Like many thrill seekers before him, Rob Dickens had long entertained a dream of running with the bulls through the streets of Pamplona, Spain, a tradition that dates back 400 years. But when he and a friend attempted to go in 2010, they found that all hotels had been sold out, trains were booked and the cost of flights was prohibitively high.
"It occurred to me that the experience was probably not accessible to most Americans," Dickens told ABC News. "And I thought, well, why not bring it here instead."
So he did.
The Great Bull Run is a new nationwide festival touring select U.S. cities that offers adrenaline junkies the chance to run for a quarter mile alongside 1,500-pound charging bulls. For just $55, participants can hot foot it with the stampede, engage in a large-scale tomato fight, and receive a commemorative t-shirt, a bandana and a beer. No boarding pass necessary.
"We’ve actually improved the experience for both the humans and the bulls," said Dickens, who has previously organized large-scale events such as the Rugged Maniac Obstacle Race series. "In Pamplona, you get just 12 bulls running by and it's very fleeting. People here have this perception that it’s 100 bulls in Spain and you’re running for hours at a time, but that's not the case. So we release two sets of 18 bulls and divide them into groups of six. Instead of one pass, you get three passes and more chances to run with them."
Other points of difference are that The Great Bull Run takes place on a long dirt course set up between barricade fencing, as opposed to paved streets twisting past buildings in Pamplona.
"The dirt is better for the bulls' hooves," said Dickens, who employs medical veterinarians to care for the animals. "Bulls also aren't meant to make sharp turns through street corners, which is why you will see videos of them falling on YouTube. So the course itself is safer for the bulls."
These considerations have not prevented animal rights groups from picketing against the events in some areas.
"No matter how cautious the organizers may appear to be, there is no way to ensure that the animals won’t suffer or be injured at these events,” stated a petition by the Georgia Animal Rights and Protection Group. “After having been loaded onto trucks and herded into an arena filled with thousands of screaming people, the bulls will bolt out of the pen in a state of panic, confusion and terror when the starting gate opens.”
To date, no animal injuries have been reported by The Great Bull Run. Humans, on the other hand, do occasionally get banged up. But that possibility hasn't stopped men and women of all ages from participating.
"Heart pounding! Adrenaline rush! A once in a lifetime opportunity!" was how Cathy Steele, 39, described her experience running at Maple Grove Speedway in Mohnton, Pennsylvania, in an e-mail to ABC News. Steele brought along her husband, Nate Steele, 36, her brother-in-law Tony Steele, 38, and her mother Cassandra Schultz, 70. "My mom was the oldest person to run the day of event!"
For James Olachea, the experience brought him closer to his roots, he said.
"It's in my genes!" said Olachea, a 56-year-old who ran with the bulls in Dade City, Florida, this March. "My surname is Basque. Pamplona is in a Basque region in Spain and I've always dreamed of running with the bulls. At my age, I need to get this type of adventure sooner rather than later. My wife and three daughters tolerate my random adventures, and the adventures make great stories for my grand kids."
Nathan Arrazate also described the event he attended in Houston, Texas, as a "bucket list" endeavor.
"I wore a crazy getup just to be silly and have fun," said Arrazate, 51. "I had red shoes, red socks, red shorts, red shirt, with a fluorescent yellow/green long-sleeve underneath, a mullet wig and a goofy hat with cool shades."
Despite Arrazate's eccentric ensemble, the bulls passed by him without incident.
"During the first run, the bulls were in the middle of the track as they approached me," he said. "Immediately before they got to my area, they pulled way over to the inside of the track and I jumped up on the fence."
Arrazate's wife preferred the festival's large-scale food fight, Tomato Royale, featuring approximately 90,000 overripe tomatoes for hurling.
"She was an animal and was in the middle of the field just laughing, giggling and blasting people," he said. Both left the event uninjured and are planning to attend again when it returns to town.
For Jho Gonzalez, who ran in Tampa, Florida, "throwing tomatoes to a random stranger" wasn't as thrilling as the element of risk involved on the bull run course.
"It happens so quick but at the same time your senses, likely because of the adrenaline, pick up the little nuances; like the bulls breathing, the dust being stirred because of their stomping hooves and how fast your heart is beating," he said, though he admitted not everyone in the crowd was as attuned as he was.
"No injuries for me thankfully," he said. "[But] there was this other girl in her 20s that got taken down pretty hard because she was taking a selfie."
The Great Bull Run's next event will take place in Chicago on July 12.