Running with the Bulls

Running with the Bulls

By J. Erickson

 

A

s the saying goes, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Well in this case, when in Pamplona, Spain, run with the bulls. The San Fermin Festival attracts more than a million visitors to the city of Pamplona, in northern Spain every year. Most come to watch the encierro, aka The Running of the Bulls. There’s more to the fiesta than the encierro; however, and much of it is family friendly. Sightseers pour into town for the concerts, dances, firework displays, and parades featuring marching bands and enormous papier-mâché figures. Then there’s the bullfighting, of course.

Each morning, six large bulls with razor sharp horns, followed by six steers just as large, stampede their way through the narrow cobblestone streets with close to 2,000 thrill seekers running with them. From start to finish, the spectacle lasts less than three minutes, but it’s the most exciting three minutes I’ve ever lived through. Unfortunately, this was the last time these six bulls would run, as they each ended up in the bullring later that evening to meet their fate.

Though there is no formal dress code, the very common and traditional attire is white pants and shirt with a red sash around the waist and a red neckerchief around the neck. You will look out of place if you are wearing anything else, trust me.

 

The Day of the Run

We arrived in the afternoon after missing our train from Barcelona. My plan was to run on the next two days, assuming I didn’t get injured on the first. On the first day of this year’s festival, three people were gored. Laura’s email immediately was bombarded with her concerned friends wondering whether I was still planning on running. “I am running even if ten people get gored!” I stated.

 

The opening ceremony begins at noon on July 6. The Plaza Consistorial is filled with thousands of people, eagerly awaiting permission to tie red scarves around their necks, chanting, “Viva San Fermin!” A rocket is fired into the sky as the celebration begins.

On the morning of my first run, I took my spot in front of the Ayuntamiento de Pamplona, which is an absolutely beautiful building that is several hundred years old. The spectators lined the streets and were protected from the bulls by two sets of heavy duty wooden barriers. When you have so many people running on such narrow cobblestone streets, it can make for a dangerous outcome. I nervously fidgeted with my neckerchief as it got closer to the time the bulls would be released.

 

As a rookie, I experienced the anticipated pre-run jitters; namely an accelerated heart rate and butterflies, just like I used to get before a big game. Half an hour before the run, a small Jumbotron played a public service announcement in Spanish, Basque, and thankfully English, that essentially warned us on what not to do during the race. For example, you should not wear flip-flops, carry backpacks, use your cell phone, etc.

The 90° turn on Calle Mercaderes is known as Dead Man’s Curve and is the most dangerous part of the Running of the Bulls.

As the clock in City Hall inched closer to the time the bulls were to be released, I could feel the tension among the runners as my throat tightened and my heart rate rose. Many runners were jumping up and down anticipating the release of the bulls. The course takes place along approximately 900 yards of ancient narrow cobblestone streets and it is physically impossible to run the entire course, especially in front of the bulls that are running at 35mph. Even Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt doesn’t run that fast. Let me say, the adrenaline rush is inexplicable. Five minutes before the rocket went off, I couldn’t think of anything else but the herd coming up the hill charging towards me.

Finally, the first rocket was fired. It was a warning to the red and white clad hordes of thrill seekers that the bulls have been released from their pens. A second rocket less than 10 seconds later informed the runners that the six massive beasts, each weighing about the same as a small car, had been released into the wine-soaked streets. As the second rocket exploded, I waited for the bulls to come charging. I felt more alive than at any other time in my life.

“I can’t stand it to think my life is going so fast and I’m not really living it.”
— Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

I got caught up in the crowd frenzy and started anxiously running with a pack of strangers even before we saw the bulls. We were literally a quagmire of frantic runners as chaos took over in what must have resembled a rugby scrum. There were runners everywhere as my new pack of unknown friends high- tailed it down the street. I must have been running for at least 30 seconds when I glanced to my right to see (and hear) the first of six massive bulls, el toro bravo, blow by me at incredible speeds. I was no closer than three to four feet from them which was both exhilarating and somewhat disappointing. I role played in my head for weeks how I planned on getting close enough to be brushed by the horns of these half-ton brutes. When it came down to it, I was guilty of first time runner’s syndrome and ran when the crowds ran. I was not fortunate (or unfortunate?) enough to get between the horns of these fast charging animals.

Just when I thought the excitement was over, the six steers came charging by. These are castrated cows with bells around their necks who are much slower and less likely to kill you than the six bulls I encountered earlier. Yes, I totally forgot about them, but they still put a little pep in my step as I scurried to get out of their path. Immediately after the run, the shopkeepers opened up for business and the streets were packed with both runners and visitors as the party continued.

 

Why did I run?

A natural question at this point is why? Mid-life crisis? Absolutely. Thrill-seeking? Certainly. Additionally, this has been at the top of my bucket list for decades. For the Spanish, it’s a rite of passage and reasons for taking part in it vary. For me, it was satisfying a need.

Like most Americans, I live a fairly sedate, so-called normal existence. I work hard every day, pay my taxes, vote, and take out the trash. Periodically I need to let loose and do something to make myself feel alive again. To stand in Pamplona’s medieval town square, with butterflies in my stomach, afraid of the possibilities of what six fighting bulls could do to me was inconceivable. Yet, the feeling is one I would not trade for anything. I also ran because I love doing things that are unconventional, especially in this day and age of boring conformity. I believe it was Alfred E. Newman who stated, “Why be normal?” So, I didn’t think posting another Facebook picture of a trip to Las Vegas was going to get my blood pumping like the encierro would. Proudly, I was one of several thousand thrill-seeking tourists this July who participated in an activity made famous by Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 book, The Sun Also Rises.

It takes great skill to become a good bull runner. There are no awards or first place finishes. There are no rankings, but you know who the experienced runners are. They are viewed as local celebrities and are a fraternity that gathers for eight straight days every July. It takes years to learn how to position yourself, when to take off, and yes, how to get close to the bulls. It is there where you feel the incredible adrenaline rush and where you feel most alive. They run alongside a club of foreigners who keep coming back for more; those who have gained respect by immersing themselves in the San Fermin traditions and rituals. Novices like myself often sprint all the way to the bullring, the so-called “coward’s run”, while the bravest aim to jog just in front of the bulls for as long as possible without being gored. This is known as “running on the horns.”

 

After each day’s run, the first aid stations along the route treat cuts, scrapes, and bruises, most of these are caused by tumbling onto the stone streets, either from clumsiness or from getting knocked down and trampled by panicky runners. The hospitals take care of each day’s broken bones, cracked skulls, and, on bad days, gorings. In a typical year, ten or twelve people are gored.

 

Immediately after running, I got temporary amnesia and completely forgot where I was supposed to meet Laura and wandered the streets for half an hour afterward. Without a cell phone, trying to find someone in a sea of white and red, is nearly impossible. Gathering my senses, I made it back to the hotel and called Laura to tell her I was okay.

 

To stand in Pamplona’s medieval town square, with butterflies in my stomach, afraid of the possibilities of what six fighting bulls could do to me was inconceivable. Yet, the feeling is one I would not trade for anything.

Pamplona was magical, like stepping back into ancient time. The Spanish people had this whole laid back aura about them. Everybody seemed to be in a good mood, smiling, laughing, and partying. All the bars were crowded and everybody was dancing in the streets at all hours of the day and night. We were there for a couple of days and were wiped out trying to keep up the pace with all the revelers. Eight days of this must be like running a marathon.

Every year they roll out the red carpet for visitors from around the world to celebrate San Fermin. I loved the festival so much that for weeks afterward, I would don my white shirt, white pants, and even my neckerchief every evening as I got home from work. It is a daily reminder of what the festival meant to me. Come and run with me in 2018. I guarantee you will never forget the experience!

Jerry D. Erickson is a real estate developer, investor, and adventure seeker. A former jock, he now enjoys watching sports more than participating. Jerry lives with his fiancé and his two sons.

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