My Run with the Bulls

May 17, 2013

After 2 previous flashbacks about the Festival of San Fermin and The Running of the Bulls, I finally get to the meat of the matter.  Did I run with the bulls?  I wrote the following on Sunday, July 9th, 2012 as the adrenaline rushed through me…

Patrick in white pants and shirt with red scarf and red sash in fron tof the Pamplona town hall

My traditional Encierro clothes

I put on the white pants and shirt, red sash and scarf traditionally worn by Encierro runners and jogged over to the starting corral just before 7 AM.  It was filled mostly with men and a few women, many of whom had been drinking and some who hadn’t slept.  I was more worried about them than the bulls.  The runners were packed in so tightly that I was sweating, pressed up against a set of short, bearded identical twins, a dead ringer for Avril Lavigne, two bankers from London, and a drunk guy from New York.  They were all Australian.

Minutes before the start, they asked me if I was nervous, because they said I didn’t look it.  I wasn’t particularly worried, partly due to the false sense of security created by a festive crowd, but more likely a result of the focus that comes from the need for self-preservation.

I chose to start on a part of the course known as Telefonica, just past Dead Man’s Corner, to increase my chances of making it to the Plaza de Toros, the bull fighting arena where the run finishes.  At 10 minutes to 8, the gates holding us in were opened, and we could disperse along the route.  I waited on the right side of a straightaway with a lot of other nervous looking people. The cobbled street is narrow, about 5 meters wide (16 feet), with both sides lined with shops and nowhere to hide.The people around me were nervous.  They were stretching cold muscles, and hopping up and down, trying to see what was coming.  Several Spanish men were down on their knees praying.  Perhaps they knew something I didn’t.

At 8 AM the bulls were released.  I didn’t hear any rockets, so t wasn’t clear when to start running.  A first wave of people ran by and I was drawn along for a bit, but there were no bulls in sight so I stopped.  When the bulls got close it became obvious.  People were yelling and running towards me fast, with fear in their eyes.  I started running.  Hard.

The first animal went by me like I was barely moving.  I had started running on the right side but was now on the left.  There were bulls running to my right.  The runners ahead of me went down, and I vaulted over two piles of bodies.  Simultaneously looking behind to gauge the bulls and ahead to watch for hazards is impossible.  Forced to choose, I looked forward so I could stay on my feet.

As I approached the tunnel leading into the bull ring, I looked behind and to my right to see if there were any bulls on my heels.  I didn’t want to be trapped in the narrow concrete passageway with tonnes of angry, barbed muscle.  It seemed clear, but everything was happening so fast, it was hard to tell.  I sprinted forward, but was hit very hard on my left side and thrown towards the fence.  I barely stayed on my feet, didn’t dare look behind again, and raced through the tunnel into the bright light and thousands of cheering fans.

I was ecstatic.  I looked for the bulls, worried that they might still be loose.  They must all have just passed me, as they were exiting the arena on the far side.  I circled around euphorically and in shock.  Guys were hugging and high-fiving, glad to be alive.  Some fell to their knees on the sand, crossing themselves.

Suddenly a cry rang out and 3 steers burst into the arena.  I was standing near the center of the ring and they were heading straight for me at full speed.  I started to run to my left but was hit hard in the jaw and fell to the sand on my side.  I glanced up and the cattle were bearing down on me.  I was alone in the middle of the arena.  I pulled my feet under me and pushed off hard with my right leg, getting out of the way just before being trampled.

The bull fighting arena is circular, about 30 meters (95 feet) across.  It is surrounded by about 50 rows of tiered seats filled with spectators.  The ground is hand-packed, covered with a couple of inches of sand.  There were probably three hundred people in the ring, mostly young men, all high on adrenaline.  I felt the rush of emotion, but couldn’t rest for long.

Young bulls were released into the arena one-by-one, their horns covered in a thin layer of black tape which doesn’t look like it would make much difference. Each one charges into the ring trying to kill whoever is closest.  The runners try to avoid this, dodging the bull as best they can in the fracas.  This is a challenge because it is hard to see the bull until the people ahead of you split open like a school of moving fish.  Unfortunately, they don’t all shift in the same direction, making it a challenge to stay on your feet.  I moved with my arms out like a linebacker.  Twice I was almost caught by the bull, once running across its path and curling around its shoulder to avoid being skewered.

The runners attempt to touch the bull, preferably on the blunt end, in an intense free-for-all.  The people in the stands egg them on.  One brave young guy vaulted over the haunches of the bull, much to their delight.  They roar louder when someone is trampled or thrown by the bull.  After a few minutes the bull begins to tire, and a giant ox is lead into the ring by handlers for the bull to follow back to its pen.  This massive creature scared the hell out of more than one unsuspecting runner.  It would have been virtually impossible to avoid two bulls in the commotion.  After a stressful 20 minutes, the melee was finished, and we filed out of the arena.  As I write this hours later, I can still feel the adrenaline coursing through my veins.

Patrick in Encierro Costume with a dog dresseds similarly

Me with a fellow San Fermin participant

My friend Julia asked me why I wanted to run with the bulls, and I didn’t have what I consider to be a good answer at the time.  One runner I read said that people risk death here to more fully experience life.  I did it for at least two reasons…  I had set this as a goal, and I feel a sense of accomplishment when I achieve an objective, more so if it is something difficult.  Another dream fulfilled.  Dream Big.  Also, it scared the crap out of me, and I find that I grow a lot when I face my fears.  Live Boldly.  Even more so when I face them knowingly, so I ran with the bulls again the next day.

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.