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.


Encierro — The Running of the Bulls

May 3, 2013

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.

The fronts of 5 coloured buildings each with many balconies on the various floors, each filled with spectators

Spectators lining the balconies along the Encierro route

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.

2 fences narrowing to a runnetl with red doors on the side of the arena

Narrowing entrance to the small Plaza de Toros tunnel

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.

A wooden fence with heavy posts and 3 rails

The railed fence

In some sections, there is no escape.

A solid wooden fence with deep scrathes running horizontally

What do suppose made these deep gouges?

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.

A stuffed black bull with horns behind glass

An ex-bull

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.

A long metal gate attached to a heavy wooden post in the open position up against the fence

Long, heavy gates along the route

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.

A black bull standing and staring at 2 people, one trying to balance on his hands on the top of a post, and the other laying on the ground trying to hide behind the post

Lone Bull

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.

A huge crowd on a narrow street being held back by a line of police offiers

Police line holding runners back

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.

People walking in a narrow street with stone walls on both sides

The first section of the route (not during the run)

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.

3 bulls stampeding down a street with runners all around them

Running of the Bulls

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.

A bull trampling 2 men

Are we having fun yet?

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.


Drinking Bull’s Blood in the Valley of the Beautiful Women

June 1, 2012

This is not a joke.  We really did drink it.  Read on…

On the outskirts of the baroque town of Eger in North-Eastern Hungary lies The Valley of the Beautiful Women (Szépasszony-völgy in Hungarian).  Skirting both sides of this valley are the cellars of many small Hungarian wine producers.  The cellars are built into the hillside, mostly underground, with the name of each winery displayed out front.  Inside each there is a bar for tasting and there are tables inside and out for drinking.

Looking over the valley from the hillside, small houses and trees visible

The Valley of the Beautiful Women

Hungary is better known for its wines than its beer.  The Eger wine region produces many types of wine but is primarily known for its Bikaver wine, which translates as ‘Bull’s Blood’.  It is a robust blended wine which varies considerably from cellar to cellar.  Officially it must contain at least 3 of the 11 traditional grapes varieties from the region.  Eger was the first Districtus Hungaricus Controllatus (DHC) in Hungary, an appellation control concept similar to France’s Appellation d’Originelée (AOC).

According to legend the name Bull’s Blood originates from the siege of Eger castle around 1552.  The small group of soldier’s manning the castle were given red wine to boost their spirits.  Among the Turks who laid siege to the castle it was rumoured that bull’s blood was mixed in to their wine, because the strength and resistance of the garrison and townspeople could not be explained.  Believing they could not win, the Turks gave up.

There is a large cellar and cave system beneath the town of Eger, where many of the wines are produced.  The Valley of the Beautiful Women appears to be more of a marketing spot for tasting and drinking and not so much a place for wine production or storage.

Cellar fronts with tables and people drinking

Some cellars of The Valley of the Beautiful Women

Even still, the Valley of the Beautiful Women is a phenomenon.  People come from far and wide to taste the wines, or to sit inside or outside the cellars and drink.  We were there in the early afternoon on a Monday, so things were pretty quiet.  We were cautiously enjoying our first tasting (not that good) when we met a Czech businessman and his Hungarian wife.  They were very friendly and recommended two cellars for us to visit.  It turned out that they had been there ‘tasting’ since 10 AM and had purchased several cases of Bikaver to take with them.  He admitted developing a strong taste for it during previous trips to the region.  We visited the two cellars they suggested, tasted, and bought a nice bottle of Bikaver at each.

One of the best things about the Valley of the Beautiful Women is that, in addition to the better wines, they provide an option to purchase basic wine very cheaply.  If you bring your own bottles, they will fill them for less than $2.  The minimum purchase is 2 Litres, so people literally bring their used pop (‘soda’ for any Americans reading) bottles and fill ‘em up.  To be part of the fun, we bought a 2 litre green glass bottle for about $2 and had it filled with red wine for less than the cost of the bottle!

Diane standing with 2 Litre green jug of wine in front of Wanda's wine cellar

Diane with her purchase in front of Wanda’s Wine Cellar

We couldn’t resist going to this cellar because it shared the same name as our friend Wanda!  We asked and ‘Wanda’ was the name of the owner.

I tried but couldn’t figure out why it is called ‘The Valley of the Beautiful Women’.  Is it because the women hired to serve the wine and conduct tastings in the cellars are all beautiful?  Perhaps.  Or is it because, after an extended visit to the valley, every woman looks beautiful?