The Fiesta of San Fermin takes place in Pamplona, Spain, for eight days in early July. At the heart of the fiesta is the famous Encierro—the Running of the Bulls. Each morning at 8 am, about half a dozen bulls charge headlong through the crowds down narrow streets to the bull ring. It’s not a long distance, only 825 meters, and the bulls usually complete the trip in less than two-and-a-half minutes.
The Running of the Bulls has a long and varied history that begins in the 14th century when ranchers transporting their cattle to market would hurry them through the city streets. People had to run out of the way of the charging cattle—and soon it became a yearly event.
Every year thousands of tourists from all over the globe assemble in Pamplona to run or watch the event. It’s not without risk. Each year between 200 and 300 people are injured during the run. Most of the injuries occur when people are knocked down and trampled by the crowds scrambling to get out of the way of the charging bulls. However, a handful of people are usually gored by the bulls, and occasionally a fatality occurs.
I’d wanted to run with bulls ever since reading The Sun Also Rises in high school. Unfortunately it’s taken about fifty years for me to actually get around to doing it. I’d put this on my bucket list, but year after year kept moving it down until I discovered a Running of the Bulls tour offered by G Adventures. The eight-day tour began in Barcelona and ended in Bilbao on the Atlantic coast. It was just what I was looking for.
The information on the G Adventures tour goes to some pains to inform prospective clients that the “tour is designed for those who wish to enjoy the spectacle of the Running of the Bulls from a safe distance.” I figured I could sort of slip away one morning and run and no one would be any wiser.
The tour begins
Upon meeting the rest of my G Adventures group, I find the majority of them are also planning on running. I also notice they’re younger than me—way younger. Their average age has to be in the late-twenties. I am nearly triple that, but I’m not going to let that deter me.
The first day is spent touring Barcelona. The next morning we take a bus to Pamplona and arrive late in the afternoon. It appears the entire town is dressed in the white outfits with the red sashes and bandanas always associated with race.
As we approach the old city, the crowds become a virtual river of people surging towards the center of town. Trying to move against the flow is a hopeless endeavor. Then it hits me: This is what it’s going to be like tomorrow morning—plus they’re going to release about a half dozen angry bulls into the crowd! Since we’re going to be in Pamplona for two separate runnings of the bulls, I decide to I watch the first day and see how it goes. If it doesn’t look too dangerous, I can run the following day.
The Running of the Bulls, from up close
We get up early in the morning to arrive at the site by 6:30 am. It has rained during the night so the streets are slick, which will make the run even more dangerous. About eight in our group decide to run today. The rest of us will watch from the safety of the balcony G Adventures has rented for the morning. One of the runners decides to film the event with a surreptitious go-cam hidden under his shirt. Having a camera, hidden or not, is strictly forbidden if you’re running. He’s confident he won’t get caught.
Our small group of runners joins about 3000 others penned up just under the Church of Cernin. A few minutes before eight, the festivities begin with the singing of a chant to San Fermin to ask for his blessings. This chant is repeated three times, and then the runners spread themselves out throughout the route.
At 8 am precisely the church bell tolls and two rockets are fired, signaling that the bulls have been released. Instantly the runners begin running madly towards the bull ring about 800 meters away.
Our balcony is on a corner, so I’m unable to see the bulls coming, but a collective shout from the runners signals their approach. Many of the runners scurry to the sides of the street and press themselves against the buildings or barricade fences. Suddenly the bulls charge into view—fishtailing around the corner like Formula One racecars on a wet track. The lead bull crashes into the barricade, picks up one runner who wasn’t fast enough to get out of the way, and tosses him head-over-heels into the air—then proceeds to run down another half-dozen runners who go down like bowling pins. The bulls disappear as quickly as they appeared, leaving a dozen bodies curled up on the street. As soon as the bulls disappear, first aid attendants bolt over the barricade to attend to the wounded. Here’s video of the day’s running from YouTube user Glenn C:
A few moments later another rocket is fired signifying all the bulls have arrived in the bull ring and the run is over. I decide that perhaps I made the right decision not to run.
We head over to the arena to meet up with our runners. We find all but one of them flushed with the excitement of having survived the event. Several are limping and others sport bruises, not from the bulls, but from being knocked around by other runners. It’s then we realize we’re missing one of our party. Brad, the runner with the hidden go-cam, is nowhere to be found.
We don’t hear from him for several hours and are getting concerned when he finally shows up. He informs us that just after the run began, he was tackled by two large cops, dragged over the barricade and placed in a police car, his go-cam confiscated. As he hands it over, he asks if he can turn it off. Before he turns it off he uses the camera’s Wi-Fi to transfer the footage to his cell phone. The police tell him the fine for carrying a camera during the run is 1000 dollars and then demand to see his passport. When Brad tells them he doesn’t have it with him, he’s released and told to get it and return.
I tell him since they’ve already confiscated his camera, they really don’t expect him to return. If they did, they would have personally escorted him back to the hotel to get his passport. Brad didn’t seem to mind the loss of the camera too much since he now has the footage and a terrific story.
Because of the wet weather, the day’s run is considered one of the most dangerous in recent memory. Two people were gored—one of them the American writer Bill Hillmann who co-authored the book Fiesta: How to Survive the Bulls of Pamplona. I guess he should have read his own book. With the exception of the first runner gored, who was gored in the thigh, the rest suffered only scrapes and bruises.
I decide not to run the next day. I have enough memories.
One lesson I learned from this trip? If running with the Bulls is on your bucket list, do it when you’re under 30. Hemingway was only 24 when he ran.
A good friend ran with the bulls in Pamplona. He is a cattleman from Kansas, so has some knowledge of cattle, which, I guess, helps. The first day was kind of a “get your pace” day, but on subsequent days he ran into the arena with the bulls. He was recognized for his ability and courage, and enjoyed the nightly bullfights from the president’s box. Why so unusual? He was 61.