Before I start I should mention that I have wanted to write about this experience for a long time but I was unsure about it as it can be a controversial topic. I wouldn’t want anyone to thing that I am pro-animal cruelty, in fact I am the opposite. I would also stress that this article is about the Bull Run and not Bull fighting. I in no way condone bull fighting and have never / would never go to one. Never-the-less I did take part in the Bull Run when I was younger and it was an experience I will never forget so I think it is important to share. I hope that everyone who chooses to read this post enjoys it for what it is, simply a recounting of an amazing experience and that I do not wish to offend anyone.
Hemmingway is said to have described Pamplona’s Running of the Bulls as “Furious Energy”. He was right. Everything about the San Fermin Festival screams energy and vibrancy. Forget the actual bulls and walk around the Town and you will feel it. It’s as if everyone let’s go of every sensible molecule in their body and embraces chaos. They drink and eat to excess, party all day and night and fall asleep wherever they can find a patch of grass. Despite everyone’s lack of care and personal safety there is very little crime during San Fermin. That said sadly crime stats have increased over recent years.
I’ve been to the festival twice. I know exactly what you’re thinking, “Why the hell would you go twice?”. I thought the same thing as I lined up to run that second time. Unfortunately, I never had the chance to figure out why as my thought process was rudely interrupted by a stampede of idiotic humans fleeing angry bulls.
I’ve yet to find any experience like the bull run. It’s not just the adrenaline, any extreme sport can provide with that. Taking part in the bull run leaves you with a series of short, sharp memories that are almost always accompanied by mixed emotions of fear and excitement. It’s a bit like having PTSD without the anxiety and depression, believe me I’ve experienced both.
Despite what many people will tell you there is a huge difference between watching and running. Sure, you can still feel the adrenaline and end up in danger whilst hanging off the barriers trying to catch a glimpse of the bulls, hell I once jumped the barriers in the arena trying to escape a bull and it followed me into the crowd.
There are certain intricate details that you will never feel unless you take part but I’ll get to that shortly.
Running with the bulls is the only experience I can think of that you can’t fake having done. At least not when talking to someone who has. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve met people claiming to have taken part when it’s obvious that they haven’t.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there’s no point in going if you’re only going to watch. In fact, even if you do run I would recommend spending another day just watching the run as the experience is very different and you get much better photos that way. Being a spectator can be exhilarating and just because you’re not running doesn’t mean there is no danger, I’ve been knocked off barriers and squashed behind runners who were in turn being squashed by bulls.
The fact remains that running with the bulls is a unique experience, you can read a million accounts of the run and do years of research, even visit and watch the run as many times as you want. Sure, you will have some great stories but you will never be able to convince someone who has run that you have too.
For those people that have run through the streets of Pamplona alongside these fabulous beasts is impossible to talk about it without experiencing a physical, mental and emotional reminiscence. Even whilst writing this I can feel it. To others it’s just as obvious. It reflects in your eyes, your body and your voice. No experience I’ve had has stayed with me so clearly and strongly and I suspect it always will.
I think choice is a big part. Much like mountain climbing you have a choice to take part or even where your route starts but once you reach the summit or in this case, the rockets go up and the bulls are released there are no more choices to make. It’s all about reacting to what happens. You run, plain and simple, that’s your only choice, everything else is out of your control. You run until you either reach the arena or you hit the floor.
To this day I can still hear and feel the pounding of the bull’s hooves on the cobblestones. My heartbeat starts to beat in time with the memory, I feel my face flushing with heat and there is a heady mix of fear and excitement. During the run the sound envelopes you, it reaches beyond the sounds of the crowd, bouncing off the walls of the narrow streets. It’s not just the noise it’s also the vibrations coursing up through your body from the cobbles below.
It’s like being transported back in time, hearing war drums of an invading army approaching. Every fibre of your body is screaming to flee but to do so would lead only to panic and that’s but a small step away from falling or making a mistake that will bring you face to face with a ton of fur and horns.
Controlled fear/excitement is what will get you through the experience safely and it will only enhance your experience.
The adrenaline rush is actually worst just before the start. Imagine half a million people cramped together in the medieval streets all waiting in anticipation (or fear). The closer it comes to the start the more the energy builds up and spreads amongst the runners. Before you know it everyone is bouncing up and down, grinning like madmen (and women).
The key to a good run is in the title, “Running with the bulls”. Anyone can take off at a run and finish the course without ever feeling the breath of the bulls on their neck as long as you start in the right place (some people do! I’ve seen many people jumping up and down congratulating themselves in the arena before the first bull has even arrived.)
Here’s a simple truth. The bulls may weigh up to a ton but they can run at over 30mph, that’s faster than Usain Bolt! If you start anywhere within the first quarter of the course, and you should, then you will be overtaken. If you choose to run with the local veteran’s (and again, you should!) it feels more like a controlled military operation than a panicked run for your life.
The first rocket sounds informing the runners that the coral gates have been opened. You will see many people start to run or even dive for the first exit in the makeshift barricades but the locals start walking slowly. It’s like a scene from a war film and you expect to hear a general shouting, “steady”. For the locals the point of the run it not to run away from the bulls, it’s to run amongst them. The Spanish call this the ‘Encierro’. The Encierro mirrors the corralling of the herd as if they are being transported from the fields, through the streets to the arena.
The second rocket means that all of the bulls are out and running. Walking turns into a slow jog which seems to last a lifetime as you know the bulls are coming and your instincts are screaming at you to run (or they should be) as you can hear and feel the hoofbeats thundering behind you. Every veteran will tell you that the safest place to be is as close to the herd as possible. Not only does it allow you to keep an eye on them and react to their movements but looking back over your shoulder whilst running through crowded streets is the best way to trip and fall.
The bulls soon catch up and the runners break to the sides before weaving in and out to get as close to the bulls as possible. I won’t go into the details of the course itself as that’s really not the point of this post. If you know anything about the bull run then you will have heard of dead man’s corner. In reality, it’s just a sharp turn which often catches out a bull or two and plenty of inexperienced runners who end up getting pummelled against the walls and barricades. Sometimes they can get disorientated and head back into the crowd which is enough to test any runners resolve.
You can’t run in the Enciero for long, the bulls are just too fast. Once they start to pull away that’s your queue to run flat out. The aim is to make it into the arena at the end of the course before the last bull does. Once the last bull is in the gates are closed.
The bulls run straight across the arena floor and into a coral underneath the stands at the far side.
For me and I imagine for many others this is the strangest moment of all. First you catch your breath, then you start to hear the roar of the crowd. Looking up you see 20,000 people packed into the arena and the noise is deafening. It’s like a scene from Gladiator. For a brief moment, I felt like a champion, like I had really achieved something and my reward was the adulation of the crowd. However, it soon becomes obvious that much like the crowds in the gladiatorial arenas, the cheering is not for the runners but rather for the action yet to unfold. In this case the action comes in the form of each of the bulls being released into the arena to ‘play’ with the runners.
During my first run I knew nothing about this and I was just in the middle of phoning my mother to let her know I had survived the run (Obviously I hadn’t told her I was doing it in the first place) just as the first bull was released.
As I mentioned earlier its best to be as close to the bull as possible and I can tell you from my experience that the worst place to be is at the back of a crowd which suddenly splits like the Red Sea to reveal an angry bull heading straight towards you. It’s also not so good for your mother when she picks up the phone to be greeted with the news that her son has just run with the bulls when she hears him shriek before the line goes dead.
Each bull gets its turn to run over a few tourists before the spectacle ends. This is the point that you start to feel the effects of the adrenaline not to mention the aches and bruises. It’s time to hit the beer quickly or face collapse.
I wrote this post primarily to try and explain my personal experience. What I can’t get across here is how much fun the San Fermin festival is, bull run aside there is so much to do and except for perhaps the Carnival in Rio De Janeiro it’s the biggest party I’ve ever seen. I’ve got some great, unbelievable stories to tell from my time there and I hope to tell a few in future posts.
From my experience, it’s not the Bulls that are the danger its everyone else!