Running of the fools

Festival of San Fermín

While 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 event 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.”

July 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 streets of the Old Town, young people drank from bottles, 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, and where to escape. Some of the barricades were already in place for tomorrow’s run.

San Fermin Festival

With 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 presence of tourists, 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 view a few seconds of passing mayhem from rented balconies along the route. Like NASCAR fans hoping for crashes, festival attendees want blood—tramplings and gorings.

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

In preparation, I watched videos and read blog posts about past runs, sifting for wisdom.

To improve my odds, I settled on some guidelines:

There are two bull-run experiences: running at full speed in front of or next to the bulls while dodging horns, leaping bodies, and tempting fate, or jogging along the fringe of the action and watching the herd pass—a relatively safe strategy unless the unexpected happens.

  • Arrive rested.
  • Position myself on a wider street.
  • Stay to the side of the bulls.
  • Stay to the inside of the turns.
  • Know the locations of the escape routes.
  • Don’t follow the bulls into the ring.
Town Hall Square before the run
Town Hall Square before the run

July 12, 2013

Keeping with local tradition, I dressed with the red neckerchief and sash, which I purchased from a vendor 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 could 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 bottles from the course. One man panicked and the police allowed him to leave through the barricade.

Monument to the Bull Run
Monument to the Bull Run

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

I watched for the first sign of the animals, but instead hundreds of runners with terror in their eyes poured around the corner. 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 quickly 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 abruptly quieted.

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. Rob and I found one with a TV showing video of the run.

My disappointment at not being more engaged with the bulls quickly 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 several 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.

Along the course, adults chased squealing kids with wheelbarrows, mounted with the plastic heads of bulls.

The day was hot and humid; the crowds huge and noisy. We ate at a café on the Plaza del Castillo. 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

July 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 grisly 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 horror. Two people were gored and twenty-one others injured.

In the afternoon, the bulls would lose, but in the morning, they reigned with terror.

4 thoughts on “Running of the fools

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.