It wasn’t meant to be like this. One moment I was jostling with hundreds of other runners along the cobblestone streets of Pamplona. The next I was sprawled on the ground at the mercy of a dozen rampaging bulls.
This Australian in a foreign land could become the 16th fatality since 1911 at a festival that attracts worldwide interest.
So how did I get myself into this predicament? I’d been drawn to the ‘Running of the Bulls’ ever since watching the six o’clock news as a child and seeing the mayhem of young men running frantically away from a herd of rampant bulls. Finally, I took the plunge and booked a flight to Spain to coincide with the annual San Fermin Festival.
Having left the arrangements until the last minute, my travel companions and I found that accommodation in Pamplona had been booked out well in advance. So we took a chance and tried to find something once we arrived. After begging several establishments for a room, one hotel – Burlada, about 2.5 km from the action – managed to find us some space in an old unused storeroom. We weren’t going to complain.
That afternoon we made our way into the city of Pamplona where we were greeted by thousands of people dancing in the streets. Our clothing was inappropriate for the occasion and so we wandered into one of the temporary clothing stands to purchase the customary white pants, white shirt and red scarf.
Now looking the part, it was time to join in the festivities. The first bar we entered was Cafe Txoko (pronounced Choco), made famous by Ernest Hemingway in his 1926 novel, The Sun Also Rises. We bought a round of cerveza (beer), which perfectly complemented the local tapas.
You couldn’t help but get caught up in all the excitement of a tradition that began in North-Eastern Spain during the early 14th century. Apparently, the locals used to hurriedly transport cattle to market using tactics of fear and excitement. After years of practice, young adults would attempt to race in front of the bulls without being overtaken. I doubt they knew this would go on to become one of the most popular festivals in the world, attracting more than 20,000 runners annually.
We carried on drinking well into the night, enjoying the live entertainment and flowing Sangria. The setting was a huge contrast to the normally peaceful little town of 180,000 residents, which expands to 500,000 during the eight-day festival.
Before we knew it 10pm had arrived to the sound of fireworks and the sight of screaming children pursuing a bull loaded with rockets pinned to its sides. Accompanied by their parents, it was their own special ‘Running of the Bulls’ – except this bull was made entirely from wood and papier-mache. It was carried upon the shoulders of a young man, following the same route as the morning run, leaving Plaza de Santiago Square (behind town hall).
The young man continued running through the streets of the Old Part until all the rockets had exploded. The firework bull is an age-old tradition carried on since the 17th century when the rockets were mounted onto a real animal’s sides.
The Pamplonans are a friendly bunch, happy to chat to the tourists who descend on their town each July. But ask one of them what it’s like to run with the bulls and an uncomfortable silence follows.
“Only the tourists would be mad enough to consider doing something like this,” one elderly Spaniard told me.
The cervezas continued to flow, and with only three hours until the run commenced, we didn’t have enough time to go back to our ‘hotel room’. So we slept under the stars – in the park along with hundreds of other drunken tourists just metres from the starting line.
We woke up feeling a little the worse for wear, but didn’t feel so bad after seeing the other tourists that had flocked to the starting line – also cloaked in red and white garb and in the same condition as us. The only rules to participate, according to the authorities, were that you had to be 18 years of age and were prohibited from using mobile phones or cameras during the run (as you needed to have your wits about you).
We got talking to a few other runners to try and figure out the best plan of attack. As the run from start to finish only takes about four minutes, the main thing to watch out for are the other runners. It’s shoulder to shoulder in some areas, creating a lot of push and shove. The cobblestone streets can be slippery, the result of revelry the night before.
I looked around and saw a sea of red and white drunken men (and the occasional woman), jumping up and down on the spot like Olympic sprinters, patting each other on the back before the big event. There was a crowd of spectators, many standing on balconies overlooking the track wearing bemused looks on their faces.
The first rocket goes at 8am, telling us the bulls were about to be released from their pen. Another follows and we’re off.
It’s no sprint, more a steady jog but soon enough we hear the thunder of hooves on approach, drowning out the motivational cries in all sorts of languages.
Elbows are flying everywhere, the noise is deafening and the pace is picking up. I remember the advice of the old Spaniard who’d only ever watched. ‘Stay away from the corners’ because that’s where the bulls can slip over and once isolated from the herd, they panic and turn on the runners.
I make it through fairly safely but as I turned the last corner on the final approach to Plaza de Toros Stadium, it all turned ugly. One second I was running alongside two bulls with the finish line in sight, the next I was on the ground amid a heap of people.
The words of the old Spaniard come to me again: ‘Stay on the ground until the bulls have passed.’ I do just that and as the 12th and final beast careers past me, I get up and follow it into the stadium.
The roar of the 20,000 crowd is overwhelming, the gates slam behind us locking out the many runners who were overtaken by the bulls. A third rocket sounds, indicating that the bulls are secured and ready for the evening’s bullfighting.
The atmosphere and feeling is hard to describe. The noise of thousands cheering, adrenalin coursing through my body, quickened breathing and just the pure exhilaration of the moment.
Mad indeed are those who run with the bulls, foolish even the locals tell us ... but at least we’re alive.
San Fermin Festival - Running of the Bulls
When: 6-14 July
Where: Pamplona, Spain
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