San Fermin in Pamplona – Getting Ready to Run
Whoever said that bulls “enter a ring” had never been inside of one with them.
Bulls don’t enter, they explode into the ring in a cloud of thunder, violence, and anger. My clammy hands fumbled my camera at the bullfight with my local friend, Ted, as I silently made this observation. Early the next morning, for reasons I don’t fully understand, I planned to voluntarily cram myself into a narrow street with not just one but six of these carefully bred fighting bulls along with nine additional steers in full panic.
All of them would be in a murderous rage, no doubt.
And pissed off they should be. I don’t blame them for wanting to go out with a bang; take a few of us morons with them. The survival rate for bulls after a run is zero, while less than 20 humans have died over the whole history of San Fermin. But while the fatality rate is low, between 35 – 50 people are injured out of hundreds on each run. In the instance of my run, 10 were hospitalized, three were gored, and 55 reported minor injuries (usually sprains and broken bones). The first run of the festival is often the messiest.
But people come from all over the world just to run the narrow streets with these bovine terrors. I came from Asia, and spent a small fortune on flights and gearing up. In less than three minutes, the run would be over. A handful of folks would be carted off to the hospital, but all of us would have memories engraved on our brains forever of this peculiar experience. Isn’t that the whole point of vagabonding? Once you’ve experienced the world in the raw, no one can ever take that away from you.
Watching the Clock
I said goodbye to Ted and spent the evening wandering around the sprawling squares and cobblestoned streets. The plan was to stay in the city centre somewhere near the starting line, so I could be there bright and early around 5:30 a.m. I was hoping to meet some new friends, but I didn’t. Instead, most people I spoke to were so drunk they plastered my face with spittle.
Waiting around too long gives the Fear a chance to pry into your mind with dirty fingers. The pressure of performing the actual mission is almost always more relaxing than enduring further buildup. It doesn’t really compare to a kid waiting for Christmas morning, that is, unless Santa had potentially rigged one of the packages with a tripwired explosive or something.
The clock was big trouble. The faster it spun, the quicker I could end the interminable waiting. But as hours drained away, something big and hairy was coming down the line. I started developing jitters and doubts about how well I would be able to perform after being up all night. I haven’t ran voluntarily in years, but then again, being chased by a handful of Satan’s playthings would surely be motivating.
In all, I was practically on my feet from 11 a.m. on Monday until midnight on Tuesday, with only a few hours on a park bench throughout the night. I was awake for approximately 36 hours straight.
The last thing I ate was my fourth stale ham-and-cheese sandwich; they seem to be crazy about bocadillos in Pamplona. A crappy last meal if there were any feeding tubes to be had in my future.
I did my best to do a third-and-final walk of the course, a recon of sorts, but throngs of drunken people tripped and stumbled in the way. Bottles broke. Revelers reveled and splashed sangria on one another. Screams and chants echoed between buildings. Women danced. Men fought. Horny couples rolled around in the parks. Sirens sounded. Police helicopters hovered. Fireworks exploded. I’ve never seen so many attractive people gathered together in one place, shaking their asses to Spanish music. Families somehow pushed strollers through the chaos.
Over a million people turn up for this festival every year, cramming into a city of around 250,000 people. Some party for a week straight day and night; it is more than intense. Mardis-Gras looks like a preschool playground compared to this level of party. The ground in some places is literally sticky with vomit and booze, but you can escape to quiet, beautiful parts of the city at any time. Little covey holes with bird-covered statues of saints abound in Pamplona.
The festival draws out a pleasant mix of old and young, and far more locals than tourists. Douchebag testosterone levels do run high here, but I found out later that most of these men simply get drunk, do soccer chants, and chase girls – very few want to risk their carefully groomed faces on the run.
Despite being the most famous part of the festival, the actual Running of the Bulls lasts less than three minutes each day. But San Fermin rages on day and night for a week or longer. Of the estimated one million people that descend upon Pamplona, only one person in every thousand or so run with the bulls each day.
The Holding Pen
I was one of the first runners to enter the starting square.
Why not…I’d been up literally all night waiting. Runners, a few at a time, trickled in with red eyes over the next hours. I watched as street cleaners did their best to vacuum up the ankle-deep stew of filth, glass, bottles, and bodily fluids deposited by a night of partying. I also thought of how crummy it would be to die with cigarette butts stuck all over my body. The uneven streets were literally gooey with sangria, which had been sprayed all over in an epic booze fight, not unlike Thailand’s Songkran water festival. You could tell straightaway who among the runners had enjoyed a night of sleep before the run – they were the ones in white, spotless clothing. As for the rest of us, we were stained and soiled…the way that San Fermin should be experienced.
When the police arrived at 7 a.m. and pushed everyone inside of the starting square, we were compressed like human cattle. My nose was literally buried into the hair of the guy standing in front of me. A concrete can of fleshy people squirmy with nerves. The warm stench of dirty bodies was nauseating. Each breath had to be earned; I could feel the diaphragms of people on all sides of me rise and fall as they breathed. To make matters worse, the police forcefully pushed their way through the mob regularly to allow press and VIPs through.
With only an hour to go, I had expected some sort of buildup, some rallying and big talk, but there was very little bravado to be found. After all the brave talk the night before, it was time to walk the walk. Runners shuffled uneasily in place. Nervous jokes were made. Clammy handshakes were exchanged. Joints stiffened from standing in place.
There was talk of various strategies; theories were made as to which side would be better to run. Would the bulls swing wide? Do you begin to run after the second rocket or the first? No one knew. What we all did know, however, is that no one wanted to mess with Dead Man’s Corner – the very first turn of the course where bulls in full stamina swing wide and cause the most casualties. That was no place to be for newbies.
Jittery eyes kept glancing back at the clock tower behind us. Lips quivered with smiles as we introduced ourselves and where we were from. Interesting enough, I recognized a voice from behind me, a vagabonding traveler from Seattle whom I had met at the Thai New Year celebration back in April. I had a friendly Irish guy from Cork on one side; we joked back and forth about who would make it and who wouldn’t based on appearances.
“That guy doesn’t stand a chance.” My Irish friend pointed out a scrawny guy in Harry-Potter glasses who couldn’t have been five feet tall.
“I don’t know, maybe he’s small enough to slip through.” The kid turned around just enough for us to see his mortified face.
“You’re right, mate, he’s screwed…”
What we needed was Mel Gibson with a painted face up front on a horse, giving some sort of hero speech and banging a sword against a shield. Instead, I looked up at one of the balconies above the square just in time to catch an ancient, toothless Basque woman with a headscarf giving us the sign of the cross. No bueno. One drunk runner tried to start up an olé chant, but it lasted a single iteration before crumbling back to the sullen murmuring that was to be the backdrop for our hour-long wait.
Around 07:30, the video screen on the clock tower blared loudly to life; we did our best to rotate in place to see it. For some reason, it reminded me of the video aired in the arena sky in the Hunger Games. Rules for the run were given. A giant photo of some flip-flops and high heels with a red ‘X’ across them – that sort of useless stuff. Then a video of past bull runs was aired to some sort of generic elevator music. The music wasn’t adrenaline-invoking, but the video did the trick. Pale faces on a few runners grew even whiter. We watched in slow motion as bulls swung wide, crushing people into the railings. Other runners were launched into the air by very pointy horns rammed into their crotches. Yes, the horns are at full, lung-piercing pointyness during the run – they are only capped at the end for “play” time in the bullring.
About that time, an idiot puked. There was a surge for precious centimeters as people tried to get away from the fool. There he stood, bobbing on his feet, with vomit dripping from his chin. No doubt, the run had seemed like a good idea after 12 hours of partying. I wondered if any of his slippery vomit – which landed directly in the center of the path – would cause one of the Divines to go down and get seriously hurt. The Divines are locals who train and plan for the run every year. They’re the crazy bastards you see directly in front of the bulls from the start.
A Life-Changing Moment
I hate using a term so often cheapened, but running with the bulls did change my life. Interestingly, the change didn’t come because of some crazed, adrenaline-soaked moment. It surfaced as I was standing there, miserable, squeezed into the holding pen. In fact, looking up at the starting line and realizing that I was at the very front and had literally been one of the first five runners in place is what dug the thought out of the recesses of my soul. I was taking this life experience even more seriously than most, maybe too much.
I thought of how many close encounters that I’ve had, numerous injuries endured, wondered if the damaged disc in my back would be destroyed within the next 20 minutes – effectively changing my way of life forever. I thought of surviving the largest typhoon to make landfall, of all the goodbyes I’ve told, loves I have lost because of this way of life, and numerous other introspections. In short, I realized that vagabonding is costly in ways beyond just monetarily. And also that I am dreadfully addicted to something that causes a lot of stress for the people who care about me.
Maybe I was getting soft because I just turned 40 two weeks ago and was thrust kicking and screaming into a new decade. The last decade is certainly going to be a hard act to follow.
My epiphany, which was a little melancholy at first, was slowly replaced by a feeling that I was standing exactly where I needed to be standing, exactly where I said that I would be standing. It was a feeling of exhilarating competence.
As it turns out, the Running of the Bulls is a real test. Not a test of courage or insanity – anyone can do this – but a test of who you really are on the inside.
I’ll say it again: anyone can run with the bulls. Many have; I’ve read their blog entries. The real test comes from deep inside, particularly when you are running alone.
The test at San Fermin is choosing your starting point along the run course. You have 825 meters (a little over half of a mile) to make some pretty serious decisions. The main objective is to finish the run, hopefully with limbs still attached, and then enter into the bullring with the bulls. Where you begin is completely up to you – choose carefully. If you watch closely in videos of the run, some people don’t run 20 meters before jumping to the sides to hug a wall. Others begin running so far in advance of the bulls that they never even see one. Technically later, all can still claim that they “ran with the bulls.”
But do you want the experience to soak into your core, or just some surface-level bragging rights?
Basically, you have only a few minutes to decide just how much risk you are willing to take to get such said bragging rights for life. How true to yourself will you be? You could do the bare minimum, or you could push the line. The problem is that no one really knows where the Edge is in the fog of uncertainty…those who got too close went over.
I spoke with a Californian man in a bar later that evening. He had just turned 70, and he ran. And not only did he run, he was planning to be in the next run as well because he hadn’t gotten close enough to the bulls today. He felt that he couldn’t claim to be a corredor con los toros (runner with the bulls) just yet. Now that is integrity.
I had been standing at my starting point only a couple of minutes when the first of the rockets popped overhead. All introspective thoughts came to a halt – the bulls would be coming around the corner in seconds. They would not be in a good mood.
Read Part 2: Running of the Bulls in Pamplona 2015.