Brothers Have a Gory Run-In With the Bulls

Bonding adventure turns bloody for American brothers in Spain.

July 14, 2009, 2:30 PM

July 15, 2009— -- At first glance, Sean and Mike Lenahan seem like pretty typical, all-American brothers. Mike is a 26-year-old sales executive for General Mills, and older brother Sean is a recent business school graduate.

But only a handful of people in history have experienced what happened to this pair in Pamplona, Spain. In July 2007, the Lenahans decided to run with the bulls at the famous Festival of San Fermin and came perilously close to death.

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Hard as it is for many to fathom, the chance to flirt with death is a huge tourist attraction, drawing thousands every year to Pamplona's narrow, winding streets.

Thousands more come to take part in the widespread revelry of the eight-day festival, which includes food, dancing and copious amounts of wine. "Excitement is in the air," explains Mike.

Each morning of the festival, a herd of enormous bulls, each more than 1,300 pounds, are released from the Santo Domingo bull pen into the narrow, uneven cobblestone streets -- full of razor-sharp twists and turns -- and finish about half a mile later at the Plaza de Toros bull ring.

Every year, many runners are seriously injured; in total, 15 have even died over the years. Most recently, a 27-year-old Spaniard was killed by a bull who gored him in the neck.

The Lenahans almost met the same fate, as they were approaching a notorious area of the course, known ominously as Dead Man's Corner.

Here, the bulls often lose their balance, fall down and get separated from the rest of the pack. They can become disoriented, which makes them more likely to charge at the runners.

Daredevil Stunt Turns Deadly When Brothers Encounter Angry Bull

Mike and Sean were prepared and had strategized their approach. "Our plan was that the bulls would be moving so fast in that corner, they would slam into the wall and we'd let them pass us right there," says Sean. "We'd wait for them to get up and then we'd start running behind them."

But a bull known as "El Universal" would disrupt those plans.

The brothers did not realize El Universal was straggling behind the other bulls and headed right for them.

"I had this sinking sensation," says Mike. "From head to toe, I knew I was in serious trouble. The next thing I know, I got my hand on its head and it just flipped me upside down in an instant." Mike suffered an almost foot-long gash in his leg.

But El Universal wasn't finished. "The bull's left horn flipped Mike up as it stabbed me at the exact same time in the left buttock," says Sean. "Neither of us had any idea what was going on. We just both knew that we were both hit."

As far as can be determined, the Lenahans experienced the first simultaneous goring in the more than 400-year history of the festival.

In a flash, El Universal was gone, leaving the brothers seriously injured -- and scared. "I saw Mike's injury, and I was really worried about him," said Sean. "When you saw his injury, you could see his muscles and his tendons. I wasn't sure if they'd chop off his leg."

Medics responded quickly, rushing the Lenahans to the hospital, where Mike received 30 staples to close the foot-long gash in his leg. They were in the hospital for a week.

Unfotunately, spending time together in a hospital was a nothing new for the brothers. Only a year earlier, Mike faced the possibility of death when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer.

Cancer Fight Brings Brothers Closer Together

But incredibly, Mike took the cancer -- what many would consider an formidable obstacle -- and turned it into a challenge. "You look at yourself in the mirror when you're 23 years old, and you see yourself going bald and overweight. You change as a person. It's either, you sit on the couch and watch life go by, or you actually get out and do cool things," says Mike.

And so the brothers made a pact and promised each other that if Mike survived the cancer they'd do something big together, something adventurous. "Ultimately you ask yourself, what the heck am I doing here? And I am really living?" asked Sean.

When Mike went into remission after four months of chemotherapy, they planned their trip to Pamplona.

The Lenahans were lucky, as their wounds were largely superficial, and they escaped any permanent disability.

"There's scar tissue," says Mike. "I can't believe I'm running again so soon, just like nothing ever happened."

Both of these traumatic events have helped to galvanize the bond between the brothers. "I feel like we got closer through that experience," says Sean. "It's nice to know that when something really bad goes down, both of us immediately found one another without really thinking about it. That's a strong connection."

And in case you're wondering, they'd do it all over again in a heartbeat. "I'd like to finish that race," says Sean. And Mike? "For sure."

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