Running of the fools

Festival of San FermínWhile still a year out from my extended trek, I was asked by friends Rob and Mandy to tag along on a driving tour of northern Spain and southern France.

The invitation followed a discussion Rob and I had about the Running of the Bulls at the annual Festival of San Fermín in Pamplona.

He had participated in the run twice before and I was intrigued by the idea of running it with a veteran. It was an invitation I couldn’t refuse.

To read about the trip beyond Pamplona, please see the next post, “Shakedown tour of the Pyrenees.”

7.11.2013

After our overnight flight to Barcelona, we flew on to Pamplona via Vueling. Groggy, we checked into our hotel outside of the Old Town. Everywhere, people were dressed in traditional white and red for the Festival of San Fermín. Even the cab drivers.

In the Old Town, young people drank from bottles in the street, their whites stained purple with spilled wine. Flag-waving bands played on the corners. The streets steamed in the heat. Rob and I walked the bull-run course from corral to ring, discussing strategy, where to start, where to escape. Some of the barricades were already in place for tomorrow’s run.

San Fermin FestivalWith family and friends, I was intentionally low-key about the bull run. I knew some of them would disapprove. For good reason, some call it the “Running of the Fools.” I was, however, fascinated with the tradition and, I must confess, the danger.

If it weren’t for the tourism, the bulls likely would be transported to the ring by truck. But thousands of participants and tens of thousands of onlookers demand the spectacle.

Some pay hundreds of dollars to rent balconies overlooking the route for a few seconds of passing mayhem. They want blood–tramplings and gorings. Like NASCAR fans, they hope for crashes.

The runners, I imagine, want bragging rights and the rush of adrenaline that comes with risking their lives on the cobblestone streets of Pamplona.

In preparation, I watched videos and read blog posts about past runs, sifting for wisdom. There are two bull-run experiences: One can run at full speed with the bulls for a short distance, dodging horns, leaping bodies and tempting fate. Or one can jog along the side and watch the herd pass, a relatively safe strategy–unless the unexpected happens.

Town Hall Square before the run

Town Hall Square before the run

To improve my odds, I settled on some guidelines:

  • Arrive rested.
  • Position myself on a wider street.
  • Stay to the side of the bulls.
  • Stay inside on the corners.
  • Know the locations of the escape routes.
  • Don’t follow the bulls into the ring.

7.12.2013

Keeping with tradition, I dressed with the red neckerchief and sash I purchased on the street yesterday. At 7 a.m., Rob and I walked to the course. Along the way, we passed revelers bleary-eyed from a night of drinking.

We entered the course at Town Hall Square, Rob’s best bet for safety. The area is more spacious than most of the route. He figured the bulls would go wide around the corner onto Mercaderes, and we would be safe on the inside of the turn. I stood along the barricade, thinking I would climb it quickly or dive between the railings if threatened.

As the hour approached, the tension on the street was palpable. The runners, nearly all men, stretched apprehensively and talked quietly. Their mood made it clear: This is serious business. Somebody could die here today.

I recalled Rob’s assessment: “If you’re going to get gored, Pamplona is the place. Their doctors are experts.”

EMS teams and journalists arrived. Police ordered runners to remove backpacks and discard bottles. One man panicked and the police allowed him to leave the course through the barricade.

Monument to the Bull Run

Monument to the Bull Run

We heard the first rocket: the corral gates were open. The crowd roared. Then, the second: all of the bulls were on the course–and just down the hill from my location.

I watched for the first sign of the animals. Instead, hundreds of runners poured around the corner with terror in their eyes. The street filled with bodies, all shoving in a panic.

The policemen behind me yelled for us to run. As runners bumped into me, I moved along the barricade.

Suddenly, the animals were in front of me–a blur of black and brown. I counted eight, four bulls, I thought, and four steers. The crowd chased them around the corner onto Mercaderes and the square grew quiet.

Was it over? Was this all there was to running with the bulls? And where were the other two bulls? We followed the crowd.

Suddenly, I heard “Bula! Bula! Bula!” in my ears. Damn, there were still bulls on the course behind me. I flattened myself against a brick wall. Then I heard the cowbells. Four docile guide-steers ran through the street, indicating that all six of the bulls were already past me in the first group of eight. I laughed at my fear.

That's me cowering against the barricade just below and to the left of the runner in the yellow shirt.

That’s me cowering against the barricade just below and to the left of the runner in the yellow shirt.

Minutes later, we heard the third and fourth rockets: all of the bulls were now in their pens at the ring. Along the route, an EMS team loaded an injured runner into an ambulance. The bars opened and we found one with a TV showing video of the run.

Quickly, my disappointment at not being more engaged with the bulls turned into relief as I saw the carnage that had occurred on the course. One of the bulls, separated from the herd, spent nearly thirty seconds lifting and tossing a helpless runner on its horns. Another bull injured an American, just a few yards from my location in Town Hall Square.

In all, three runners were gored and others trampled. The video was gut-wrenching to watch. The danger is real. While thrilled to have participated, I felt lucky to have escaped harm.

After the run

After the run

We met Mandy at the parade route of the gigantes and wandered the streets of Old Town, visiting the Church of San Lorenzo, the Cathedral of Santa Maria and the Museum of Navarre.

Adults with the plastic heads of bulls mounted on wheelbarrows chased kids in a fun run on the course. We ate at a cafe on the Plaza del Castillo. The day was hot and humid, the crowds huge and noisy.

After a siesta at the hotel, we attended the evening’s bullfight at the Plaza de Toros. Our seats were in the shade on the upper deck.

A man in the row behind us offered plastic cups of ice-cold cava. We watched six fights. One by one, all of the bulls from this morning’s run were dispatched with flamboyance.

The fans were loud and enthusiastic. It could have been a college football game. Despite the history, the ritual and consideration for cultural differences, the bulls are tortured, plain and simple. Their deaths are painfully slow.

Plaza de Toros

7.13.2013

Again, Rob and I walked to the course in the Old Town at 7 a.m. This time, as spectators, we waited on Estafeta near the last turn into the ring. Once the bulls entered the arena, we found a bar and watched the replay.

Again, a horrific day. A pile-up of runners, bulls and steers occurred at the entrance to the ring near where we stood, turning it into a mosh pit of terror. Two people were gored and twenty-one others injured.

In the ring, the bulls always lose, but on the streets of Pamplona, they reign with terror.

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4 Responses to Running of the fools

  1. Barbie Ryan says:

    Whew! Love your commentary, Keerk! Glad you have lived to tell this tale.

  2. Lee Kliesch says:

    Who knew you had these hidden longings? Glad the bulls didn’t get you. Once is enough, I hope.

  3. John Bauman says:

    After enlarging the photo I finally spotted you, hands crossed across your chest as if in prayer! (Somehow, I hardly thinks so.)

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