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How to Run with the Bulls in Pamplona (and Live to Tell the Tale)

The photo of a man on his back holding off a giant bull while one of its horns penetrated his calf, the outline of the curved and sharp horn blatant beneath the man’s skin, monopolized the front pages of every Madrid newspaper, and most newspapers across Spain, the July morning in 2007 we were set to leave via train for Pamplona. It wasn’t a good sign. I took it as some sort of warning, an omen, a doomsday message sent from another dimension, directed specifically at me: don’t do this.

The San Fermin Festival began yesterday in Pamplona, Spain, the eight-day celebration more commonly known in these parts as the Running of the Bulls. A hundred years ago it was a local event, a party for locals, but then Ernest Hemingway featured the city and its festival in his celebrated novel The Sun Also Rises, and ever since the festival has been an international phenomenon.

I’d been to the festival first in 2006, a year before the infamous front-page photo, with a group of friends from my study-abroad group. For some of us, like me, it was the first time, while others had been multiple times. That year, I enjoyed taking in the festivities and then secured a good spot up on a wooden fence post and watched the run. The following year, in 2007, I heeded the newspaper photo’s dire warning and had no intention of participating. Like the year before, I was going just to go to Pamplona to take in the party. From a safe distance. That was the plan.

The Running of the Bulls is just one aspect of the fiesta. It’s an eight-day, all day, all night event, packed with parades, fireworks, dancing, eating, drinking, drinking, and also drinking. The beverage of choice is a concoction known in Basque as kalimotxo, and it’s worse than it sounds: cheap, boxed red wine and Coca Cola, probably warm, in a red Solo cup. We all drank it. I don’t think there was much of a choice. With our cups in one hand, the box of wine or the liter of Coke in the other, we walked the well-worn cobblestone streets. When we ran out, we ducked into a convenient store, bought another box, another liter of Coke, maybe another sleeve of cups, and headed back into the street party. Sometime during the long night, one begins to notice that everyone’s traditional white attire (with the exception of the red bandana around our necks and red sash around our waists) was blotched with purple kalimotxo stains. Things were getting messy.

You see, the Running, which takes places at eight a.m. each morning, doesn’t kick off each new day of the festival: it—more accurately—ends each night’s party, since most, if not all, of the Runners have been awake all night, partying and drinking in the streets, working themselves up into a lather leading up to the sunrise run but often peaking a little too early, every patch of grass in the city by five a.m. populated with horizontal bodies: some squeezing in a scheduled nap before the Run, some passed-out drunk and done for good.

The day, and night, are a grind. You’re among thousands of people, filling the streets and overflowing bars, you’re in the sun, you started drinking way too early. There’s no end in sight. The year before, in 2006, about fourteen of us checked into one single hotel room after the morning Run, perhaps around nine a.m., and had the best sleep of our lives. Half a dozen of us on the queen bed, someone in the bathtub, the bathroom floor, and so many on the carpeted hotel floor that a couple of us, myself included, actually slept under the bed. It is a grind. Thinking about it, right now, as I write this all these years later, gives me a small dose of residual anxiety.

My friend Julian, who’d done the run half a dozen times over the years, kept asking me throughout the day of that 2007 trip if I was going to run. I said probably not. I’d be happy just to watch, as I’d done the previous year. But he kept asking, wearing me down. I started answering “We’ll see” after a while, not really intending to, but just to offer a different answer than the defiant “no” I’d been giving. But I think as the night grew long, as my body surrendered to exhaustion, my defenses suffered. I began to quietly justify the Run: why had I put myself through this exhausting trial for a second year in a row? Just to have two of the exact same story? Participating in the Run would at least change that narrative, give reason to this second time around.

Right?

We found our own patch of cool grass in the early pre-dawn dusk, and sleep came fast and easy. The sky softened to gray, and eventually pink. When bodies finally stirred, I still believed I was going to take a pass on the Run. In fact, had Julian roused me with a shake on the shoulder and asked, “So what did you decide, buddy? You in?” I think I would have shrugged, stuck out my bottom lip, said, “I don’t think so. I’m good watching. Go get ‘em.”

But that isn't what he said. Instead, he shook my shoulder and I heard: “We better get going if we want a good spot.” Tired, defeated, a little drunk, I staggered to my feet and obediently followed.

* * *

We cut through the crowd and ducked under the wooden slat fence posts that workers had been setting up the last hour or so. There are actually square, lidded groove inserts in the ground all along the course. The metal lids are removed and the wood posts inserted before each morning’s Run. Julian kept giving me and another member of our tribe, Wes, advice on how to complete the run in one piece. While we maneuvered through the thickening crowd, I kept hurrying to catch up, asking him to repeat what he’d said. It felt like a lot of information. “What?” I kept saying, leaning forward, stumbling. “I need to what?”

* * *

How to Run with the Bulls and Live to Tell the Tale:

1. Don’t sprint. You don’t need to run too fast. It’d be dangerous with so many thousands of people on the course. Run too fast and you increase the chances of tripping and falling. Plus, you can’t outrun the bulls. They’re faster than they look. A hell of a lot faster. They’re going to pass you at some point. This isn't a race.

2. If you do fall, don’t try to get up. This is how most people get hurt. There are thousands of runners behind you. Pull your knees up into your chest, cover your arms over your head, and let them run around you or jump over you. Wait it out. If a 1300-pound bull is coming, you don’t want to be halfway up, your head directly at the level of his head (and horns). Stay the fuck down.

3. Don’t look back. Looking back means you’re not looking ahead, meaning you’re a lot more likely to run into someone, trip over a runner who’s already down on the ground, or something else disastrous. Keep your eyes in front of you. You’ll be tempted to look back—“Where are they? Where are the bulls? Are they close?”—but fight this urge. And you won’t need to look back anyway because when they’re coming, when they’re close, you’re going to know. You’re going to feel it. You’ll know.

4. When you do feel it, when you know they’re close, get as far left or as far right as you can. Try to give them a pathway down the center. If the bulls stay together, in a small herd, they’re much less dangerous. They should run pretty straight and efficiently. The whole things lasts just a couple minutes. The real danger can come when one of them gets separated from the others. Lost and confused, the bull will turn, looking for something to hit, even start in the opposite direction. When the official time of the run is around two minutes, you can guess that the Run went relatively smoothly. When the official time is more than that (once it was an endless eight minutes), you know something went terribly wrong. Get yourself to the far left or far right and hope they’re all together.

5. Don’t get caught in the tunnel at the same time or just ahead of the bulls. The tunnel is the one that cuts through the Plaza del toros, the bull ring, where the Running ends. It’s length is perhaps a hundred feet or so, but it’s narrow, considerably more narrow than the streets. In there, things can get congested. There isn’t as much room for runners, and it’s tough, if not impossible, to get far enough left or right to let the bulls pass. People stumble over each other in there. If the bulls are coming, you’re going to meet one. And it won’t be pretty.

* * *

Julian suggested Wes and I begin our run right at Dead Man’s curve. He was going to start back at the beginning, which he hadn't done before. That was his sixth piece of advice:

6. Avoid Dead Man’s Curve, essentially a sharp right-hand turn that was tough to navigate cleanly with so many people, but tougher for the bulls. They routinely wiped out on this corner, taking people down with them. Julian said it was the most dangerous stretch of the Run.

Wes and I stood in the thick of the crowd, looking around, adrenaline surging without much of an outlet. Some jumped up and down, rolled their necks, shook their hands out. Burning excess energy. Everything smelled of sweat and red wine and fear. I looked down at the cobblestone street at my feet and wondered who’d been injured here before. Maybe even yesterday.

The pop of a rocket sounded in the air, in the distance. This was the first of two signals announcing the Run: the first sort of an ‘on your marks’ heads-up, and the second, one minute later, pairs with the release of the bulls. At the first rocket we all became still, now conserving our energies, trying to find that inner calm that might help us through. I looked over at Wes. His hands were on his hips. He shook his head a little. I got the message: what the fuck are we doing here?

I tried to smile but nothing came. My lips felt dry and I licked them. I tried to swallow.

Then the second rocket.

Chaos.

We broke into a run, really a jog at first, moving as a mass. Elbows all around me loaded and swung, loaded and swung, inches away, body heat suddenly everywhere. Wes was already nowhere to be found. We’d lost each other in the first three seconds.

In my peripheral vision I saw spectators lining the streets, a wall of them; many had climbed onto the wood rails, as I had done the year before. The balconies surrounding us were full, flags waving, cheers and shouts. But it was all background noise, buried in the distance. I was flailing in a sea of white and red madness, everything a blur: the bodies around me, the spectators, the cobblestones. I tunneled into myself, just me and my breathing and the reverb of my heart.

Someone checked into my shoulder. I bounced left my recovered. Didn’t look to see who it was. Ahead, bodies tripped and fell. Two people? Or more? I wasn’t sure. Just a mass. The machine of runners parted around it.

And then, there it was. Julian had been right. There was no need to look back. I felt a surge, an energy filling the tight spaces between us. A buzz of noise and energy. They were coming. I physically felt it.

I edged right, as far as I could without knocking into anyone. The crowd here grew more congested. I found myself right at someone’s back, and I had to place the palm of my hand flat between his shoulder blades to avoid running him over. Heat radiated from his spine. I felt the person directly behind me clip the back of my heel, giving me a flat tire. Hobbled, I stopped pushing off my toes so as to not lose my sneaker the rest of the way. I lost some of my speed but maybe it was for the best—maybe I’d be less likely to right through the guy ahead of me. Bodies bumped me from the left and right. The surge swelled, a crescendo of exploding energy, every last molecule in my body and in the air vibrating, electrified. Then the thunder of hooves—it sounded liked a hundred of them—a splash of peripheral brown, the bobbing and falling of curving, pointed horns. My instincts urged me to run faster, but don’t run faster, resist that. Stay steady. My hand stayed on the back in front of me, my jaw tight, clamped, gnashed. And the bulls, in a broad and massive wall of unbridled strength, bolted by me, a foot and a half to my left.

Some runners, holding rolled newspapers, swatted the bulls on the rear ends as they passed, some kind of taunt or showing off. We spread back out a little and I had, suddenly, a bit more room. I picked up speed. Had they all passed? Was there another coming up from behind? The tunnel loomed ahead. Was I timing this right? Were they all ahead of me now? I wanted to glance over my shoulder, take a peek, but the mass of runners was collapsing again as we contracted into a tighter pack to funnel into the darkness. I saw more bodies on the ground ahead, obstacles we stumbled to get around, land mines. Someone tripped, arms flailing wildly, skidding into a wood post, landing hard. Collateral damage fell around him. Then I was entering the tunnel and there was no time to look back and no use anyway—I was in it; I gritted my teeth and ran. And ran.

And ran.


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