Saturday #106: To run, or not to run

“Running of the Bulls” during San Fermin Festival, Pamplona, Spain

I arrived in Pamplona on Thursday afternoon, the second day of the city’s eight-day San Fermin Festival. You may know the festival by the name of it’s highest profile event, the daily encierro or Running of The Bulls. The origins of the encierro aren’t clear but they’ve been held throughout northeastern Spain since at least the 14th century. Pamplona’s Running of The Bulls gained international attention in 1926 when Toronto Star correspondent Ernest Hemingway wrote about it in his novel The Sun Also Rises

For those of you not familiar with the encierro, it’s basically a “fun” way to transport six bulls and six steers from the pasture on the edge of town to the bullring in the Plaza de Toros. The roughly 550 kg bulls are released onto a course that winds through four narrow streets for a total distance of 975 metres ending in the bullfighting ring. Runners line the course, the bulls are released and hilarity ensues. The whole thing is over in about two minutes and 30 seconds. 
Since Hemingway visited in 1925, a total of 15 people have died while running with the bulls – 13 were gored, one was hit by a horn, and one suffocated in a pile-up inside the tunnel that leads to the bullring. Dozens of runners require medical treatment each day. Many slip on the wet cobblestones and are trampled by other runners and bulls. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart.

When I arrived in Pamplona I had no intention of actually running. I knew enough about the event that I was perfectly happy to watch from the sidelines on Saturday and from a rented balcony on Sunday. There’s also the option of buying a ticket to watch the action on a big screen TV in the bullring which means you’re front and centre when the bulls arrive.  At least that was the plan when I arrived in town on Thursday afternoon.  

When walking from the train station to the hostel I observed hundreds of men hanging out at the city’s numerous sidewalk cafes.  They were all decked out in the traditional bull running outfit of white pants, white shirt, red waistband (“faja”) and red neckerchief (“pañuelo”). I’m not sure which was being pumped the fastest: cerveza, sangria, or testosterone but the men of Pamplona were in a very good mood after presumably surviving that morning’s run.  

Some were barely old enough to be drinking but many were in their 60s, 70s or even 80s. I sat for a while with one man who would likely be in his mid-80s. He didn’t speak English so we didn’t have much of a conversation but he did pantomime something that I took to be an account of him being chased by a bull and the bull’s horns coming perilously close to the family jewels. That got me thinking. If 80-year-olds can put on their Nikes and run with the bulls, and they still have all their limbs (and presumably equipment), then surely I could do it once at age 54.

Some of you are probably saying, “Run, you chicken-heart.” And you might have a point. This is probably the one and only time I’ll be in Pamplona during the second week of July and there’s a money-back-guarantee that I’ll never be any younger than I am today. I feel good, I’m approaching the end of a two-year adventure and I have yet to make a claim on my supplementary health insurance. So, what’s stopping me?

It’s not like I don’t enjoy the occasional jolt of adrenaline. While in New Zealand I jumped from a perfectly good plane at 16,000 feet over Lake Taupo. I also swung across the Shotover Canyon while sitting in sling at the end of a long rubber band. In Kyrgyzstan I rode several barely broken horses over treacherous mountain trails where one wrong step would launch both of us on a one-way trip to the bottom of a deep canyon. I also survived a midnight ride through narrow Beijing streets on the back of a motorcycle driven by a kid who had been drinking rice wine and smoking opium all evening.  And when in Bolivia I rode a mountain bike down a 60 km stretch of Yungus Road – the deadliest road in the world according to Guinness. 

I convinced myself that each of these activities was reasonably safe as I wasn’t the first person to do any one of them and I didn’t personally know of anyone who had died on the end of a rubber band or in a Beijing hutong or on a bike in Bolivia. So they must be safe, right?

To be honest, some of the more riskier things I’ve done were choices made on the spur of the moment and not always with the clearest mind. This time I decided to mull it over and come to a decision by Friday night. I like to think that I generally make the right decision when I take my time and consider all the options.

By Saturday morning I still hadn’t decided. I got up at 6AM and put on the outfit that I bought from a street vendor on Friday. I had everything that was required – white pants and t-shirt and red waistband and neckerchief. For the sake of 30 Euros I wasn’t about to stand out in a crowd – especially a crowd of raging bulls.  I had also learned that everyone in Pamplona wears the traditional white and red outfit – not just those who run with the bulls.  Most runners are closer to age 20 than 40, let alone 54 or 80.

It was a 30 minute walk from my suburban university dorm to the heart of Pamplona so I still had some time to go over the pros and cons of running.  By 7:00 I had downed a double shot of espresso and was standing on the corner of Calle de la Estafeta and Calle Juan de Labrit. To my right was the chute and narrow tunnel that both runners and bulls pass through as they enter the bullring. To my left was Calle de la Estafeta which is the end of the final straightaway and the spot where the bulls reach top speed.

It was decision time. Which way should I go? Hang a left and take my spot somewhere along Estafeta or turn right and make a beeline for the ticket booth. Thankfully things came together very quickly. A ticket scalper was standing on the corner and in perfect English he called out: “Stadium seats, 10 Euros.”

For some reason I thought that tickets cost over 100 Euros. (That turned out to be the price of the evening bullfight which I will attend on Sunday). So with a safe seat available for the price of an Angus burger back home and the lure of buckets of homemade sangria being poured into large cups by enterprising ladies who ringed the stadium, I made up my mind pretty quickly.

Thankfully nobody was killed during the run on Saturday, July 10. Dozens of people required medical treatment on the spot and a few were transported to hospital but nobody died. I watched the run on a giant screen in the stadium and was on hand when the bulls and runners arrived. The runners hung around in the ring for an hour or so and one-by-one the bulls were brought back into the ring for a few more minutes of fun with the humans. 

Check out these two videos that I shot shot from the bullring.  The first shows the runners arriving  and the second shows some of the bulls being released back into the ring. I think this tells the story better than I can in words.  If you have a decent internet connection, wait for the video to load and click the ‘HD’ logo in the bottom right corner of the video to watch in high definition.  

PS: I attended the Saturday night bullfight and watched Sunday’s Running of the Bulls from a balcony just above Dead Man’s Curve, which is said to be the most dangerous spot on the route. I’ll write about the bullfight in a future post but for now I’ll leave you with a video taken from the balcony during Sunday’s run. 


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