Last Friday I wrote about the Festival of San Fermin in Pamplona, Spain. I said that it’s famous for The Running of the Bulls (‘Encierro’ in Spanish), but left you hanging for the details. Well here goes.
Each morning during the Festival of San Fermin, hundreds of people run with bulls along a narrow course through the streets of Pamplona. Each morning, thousands of people line the route to watch and cheer. Many rent an expensive spot on a balcony to get a good view. Thousands fill the Plaza de Toros (bull fight arena) at the end of the route to cheer the successful runners. Each morning, people are injured and ambulances cart them away. Each morning, the event is broadcast live on Spanish television.
Every year 200 to 300 people are injured during The Running of the Bulls in Pamplona. Most of the injuries are contusions due to falls. Since 1910, when record keeping began, 15 people have been killed, usually a result of goring when a bull’s horn pierces a runner’s lungs. Despite a high concentration of adrenaline-high drunken tourists, only one foreigner has been killed, an American from Illinois who was gored by a bull in 1995. There is also a high likelihood of being trampled by other runners, which can result in serious injuries if runners pile up. The worst bottleneck is the entrance to the Plaza de Toros, a narrow concrete tunnel with no cover and no escape except out the other end. A Spanish man suffocated here in a pile of runners in 1977.
Bull running has a long history in Spain. It evolved with the tradition of bull fighting, something many animal rights activists protest. Early each morning cattle drovers would herd fresh bulls from a corral on the outskirts of town through the city streets to the bull fighting arena. Young men started running in front of the bulls, even though it was not allowed.
Why do they do it? Perhaps for the thrill of it? To outdo their friends? To prove their worth, to themselves or others? All of the above?
“There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.” – Ernest Hemingway
Runners dress in the traditional clothing of the festival which consists of a white shirt and trousers with a long red sash around the waist and a red neckerchief, Many have been up all night. Runners congregate in a starting corral in the town hall plaza. Police guard the entrances and patrol on foot through the corral, removing anyone who is too drunk or disorderly, not wearing proper footwear, or is carrying a backpack or camera equipment. Anyone over the age of 18 is eligible to run. There are no tickets sold, and no controls of the number of runners who crowd the route.
The course runs right through the narrow downtown streets of Pamplona, the same streets where people were, until a couple of hours before, partying all night. It is half a mile in length (826 meters) starting near the bull corral and finishing in the Plaza de Toros (bull fight arena). It goes through four streets of the old part of the city (Santo Domingo, Town Hall Square, Mercaderes and Estafeta) and a newer section called Telefónica before entering into the bull arena. The course is slightly uphill for most of its length and the footing is uneven, a mix of pavement and cobblestones with hazards like curbs and drain covers. The route is cleared of people, the garbage removed, and the streets washed just before the run gets underway at 8 AM. Unfortunately, that means that the footing is also wet and can be slippery.
Where the course is not lined by buildings, a wooden fence is erected to close off the side streets and keep the bulls and the runners on route. The 7 foot (2.13 meter) high, railed fence allows the spectators to see the action, and allows injured runners to be dragged from the course under the bottom rail. In theory, a runner can also climb the fence to escape a bull, but the rails are usually overrun by spectators, making this much more difficult than it sounds.
In some sections, there is no escape.
In total, 12 animals stampede through the streets of Pamplona (not including homo sapiens). There are 6 bulls which can be recognized by their darker coloring, giant testicles, air of authority, and strong desire to kill anybody who gets in their way. In addition tothe bulls, 6 steers also run to try to keep the herd moving together in the right direction, with varying degrees of success. The steers run every day and know the course well. The bulls only run once.
Along the course are gates that are closed after the bulls pass. This prevents the bulls from running back along the route, which would be disastrous if people weren’t expecting it. The gates require that runners keep up with the bulls or be barred from proceeding.
The bulls are closely followed by drovers carrying long sticks. It is there job to keep the bulls moving in the right direction. A bull is most dangerous when it becomes separated from the herd and doesn’t know which way to run. While it tries to figure this out, it passes the time by crushing and goring people. Runners are forbidden from touching the bulls on their hind quarters. This has the unfortunate side-effect of causing them to stop running and turn around. The long sticks are not for the bulls — they are for the runners. Anyone who touches a bull’s backside receives a slash across the chest.
The bulls take from 2.5 to 6 minutes to complete the half mile distance, depending on whether they stay together or not. The average speed of the herd is 24 km/h (15 mph). With the large number of runners participating, the uphill grade, the bad footing, and the speed of the animals, it is virtually impossible for anyone to keep up with the bulls for the entire distance. The bulls pass or trample those who start along the early sections of the route, most of whom don’t make it to the end. About 10 minutes before the bulls were released, the gates holding the runners are opened, allowing them to distribute themselves along the course. If you want to make it to the end, you should take up a position along the last half of the course, preferably after Dead Man’s Corner.
The Encierro begins with the runners closest to the bull pen singing a benediction in front of the statue of Saint Fermin. It is sung twice, once in Spanish and once in Basque, “We ask Saint Fermín, as our Patron, to guide us through the encierro and give us his blessing”).The singers finish by shouting “Viva San Fermín!, Gora San Fermín!” (“Long live San Fermin” in Spanish and Basque). A rocket is fired at 8 AM when the corral gates are opened. A second rocket signals that all 6 bulls have been released The rockets cannot be seen or heard along most of the route. A human chain of police officers bars the street near the corral until just before the bulls are released.
This ensure that the bulls get a running start in the right direction (like they really need an advantage!). Two final rockets signal that all of the herd has entered the bull ring. The average duration between the first rocket and the end of the Encierro is 4 minutes.
Runners try to run close to the bulls. Although it is much safer, it is considered very bad form to run too far ahead of the bulls. If you do this, the spectators will throw their drinks and other garbage at you. It is called ‘running with the bulls’ after all, not ‘running where the bulls will be later.’ It is considered the best form to run directly in front of the bulls for as long as you can. When you tire, you try to dive for the sidelines or you pay the price for your foolishness. A wiser move is to run right beside a bull, perhaps touching it on the shoulder or back, all the time willing it to keep running, anything other than stopping to chat with you.
Encierro runners face many challenges. Getting up early enough to get into the starting corrals before 7:30 AM. Holding their bladders through the entire event. Running very fast on uneven ground. Getting close to a herd of bulls at a full sprint without getting trampled, or crushed, or skewered. But the biggest risk of all is not the bulls, it’s the other runners who push or trip you, who fall in front of you. The bulls just finish the job.
Flashback Friday — this is another in a series of posts about memorable events from recent travels. They are a collection of writings that didn’t quite get published while we were on the road.