Vikings assistant offensive line coach Andrew Janocko at Running of the Bulls.
Andrew Janocko stands in a sea of white-and-red, his feet shifting in nervous excitement on the cobblestone street.
The Vikings assistant offensive line coach hears the bang of one rocket go off, signaling that the Encierro – the Running of the Bulls – has commenced, then listens for the second.
All six bulls have now exited the pen and are in the street.
Janocko starts into a jog. If his planning pays off, he will get past “Dead Man’s Corner” before the muscled, charging animals catch up to him.
Shouts mixed with fear and excitement fill the narrow street that cuts between balconied homes, and the pumping of adrenaline matches pace with the sound of pounding hooves growing louder. Janocko rounds the corner and stares ahead at a straight stretch, maybe a few hundred yards, between him and the arena.
“I formulated where I wanted to start and kind of had a strategy,” Janocko later explained. “But once you get down there and see all the people running, that kind of just goes out the window. You’re basically just running.”
The coach counted bulls’ heads as they ran past: one, two, three, four, five and six. Next, the six tamed bell-oxen that help to guide the bulls through the 875-meter course (0.5437 miles).
“One bull ran by me maybe a foot away. And then one steer, I could feel his tail hit me as we were coming into the stadium,” Janocko said.
‘You’ve gotta do it’
The idea to run with the bulls was planted earlier this year when Janocko and his wife, Natalie, planned a trip to Valencia, Spain, where Natalie had studied abroad during college.
“When we decided on Spain, I said, ‘Can I run with the bulls?’ ” Janocko recalled. “It actually fell during the time we would be there, so I kind of just blurted it out, ‘OK, I want to run with the bulls,’ before I got nervous.”
He began researching, learning more about the long-held tradition that takes place during the seven-day festival of San Fermin. He read online articles and watched YouTube videos and safety tutorials.
Then one day during the Vikings Organized Team Activity practices, Janocko brought it up to assistant special teams coordinator Ryan Ficken.
It turns out, Janocko would not be the first of Minnesota’s coaches to run with the bulls, as Ficken checked the run off of his bucket list in 2004.
“Best experience I’ve ever had in my life,” Ficken said, the 15-year-old memory still vivid. “It was unbelievable. Un. Believable. And that’s why I encouraged Janocko – I said, ‘You’ve gotta do it.’ ”
‘It’s a lot of history’
The two coaches’ experiences surrounding the run differ from one another in some ways (beyond the 15 years) while overlapping in others.
While Janocko participated solo, Ficken traveled to Pamplona with two childhood friends, Jason and Trey, and was able to fully immerse himself in the culture thanks to a unique connection.
The trio of friends lived in California, and Trey got to know Fernando, a Pamplona native who was living in Los Angeles for a period of time. Fernando invited the friends to visit Spain and stay with his family, an offer that couldn’t be passed up.
Upon arriving in Spain, Ficken, Trey and Jason were welcomed by Fernando’s father, a well-connected member of the local community. From an intimate meal at an exclusive dining establishment and behind-the-scenes look at the matador locker rooms, to balcony seats overlooking day one of the Running of the Bulls, the Americans were introduced to Pamplona firsthand.
Ficken and two childhood friends with Fernando, Sr. in Pamplona in 2004.
Ficken, a self-proclaimed history buff, valued the deep-rooted culture that envelops the San Fermin festival as well as the run itself.
The Running of the Bulls stems from the 17th or 18th century and is derived from the need to run cattle from outside the city into the market. The tradition takes place each morning of the San Fermin festival, which honors Fermin, a third-century convert to Christianity who was ordained a priest in Toulouse and later returned to Pamplona as its first bishop.
“It’s a lot of history; it’s culturally significant for them,” Ficken explained. “We tried to respect the whole tradition of it. The dad really ingrained that into us, ‘You respect it.’ We didn’t go out the night before; we got rest.
“I think we did it the right way,” Ficken added.
The Running of the Bulls has become more publicized and gained popularity through social media over the years, but Janocko echoed Ficken’s thoughts about the historical significance.
“There were some Americans there, and I met some English speakers, but [by and large] it’s not a touristy thing,” Janocko said. “The people who live there, they’re very proud of the festival and of Saint Fermin – he’s their patron saint. Just going into the chapel and seeing their city, it was really neat. It’s very significant to the locals.”
‘Keep your head on a swivel’
The Vikings coaches each arrived a couple of hours early for their respective runs, the minutes seeming to crawl by in advance of the start.
Janocko compared the waiting period to Sunday mornings before kickoffs during the NFL season.
“It’s a lot like pregame. Because it takes forever,” he emphasized. “But then, as soon as the gun goes off, it goes super quick, and all of a sudden you’re standing in the stadium.”
Ficken recalled his experience in 2004:
“Right when that first bang goes off, the adrenaline starts pumping. When we were running through the course, I lost my buddies,” Ficken said, explaining that oftentimes it’s the runners around you, who get in front of a bull or stumble on the path, that can be dangerous.
“The bulls don’t have peripheral vision, so if you’re to the side of the bull and staying out of the way of everyone else, you’re not going to be in harm’s way,” he continued. “You get into the stadium, and there was this big crowd of people, and I’m like, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to get through this. This is going to be interesting.’ ”
Just as Ficken tried to devise a split-second plan to get through the mass, a final bull “came screaming past” and into the crowd of people.
“Then I was able to get into the stadium,” Ficken said. “It was crazy.”
He and Janocko each used the same term in recounting the moments after entering the arena, where the bullfight would take place later that day: “Keep your head on a swivel.”
Upon reaching the stadium, the six fighting bulls are ushered into corridors, which marks the end of the course. Danger is not immediately dissolved, however; bulls with capped horns are allowed to roam freely in the space.
“When you got into the stadium … that’s where there’s that rush, the real euphoria. But that’s short-lived, too,” Janocko said. “The [second set of] bulls can’t gore you, but they can still run you over. You stand there and have to make a decision – ‘How long am I going to stay? I’ve already played in the fire once today.’
“I don’t exactly have the athletic skills that Josh Norman does,” Janocko continued, referring to a recent viral video of the Redskins cornerback hurdling a bull with capped horns. “So that’s when I said, ‘OK, I’m good. It’s time to get out of the ring.’ ”
Added Ficken: “It’s such a rush of adrenaline that, it’s tough to explain, but you’re just feeling all types of emotion.”
Ask either coach about his life highlights, and he’ll tell you that running with the bulls is among them.
July of 2024 will mark the 20-year anniversary of Ficken’s trip to Pamplona, and he, Jason and Trey have discussed the possibility of bringing their families back to Spain for a return trip.
“It was just such an unbelievable experience,” Ficken reiterated.
Meanwhile as he reflects to just over a week ago, Janocko is grateful that nerves didn’t get the best of him. Although he said Natalie was “petrified” and tried to talk him out of it, she ultimately supported him in the experience and joined the masses to watch him run.
“And I didn’t even say anything to my mom about it until afterwards,” Janocko admitted. “She was pretty upset about it, that I didn’t tell her and just went ahead and did it.
“I was trying not to tell that many people in case I chickened out,” he added with a laugh. “But it kind of got out of the bag, so I really had no choice.”