Tag Archives: festivals

Thrill seekers converge at Running of the Bulls

The smell of sangria and cigarette smoke clings to the 7:30 a.m. air. It’s persistent, much like the lively crowd of revelers, adorned head to toe in white and red, vying for the best seats in the arena.

If their shirts splattered with the red Spanish cocktail are of any fortuitous and symbolic indication, there will be blood — just how much and whose, there’s no telling.

It’s July 10 and just as in the past eight centuries, hundreds of people will risk their lives for the thrill of feeling six bulls’ hot breath against their backs — and some ridiculous bragging rights.

The Fiesta de San Fermín is best known for its gory morning spectacle, El Encierro or Running of the Bulls. The event takes place every year from July 6 to 14 in Pamplona, Spain.

Though a long-established local tradition, it was author Ernest Hemingway who helped the festival gain international recognition with his depiction of the event in his book “The Sun Also Rises.” He wrote that he enjoyed watching two wild animals running together at once, one with two legs, the other on four.

To run with the bulls is the ultimate bucket list item that few are brave enough — or reckless, depending on your take — to cross off.

July 9

Of all the festivals I’m attending this summer, Fiesta de San Fermín has received the most hype.

Mom says our health insurance plan doesn’t cover stupidity. If the bulls don’t kill me, she will. Dad says he’d join me for a brisk, little run in northern Spain if he had the time and money.

As someone who has auditioned for “American Idol” on a dare and gotten into a pit with a 13-foot alligator, I am my thrill-junkie father’s daughter. But then again, I’m in Pamplona by myself with no one nearby who loves me enough to drop off a “Get well soon” balloon. That’s kind of sad.

My mind is telling me no, but my feet, my feet, are telling me “yes.” (Read to the tune of R. Kelly’s “Bump ‘N Grind” as that it is how it was written. You’re welcome.)

While on the bus to the campsite I’ll be staying at during the festivities, a tour guide has a few sobering words of warning.

“It’s not a matter of being heroes. It’s a matter of getting in the stadium and just finishing it,” he says.

This, of course, comes from a man who has run once himself. But no one who makes a pilgrimage to Pamplona simply goes for the heck of it. Ask anyone around here, local or tourist, and they’ve at least toyed with the idea.

For some, those who have dived off cliffs and swum with sharks, the decision is as natural as deciding what cereal to eat for breakfast.

For others, myself included, there are much weightier questions to consider: Do overpronated feet excuse me from the Running of the Bulls like it once excluded men from military service during World War II? Is risking my life worth the street cred? Do I want to be buried or cremated? Have I ever heard of the Book of Mormon? Do I know where I’ll spend eternity?

No matter how acquainted you are with the half-mile course, which starts near the river and ends in the center of the city at the bullfighting arena, there’s no guarantee you’ll walk away from the mad dash unscathed.

Upon arrival to the campground, word gets around that an American man who co-wrote the book “Fiesta: How to Survive the Bulls of Pamplona” was gored today — a slicing bit of irony. Bill Hillmann has long been seen as one of the best young American runners. Another man’s trachea was pierced in the same run.

“It’s not a matter of being heroes. It’s a matter of getting in the stadium and just finishing it.”

Maybe I’ll run after I watch it once from the barricaded sidelines or on the big screens of the bullfighting arena. Yeah, yeah, you know, I can pick up on the best techniques that way.

July 10

I’ve determined that to wait would be the best game plan as I head into the arena for the fourth day of the Encierro, which is my first. After all, I have two more opportunities to run if not today.

In the moments leading up to the run, participants can be seen engaging in a warm-up stretches and rituals. Many jog and jump in place. Some cross their chests and look up to the sky. One man draws a long puff from a cigar.

First-time spectators quickly learn that the run is a sport, one that you must take seriously — or the seasoned attendees will have your hide.

Before the run even begins, two men and a woman run into the arena early and are pelted with trash as the crowd chants “tonto, tonto,” meaning “stupid” in Spanish. To the crowd, those who only pretend like they’ve just ran for their lives are better off gored.

Stadium crowd
More than a million people are estimated to attend the festival every July, but the city isn’t that large. It’s home to just under 200,000 people.

After the unfashionably early are escorted out by police, pictures of the six bulls that will be taking part in the day’s festivities flash up on the big screen along with their weights. The cheers getting louder as the size of the bull increases.

Soon, hundreds of red scarves appear in the air as the run is about to start.

“A San Fermín pedimos, por ser nuestro patrón, nos guíe en el encierro dándonos su bendición,” the runners sing, asking the saint for his blessing.

The festival actually has surprisingly religious ties. San Fermín, the patron saint of the Spanish region of Navarra, was beheaded after becoming Pamplona’s first Christian bishop. The red scarves, or pañuelos, are said to represent his blood and sacrifice, while the white outfits are symbolic of his holiness.

It doesn’t take long for the first shot to be fired, signaling the release of six bulls and six  steers from the pin, but few of the runners move. They wait for the bulls to barrel at them before they start to run. If you’re going to cheat death, make sure you cheat it right.

Before officials even get the chance to shoot off the second rocket, signaling the bulls’ contact with the runners, a man is flipped upside down by a bull that’s run astray 21 seconds in. That’s one man down out of dozens who are generally injured each year.

Some runners carry rolled-up newspapers to divert the attention and ultimately the horns of the color-blind bulls. I wonder if they’ve bothered to read about the previous day’s injuries on the front page.

Maybe it’s not print that’s dying but those who don’t read it, those who don’t head its warnings.

Runners come flooding in the stadium and bulls barrel closely behind them. Thunder erupts from the hooves of the horned animals galloping triumphantly against the arena’s sand, embracing their believed victory. But with bull fights scheduled each night of the festival, all bulls will ultimately lose the battle.

Human participants celebrate by whipping out their GoPros and smartphones for post-run “selfies,” making me wonder what compelled people to run before their still-in-tact guts could be glorified with 200 “Likes” on Facebook.

Post-run selfie
Many runners take selfies once the run is over, but doing so during the run could mean harsh penalties to the tune of about $2,050.

To the first-time viewer, any run is gawked at as a gory and violent one. But it could be worse. Thankfully, no one died on the race’s course today, and no one has since 2009. There have been 15 recorded deaths since 1924.

Perhaps the odds of surviving are quite good given that there are thousands of people who run every year.

For now, the few brave souls who ran earlier in the morning — some of whom were inspired by a bit of last night’s liquid courage — stare blankly ahead pondering at their accomplishment in wonderment, the adrenaline still pulsating through their shaking fingers and legs.

They collectively agree that it was the most thrilling moment of their lives but one not worth repeating. It’s a good day to be alive.

Maybe I’ll be missing out if I don’t feel this thrill for myself. Perhaps I’ll run tomorrow.

July 11, the run

I decide to catch the earliest ride out in the morning to see if I still have a shot securing a good spot to watch the run. Though I’m on the fence, everyone else on board is running.

Much to the dismay of their girlfriends, Darren Stone and Anthony Mogridge are among them.

They’re two of the many Australians I befriended this week, convincing me that once you can get past a continent’s deadly pythons, dingoes and sharks, nothing truly phases you anymore. If there’s one concrete lesson I’ve taken away from my time in Pamplona, it’s this: Live every day like you’re Australian.

Taking on Pamplona
Cheers to the great group of friends I made from Australia and all the hours we spent laughing over inside jokes about Michael Jordan and Adam’s apples!

A survey conducted this year by the Pamplona City Hall has found that the majority — about 56 percent — of those who now participate in the festival are foreigners.

“It’s starting to rain. Does that make you nervous?” I ask Stone as droplets of rain collect on the bus windows at 6 a.m.

“Now it does,” he replies.

“Dear diary, today I just died,” Mogridge says as a form of greeting when boarding the bus.

Our laughter, though earnest, is uneasy. We’ll laugh harder if the number of people who boarded the bus this morning is the same on the return trip.

“Dear diary, today I just died.”

Upon arriving at Calle Estafeta, the main stretch of the run where I will watch it all unfold, Stone and Mogridge leave me. I tell them I’ll see them later, I hope.

Waiting for the run to begin, I chat with a man who ran the day prior. He said he didn’t let his family or friends know that he was running until after he did so, a common course of action among many participants I spoke with.

Before they’re even out of the gate, today’s bulls already have a reputation for their viciousness — they hail from the notorious Jandilla Ranch. The last time someone was killed in the Running of the Bulls, July 10, 2009, was at the horn of Capuchino, one of the ranch’s bulls.

Aside from a bull and runners losing their footing, particularly around Dead Man’s Corner, a tight bend where Calle Mercaderes meets Calle Estafeta, the run is much calmer and less memorable than the previous day’s.

There are no gorings to report, only seven trauma injuries — not a bad day. But many expert runners say a run is only good when you can feel the bulls’ breath against your back for multiple seconds at a time. Today’s bulls kept their distance.

Waiting on the bus to head back to the campsite, I’m relieved to see Mogridge hop on.

“Hey, you survived,” I exclaim.

“Yeah, I’ve got a bit of sad news, actually,” Mogridge says.

I then become intensely aware that Stone did not return to the bus with him.

“Oh my God, where’s Darren? Is he all right?”

“Oh, he’s fine. I mean that I didn’t get to run. The police saw my GoPro and threw me out,” Mogridge says.

With more phones and cameras floating about than ever before, Pamplona police now has a zero-tolerance policy for technology use among runners in an effort to keep the event, albeit an event where bulls run wild, safe.

July 11, the fight

Stone and the other runners might have been spared a trip to the hospital, but the day won’t be free of carnage. There’s still the evening’s bullfight.

Always a step away from becoming a vegetarian, I was initially hesitant to go to a bullfight. I actually had a nightmare two nights before the event that all the addictingly spicy crawfish I had ever eaten avenged me by taking my life.

But in order to make a remark about a culture, you must first experience it.

The atmosphere inside the bullfighting arena isn’t all that different from what I’ve experienced at any college basketball game or MLB game. Fans are cheering and chanting, but for whom or what, I’m not entirely sure.

Are people cheering for the bull, hoping it’ll give the man seeking to kill it a good scare with its horns? Are they hoping the matador finishes off the bull with one clean strike of his sword? Are they cheering only because so many did the same before them?

Spain’s relationship with its bulls is a complicated and divisive one.

To many, the bull is revered as a strong and beautiful creature. The matador, the man who fights it, is responsible for showing off its strengths before its demise.

Locals who run often rub their hands along the length of the bulls’ backs but will not touch their horns, out of reverence for their power.

The power dynamic can be confusing for just about any non-Spaniard, but even locals grapple with mixed emotions about all the bloody pomp and circumstance.

Bullfighting tradition in Spain is largely associated with the country’s former dictator  Francisco Franco, who ruled from 1939 to 1975.

During his contentious rule, the sport was a state sanctioned activity steeped in patriotism. Disapproval for Franco and bullfighting grew simultaneously in the push for democracy.

Catalonia, an autonomous and relatively progressive region of Spain, drew a line in the bullfighting ring sand when it banned the sport in 2010.

Curious but cautious, I asked Spaniards about their thoughts on the fights, but I find that they only answer me with questions, wanting to know my thoughts on the matter as an American.

Some I speak with say that bullfighting is deeply embedded in Spain’s culture, without it there’d be a gaping hole. Others say it’s senseless violence and sad to watch.

Regardless of our differing stances, we sit among each other in the stands.

With a pretty blue bow tied around its neck, each bull goes into the fight alone. It’s not long after it comes barreling out of the gate that its shoulders are washed with seeping blood.

First come the picadors, the matador’s assistants who ride on armored horses. One delivers the first blow by lancing the back of the bull to make its back muscles weaker.

Then the banderilleros follow. These men are on foot and are responsible for driving several barbed stakes into its back.

With each strike, the bull’s movements become increasingly labored. Now the animal is too weak to furiously ram its head against the barricade.

In his brightly colored suit, with its sequins glinting in the setting sun, the matador makes his way to the center of the ring to finish the job.

Matador and the bull
Six bulls are killed each evening. Three matadors take turns fighting them.

He gracefully twirls his cape, taunting the bull to dodge forward. Behind it, he hides his long sword that he’ll use shortly. Again and again, he pulls the cape up as the bull dizzily runs back and forth.

Finally, the matador pulls out the sword, gives it a light toss in his hand and stabs it right through the bull’s back. If he is lucky, he’ll pierce the bull’s heart in one strike and will be met with the adoration of the crowd. The bull in that case will be lucky, too, finally being put out of its misery.

With the animal’s every twitch, I find myself shifting uncomfortably in my seat. As it struggles to breathe, so do I.

The bull takes a mighty bow to his matador before he plummets to the ground, front hooves first.

If it’s a good fight, its ears and tail are cut off to be given to the matador. The carcass is promptly tied up and dragged behind a set of horses for one last circle around the ring.

Then it’s on to the next bull and the one after that and the one after that. As rowdy attendees cheer on from the cheap seats and throw sangria on one another, I sit in silent reverence for the fallen beasts.

I don’t know if I’ll understand the bullfighting, but I do know one time watching is enough for me.

July 12

I board yet another 6 a.m. bus after getting four hours of sleep, the same amount as the two previous nights.

Eyes drooping and patience wearing thin, I begin to wonder how Spaniards have the stamina for partying until dawn days in a row. Not much into nightlife myself, I feel exhausted for them.

Again, I find myself on the sidelines instead of the frontlines of today’s run. It’s raining yet again, which helps me rationalize that it probably isn’t the safest of days for a run. Those darn weather patterns.

Much to my surprise, the run goes pretty smoothly. Just as in Friday’s run, there are no gorings. Only a couple of bulls threatened to charge some runners. You never can tell how the day’s run is going to be until after it’s over.

I guess I’ll stick to risking my self-respect — instead of my life to a bull’s horn — by streaking public places and competing on televised karaoke programs. Yeah, that sounds good. Well, for now anyway. Ask me again next week.

IF YOU GO

Where to watch: There’s a bull run at 8 a.m. each day of the festival. Late-night revelers hyped on sangria extend their party into the morning, snagging all the good vantage points on the sidelines by 6 a.m. If you can’t beat them, join them — or buy a cheap ticket to watch the run unfold from the safe grandstands of the bullfighting arena.

What to eat: La Mañueta, a 140-year-old churrería,  is a rare, authentic find among a dying breed of establishments selling the traditional Spanish breakfast item. Here, churros are fried and hand-sprinkled with sugar right before your eyes. With the long line of people outside, the place is easy to spot. Buy a cup of thick hot chocolate for €2 next door.

When to run: Daredevils be warned. There’s never a truly safe day to run. To lessen your chances of getting gored, run mid-week when festival attendance drops and on a day with nice weather. Rain makes the course’s stones slippery.

El Colacho takes leap of faith in Spanish festival

When you ask 17-year-old Estafania Gonzalez about the time her parents laid her down on a mattress in the middle of the town square for a man dressed as the devil to jump over her, the details might get a little hazy.

“It was good although I can’t remember it because I was a baby,” she coolly tells me in an interview conducted in Spanish.

Maybe it’s for the best that she doesn’t. If it weren’t for the event’s holy Catholic ties, this could be the sort of thing that haunts you for years.

At the El Colacho festival in Castrillo de Murcia, Spain, the discordant clanging of church bells overhead and a single foreboding drum can’t hush the wails of infants dressed in their laciest bonnets and softest onesies.

Parents tenderly coo and cradle, but not much can be done. What’s seen cannot be unseen. After more than seven hours of preparatory festivities leading up to the main event, the babies know what — or rather, who — is coming. It’s time for a dance with the devil.

El Colacho babies
All  participating babies are less than a year old but are wise and wary about what’s in store.

Getting myself into something

Prior to leaving for Europe, when curious friends asked me to rattle off the festivals I’m attending this summer, I’d always say something along the lines of, “Oh you know, Running of the Bulls, La Tomatina, a baby-jumping festival … ” I could never get farther in my list without first clarifying what I meant by “baby-jumping.”

“Like, a festival where a bunch of babies jump?” some would ask.

No, no sillies, that wouldn’t make much sense, now would it? Babies don’t have the motor skills for that.

I only confused them more when I went into further explanation. The only fact I could really offer up is that families in this tiny Spanish village cleanse their children of original sin and protect them against childhood illnesses by having a man dressed as the devil, or “El Colacho,” leap over them. The ceremony falls on the same week as their baptism.

To be honest, I didn’t know much more than that. For a festival that’s been around since 1621, not much information can be gleaned from the web aside from a sparse Wikipedia page and the same wire story.

With a population of about 300 people, Castrillo de Murcia isn’t exactly a happening place. There are no hotels, no markets. The village used to have a school when there were actually enough children who lived there. Nowadays, a book cart will occasionally pop by in the summer to provide some entertainment.

The village is located in northern Spain, about 19 miles away from Burgos as the crow flies. On Corpus Christi Sunday, the only ways to get there are by taxi or by rental car, the latter of which is out of the question for someone who doesn’t know how to drive a stick shift.

Terrified of what I was getting myself into, I obsessively emailed the owner of my Burgos hostel asking if he had any tips about getting to the festival or knew of anyone else going.

Even he had never heard of it and only had so much advice to offer. “We can find you a taxi to get there, but don’t forget you’ll need to get back,” he wrote.

(I envisioned El Colacho to be a testament to my capabilities as a solo-traveler. If I could make to and from Castrillo de Murcia alive, I could survive anywhere else.)

Of course, the hostel owner didn’t know of anyone else going either. That is until an Italian photographer, who was also staying in my hostel, said he was going, too.

I was relieved to have company for the day and not to be slapped with an $136 cab fare for a round-trip ride. I learned later we’d be among only a dozen or so other non-Spaniards attending the event.

From the moment we arrived to the town, I felt as though my presence was a surprise to locals. Wearing jeans, Nike sneakers and mammoth of a camera bag strapped across my body, I clearly didn’t know what I’m getting myself into.

But I don’t have much time to be self-conscious about my laughably textbook American appearance. As black birds loom overhead, I begin to hear the beat of single drum, its pulse stirring whoever could hear it into frantic shuffle out of its way.

Then, a canary yellow figure appears. Its mask features a menacing black smile, furrowed brow and two red circles dotting the cheeks. He has no eyes and holds a whip in his hands. I swear I’ve seen this guy in a nightmare before.

It’s 11:30 a.m. and El Colacho and La Cofradía, or the church’s black-cloaked brotherhood, make one of the first of many saunters around the village.

El Colacho lunges forth,  repetitively swatting at those who taunt where it hurts most, and he does not care if takes out a few openly fearful and innocent bystanders either.

Wise village elders scatter out of the way.

Local teenagers with their surging testosterone linger a little longer, pushing their luck and El Colacho’s patience.

“El Colacho está boracho,” they shout, playfully accusing the masked figure of being drunk.

As for me, I just run.

But American Amy de la Fuente, whose husband is originally from the village, tells me the taunts are all a part of the fun. She took me under her wing after spotting my reusable water bottle, very American.

“There are certain chants they will say, so basically it’s kind of like, ‘Na-na-nana-nah, you can’t get me,'” de la Fuente says, who lives in Chicago, Ill. but visits Spain with her family every year.

“You see how close you can dance to him and how fast you can run away before he gets you.”

Taunting the devil
El Colacho spares no one from his whip. Those who tease get especially harsh lashings.


A family affair

As a fellow American, I’m fascinated by de la Fuente’s love for the festival. When her children, now 11 and 9, were babies, she made it very clear to her husband that she, too, wanted them to be jumped by El Colacho.

De la Fuente said the festival provides her the opportunity to be a part of something bigger than herself. She believes traditions can sometimes get watered down in the United States.

“I feel like with my heritage, I didn’t grow up with my mom’s side of the family, so when we went to visit, there were things that we did. But because we didn’t visit all the time, it was just occasional,” she says.

“And with my dad’s side of the family, there wasn’t really any tradition.”

Was she scared before El Colacho jumped over her children? A tiny bit, but her husband’s aunts reassured her that no baby had been injured in all of its history.

In fact, everyone I asked about injuries at the festival was proud to reiterate that fact.

“No, nunca ha pasado.”

“No.”

“No, nunca.”

When I’ve mentioned the festival to those who have never heard of it, they sometimes have scoffed at the seemingly reckless disregard for health and safety regulations.

In recent years, even Pope Benedict XIV has encouraged Spanish Catholic leaders to not become involved with the festival.

But to those who have been partaking for years, the day’s rituals still hold deeply religious meaning entrenched in greater family bonds.

Estephania Gonzalez’s younger brother, 16-year-old Carlos Gonzalez, is finally getting his chance to play devil, a goal held among many of the younger local boys.

It’s his first year dressing up as El Colacho, and he can’t wipe the smile off his face now that he’s among a rank of men wearing the notorious yellow mask.

Carlos Gonzalez
The opportunity to become El Colacho is a privilege granted by La Cofradía of the church.

Though he can’t jump over the babies until he’s older, he seems content enough running about the streets in a deviant manner while whipping revelers with his hand broom. And he’s is learning what it takes to be a good Colacho, if there can be such a thing:

“Well, he is tall, fast and drinks lots of milk.”

He just has to look to those born before him if he’s in need of pointers. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather have played the role as El Colacho, his mother, Marife Gonzalez, says.

In many ways, I begin to feel as though I’m a part of the Gonzalez family, the de la Fuente family and all the families I speak with.

After learning that I only brought a bag of peanuts to satiate my growling stomach, Amy de la Fuente invites me into her father-in-law’s home to make me a sandwich.

Though I’m sure she would say a croissant filled with cold cuts and cheese is nothing, it’s the closest I’ve gotten to home-cooked meal in the five weeks I’ve been traveling. In this moment, it tastes like the best sandwich I’ve ever eaten.

And as my tongue messily fumbles over my interview questions, those I converse with in Spanish with answered me with a great amount of patience despite the language barrier.

El salto

Following the day’s earlier pageantry and church service, the village settles down for a mid-afternoon siesta, and I retreat to the fleeting shade to wait three hours for the festivities to continue.

All at once, Castrillo de Murcia springs to life again as women hang their finest linens outside their balconies and adorn them with roses. Originally a pagan festival, the people have sought to make it a more consecrated, Catholic one.

Four mattresses dressed in pastel sheets appear in the town square, and the crowd is abuzz with excitement. Soon, the babies are set in their places. They can wiggle all they want, but they won’t get far.

After taking pictures with their children to commemorate the moment, parents retreat to the sidelines with the exception of a couple of mothers who can’t will their bodies to leave the bedside of their babies.

After another few beats of a drum, quiet falls over the crowd. Before your mind can process that the jump, known as “El salto,” is about to happen, it does.

Two colachos this time take running leaps from the staircase descending from the churchyard, heading right towards the babies. Their sneakers, a blur against the pavement. Their masks, off  thank God.

It is believed that as the colachos make mighty leap after leap, so do the evil spirits from the souls of the babies.

In order to be eligible to jump, the men must be from the village himself or married to a woman from the village.
In order to jump, the man must be from the village or married to a woman from the village.

There aren’t any gasps from the crowd, only cheers with every successful jump. Within seconds, it’s over. Make that 393 years without an injury. To anyone who comes to this festival year after year, it comes as no surprise.

Girls recently confirmed into the church throw petals over the babies, and the priest blesses each of them.

To the American eye, the festival seems strange, yes. But for the people of Castrillo de Murcia, El Colacho is just a day in the life,  a day that recognizes just how fleeting, sacred — and yes, odd — this very life can be.

PHOTO GALLERY:

 

In England, broken bones all for the sake of cheese

Aside from his electric blue hair, there are few parts of Dave Munro’s body that aren’t covered in mud. The entire back of his jeans is caked with an unfortunate hue of brown, and his hands look as if they had been tilling a field for days. A gash slowly seeps blood from his left arm, which cradles a bottle of Stella Artois cider that will soon nurse the pain.

Actually and rather remarkably, Munro, who hails from Perth, Scotland, isn’t all that bent out of sorts, but you should see the other guys.

The hill he stands on, a nearly vertical, 600-foot tall behemoth, is littered with dozens of thrill-seeking masochists who are strung out in all sorts of shapes.

Camera crews crowd around a man with his teeth furiously sunk into a cloth as a few men  call them Sherpas this side of Mt. Everest  escort him down after he breaks his leg.

There are murmurs that someone might be unconscious.

A little while earlier a woman was carried off for a broken neck after doing a somersault, after somersault, after somersault, after …

It’s May 26, a bank holiday in the United Kingdom, and I’m in Gloucestershire, England for the Cooper’s Hill Cheese-Rolling and Wake, a sleepy-town tradition dating back to the 19th century.

Today, just as in the past couple of hundreds of years, dozens of competitors play a game of chance roulette in which they will take an adrenaline-fueled plummet down one of the steepest hills southwestern England has to offer  and there’s no pretty or delicate way to do it.

Some run, some slide, some tumble, but no matter their technique of choice, all face imminent doom. Everyone will be bounced around just like the ball of the game they have signed over their fates to.

What will they incur? Some bruises? A good head-bang? An obliterated pelvis?

Luck isn’t exactly on their side. Though the number of injuries has fallen in the past few years, the stakes are still high. 1997 had the most injuries, 33.

If it’s not broken or dislocated, something will get bruised.

But you see, there’s this cheese. And while most children dream of becoming the next Wimbledon champ or Manchester United’s next superstar, hopes of snagging that coveted roll of homegrown savory Double Gloucester are just as valid in this town.

(There’s a whole crop of boys and girls under the age of 14 who compete in uphill races in preparation for perhaps one day taking on the downhill competition.)

Sure, the payoff isn’t that great and the reasoning behind competing isn’t always the most well thought out, yet tradition persists.

“I was drunk one night, and I saw it on the internet,” Munro said. “I can’t lie.”

To the curious outsider, the event doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

“I was drunk one night, and I saw it on the internet. I can’t lie.”

Competitors risk snapping their limbs and necks in two as they make a disorderly attempt to catch  and win  an elusive roll of cheese that isn’t in the best shape after its bumpy, muddy descent.

Even to locals, the whole thing is head-scratching, but that doesn’t stop them from watching. They turn up in droves every year for reasons even they have difficulty explaining.

Just ask Paul Templeman, a resident of Brockworth, why he’s been dozens of times since he was a child. He can only offer up this sentiment: “It’s local. It’s just a bit of fun.”

As for why he has never competed once despite all the times he’s been, Templeman’s answer is much clearer. “‘Cause I’m not that stupid,” he says with a playful huff.

But after all, if there were no competitors, there’d be nothing worth watching.

An estimated 5,000 people attended this year’s event, leaving me to wonder where exactly all the locals were hiding when I arrived the day prior.

A fortuitously bleak sky greeted me upon my arrival at Gloucester’s bus station in the central part of the village that Sunday.

My 45-minute trek on foot to my hotel was not the most scenic of routes. With its abandoned business parks and parking lots overrun by weeds, Gloucestershire initially struck me as the sort of area where the local kids are forced to make their own fun.

Aside from Storage King and a BP service station, where I combed my way through aisles of soggy quiche and oily hummus that I lived off of for three days, my hotel was in the middle of nowhere.

The village of Gloucester has a few bragging rights. Scenes of the first, second and sixth Harry Potter movies were filmed in Gloucester Cathedral. One of its churches, St. Oswald’s Priory, dates back to the 880s or 890s. Other than that, it isn’t exactly the first place that comes to mind when you think of England. 

But for one reason or another, the cheese-rolling competition has given the city an international pull, with some people traveling as far as Australia wishing for a taste of victory.

Taste of victory
A spectator poses with one of the event’s famous rolls of Double Gloucester cheese.

All the recent attention has local authorities cracking down on the tradition.

What once was an official town event until 2010 has recently been viewed as reckless debauchery that caters to outlaws   or freedom fighters, depending on how you look at them.

Police have even warned local cheese-makers who provide the dairy for the race that they might be liable for any injuries that occur.

Competitors and spectators have their unique reasons for skirting around the road closures, jumping the fences, ignoring the warning signs and enduring a long hike up several other hills before Cooper’s Hill.

But one thing remains clear: There’s no love for the establishment here.

“(I do it for) tradition, fun and a disregard for our government who says kids can’t play conkers anymore,” says hometown competitor Leighton Grealis, referring to the popular but increasingly banned British school-yard game that involves whacking chestnuts tied to string against one another.

At one point during the competition, police helicopters began to fly overhead, temporarily disrupting the festivities. Whether the spectators knew the helicopter belonged to the police or mistook it for that of a TV station, everyone began to wave to it as a soared above, a cheeky British salute as if to say “catch us if you can.”

Just 7 minutes prior to the event’s kick-off at noon, it began to drizzle in true English fashion, softening the rugged land just slightly for the bums about to go down it.

The event consists of five main races: three downhill men’s races, a downhill women’s race, a free-for-all downhill race. There are also three uphill races, two of which are for children.

Shortly after a loud proclamation made on the megaphone, a tiny blur of white can be seen falling down the hill. It’s the 8-pound cheese striped with red and blue and a reminder to the competitors about how much more they have left to go.

Then a couple dozen men come barrelling down after it. Each bump they encounter on the hill is met with an uproar of laughter from the crowd. There goes a man dressed as Axl Rose. Did I just see Super Mario? There’s no web that can save Spider-Man here. Once you’re in the race, you’re in it until the rocky end.

Spider-Man
Spider-Man makes an appearance at Cooper’s Hill, but isn’t so graceful without his webs.

Any techniques? “No, no. Just run like hell,” Munro says. “Run like hell.”

Munro joked after the race that he had been tossing miniature rolls of Babybel cheese down his home’s staircase to practice the week prior. At the end of the day’s festivities, he kindly handed me one.

But in order to win the race, you must finish it. While it’s impossible to look graceful, those who fare well have a more calculated approach: Pick up speed when you can, slack where needed.

It’s certainly a talent the hometown competitors have picked up on. All but one of the races was won by a competitor from Gloucestershire.

People on the sidelines almost seem to be suffering sympathy pains for those they watch. With each blow a competitor takes comes a collective gasp from the audience.

“You throw yourself down and hope for the best.”

As a means of self-preservation, some competitors won’t allow themselves to process what is happening during the race.

“I was trying not to think, to be fair,” Grealis says. “You throw yourself down and hope for the best.”

Maybe we think too much before we do things. Maybe the best traditions are the ones that don’t make any sense at all.

As for blue-haired Munro, would he do it again? “Of course.”

He still needs to catch that cheese.

PHOTO GALLERY: 

For the love of weirdness

I believe love is a choice. We actively decide who we keep in our lives and who we let go. Though we don’t have control over every circumstance life throws our way, we have a choice to love what we’re doing or stop doing it, a choice to love the place we’re in or leave it.

It’s a beautiful yet terrifying notion, choice. It demands we be uncomfortable. We’re uncomfortable while reckoning with the fears of what could go wrong. Then we’re perhaps unsettled when something does go wrong on the rare occasion. With this lack of comfort comes weirdness.

We don’t just shy away from weirdness, we vehemently avoid it. We’re told to. How else would we have survived our middle school hallways?

When we try to avoid being weird, we lose ourselves in translation. Recently, I’ve wondered what would happen if we were to always actively pursue the weird.

This summer, I’ve made the choice to go on international quest for weirdness. Thanks to a travel scholarship from UNC, a pipe dream of mine is actually happening.

I will be traveling to about a dozen countries to attend some of Europe’s craziest and most unusual festivals and to ask people about what is on their bucket lists.

While in Spain, I can be found at Pamplona’s Running of the Bulls, Buñol’s La Tomatina and Castrillo de Murcia’s El Colacho, a festival in which men dressed as the devil jump over mattresses filled with babies in the hopes of purifying their souls.

Later, I’ll be in the Netherlands, which became the first country to legalize same-sex marriage in 1999, as others celebrate love simply being love at Amsterdam’s gay pride festival.

But first, come Monday, I’ll be in Gloucester, England for Cooper’s Hill Cheese-Rolling and Wake at which competitors chase an 8-pound roll of cheese down a 600-foot hill.

I don’t know much about these people who wake up in the morning and say without pause, “Hey, I think I’m going to go chase some cheese or be chased by a bull today.” But I think I’ll be in good company.

You see, love and weirdness aren’t mutually exclusive.

When we connect with someone, our synapses spark and make us subconsciously say, “Hey, I like this human.” We call them friends even though they have knobby knees and pronounce certain words weirdly and fart about 14 times a day, statistics show. (Except you, right? Because you personally don’t fart.)

The same can be said about places. How else do we fall in love with cities without first embracing them for their weird, messy worth? I don’t really think we can truly love without first getting a little weird.

How appropriate that I kick off this quest for silliness in the city I first learned to love when studying abroad here last spring.

London is a city that is dreadfully rain-prone but also where I learned to embrace umbrella-less walks to class, drenched shoes, frozen fingers and all.

This is the city where people gather to hear weird people talk about weird things at Hyde Park Speaker’s Corner every Sunday.

As I learned while visiting the Museum of London Wednesday, London is also the place where pious citizens once believed the Great Fire of 1666 must have been caused by sinful gluttony because the fire ironically started at Pudding Lane and allegedly went out at Pye (or Pie) Corner.

A bunch of people erected a statue of a “prodigiously fat” boy warning of such gluttony, and it is known as The Golden Boy of Pye Corner. Naturally, I spent a greater portion of my Wednesday afternoon being the strange, lost woman in London searching for this pudgy little guy.

The Golden Boy at Pye Corner
The Pye Corner statue recognizes one of most catastrophic events to ever occur in the city.

Basically, I think if the statue were created with today’s obesity rate in mind, he’d be a lot fatter because his belly looked my post-dinner food baby after it’s had a couple of hours to settle. Oh well.

I love this city.

Here’s to hoping I fall in love with more cities. Here’s to believing that fortune favors the weird. (And I’m going to need a lot of fortune because I don’t really know how to get around most of these cities or how to speak any language including my own or how to not trip on any of Europe’s old staircases.)

Let’s get weird,
Katie