LEXINGTON -- As he ran through the twisting streets and watched two bulls race past him, no one could blame Andy Freiheit if he reconsidered his decision to come to Pamplona.
Then again, they wouldn't know Freiheit, the former multi-sport Lexington High School athlete who celebrated his 30th birthday earlier this month by participating in the famous "running of the bulls" through the centuries-old streets in northern Spain.
It was in high school Spanish class that Freiheit learned about the famous runs, part of the nine-day Festival of Sanfermines in honor of Saint Fermin.
"I just graduated from grad school, so the timing worked out perfectly as part of my 18-day backpacking trip through Spain," Freiheit said. "Being adventurous is part of my identity and I enjoy physical and mental challenges."
'MORE THAN A BULL RUN:' Freiheit, the son of Greg and Janie Freheit, is moving to Manhattan soon to start a new job, doing private equity consulting for PwC Strategy&.
He earned a mechanical engineering degree at The Ohio State University after high school and worked for Johnson & Johnson, Dow Chemical and Alcoa.
A former class president, Freiheit jumped at an opportunity recently to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, receiving a spot in a program in which he earned an MBA and also a master's degree in mechanical engineering at the same time.
He wanted a new adventure before settling into his new work routine.
"I think the world would be a better place if everyone would just throw a backpack on to travel the country and the world and experience other cultures, governments, religions and points of view," Freiheit said.
Toward that end, he chose to experience the festival as much like a local as possible, staying at an Airbnb (with no air conditioning) with local residents close to the bullring. People from Germany and France stayed in the same location.
He learned some of the locals have been running with bulls for decades.
"One local said you should be experienced or fast, but it's good to be both. I lack the former, but luckily I am still relatively fast," he said with a smile.
Freiheit compared the festival to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, with lots of celebrations and little sleep.
"It's a lot more than a bull run," he said. "I took a high-speed train there and met people already dressed for the occasion (in the traditional white with red trim). They played music for us and we danced and partied the whole way.
"When I arrived, the party never stopped. Bars were always open. Bands were always playing. People were always smiling and dancing," he said.
JOINING THE BULLS: It was all business on the morning of Freiheit's half-mile run. Participants need to get into the streets at least 30 minutes before the run that snakes along narrow streets through the Casco Viejo (Old Quarter) of Pamplona.
On paper, it's only 875 meters. But the streets are riddled with hazards for both runners and animals. There are sharp right angles, perilous slopes, uneven pavements and a tricky bottleneck at the end where the bulls are funneled into the bullring.
More than a dozen runners have died since record-keeping began in 1910.
"Multiple police checkpoints confirm nobody is drunk or carrying anything illegal," Freiheit said. "Everybody is singing in the narrow streets that are lined with spectators on the six-story balconies."
Law enforcement and organizers make sure restaurants and bars are closed and boarded up along the route.
"That keeps the bulls contained, but it also means you're basically trapped in with them -- no turning back," Freiheit said.
Canons are fired to let runners know the bulls have been released.
"That's when it turned from nervous excitement to 'oh sh..!" Freiheit said. "You see people jogging slowly, then you hear the bells on the (bulls') necks. Then it's off to the races.
"A couple of bulls ran by me, then I ran next to the third bull all the way into the stadium," he said. "During the run, I saw multiple people get run over or tossed. The runners try to distract and pull the bull when it was on top of people.
"They had bloody noses and bodies, but I think people had so much adrenaline that they didn't act injured.
"Running into the stadium was the closest I'll ever feel to a gladiator. The entire Roman design-inspired (Plaza de Toros de Valencia) stadium was filled with about 12,000 people dressed in white cheering us on."
After the last bull entered the stadium, the gates were closed and Freiheit got to celebrate with other runners who successfully made the trek.
"For the next 30 minutes, they would release one smaller bull into the arena and it ran around until it got tired. People would try to touch the bull. NFL player Josh Norman was there this year and he jumped over one," Freiheit said.
THE PARTY CONTINUES: Freiheit went to the bullring where the bulls from his morning run take on a matador.
"It got rained out, but the experience was almost the same. Supposedly, most of the crowd doesn't even watch it. They bring in literally buckets of sangria and other alcohol and a ton of food. You can buy food there, but the experienced (fans) come prepared.
"Small bands play songs and the crowd sings along like they are at a soccer game. The old concrete seats add to the cultural experience," he said.
The actual run was just a small part of the fun, according to Freiheit.
"I met locals who introduced me to all their friends and family, and even invited me over for a great homemade Spanish dinner.
"My advice (to people) is go! Even if you're not going to run with the bulls. the festival is an amazing cultural experience. The locals welcome you with open arms -- and plenty of sangria!"