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Running with the Bulls in Pamplona

There comes a time in the life of every young man when he feels the need to test his mettle and tempt the hands of Fate. He might sign up with the French Foreign Legion and fight in far away places, hunt large animals with large guns, jump out of airplanes, or alternatively run for his life from the enraged bulls of Pamplona.

Personally, I blame that masochistic bastard Hemingway for my foolhardy decision to run with the bulls of Pamplona. Hemingway’s classic novel, The Sun Also Rises, brought world-wide attention to Pamplona’s bizarre, age-old festival of allowing bulls to run through the streets as they please, trampling and goring those mad enough to run with them. Hemingway created an international pilgrimage of machismo to Pamplona’s San Fermin festival. For some of those pilgrims, that journey has led to a gory martyrdom.

But gory martyrdom is what the San Fermin Festival is all about. Saint Fermin, Pamplona’s patron saint, was martyred in Roman times by being dragged through the streets by bulls. This grisly demise is honored by Pamplona’s residents every year in July with a huge, week-long festival. In the morning, the bulls and the fools run. In the afternoon, bullfights are held in the Plaza de Toros Arena. The rest of the day and on through the night is spent in merry-making. Various different parades of floats, musicians, and banner-waving drunks periodically sway and weave their way through the crowds. People will party until they drop from exhaustion but the party just rolls on. It’s like Mardi Gras with bulls.

Hemingway’s spirit seems to haunt the festival. I could almost visualize old Ernest slouched jauntily in a doorway with a drink in one hand and Sangria stains down his white shirt as he watched the festival with approving eyes. In one of the streets, there is a bust of Hemingway wearing a bull runner’s bandanna.

The night before my run, I was dancing and drinking in the company of some young local señoritas. One girl I particularly fancied was a dark-haired girl named Bettina. We chatted as best as we could with my limited Spanish, which encompassed only a few swear words and some pick-up lines. Surprisingly, I was doing quite well but she would periodically point to her hand. On her hand she had scrawled her boyfriend’s name. I guess this was so she wouldn’t get carried away and forget about him. The ink wouldn’t wash off either, much to my misfortune.

Still, I was able, vis pantomime, to get her to promise me that she would cry for me if I were gored by a bull in the upcoming run. I believe Hemingway would have approved of this: dying a glorious macho death and having a beautiful girl cry over the body.

Come morning, I remembered that I had never actually read any of Hemingway’s works except for “The Old Man and the Sea” when I was in the 5th grade. This story about a big fish didn’t exactly prepare me for handling big bulls. I was entirely on my own. My only knowledge of the run came from second-hand information and the opening scene of “City Slickers.” In it, Billy Crystal is seen at the festival running in front of a bull that is just jogging along at a reasonable pace. I thought this was the normal speed of bulls. No problem.

The Four Big Bulls

“Nothing outruns a bull,” an ESPN sports reporter told me matter-of-factly as I looked down into the bull pens during the small hours of the morning. There were two pens. The first pen contained 10-12 motley-colored bulls. They were smaller in size compared to the bulls in the second pen. The four bulls in the second pen were massive dark-brown bulls I later learned were of a certain breed of bulls especially bred for their fierceness. I did not know this at the time. I was only aware that the bulls in the second pen were awfully big and their horns looked awfully sharp.

The reporter explained to me that a person technically doesn’t run “with” the bulls because they’re simply too fast. People just run until the bulls get almost on top of them, then the runners either get the hell out of the way or get run over. Most people run behind the bulls but this too can be fraught with the danger as bulls have been known to turn around.

This revelation was not what I expected, and it did little to bolster my courage. My self-preservation instincts suddenly flared up, urging me to abandon this suicidal bravado. I had, however, drunk too much sangria to back down. Shaking off the doubts, I smugly took my place amongst all the other brave, sangria-inspired bull runners.

The traditional bull runner wears all white clothing except for a red bandanna around the neck and a red slash tied at the waist. These red target markers are thoughtful aids in guiding the bulls along the way and showing them where to apply their horns.

The run begins when a rocket is fired off to let those runners who are sobering up come to their senses and get a head start. A second rocket is fired shortly after to signal the release of the first group of bulls. After the second rocket was fired, a few runners must have suddenly had second thoughts, as I saw some bolt and go over the wooden barricades while others climbed up the bars of windows to get out of harm’s way.

From my viewpoint, I could see down a sea of heads to the pens but I couldn’t see the bulls. All at once I saw people turning around and then heads began bobbing up and down like a wave. Fear can be contagious. As those standing around me started running away in greater numbers, I found myself quickly running away as well before I even saw the bulls. I was caught up in that mass panic with the sudden clarifying thought of “What the hell am I doing here?” It’s a question that must hit every bull runner the moment stark sober reality arrives in the form of several tons of speeding bull-flesh.

I bolted into a small square and leaped against the wall at the far side just before the bulls arrived. At first I could see nothing of them but I could hear them. I heard a dreadful hammering sound, the sound of cloven hooves beating against cobble stone. Then the bulls burst into the little square with a clattering flurry of hoof and horn. My sangria courage swiftly evaporated at the sight. Only one thought went through my mind: “There’s no safety net here! I could actually die!”

The bulls charged through the square and took a sharp right up another street. One of the bulls slipped and fell in the rush. After he picked himself up, he began to run straight towards me! I tried desperately to pretend to be part of the wall, but my performance did little to deter him. Fortunately the lone bull must have caught the sight of his compadres out of the corner of his eye, because he suddenly swung his horned head around and ran after them.

I heaved a sigh, laughing at my reprieve before casually strolling up the same street where the bulls had disappeared. I was a third of the way up the street when panicky runners darted by, interrupting my thoughts. There was nagging doubt eating away at me that I was somehow forgetting something quite important. Then it hit me: the Big Bulls! Frantically, I joined with the crowd in a desperate attempt to reach the end of this death-trap of a street. This particular street was far too narrow to accommodate the amount of human and bull traffic on it. With tall buildings enclosing both sides, there was nowhere to escape except forward into the Arena or backward into the oblivion of oncoming bull fury.

The end of the street was still out of reach when once again I heard that terrible hammering sound. The sound was coming up swiftly behind me. Moses couldn’t have split the Red Sea as fast and effectively as the sound of those oncoming bulls split that street. Runners dove left and right for safety. I jumped to the side only to find the wall was already covered four ranks deep with quivering runners. I could only cower against the backs of others while my backside remained horribly exposed. The big bulls came tearing up the street with all the noise and fury of a runaway locomotive. And then they were gone.

The gates of the Arena were closed by the time I arrived. I wasn’t too disappointed though. I had had enough bull for one day I felt. I had thought my close encounter with the bull in the square had been quite close enough, but a girl from the States I met before the run topped my story. While she was huddling against the wall in that narrow street, she fell off the curb and into the street just as the Big Bulls came rushing by. Her hand actually struck the backside of a bull as she stumbled. Fortunately the bull didn’t turn around on her as they sometimes do.

The next morning, I decided to run again because I wanted to see what went on in the Arena. Also some travelers I met during the festival wanted me to guide them on the run because I now had the experience. So I became the official Bull Running Guide.

Inside the Arena

The next morning I led my little group to the front of pack. It took very little convincing for my group to decide that reaching the Arena before the bulls was a very good idea. The evening before, we had come across souvenir postcards depicting all sorts of horrific gorings from past runs. We successfully managed to enter the Arena well ahead of the bulls. When the bulls did arrive, I bravely leaped over the protective railing and from there I watched the bizarre last act of the San Fermin Bull Run.

The Arena was a kaleidoscopic spectacle of bulls chasing people and people chasing bulls. Rolled-up newspapers, another essential part of the bull runner’s wardrobe, were used to swat bulls in an effort to get their attention. I saw one man get too much attention. A bull tossed him several feet into the air like a limp rag doll. He was luckier than he deserved. He staggered away with his life and limbs still intact. Why people would purposely want to get the attention of a ticked-off bull is beyond any guess I can offer. Perhaps it is some kind of lemming instinct, a bit of Darwinism in action: stupidity in the form of bravado culling itself from the herd.

One group of runners seemed to be doing their best to remove themselves from the gene pool. They would just sit and wait in front of gates used to release fresh bulls into the arena. When a gate would burst opened, a charging bull would come running out but then he would stumble and sometimes fall as he crashed into those assembled lemmings. I had sated my Hemingway bravado more than enough already so I refrained from joining in on this suicidal sit-in.

After the bulls had gored their fill and the bull runners exhausted their machismo, the bulls were herded into pens and the runners herded out of the Arena. The runners would spend the rest of the day bragging of their exploits or counting their blessings. In the evening a local paper would come out with the statistics of the day’s run showing how many injuries there were and fatalities if any.

Today, part of me wants to go back there again and test my courage once more. But, I’m a little bit older and marginally wiser now… Still, give me enough sangria to drink and maybe the Hemingway spirit will strike again.

David Weber

David Weber is a historian who lives in Japan.