Not for the first time in my life, I found myself crawling out of bed at 5.30am in the morning a little hungover to begin a morning of exercise. On this morning however, I dressed in my white shirt, white pants and red scarf, and headed out to the running of the bulls in Pamplona. Ten minutes later I squeezed through an open gate into the cobbled road that the bulls would run down in a little over an hour.
The night before had been the final of the Football World Cup, and like every other person in the town I had been in the city square to watch Spain beat the Netherlands to win the tournament. I abstained as best I could in the circumstances, but had still had a late night and too much to drink.
The road I was now standing in was the width of a single car, with a small footpath on the left. It was along this path that the bulls would run the 825 metres from their pen to the stadium, with about 3,000 people running in front of them, behind them, and occasionally right beside them.
The route is mostly sealed by closely built apartment buildings, and wooden fences everywhere else. Shortly after I walked in, the police closed all the access gates, and cleared all but the first 100m of the course where those of us running had gathered. They would let runners spread out again shortly before the bulls were released.
There were now two different kinds of people waiting for the run. There were many locals, usually in casual clothes with a red scarf instead of the all-white and red warn by tourists. The men carried newspapers to wave at the bulls if they got close enough, and now nonchalantly read their newspapers like they didn’t have a care in the world. And who knows, maybe they didn’t.
The second type of person were the tourists like me. We were nervous and jittery. Chatting to each other in a variety of languages, discussing our strategies, and wishing we could go to the bathroom just once or twice more. Many of us were bouncing lightly on the spot, and even stretching a little like it was a marathon. No cameras are allowed and there were few women, so it was amazingly free of posing and posturing.
The wait was torturous, but was finally interrupted at a signal I didn’t notice when the crowd broke into song. This was the first of the three times that the runners sing the same verse requesting the protection of San Fermin, the saint of the festival. I was standing below the sign with the word, and did my best to mumble a few before it was over.
After the song finished, the gate keeping the runners at the start of the course was open and the crowd expanded like a fat man releasing a breath he has held for too long. Suddenly there was more room, but also a marked lift in the energy and nerves of the crowd. The local men still looked unperturbed, but took the noticeable step of rolling up their newpapers into batons and standing up straight rather than leaning against the walls.
At another unseen signal the crowd sang the prayer to San Fermin a second time, and once again the crowd drifted further up the course. I intended to stay close to the start, but found myself nervously moving further away, not wanting to be quite so close to the bulls any longer. The North American man next to me started doing calf stretches, and I was embarrassed to realise I was bouncing from foot to foot trying to warm up my tired body like it was the race of my life.
Finally we sang a third time, and were ready to go. There was nothing left to wait for except the rocket that signalled the release of the bulls. The crowd did another slow drift up the road, and I anxiously drifted another fifteen metres. Now everybody was ready, feet turned forwards to run, but upper body turned backwards as if we expected to see the bulls themselves explode out of the forest of runners behind us.
“BANG” came the crack of the rocket telling us the bulls were free. Somehow I had expected a sort of whistling sparkly noise like a floral skyrocket, but there was no mistaking the simple explosive signal.
The day before I was lucky enough to go on a walk-through of the course with an experienced runner. He warned us not to run hard when the rocket went off as it would take the bulls time to reach us, and we might end up in a dangerous part of the course we didn’t want to be in when they did.
It was sound advice, but when the crowd started moving everyone moved with it whether they liked it or not. It was slow at first, we were still hemmed in front and back by other runners and could only move at the same slow pace. It felt like a building panic as slowly the crowd picked up speed, most of us glancing backwards over our shoulders and seeing nothing but the runners immediately behind. There was now the palpable feeling that I was running from something, that I was being chased by something deadly that I couldn’t see.
There were runners to my left and right, close behind me, and right in front, and I was worried about tripping over someone else’s feet. The advice I had been given was to run with my arms in front of me to help me keep the right distance from the guy just ahead of me so I could still glance backwards. It helped, but what really worried me was that I couldn’t see where I was putting my feet, and I knew there was a gutter and curb on the left side of the road where I was running that would be perfect for rolling an ankle or tripping me up. I knew that if you fell it was better to lie still and let the bulls run over the top of you rather than try and stand and be gored, but the idea was terrifying.
After thirty seconds that felt like forever, there was a sudden shift in the runners as those around me started to drift to the sides of the road. I glanced back a couple of times, still seeing nothing but runners behind me, when like a school of fish the runners immediately in front of me leapt to the side of the road and pressed themselves up against the wall. It was a rookie mistake – you should never stop running or the bulls can hit you at full speed as a stationary target. So what did I do? I also leapt to the side of the road and pressed myself up against the wall, making myself the first ingredient in a bull horn shish kebab if they were hugging the wall like we were.
With my back pressed against the wall, my stomach sucked in and my breath held, I saw the pack of six bulls run past me down the middle of the road, paying no attention to the runners that had parted around them.
After a second they were gone, and I let my breath out with what a shameful sobbing noise. A few more seconds later the steers that followed the bulls to keep them moving ran past, ignoring the runners again.
It sunk in that the steers were the signal that we were all safe, and my courage reappeared without shame, as if it hadn’t abandoned me at all. I started to jog after the steers, hoping to get to the bullring before the locked the gates behind the bulls, but found that the police had closed a gate in the middle of the course behind the steers. The idea was to prevent a stray bull from turning and running back down the course, but it robbed me of my chance of getting the stadium and getting to run around the ring with the loose bulls again.
As with so many terrifying experiences, I was praying throughout that I would just be able to survive, and if I did then I would never do anything like this again. In this case, I think that feeling will never go away.
Update: I have a few doubts now about whether I should have taken part in the running of the bulls. There are some serious ethical issues around bullfighting, which is ultimately what the festival of San Fermin is about. The bulls that run the streets are brought back in the evening and killed in bullfights in the town’s stadium. It puts me in the embarrassing position of having taken part in something that I feel is unethical, just because I wasn’t there at the business end when the bulls are killed. For more information on the issues involved, you can check out sites like PETA’s campaign against bullfighting: www.peta.org/issues/animals-in-entertainment/cruel-sports/bullfighting/