Running with the Bulls: My Experience
On the top of my list of worldly travel was always the dangerous – and elusive – event in Spain: Running of the bulls.
My mind had conjured thoughts of being chased down narrow streets of stone, with a huge bull barreling down on me. The danger, the risk, and of course the harrowing excitement.
So when the opportunity arose: the chance to be in Spain in August, in Pamplona – the very origin of the running of the bull tradition – I jumped at the chance.
Fast forward to touching down in Bilbao, Spain. 1 hour drive to Pamplona.
Jet lagged after a 14-hour combo of flights, I put down my bags and without bothering to change and headed out with my companion, a local Spanish woman, for my first night of festivities, and to view the layout of the next morning’s running of the bulls.
It was like diving into the heart of a loud, smiling, week-long festival that ran all through the night and overflowed well into the morning – every morning. Streets were covered ankle-deep in cups, cheap plastic wine bottle containers and an endless barrage of remains of day-long celebrating.
People drank and bands played in the streets, as we walked through the exact area which would be converted into a wild bull funnel in time for the following morning. The girl pointed at the invisible walls which would be there to clamber over if you needed to. And the infamous place in the road where bulls slide, losing their balance around a sharp curve, often crushing runners against the wall.
There was real concern in her voice, and my heart began to beat faster as the reality loomed closer. She described an ex-boyfriend who got stomped on his back by a bull during the running one year, and spent 6 months in the hospital in a full body-cast. She described how her uncle jumped out of his window down to the cool morning streets below, to kick off the running of the bulls each year, as his own personal tradition.
She explained how nobody runs except a very small number of locals that know how to run. She tried to talk me out of it.
Each day the news reported the injury/death count for the morning. And the rules were simple: no drinking, stay on your feet, and whatever you do, don’t get stuck between a bull and the wall…
The next morning I woke up late.
I didn’t bother to let the shower warm up as I jumped in and briskly showered to start the day. My mind was racing and heart pounding. As I ate a banana, sipped an instant coffee, another visiting friend from Vancouver asked me again – wide-eyed – if I was actually still going to run.
I was. And off we went.
Travelling there felt like ages, and we walked in the cool early morning through drunks still going from the night before, and of course the massive crowd that had gathered all up and down the streets for the bull-running event of the day.
Cops everywhere. News vans parked. The street barricaded off everywhere.
We pushed through the crowd, finding a place to enter. I fought my way through dense crowds, and felt the crowd’s eyes on me as I stepped alone out over the fence and climbed over. I then ducked through the horizontal space of a second final fence to enter the street. But a police officer saw me as I came through and quickly stopped me in my tracks. He spoke sternly in a series of words that I couldn’t understand.
I spoke back instinctively in English, telling him that I was there to run, but was cut off as he put his hand firmly on the back my neck and shoved me back through the horizontal gap of the fence from which I had come.
I was too late. They weren’t letting anybody else in, especially a foreigner like myself.
I rejoined the two girls and told them the situation, so we walked further up the road, closer to where the bulls were released, and my local girl whispered, “go sneak through there.”
I instantly snuck through, hopped a fence stealthily past the officers as they weren’t looking, and slipped into the crowd unnoticed.
The energy of that street was one of intensity. My heart was pounding.
I walked further back up the street to the location I’d strategically picked out the night before. I felt an ocean of excitement and anxiety of the packed crowd, hanging over every inch of overhead railing, window and space, craning for a view in the narrow European streets.
I looked overhead and had the most perfect picturesque moment. I saw an old set of church bells ring as birds flew past overhead the narrow streets, and behind the backdrop of a clear blue sky. This was my first trip to Europe and it was perfect.
It was now ready. The candles were lit at the beginning of the bull-running stretch. Everyone sang in Spanish in unison the traditional song. Chills ran up and down my spine as the loud unison around me chanted together the final times – and then everyone broke off, stretching and preparing psychologically if anything, for the run.
The bulls I knew weighed over 1200 pounds. There was going to be a single crack of fireworks to go to signify the release of the bulls. The bulls typically ran the entire 2 KM in 2:30 minutes. They ran faster uphill than on level ground, they ran much faster than humans, and their horns were sharp.
Fast, heavy and built to gore.
Some men were jumping up and down, slapping each other excitedly on the backs, and others praying silently as they stood ready in their chosen spots. I looked forward, feeling as ready as I would ever feel, that familiar coursing of fear and excitement through my veins – and then I heard the unmistakable loud explosion behind me out of my sight. They were coming.
Tension built instantly in the people around me. We waited nervously. There were panicky movements in some around – some were already running, others standing still, we had time before the bulls bore down on us. The crowds above surrounded us as they cried and cheered even louder in the heat of the thrill.
I felt like what the ancient gladiators must have felt like. Like fools in the arena, awaiting danger and violence to come their way, as the safe, out-of-touch spectators cheered them on. It felt indescribable.
I started jogging forward, trying to clear people aside and prepare to bolt as I needed to. Suddenly a wave of panic washed forward as people started yelling, running forward as fast as they could. And I could feel a huge build–up of energy coming up from behind me, coming up on us fast.
Panic and pandemonium broke loose. We all started running together. Some ahead, some behind, getting pushed and pulled in a million directions in the midst of screaming and yelling and intensity raining down all around us. I ran as fast as the maddened crowd would let me.
The massive build up of energy behind me quickly grew stronger and stronger and stronger, and finally, as one with the crowd we parted and ran off to the right. A split second later I saw and felt a massive wall of bull and horn blast past by me. 6 bulls in total, running in close proximity as a single unit – and running FAST. Felt like a ball of the most intense energy blasting past at arm’s length.
And just as quick as they were there, they were gone.
Breathing fast, I walked forward to see some people getting up from injuries – a hurt arm here, a man sitting on the ground, not yet getting up. And myself unscratched.
I knew then that it was that feeling of intensity why they run every year. An almost indescribable rush that can’t seem to be found anywhere else. My only thought running through my head was: I want more.
I wished I had been closer. I wished it had lasted longer. My only regret floating in my head was that I hadn’t started further down along the stretch, where the bulls run a little slower… envy filled me as I later watched men on TV that managed to stay sprinting ahead of a bull, even reaching out to touch one as it eventually passed by.
The streets were ringing with excitement as I continued forward, following the cultural precession and path of the bulls, and finally stepped up and hopped over the fence back into the public. Some people had scrapes from the horns across the skin of their backs as the paramedics looked over them. Another man was being put onto a stretcher.
But no deaths, and no serious injuries that day.
The bulls? Continued onward into the coliseum, where later that day I saw them processed through the cultural dance of matador versus bull. Where armed with a sword and flag, man stood up against beast and horn amidst a packed coliseum coursed with celebration, flying drinks and abandoned bands playing.
Later that day I was to watch the slow bloody death as each bull, one by one, struggled instinctively for survival. With sharp swords sticking out of their back, and black fur slick with wet red blood. I would watch the slow psychological and physical defeat as each bull went down in a final collapse – one by one – at the hand of each courageously adored Spanish matador. Watching and conscious to the irony of the violence and death that was foreground to such loud and colourful excitement. Stabbing and final shuddering deaths before a bright, social celebration. Dead limp bulls with rope around their leg, dragged away by horse, to the loud, smiling beat of local brass and drum bands.
It was all I had imagined it could be and more. Lucky to be with an amazing group of locals as friends, I saw a level of depth of the “San Fermin” Running-of-the-Bulls festivities that most visitors don’t get the chance to see. It was one of the most important and exciting events I have seen in Spain, and one I will certainly never forget.
July 13, 2012