Running with the Bulls in Pamplona

running of the bulls

This is a quick post about running with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. I provide a narrative of my foolishness, photos and videos. This is a self-guided adventure on a shoestring for males with large balls and small brains (most males I guess;-)

One cold and dark winter a friend asked me if I would join him in Pamplona, Spain for the running of the bulls in July. The prospect didn’t appear appealing, but I reluctantly agreed because it was many months away and therefore remote and unlikely. Naturally in July I was in Pamplona for the dreaded meeting of bulls, alcohol, and stupidity.

The Running of the Bulls, ‘El Encierro’ is the daily main event that draws many of the world’s fools (especially Australians) during the religious festival ‘Los Sanfermines,’ which runs from July 7 through 14th. This is an Easy ActivityThe festival actually begins at noon, on July 6, at the ‘chupinazo’ when thousands gather in front of the Town Hall for fireworks, showers of champagne, ketchup, flour, and corks. I say corks because that was the most entertaining part for me to watch. The balconies around the Town Hall square are filled with observers and participants that pop champagne and shower the crowd below. The crowd retaliates by throwing the corks back at the perpetrators. Very quickly it event turns into an all out cork fight with buckets of water dowsing the crowd when the champagne runs out. This drunken event begins the marathon 24 hour a day drinking, dancing, singing festival.

The festival and the Running of the Bulls were a local traditional event that made the big time when Ernest Hemingway included it in his novel, ‘The Sun Also Rises,’ after he witnessed the runs from his hotel balcony. The town of Pamplona is so grateful for the new-found popularity that they erected a brass cast of his likeness in front of the bull ring. I find the gratitude a curious result since the millions of visitors turn this peaceful and spiritual fortress town (it is part of the Camino de Santiago) into a giant urinal with every square foot of the old town crowed with drunks and any patch of grass inhabited by passed out party revelers. The events, bands, parties, bars and food concessions remain open day and night during the entire endurance festival. Do the locals really appreciate millions of drunks and hawkers taking over their town for nine days?

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I awoke late the next day when Ed and Spike returned to the room triumphantly. They had just run with the bulls and made it into the ring for the post-run hour of small bull stupidity. I had slept through the first event without regrets when I was told that a 31 year old New York guy had his back broken in the ring by a bull and was now paralyzed for life.

I did regret the loss of my camera however. It seemed that during the wild night of dancing and drinking that I had become separated from my tiny camera of two years. The camera had recently taken a swim in salt water (see Everglades Kayak trip) and was acting up so it wasn’t a huge loss, but the photos from the previous three days and the night’s crazy party were now lost forever. I felt the loss of the photos keenly.

The boys crashed while I got up and showered and went out to explore the town. I returned later in the afternoon to collect the crew and we went out on the town again for a re-take, but this time I adopted a new tactic to ensure that I wouldn’t miss the main event again. At some point in the evening I became separated from the boys and attached myself to new interests in order to stay awake all night. I returned to the room to rouse the boys at 6:30am. After much grumbling and many delays (thanks Ed) we set out for the town center.

We worked out way around to the east side of the run and then to the beginning near Santo Domingo. We were dressed appropriately in the traditional white shirt and pants (which I had lifted from a drunk in the park), red scarf’s around waists and red handkerchiefs around our necks. We then crossed over the thick wooden rails to enter the throng. We were packed in like sardines and I was very aware of the knot in my throat and the press of nervous bodies. Ed said that there were a lot more people than the previous day (confirmed as double the previous day’s number by the newspaper the following day).

At 10 to eight a gate at the head of the pack was opened and we were free to advance up the road to any position in the run. We moved forward to gain some space at the expense of a safe exit. Beyond the Town Hall square the road runs between barracked shops and tall narrow balcony buildings with no exit other than the end of the run, which is the actual bull ring (think ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire’). At eight the bells of San Saturnino ring and a rocket fires to warn that the gate holding back the bulls has been opened.

Very quickly two additional rockets are fired to indicate that the bulls have all left the compound and are running. The seven bulls (many of which are massive beasts weighing over 600 kg each) are actually preceded by eight giant steers. The steers (less dangerous) essentially clear the way for the bulls. The path for the bulls is not actually cleared due to the number of bodies and the foolhardiness of the participants. The primary objective is to survive the run, but some fools actually try to run in among or in front of the bulls (called mozos or corredores) which results in daily goring and even fatalities (the last one in 1995). The bulls are unforgiving beasts with a very bad temperament and the mass of moving freight trains.

I began jogging the minute I heard the first rocket and then picked up speed at the second rockets. I had been told that the entire run lasts less than three minutes and that the bulls are on you seconds after you hear and feel their hoof beats. I felt the surge of fear and adrenaline in the crowd of watchers and the runners as the first hoof beats echoed off the shop fronts. I was literally lifted and carried away with the runners as my stomach knotted, my body pushed me ahead, and my mind tried to rationalize and record the events.

My body seemed to have taken the initiative for self preservation while my brain attempted to apply logic in slow motion. Arms from handlers and first aid workers on the barricades were reaching down and gesticulating in slow motion that we needed to move faster. Suddenly I passed under into the shade of an alcove and then burst out into an enormous white sand ring to the sound of screaming crowds and waving arms. Like the release of pressure when water exits a garden hose I felt the momentum subside as I drifted to the side the ring.

I stopped and stared in wonder at the thousands of screaming and hysterical faces. ‘So this is what a gladiator feels,’ I thought as fellow runners pranced about with their arms extended above their heads and screamed cries of triumph. And then remarkably, the volume and sense of group adrenaline ratcheted up another notch as the steers burst into the ring at breathless pace. They crossed the ring to the exit gate, at the opposite side, in barely a breath and before my mind could adjust to the shock of their presence among us.

The smell of fear and excitement registered with the crowd as they screamed even louder. Dazed I turned my head from the crowd in time to see the first of the seven black beasts charge into the ring with nostrils flared and hatred in the black sinister eyes. The creature knew its dignity had been wronged by the antics of the runners and the crowd and it was not in a forgiving mood. Fortunately, its momentum carried it clear across the ring and out the other side before it could even contemplate the thousands of milling bodies that were trapped in the ring for its potential payback. The remaining six bulls followed in its wake at heartbreaking speed. It was suddenly over and my mind still had not caught up to the events that had transpired.

My previous experiences with the dark reaper had all been long and drawn out encounters with nature and the elements. The suddenness of these fearful creatures was radically different. Here a creature could change the course of my life in a matter of seconds and my brain seemed to be absorbing events after the fact. Perhaps staying out all night hadn’t been the brightest technique for a first time runner.

At this point the crowd grew merry and the runners milled about while I searched for Ed and Spike. For the first time I realized that we had become separated. I continued to search for them as the crowed began to cheer with anticipation. I wondered vaguely what would come next. The boys had told me that after the run small bulls would be let loose in the ring for our (and the bull’s) amusement. Even with that advance knowledge I was surprised when a bull (that did not look small in the least) burst out into the ring like a bat out of hell. Now I understood how one had broken the back of a runner the previous day.

Fools had actually crouched down at the gate opening so that the bull would have to jump over them (or more likely plow through them). I watched with apprehension as the bull tore through the runners, tossing, goring, and worrying them with horns and hoofs when they fell and the crowd screamed in bloody approval. The entire time runners continued to dash past the bull’s nose or rear to strike it with a rolled up newspaper. In time when the bull tired a giant steer was released into the ring to collect and lead it out. Very quickly the fools (mostly Australian and New Zealand) re-aligned themselves for the next bout. Naturally as a male I had to become just as foolish (blame my Australian heritage if you must), so I picked up a dropped newspaper and joined the fray.

I ran, jumped, skidded, about the ring in pursuit, or pursued, by the bull as my adrenalin levels ricocheted about in my blood. At times I was exhausted and at others exhilarated, especially when the bull clipped me and sent me sprawling in its path. I scrambled to my knees a mere meter in front of the bull as it eyed me and kicked dirt up from under its front hooves. I was poised to dash to either side when it charged when I felt a hand on my shoulder and a fellow runner say, ‘freeze.’ I froze and the bull became distracted by another runner who dashed past to tap it on the head with a coiled newspaper.

The bull bolted off in his direction. I stood dazed as I brushed off the dirt and a fellow runner ran up to hand me back my baseball hat (that had been knocked off when I tumbled in front of the bull). I thanked him and retired to the limited safety of the outer ring walls. My close call effectively brought me back to my senses. I avoided the bull and the surging runners for the next two bulls while I waited for this ridiculous event (Russian Roulette of Bulls) to conclude.

When the last bull was finally chased out of the ring I sighed in relief and felt very tired. I had not slept the previous night and I felt as though I had just completed a marathon. I was spent physically and emotionally. Ed and Spike then appeared as if apparitions and we exited the ring in silence. I knew at that moment that I had done something very stupid that morning and that I needed to learn not to fall victim to peer pressure and group stupidity again. But at the same time I was also quite happy to be a member of an elite group of brave fools; those that have run with the bulls in Pamplona.

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