Pamplona: Running of the Bulls - 'I came, I saw, I ran for my life'
Stars and Stripes June 19, 2003
See end of story for tips on watching or taking part ... with a warning about the latter.
It’s early morning on a slippery, cobbled street packed with people from nearly every corner of the world. Many of them are hung over from the night before or still drunk.
I’m standing in the middle of the madness fairly sober, stretching like a track star and reciting the “Lord’s Prayer” to myself.
I don’t go to church nearly as often as a good Catholic should, but when you’re at the end of a narrow street waiting for a stampede of angry bulls to come at you, it makes you get religion.
Then, the revelation: I’m about to do something insanely stupid even though I’m not crazy or brain dead. I have enough brain cells left to know that the wise thing to do is to stand off to the side and watch these other thrill seekers take the senseless risk.
I don’t have to do this.
But the sad part is that I can’t seem to push my way out of the crowd and head for a safer spot.
I want to run with the bulls.
How I got to this point I’m not sure. Over the course of the last four days, I waffled over whether I would take the chance. My wife told me before I left for Pamplona’s San Fermín festival, “You’d better not run. Promise me you won’t run.”
“Well,” I answered, “If a 1,200-pound bull is coming at me, I have no choice but to run.”
She didn’t think that was funny.
I decided to run the day before our last day in Basque country.
The annual fiesta, made famous by Ernest Hemingway’s 1927 novel, “The Sun Also Rises,” is eight days of drinking and debauchery.
What most people don’t know is that the same people who run take their drinking at the bars with the same reckless enthusiasm. The festival does not stop for eight days. People literally drink and party all night until the morning’s bull run. Then they sleep — often in a local park. Sometimes they find the street just as comfortable and convenient.
The San Fermín festival has been celebrated for centuries, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that the bull-runnings, known as encierros, became a central event to the big party.
Each day, at 8 a.m., six toro bravos are released along a half-mile route through the city streets. The bull-running started out of practicality. The bulls needed to be moved from the countryside to the bullring. But, for unknown reasons, people began sprinting in front of the bulls for kicks.
The festival now has become world famous and attracts thousands of people and the running of the bulls is on every adrenaline junkie’s to-do-before-I-die list. The feat always seemed like the type of extreme challenge that would be cool to do, but common sense overruled.
If I was going to run, I wanted to do some research.
Soon after we arrived in Pamplona, we met several Americans who proudly called themselves bull-running aficionados. Some of the more-experienced runners suggested that it would be a bad idea for a rookie like me to watch a run before taking part. Seeing would be terrifying.
They were right.
I paid 25 euros to stand atop a balcony overlooking the final stretch of the run down Estafeta Street, the route’s long straightaway.
There are plenty of spots to see the race along the route for free, but if you don’t get there two hours before the first bull leaves the pen, you might as well forget it. There are two rows of fences. The interior is for medical personnel and runners trying to avoid a bull. Spectators must watch behind a second fence that doesn’t offer too many good views unless you can perch on top of the wooden railing. For 4 euros, you can find a seat at the end of the route in the bullring.
From the balcony, I saw one guy fall and a bull barreled over him.
The man looked dead, but, surprisingly, he got up. One of the emergency-response teams waiting off to the side helped him to his feet.
That day, the bulls gored two people and injured six. But that run couldn’ t compare with the mayhem on the first day.
Spain’s most famous annual festival got off to a dangerous start on Sunday.
Six people were injured, including a 19-year-old woman from Kansas. The dew-covered streets provided a slippery surface for the 2,000 runners and the six bulls. A typical run takes about three minutes. But this one took about seven minutes.
Two days later, the run lasted nearly 12 minutes — the longest-lasting encierro in 20 years.
The bulls from breeder Santiago Domecq Bohórquez gored five runners along Estafeta Street. One bull, Portentoso, turned back several times and charged and gored several runners. American Justin Brando, 22, suffered an 8-inch gash to his right thigh that went to the bone.
You don’t have to run to get your heart pumping. Just watching gives you a rush. You would think that would be enough for me.
After a few drinks at Café Iruna, one of Hemingway's old haunts, I decided that this might be my only chance to do it. Making what could be a life-or-death decision over a few drinks at the bar might seem ridiculous. And you're right. It is. But talking to people who had done it convinced me.
“It’s just one of those experiences,” said Maj. John Vogel, a U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter pilot. “It’s something you have to do.”
Veteran runners implored me to map out the route in my head and to make sure I wasn’t drunk if I decided to run. Seemed like good advice. Only tourists get smashed at the discoteca and then run. Also, most runners don’t go the entire route, I was told. They pick a spot along the route and run it as far as they can.
“People who run the whole route are crazy,” said Fermin Esparza, a Pamplonian who has been running for years.
I took mental notes and figured out my strategy. I had visions of starting on Estafeta Street and running with the pack into the ring in triumph. I also decided that if I was going to run, I should look like I belonged.
I went in search of the official running of the bulls uniform: white pants and top with the red scarf and sash. I bought my garb at one of the dozens of stands hocking every type of festival gear you could possibly want, from T-shirts to wine pouches.
The day of the race, I dressed up in my Pamplona costume and headed to Santo Domingo Street, the starting point. Although I looked like a veteran runner, my stomach felt like it just ate my liver for breakfast.
This was about the time I started to get a feeling that this whole macho, once-in-a-lifetime stunt was just plain foolish. Slipping through the crowd past the double fence was looking better and better, too.
This brings me to the point in which I’m standing there, stretching like I’m about to run the 100-meter dash. As I stand among the mass of white and red, the crowd chants to San Fermín in hopes that he will protect them. I stand there wishing I knew the words. I hope a couple of “Hail Marys” will do.
“We ask San Fermín, as our patron, to guide us through the run and give us his blessing.”
The waiting is the absolutely worst part. It is like riding in a slow, rickety wooden roller coaster up that first big hill. You don’t realize how high you are until you get to the top and look down.
As I grip a rolled up newspaper, a runner’s only, meager line of defense against a bull, I hear the first rocket. That signals to the runners that the bulls are out of the gate and ready to rumble. The crowd moves forward in a panic even though the bulls are actually hundreds of yards away.
There’s no turning back now.
I’m running with the bulls today in Pamplona, and my only option is to run like hell and pray I don’t get gored in the rear.
Because I’m toward the end of the route, I have some time. Only seconds, of course, but it seems like eternity.
One of the disadvantages of being 5-foot-8 is that it is difficult to see over the crowd and know exactly when the bulls are coming. I wait and wait.
Some people run like maniacs far ahead of the bulls and into the ring only to be met by a chorus of boos and hisses from the crowd.
All I can do is look at the faces of the runners to truly know that the bulls are close. You have to watch the faces like a cornerback reacting to the whites in the eyes of a wide receiver waiting for the ball.
Finally, I see that look. Here it comes.
Seconds later, a group of runners stumble over each other into a lump of white arms and legs. Suddenly, I see the bull. He is a mammoth animal with sharp horns, and he looks ticked.
What’s worse is that he is coming straight for me.
Minutes earlier, I was praying for protection. Now, I’m spewing out more expletives than a gangsta rapper.
I had hoped to make it to the bullring. Not this time.
I ran no more than 300 yards, the bull at my tail, and searched for the nearest place to bail. No more than 50 yards from the ring, I somehow slipped under the fence like a scared rabbit just in time.
The Spaniard behind me wasn’t so lucky. The bull gored him in the upper thigh, and the man required surgery.
I didn’t make it to the ring, but I didn’t care. I did it.
I may have run away from the bulls, rather than with the bulls, but I escaped with only a couple of bruises.
For the next several hours, I felt like superman. I felt like I could lift a truck off a trapped damsel in distress and fly away. There could not be a drug on the market or on the streets of New York City that could make me feel that way.
I called my wife. I could not totally understand why she would not share in my euphoria.
“You want the good news or the bad news first?” I asked.
“The bad news,” she said.
“The bad news is that I ran with the bulls today,” I said.
“And the good news?” she said.
“I’m talking to you now.”
A friend asked me if I would do it again, if I would tempt death to get that incredible feeling again.
No, there’s no reason. I climbed that mountain. Been there, done that.
I’m older now, and I would like to think I’m a little wiser.
Plus, my wife would kill me.
Tips for watching ...
The San Fermín Fiesta in Pamplona will be held July 6-14. The running of the bulls will take place July 7-14.
Arrive at least two hours early to get the best spot along the fence.
Grab a spot and expect to stay there. Move your seat and you lose it.
Before the race, look for someone selling a balcony view. The cost changes the closer you get to the run time. But it will give you the absolute best view of the race for taking photos or video.
If you can’t find a spot along the route, the next best place is the bullring. For 4 euros, you can get into the ring and see the end of the run, which also is the most dangerous for runners. Sitting in the bullring also is the safest place to watch.
... or joining in the action ...
First, read the warning below. Then, if you’re undeterred, heed these tips:
Listen to other people. Ask for advice from veterans on what to do and not do. Ask questions.
If you fall down, stay down. Don’t get up whatever you do. Don’t move. Fight your tendency to get up and get out of the way. Stay down and cover your head. Let the bull run right over you. A fellow runner will tap you to let you know the bull has past and it is safe to get up.
Don’t touch the bull. Trying to touch his horn or slap him is dangerous. It can cause the bull to turn and run in a different direction. It will get you and the other runners in trouble.
Be aware of the other runners. People running and looking back often run into other people. Many injuries sustained during the run are caused by people getting pushed, shoved and trampled on by other people — not bulls.
Watch first. If you don’t like what you see, you probably shouldn’t run. By paying to watch from a balcony, you get a bird’s-eye view of the action. You also can see what runners should and should not do.
Make a plan. Check out the course and memorize it. Find areas where you can bail out if a bull gets too close. Most runners pick a spot on the route and run to either the bullring or to an area they can easily leave the route.
Don’t stand in the route off to the side. People who do that often cause dangerous pileups.
Beware of the ‘toro suelto,’ or loose bull. Most bulls run in a pack the entire way. But there usually is at least one that breaks away, sometimes changes directions, and looks for anything to gore.
Run in front of, or beside, the bull, never behind. Running behind could attract his attention and prompt him to turn around. That could mean putting you between runners and a toro suelto.
Warning: Running could get you in trouble
Although dozens of military personnel run with the bulls in Pamplona each year, some commands have outlawed any participation because of the danger.
Bases in Portugal and Spain prohibit military personnel from running in the smaller bull runs and bullfights held in nearby villages.
Although the U.S. European Command does not have any regulation against running with the bulls in Pamplona, it is discouraged.
There is no problem with servicemembers watching the running of the bulls or going to the San Fermín festival and party.