distler. Most runners in Pamplona wear red scarves, or pañuelos. Distler calls his Anaitasuna scarf the equivalent of a Super Bowl ring.

After each day’s run, or encierro, the aide stations along the route treat cuts, scrapes, and bruises, most of them caused by tumbling onto the stone streets, either from clumsiness or from getting knocked down and trampled by panicky runners. The hospitals take care of each day’s broken bones, cracked skulls, and, on bad days, gorings. In a typical year, ten or twelve people are gored. Since 1924 bulls have killed thirteen runners.

You can’t tempt injury and death more than 200 times, as Distler has, and remain unscathed. He’s had his share of cuts and bruises, and has been gored three times. Once he took a horn in the buttock (and a lot of ribbing). Another time he got it in the lower back. Both times he got patched up and ran the next day.

The third and worst injury happened in 1993. Such things tend to stay fresh in the memory, and Distler tells it well: "The bull was bumping me in the back," he says, "not trying to hurt me—bulls are herd animals, and he felt safe with me right in front—but he wanted to go faster, and the people in front of me were too slow. His horns were brushing under both of my armpits. I also had another bull on one side of me and people on the other, so I knew something was going to happen because I had no place to go."

The bull threw him with its nose, and he landed with his face smashed against the curb. He looks chagrined: "I always tell people, if you get knocked down, don’t move. It’s the first rule." Many of the serious gorings and deaths occur when someone falls and jumps back up, attracting the bull’s attention. That’s how a young American got killed in 1995, the most recent fatality.

"Well, I put my hand up to my mouth and my tooth fell out," continues Distler. "I got up on my knees and said, ‘My tooth!’ because I’m vain. The bull had stopped and was scanning"—he mimics this slow oscillation—"and the first movement he saw was this jerk sitting up holding his tooth. Boom! I don’t know the exact sequence of injuries."

When the bull finished with him, Distler had a broken arm, three broken ribs, a dislocated hip, and his back had been ripped open by a horn. The doctors set his arm, snapped his hip back in, and sewed up the wound, leaving a 12-inch scar. The next day he was back on the street, hobbling with the bulls.

A natural question at this point is, Why? Machismo? Certainly. Thrill-seeking? Absolutely. Perhaps a touch of dementia? Let’s just say that bull-running isn’t for everyone.

But none of these explanations gets to the heart of it—to Distler’s heart. It sounds corny, but at bottom he runs for love—love for the bulls, for the fiesta, for the friendships formed with other runners, and for the long tradition of the running itself. They all connect him to things old and deep, and they changed his life.

HE GREW UP tough in Brooklyn and remained a brawler into his young manhood, sometimes in the boxing ring but more often in bars. In high school he ran track and played baseball and basketball. After college at St. John’s, he settled down a bit, went into advertising, and did well. One day he happened to pick up Robert Daley’s The Swords of Spain, with its pictures of bullfights and Pamplona’s encierro. He thought, "I get on the subway, I come home and watch TV, and there are guys in Spain running with bulls in the street. That’s what I have to do.”

He went to Pamplona in 1967, at the age of 22. On his first run the bulls scared him so thoroughly that he charged into the ring and dove over the wall. Then he heard about a great runner, an expatriate Irish American living in Paris named Matt Carney, who always ran with a huge smile, as if there was no better place on Earth than the middle of a pack of dangerous beasts. Distler thought, "I’m fast and I have a lot of nerve, and he’s 20 years older. I’ll just do whatever he does."

The next day he lurked near Carney. The bulls came charging up the street, 30 yards away, then 20, but Carney still ran casually, as if he were jogging in the park. Dister’s heart thumped wildly. When the bulls were ten yards away, Carney broke into a sprint and was suddenly yards ahead of Distler, taking the bulls into the ring.

Distler realized that speed and nerve were just a beginning. He also noticed that the good runners didn’t treat the encierro as a race or a competition. Instead, camaraderie reigned. In the cafés afterward, their first words were always, "How was your run?" or "I saw you—good run." Never "Did you see me?" or "I ran better than Carney." Nor did they shove other runners to gain position or save themselves. Their goal was to run "noble y bravo," close to the bulls. Carney had noticed Distler running that way, and bestowed upon him a breezy, "Good run, kid," which went through Distler like an electric charge. "It was like having Willie Mays say, ‘Nice catch,’ " he says.

That winter Distler studied photos of the route, noting where a bull was more likely to slip or turn wide, and the mistakes made by panicked or stupid runners. He saw how the great runners placed themselves in the middle of the street, right in front of the bulls—a position known as "running on the horns." He wrote letters full of questions to Carney. Carney recognized a kindred spirit and began passing on the lore and meaning of Sanfermines, grooming Distler to become the next great American runner. They would be close friends until Carney’s death in 1987.

"Matt taught me how to live in a way I could never imagine," he says. "A kid from Brooklyn. Here was a guy living in Paris, running the bulls in Pamplona. I thought, ‘I want a life like that.’"

By age 28, Distler was an advertising hotshot making $91,000 a year, a lot of money in 1971. But he had a bad case of Pamplonitis. He quit his job and gamboled about Europe for a summer. Back home, he started teaching English at a high school on Long Island. When he opened his first paycheck, he laughed out loud. It was roughly what he used to spend on lunch, and added up to an annual salary of $12,500. But he was happy, because he could spend summers in Europe and run with the bulls in July. He also began graduate work at St. John’s and ultimately earned a doctorate, with a thesis on independent women in the works of Henry James.

In 1979, he and a partner took a gamble by opening a café in a rundown area of Manhattan called TriBeCa. Distler named the place Riverrun, after the first word in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. TriBeCa got hot, the café prospered, and he opened three more lounges. He also started teaching at a private school in Manhattan, the Lycée Francais, and as an adjunct at Manhattan Community College. He arranged it all so that he still had Pamplona and summers in Europe, with side trips every year to places such as Thailand and Morocco. One year he spent the entire summer running with the bulls in fiestas throughout the Basque country. By the early ‘80s he owned a flat in old Pamplona.

He had built the life that Carney helped him imagine. The sun at its center was the fiesta every July 6-14.

THE INCOMPARABLE weeklong revelry of Sanfermines pauses every morning for the encierro. Around 6:30 a.m. most of the bars turn off their booming stereos, hustle the dancers into the street, and begin to clean up the mayhem left by another all-night party. The runners begin to gather at about 7. Most wear the fiesta’s traditional uniform—white pants and white shirt, spotted with wine and accented by the red pañuelo and waist-sash. Distler’s variation is a red T-shirt and red sneakers. He also wears red sweatbands on his hands and wrists as protection against the cobblestones. Some longtime runners wear pads on their knees.

Most of the runners haven’t given any thought to such cautions. They are young, running as a lark. Many have been up all night and are jangling with wine and adrenaline. Distler, as usual, went to bed early—about 2 a.m.—and slept fitfully, agitated by nerves and phantom bulls. He rose at 6:30 to stretch and visualize his run. The question in his head, he says, is always the same: "Will I have the courage?"

Though the police no longer pull women off the run, 99 percent of the corredores—usually estimated at between 1,000 and 3,000—are male. Many carry rolled-up newspapers, the only weapon allowed against the animals. The veterans already have read about today’s bulls, to see if any of them are brown or red and could be mistaken for a steer instead of a wild beast. They sip coffee or hot chicken broth or the last of the night’s wine. Some laugh with friends. A few, like Distler, are silent and focused, rebuffing conversation.

Meanwhile the police are ejecting loiterers, doorway-sleepers, and groggy drunks from the three-quarter-mile course, and erecting heavy wooden barriers at the cross-streets, which are packed with spectators, as are the balconies above the streets where men and bulls will run. Street cleaners sweep up garbage and broken glass.

By 7:45 a.m., the runners are jammed shoulder to shoulder in the city hall plaza, penned in like the bulls 300 yards below. Eyes flick constantly at the clock on the municipal tower. Friends exchange hearty embraces and say, "Suerte"—good luck. A few minutes before 8 a.m., the police release the surging crowd. The veterans walk or jog to their favorite positions to await the bulls. A handful sprint all the way to the ring, arriving long before the bulls; the Spaniards dryly call these "los valientes"—the brave ones.

At exactly 8 a.m., a rocket booms overhead, signaling the release of the bulls. Distler has claimed his spot on Mercaderes, where the route bends almost 90 degrees into a long, narrow street named Estafeta. Most runners avoid this corner because of what Distler’s Pamplona friend Chema Esparza calls "the violence of the moment." At Mercaderes the bulls are running hard and often can’t make the turn, sliding on the slippery cobblestones or smashing into the wooden barrier that forces them to turn up Estafeta. Aside from the frightening prospect of being crushed by 1,200 pounds of fishtailing horn and muscle, these corner collisions can splinter the herd, which means danger. But to Distler, the splintering means a chance to jump into the middle of the bulls.

For the first 25 years of running—when he was younger and faster—Distler would begin at the top of Estafeta and run on the horns for 200 or 300 yards, often taking the bulls into the ring. But the hip dislocated by the bull in 1993 turned arthritic, leaving him slow, limpy, and unhappy with his running. So he moved down to the corner at Mercaderes, asked Esparza for pointers, and waited for collisions and openings. Two winters ago he had hip-replacement surgery so he could run without pain, and now he’s eager to test the hip. He feels better than he has in years.

He stands in a nervous crouch, shifting his weight from foot to foot, breathing in shallow puffs and looking anxiously down the street to where the bulls will soon appear. Certain signs precede them—first, the popping flashbulbs from the balconies and a distant roar of voices, then a few ripples of commotion as the first runners race by, followed immediately by a virtual tsunami of panic, noise, and tumult.

Distler is prancing now, trying to keep his footing and position as the wave of runners roars past, and then suddenly the bulls appear, huge and black, skidding and clattering toward the barrier.

Now! Distler launches himself among them as they recover their footing, and sprints around the corner, inches ahead of a horn. He runs with the bulls for 30 yards—50 on good days—before they pass him. That afternoon he will sit in the ring, second row, to watch them fight and die, knowing that all of them had a chance to kill him this morning. His third passion, along with running and literature, is the bullfight.

But right now, exhilarated by the run, it’s time for thick hot chocolate or brandy at the Bar Txoco, time to bask in the camaraderie and conversation and admiration of other runners, and then to eat a big breakfast washed down by good Spanish wine. After a short nap it will be time to wander around the cafés again, to drink and trade stories with friends, all of it made more vivid by the afterglow of the run.

This is the life he has built.

ERNEST HEMINGWAY made the fiesta famous in The Sun Also Rises and came here often, but evidently never ran—ironic, since his novel has inspired so many to do so. Veteran runners complain that the swarms of young Americans, Australians, and Europeans have overwhelmed the encierro in recent years and have become the most worrisome element in it. The odds of getting knocked down and trampled are now far greater than the odds of getting gored. Worse, the amateur hordes muck things up for the good runners—too many bodies in too tight a space. "Ninety-five percent of them are out for a lark," says Distler, "three percent know how to run but not well, and two percent are maestros." The one-timers also have pushed the run to the verge of cliché—just another been-there-done-that stunt to hang from one’s belt.

Distler and a few other runners are living rebukes to all this, emblems of a tradition hundreds of years old. Many of his running friends, Spanish and American, have done the encierro for 10, 15, 20 years. All of them have shed blood here, and their bond is palpable. The runner whom Distler calls "God," an intense and powerfully built Basque named Julen Madina, says, "We respect the grand Americans who come here every year and follow the traditions. For me, Joe is one of the best runners, an aficionado who understands everything about the fiesta." When he calls Distler "big brother," Distler’s face lights up.

A major company once offered Distler $10,000 to wear its sneakers during the run. He refused. He also turned down $2,000 per day to be Billy Crystal’s stand-in in City Slickers, which had a Pamplona scene.

"If I had taken that money," he says, "the guys I respect most in the world wouldn’t look at me. These are some of the greatest athletes in the world, and they do it because they want to, not for money. If they get hurt, they pay their own hospital bills. It’s unique in sport."

When summer ends, Distler returns home, to all appearances a typical citizen. "In New York, I live a normal life," he says. "But in Spain, I live an insane life for five minutes every day for eight days—and I can live on that emotion in New York for a year. My God! There’s no high like it."

©Steve Kemper. All rights reserved. Cannot be reproduced without consent of the author.

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