A fearless and moustached "Running of the bulls" competitor. All images via the author and Tami Hutchinson.
For over a decade, the Strathmore Stampede, 50 kilometers east of Calgary, hosts Canada’s only “running of the bulls.” But while its name might bring to mind the centuries-old Spanish tradition from Pamplona, the Canadian version doesn’t retain the format, cultural depth, or even the same name. Instead, Strathmore's Running With the Bulls repurposes the basic concept into a ludicrous amateur rodeo sideshow where 80 participants run frantically around a chuckwagon track, away from a horde of rampaging bulls to get spectators’ blood pumping for “the chucks” (an Albertan favorite). And the gutsiest runner—judged on “style,” which basically amounts to challenging the animals like some kind of idiot gladiator—wins $1,000 cash.
Obviously, I had to participate. When I initially conceived this idea, I had only heard about it in passing and thought, how hard could it be? If they’ve been doing it for 11 years, it must be pretty safe, right? Later, I looked it up on YouTube. The most popular result is "Man Gets Trampled While Running With The Bulls At Strathmore Stampede." I immediately started muttering “fuck” under my breath whenever I thought about what faced me at the event.
In the hopes of gaining some strategies of survival, I went to Strathmore early to interview the other bull runners while they registered. The "official registration booth" was probably better described as a signup shed, which was marked by a piece of scrap cardboard crudely labeled with a Sharpie. Next to it, home-printed rules were duct-taped to the wall. The whole experience failed to reassure me that my life was safe in these people’s hands. Then I read rule number six:
If you get knocked down and are still conscious, roll under the fence so you do not trip up other runners.
Potential runners lined up as soon as the booth opened. A young-looking guy holding an infant asked, “Were there any injuries yesterday?”
The signup shed lady responded, “Yeah. We had a broken nose, a split head and a broken hand.” The young guy handed his baby to his girlfriend with a laugh and signed his waiver.
The Aussies, some of the day's best competitors.
The people signing up were a predictable combination of young thrillseekers and mulleted yokels with knives strapped to their belts. Many had done the run before. This was the second day of the two-day event, and some had even run the previous day, including a 45-year-old truck driver named Ted, who was on his third consecutive year of running with the Strathmore bulls. I figured if Ted could do it, I definitely could.
I sidled over to spark up a conversation, “If you’re signing up again, you must’ve made it through without any major injuries.”
“Well, last year I got run over.”
I talked to more people, and it became clear that no one actually cared about the prize. They were just doing it to do it. Most of them were after the thrill. Rebecca and Hanna—both Hooters waitresses from Calgary—said it was “a bucket list thing.” I got the sense that if the prize wasn’t on the table, the exact same people would’ve signed up.
I ran into a group of five Australians guys, who had signed up earlier, in the beer garden. I asked them why they were participating.
“We’re dickheads,” one of them said with a shrug before finishing his beer.
A lady from the signup shed spotted us from the other side of the beer garden fence.
“Hey! You guys aren’t supposed to be drinking!”
“You said we can’t be drunk,” said one Aussie. “We can have at least five more.”
Half an hour before start time, we met at the gate wearing the numbered pink T-shirts they gave us when we signed up. The Aussies and a few others wore ridiculous costumes: there was a Ninja Turtle, a guy in a leisure suit, and a bull mascot with boxing gloves. Through the crowd, I saw “The Giraffe" for the first time; he was tall, lanky, and had stuffed himself into what looked like a child’s giraffe costume—he was also last year’s winner.
A direct view into the mayhem the bulls cause.
The organizer delivered a perfunctory safety speech that was both troubling and unhelpful. We waited while a group of First Nations singers did a rendition of “O Canada” then we ran out on to the track.
Sunburned drunks hooted and hollered from sold out grandstands. A seasoned rodeo announcer and guest judges stood atop a hydraulic lift in the middle of the track. The announcer gave a short introduction, spending nearly as much time commenting on the Hooters waitresses’ appearance. He explained that there would be three separate waves of bulls, the bulls increasing in size and experience with each wave.
A horn sounded.
A gate opened and five bulls ambled out. Men on horseback whipped the bulls until they were running at a terrible speed.
My strategy was to run way ahead of the bulls, keeping as much distance between us as possible. I was on the opposite side of the course when the bulls caught up with first runners. The crowd shrieked with excitement. I stopped to look.
A runner soared backwards through the air. Before he even hit the ground, I knew it was Ted. He landed hard and rolled as the bulls trampled him. “Two for two,” I thought.
I sprinted to get around to where Ted was. He tried to stand and collapsed. A couple of runners dragged him to the fence and struggled with some medics to help him over. The announcer jeered, “I don’t think he’s gonna fit through those bars boys!”
I wanted to stop and help, but the bulls were gaining on me. As I ran past, the medics had already cut Ted’s pant leg open. His leg was blue and bloated like it had washed up on the beach after boating accident.
The aftermath of Ted's injury.
The bulls were closing the gap. A lot of runners were jumping the fence and it was starting to tip. I knew if I tried to go over I might pull the fence down on all of us.
The bulls rounded the corner.
I put a foot on the second rung of the fence, grabbed the top bar and
I jumped straight up. Pushing on the top bar, I got my body as high and horizontal as I could, like a pushup over nothing. A bull ran right underneath me, its vicious horns passing right below my stomach. It was exhilarating.
Another horn sounded. The bulls were funneled to the exit. I had survived the first wave.
The announcer informed everyone that the second wave would be delayed until we could get an ambulance in. I ran over to check on Ted. The medics were trying to sit him up, but he went into shock and melted in their hands. The “ambulance”—a flatbed John Deere vehicle—putted out and they prepped him for transport
The “ambulance” drove by with poor Ted on the flatbed, passed out and strapped to a backboard. The announcer had a few parting words for Ted: “I will say one thing about that guy… he needs to hit a tanning booth!”
The audience belly-laughed at the broken, unconscious body of their fellow human being.
I wondered for a moment: who were the real monsters? The bulls or the audience that callously, cynically paid to see people endanger themselves for the amusement of—a horn sounded, and four angry bulls charged out from behind a gate.
“THE BULLS! THE BULLS ARE THE MONSTERS!”
I ran as goddamn fast as I could. I stayed ahead of them for a lap. One of the lunatic bulls unexpectedly turned on the outrider’s horse, pinning it against the fence. It was awful.
The rider whipped the bull until it relented. It turned and started running the opposite direction. Straight towards me.
I froze. I was about to head for the fence—a shock of pain coursed through my back. Had a runner elbowed me while trying to pass? No.
It was the other bulls stampeding past me: one of their horns had belted me across the lower back.
Me, moments before I was clipped.
I leapt over the fence to assess the damage. My back didn’t feel too bad, but that could’ve been because I had adrenaline screaming through my body. I waited for the horn and jumped back onto the track.
It occurred to me that if the bull had hit me from a slightly different angle, I could’ve died or been paralyzed. I considered quitting. Too late.
The final horn sounded.
The third wave only had two bulls, because it only needed two bulls. They were huge and grotesque. But with two, I could at least more easily keep track of them. I kept half-a-track between us until the clock ran out. Their flesh looked like it could barely contain their bulging muscles.
The Giraffe—a man who must not have anything to live for—had challenged the bulls in every wave. In the third he literally grabbed a bull by the horns and backed it into a corner. He was unanimously voted the winner. The first two-time winner in the 11-year history of the event.
As I left the track, one of the spectators called out to me. He held up a finger and thumb about an inch apart and said, “This close, boy.”
During the next few days, my back got stiffer and stiffer. It didn't look bad, but it got to the point where I could barely move. Finally, I had to leave work early to go to the ER for a spinal examination. There is no possible way to explain this injury to a medical professional without sounding like a total buffoon.
Nothing showed up on the x-ray, of course. It still hurts though.