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US welcomes running-of-the-bulls lite

Participants compete in The Great Bull Run in Petersburg, Virginia, on August 24, 2013
Participants compete in The Great Bull Run in Petersburg, Virginia, on August 24. Lo and behold, the United States has staged its first Pamplona-style running of the bulls.

The course was not cobblestone, the booze not free flowing, Spanish-style, and the animals were on the meek rather than ornery side.

But lo and behold, the United States has staged its first Pamplona-style running of the bulls.

"In Spain, they use fighting bulls and they have fewer rules. So (here) it wasn't that tough," said one runner, who only gave his first name Nick.

Yes, Nick said he was a bit disappointed over the mild temperament of the horned beasts used in the August run in Petersburg, Virginia, three hours south of Washington.

Yes, some of the runners do wear the trademark white pants and shirt and red kerchiefs typical of the running of the bulls in the northern Spanish city, which takes place every morning for eight days every July.

But the differences are glaring. Lots of runners here wear Superman, Batman or viking get-ups -- or even bikinis. This is America, after all, where everyone loves a clown.

Participants compete in The Great Bull Run in Petersburg, Virginia, on August 24, 2013
Participants compete in The Great Bull Run in Petersburg, Virginia, on August 24. The course was not cobblestone, the booze not free flowing, Spanish-style, and the animals were on the meek rather than ornery side.

The turf is not the dew-slickened, stone streets of the old quarter of Pamplona but rather a patted-down earthen area beside the Virginia Motorsports Park. Organizer Rob Dickens says the grounds are chosen to keep the bulls from hurting themselves.

The race covers some 300 meters (yards) -- less than half the distance of the runs in Pamplona.

And the run is flat whereas in Pamplona it starts off on a steep hill and winds through the city, with at least one sharp turn where bulls often slip and fall, get up disoriented and separate from the pack, even running back the wrong way. Being isolated spooks them and makes them extra, extra dangerous.

Dickens wants to repeat the event in another nine American cities.

In Virginia, an attempt was made to build up drama before each of eight runs. A total of 4,000 people mustered the courage to have a stab at it.

The inimitable main soundtrack tune of the Sergio Leone 1960s spaghetti western "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" blared from loudspeakers before each sprint.

A master of ceremonies than called out safety warnings, such as: "If you are found intoxicated, you will be removed. If you touch the bulls, you will be removed."

One female runner, Andi, who like others paid $55 for the one-minute thrill, said she loved the adrenaline rush even if she did not really get close to the 900-pound (400-kilo) bulls.

She said the experience was exhilarating "but I couldn't get close to the bulls."

For the record, the animals in Pamplona are bigger -- average weight about 550 kilos -- and of a fighting breed meant to take on matadors, rather than just mate with cows.

Virginia native Nick said his dash was useful.

"I'd say it was a good warm-up for Pamplona," he said, adding he plans to go next July for the festival made internationally famous by Ernest Hemingway's 1926 novel "The Sun Also Rises."

"What do you mean, not dangerous? Well, you just step in front of a 900-pound bull!" asks Preston Fowlkes, owner of 26 bulls brought in from his ranch in Kentucky, adjusting his cowboy hat.

"To be honest, I'm not sure Americans are ready yet for fighting bulls," he added.

He says this is mainly because Americans are not used to this kind of thrill-seeking, which in Spain regularly claims its share of gorings, bumps and bruises -- and a death now and then, although fatalities are rare.

Once freed, the bulls run along a course peacefully and people scamper to the barrier fences to let them get by.

When it was all over in Virginia, two people had been injured slightly and hospitalized. Organizers will not say how they were hurt.

Actually the biggest mishap involved a drone model plane used to film the action -- it fell into the stands, hurting three people.

Dickens, the organizer, says it is impossible to outright copy the Spanish version because of the danger involved.

"We don't want to see anybody die," he said.

Alas, this is endlessly litigious America. So anybody who runs has to sign a waiver relieving Dickens and his company of all liability if something goes wrong.

"Signing is like saying, "I won't sue you and even if I do sue you, I'm not going to win," he joked.

There is another taste of Spain on offer: a version of the so-called Tomatina, in which participants pelt each other with tons of ripe red tomatoes.

Here, some 20 tons were chucked in a corner of the parking lot at Virginia Motorsports Park.

But here again, safety comes first.

A voice over the loudspeaker announces: "You have to wear protection goggles. If you don't wear protection goggles, you will not be allowed to participate."

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