Running with the bulls

Running With The Bulls in Pamplona, Spain



Running with the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain was originally published in 2013.

 

Running with the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain

In perpetual pursuit of fulfilling my insatiable thirst for adventure, I have just returned from a life-changing voyage to experience Running With The Bulls in Pamplona, Spain.

The festival of San Fermin occurs annually on the seventh day of the seventh month (July 7th for the bunglers among us), most famously known for their daily bullfights and the fabled "Running With The Bulls." Each morning at 8am a dozen two tonne bulls, along with a dozen or so steers, are released from their enclosure and directed through empty cobblestone streets to the arena in which the evening's bullfights will occur. Since the 14th century , brave men have donned the traditional garb of white pants and shirts with a red sash and neckerchief and attempt to prove their manhood by running along side the oversized beasts.

Initially popularized to the western world by Ernest Hemingway in his legendary novel Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises (highly recommended), the festival now attracts participants and spectators from all corners of the world. The majority of information I have after this point consists of drunk youtube accounts from Australian vagabonds and animal rights activists seeking the end of the festival.  Regardless, I had no doubt we'd make it a memorable event and cross one more item off the bucket list.

 

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All participants line up in front of the corral as the policia erect iron barricades on the sides of the street and clear the path of bystanders before they, themselves vacate as well.  After the course is clear, the men sing a chant to the patron saint of the festival asking him to protect them.

 

A San Fermín pedimos, por ser nuestro patrón, nos guíe en el encierro dándonos su bendición"
("We ask Saint Fermín, as our Patron, to guide us through the encierro and give us his blessing")

 

Spectators line the barricades, perch from balcony vantage points above and pack the giant stadium for an up close and personal view of the spectacle. We elected to begin our run near the start of the course to ensure we had the opportunity to run through “Deadman’s Curve,” a sharp hairpin turn notorious for cloven hoofs to slip and carnage to ensue.  At this point it basically becomes a shit show of taunting giant monsters.  This is where the last death occur when a bull gored an American participant three times and basically ripped him a new asshole.

Minutes prior the run the streets were abuzz with cocky banter and inebriated highfives.  But as the seconds ticked by the tone become noticeable more somber.  We stood still awaiting the commencement and occasionally a lone runner would sprint past, prompting all others to quickly evaluate their surroundings.  A few runners decidedly exited the course moments prior.  I watched as one man trembled in fear as a urinated himself before jumping the barrier and leaving.

A single rocket is fired to signify the corral door is opened and a second is fired alerting the runners that all animals have exited.  At that point it becomes a 900m foot race between tourists (affectionately referred to as Gambereos, meaning Stupid Drunks, by the locals), the Spanish, many of whom have participated annually and a dozen unstoppable battering rams equipped with razor-sharp horns, cloven hooves and an attitude problem. You watch as wave after wave sprint past as you crane your next in hopes to see the animals yet several times it is a false alarm.

But when the bulls arrive, there is no mistaking their presence.

The ground shakes as the thundering herd of bovine monsters race past, effortlessly parting the sea of white clad participants like a hot knife slicing through butter.  Elbows from jostling participants as a means of self preservation fly and the roar of the audience fills the air as the participants begin running with the bulls.

We began our first run from the very start but in our efforts to complete the entire course we were caught in a backlog of people.  The police closed a backflow gate immediately after Deadman’s Curve to prevent disoriented bulls from running in the wrong direction.  We waited impatiently until we were cleared to continue but at this point we would not reach the stadium in time

Not satisfied with our GoPro footage from the previous day we began on Day Two from slightly past the barricade. Unfortunately there was a zero tolerance policy for cameras on the course and Sarkis was caught trying to use his resulting in a forceful ejection.  In an effort to hide mine until the last possible moment I accidentally switched the GoPro to Picture mode and missed the first half of my run.  I was able to get into a good run stride and place a hand on the bull’s flank before they sped past me. The run continues until all the bulls and a capped number of participants enter the Plaza Del Toros, where the bullfights will occur later that night.  A third and fourth rocket a fired to alert the runners that the run is over and all bulls are now in the stadium.

A long, narrow and dark tunnel become a funnel as runners pack in.  This can be seen on any number of “Why the Running of the Bulls is stupid” videos on youtube.  If unimpeded by fellow runners you pass through the darkness and triumphantly emerge, initially blinded by the light, into a perfectly round sand floored stadium to the cheers of 30,000 spectators.

Rejoicement is short lived as the fight bulls from the run are ushered through to a separate holding pen and “baby bulls” are released one at a time for a total of six waves.

These juvenile bulls are around two years old and weigh well over 1000 lbs.  With their horns capped there is little chance of impalement but a near certainty of getting messed up if they catch you.  It is a point of pride amongst the participants to ride alongside and attempted to touch the beasts without the predictable outcome of death by trampling and impalement.

The crowd rewards bravery and openly mocks cowardliness.  Should one successfully execute an amateur bullfighting maneuver they are met with cheers and admiration. However, should someone in any way disrespect the animals by striking them, pulling a tail or otherwise, they are beaten relentlessly by the locals.   It is an interesting dynamic.  The creatures are highly revered.

This was easily one of the greatest experiences of my short life thus far.  I always say that this world is too big to repeat an experience too soon while there is still so much else to experience but I will absolutely return to this festival one day.  I hope I can maintain a level of athleticism to permit me to bring my future son on his eighteenth birthday.  But until then, the world is too vast to dream small.

Has anyone else been fortunate enough to share this experience? How did yours differ from mine? 

Be sure to check out my Youtube page to see more of my adventures.

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