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Running with the bulls was never some kind of game. I was already conflicted with this being one of the few requirements of having a dream job (big props to Stoke Travel for the opportunity too) and listening to my mother, with the slightest touch of frantic in her voice, tell me to be careful certainly didn't help. It was the afternoon before the opening day of San Fermín, and I was excited, but nervous, but trying not to be nervous, so I told my mother that I wasn't trying to outrun the bulls. As a rule in these situations, you always have to be faster than the slowest person. "Don't worry, mom," I cooed. "I brought my feet shoes!" More on that later.
The San Fermín Festival
The internet tells me that the San Fermín festival is a:
...a week-long, historically rooted celebration held annually in the city of Pamplona, Navarra, Spain. The celebrations start at noon on the sixth of July, when the party starts with the setting off the pyrotechnic[a] and continue until midnight, on the fourteenth of July, with the singing of the Pobre de Mí. While its most famous event is the encierro, or the running of the bulls, at 8:00 AM from July 7 to 14, the festival involves many other traditional and folkloric events.
But, like I eventually came to find, first, Spanish traditions start with wine. I was suited for this, dressed in all white with a red neckerchief. I was confident mostly everyone else had been drinking since 9 AM while I was eating breakfast, and walked through the streets, inside a full mob of Stokies (as they are known), through the crowds of people it took for us to get from the bus stop to the town's square (which was actually more like a rectangle).
We first approached the backside of a stage set up at the narrow end of rectangle closest to us, and not far from that was a large, hexagonal gazebo with people everywhere. The mayor of the town and gave a very rousing speech, and each of us shook cardboard, cartons of wine into the air. I had done this at San Vino, and that's when I noticed the pattern.
We ambled around, drunk, and some of us ventured over to the track the bulls would run in the morning. We talked of the bull fights some, and less about how nobody cared for A Sun Also Rises, and I just wanted everybody to have a fair shot at the title. Soon, it was time to take one of the buses home, relatively sober, and fall straight to sleep.
A monk, a bull, and an ass walk along the streets of Pamplona...
Wearing wine-stained whites and my neckerchief, I, coincidentally, met up with some from the crew I was hanging out with the night before. Pete, a New Zealander, was telling us about how dangerous the bull run really is. At 8 AM, Pete, a New Zealander, was talking about having watched people get trampled; or worse, impaled; last year. Shortly after, we began strategizing. Many, he knew, would start at Dead Man's Corner.
I knew I needed to crunch the numbers later, so I did. A standard male bull, which these all were, weighs 1,200 pounds (544.31 kilograms) and runs at an average clip of 35 miles per hour (15.65 meters/second squared). They travel, in groups with as many as seven or eight, with 1,915.02 pounds (8,518.45 newtons) of force, and they will rear their heads forward and effectively launch you or panic when separated from their pack. The bulls in Pamplona are not "standard" bulls. They will also have to approach a 90 degree turn running with that potential energy.
I found the Pamplona Bull Run Map and some statistics!
I was probably around 200 pounds at the time, and though fast, not an actual animal capable of traveling great distances quickly. Effectively, people Pete knew were going to stand in the corners of the route to watch the the first pack of bulls released, hopefully, fly by them. They would then try to race a second pack of bulls released to the coliseum from there. If there was the slightest rain that day or the ground was slippery for any reason, I would have thought them even more foolish. As I said in my original article (which I will link to at the bottom*), "Momma raised an ugly kid, not a stupid one." I decided to be well past Dead Man's Corner by the time the first cannon fired.
The crew I was hanging out with the night before.
A little before 9 AM, we shuffled through a mob in front of City hall while Pete stuffed his phone down his pants and promised to airdrop me the photo above, holding his goon sack under his armpit. The eight step instructional video had finished playing on a television screen attached to a building, and we were still ironing out and a line of police officers pushed people through, frisking us to make sure we didn't have anything that would cause somebody; or worse, the bull; to slip and fall. They didn't do this because they wanted to help you. They certainly did not want to rush over to a tourist, impaled and dying in the middle of the street, get his or her blood on themselves, load him or her into an ambulance, and drive past city lines so that he or she could die, effectively cooking the books for Pamplona's most popular tourist event. They did this so the bulls could "fight" later. I'll leave a call to action for bleeding hearts at the bottom as well.**
They confiscated Pete's goon sack and we walked the route until, eventually, splitting up at various points. I tried at first to stand away from people, and because of my efforts, I was awarded a few feet of space for another minute while I situated myself off to the side, on a slightly elevated "sidewalk" (wide enough to fit one and a half people and at a height perfectly suited to roll your ankle over, landing you in the street). I remembered to stretch while I looked down the street lined with storefronts and houses built upon them. People were already pressed against barred, metal doors at street level or on balconies above. I bent over to tighten the velcro on my Vibram KSO's SeeYa Running Athletic shoes, flexing my feet and standing up, trying to look relaxed and remember the rules.
The following story is a dangerous, real-life account of a brave fool who wishes only to grasp onto life.
It's worth the read, but it's pretty small, so here's a TL;DR:
- When you fall down, stay down. You would rather get trampled. The alternative is a horn through your mouth and then the base of your neck maybe. Being gutted is also something that happens. (Wait until you see the photo below). Dive under the rungs of wooden barricades (three in total) when you need to and can.
- Tie you neckerchief in a slipknot. It comes off much more easily, and you do not wind up getting dragged down cobblestones until it rips off of you, and become, subsequently, trampled by bulls.
- Avoid the suelto. Facing a lone bull means facing a fearful and confused animal capable of great strength. Their horns span wider than the width of your body.
- Women can run. It's archaic nonsense to think they can't.
The group of people around me made small talk when, suddenly, the first cannon fired into the air. It was not quiet because my heartbeat already started thumping in my ears. Not shortly after, people, few in number, were running around Dead Man's Corner and toward me. I held steady, and their numbers grew. A second cannon blast, all the bulls had left the pen, and the people running swelled into a horde of white and red. I broke my line, and began with a fast jog, my hand out in front of me. I maneuvered around the people slower than me while people came up, hauling ass, behind me. I moved a little off the "sidewalk" and then back onto the "sidewalk," always using my hands when I had to gently guide someone out of my way.
This to-scale model was created with clay over the span of four months.
Moving like a freight train, a pack of six fearsome beasts cruised down the strip of cobblestones next to me, steadily chugging along on their way, unwittingly, into certain death. I sprinted with them as fast and as far as I could reasonably move, still flitting in and out of a crowd of people and not wanting to push anyone down I didn't have to. The bulls were mostly ahead of me now, and I slowed to a fast, comfortable, jog again while storefronts gave way to wooden barricades and the coliseum loomed over the funnel leading into it about 200 feet away.
A little ahead of me, a man came running past me, tripped, and landed hard onto the cobblestones. Another young man couldn't slow down or move himself in time to miss him, and went barreling forward. A bull tripped over both of them just as I reached the corner of the last storefront, and while it stood with his left eyeball trained on me, I stopped on a dime. I was a weird distance away from the wooden barricade ahead of me, where I almost felt more comfortable diving in between the middle rung and the lowest rung instead of just hitting the deck, hard, and crawling, but I kept one eye on the bull as he stood there. The bull eventually heard the toll of the bell in its mind's eye to follow the herd. I followed suit.
My grandfather clipped this out of the newspaper and taped it to the backdoor of my mother's house. He calls me "Putin" because I traveled to Russia for a weekend.***
I approached the coliseum without a second thought of the second pack behind me, mostly out of ignorance, but assuredly safe because the first pack had passed me just recently. The entryway bottlenecked, and the tunnel rumbled with a growing roar, as I kept my stride through the shadows of blueish-white walls to where the pavers stopped and sand began. On the ground, some of runners had jumped onto a retaining wall built for the purpose of giving runners a way out, while fewer were climbing over to watch the show from the row in front of the front row of the stadium seating. Most of the runners, however, were playful, hugging their friends, meeting their neighbors, or jumping around to egg on the cheering Spaniards, red and white ascending into the heavens (or upwards of 1,463 feet (446 meters) according to Wikipedia).
I did the same, and before we all knew it, more bulls charged into the stadium, not bothering with us and making their way directly into an open set of red wooden doors and another, darker tunnel. Both of the tunnels were closed off as soon as all of the bulls were within the coliseum's walls, and the crowd began to settle into their seats. I found myself a place a reasonable distance away from the retaining wall with the tunnel inside the sandpit at my 2 o'clock, and heard another speech in Spanish above me talking to the crowd. Four TV screens, each with one across from it, all 90 degrees apart, counted down from 5... 4... 3... 2... 1...
Some people will say it was photoshopped.
You're not supposed to touch the bulls, and the bulls have corks on the end of their horns to prevent gorging. Many people did everything they could to touch the bulls, six in total. Most would run by when bulls were distracted to tap ass before getting away. I did this twice, for the first and second bulls, until I remembered they weighed a ton running at me. Others tucked their shoulders and rolled over their backs like acrobats. Some were cruel, and the police arrested a man who literally took a bull by the horns, dragging its head whichever way its neck would bend. I watched one person around my age stand off against a bull who charged at him, while all the rest of us circled the inner perimeter of the ring. He jumped, splayed his legs nearly parallel to the ground, and leapt over the animal. A large handful of people were injured, and some badly, but none to death inside the coliseum. Others, still, jumped in front of the bulls entryway into the coliseum. An example of what could happen in response to this can be seen in the featured image, but that didn't stop me from trying it once, too. The bulls turned fervently and charged people at random. Sometimes they would just spin quickly around trying to decide what to do next. They accelerated almost instantaneously, and I definitely ran laps around the circular pit that day. One bull looked fearful and confused, and that's when the tradition was not much more fun for me. In the end of it all, none of us really won, and I got to go back to basecamp exhilarated and accomplished, though tired and in need of a beer.
The last night before the fireworks with the loosest group of units I've ever had the pleasure of meeting.
Anyway. Here are some asterisks:
*A hyperlink out to The Chosen One: Stoke's San Fermín. Check out their mission if you're a fun-loving, open-minded traveler.
**San Fermín is deeply embedded into Spanish culture and is celebrated across the country. Some bulls have flaming swords, tarred to burn, stuck into their backs before "a bull fight," while younger generations of Spaniards have begun protesting these festivities. My personal opinion on the matter is that if you must injure me first to compete against me, you are a cheater and should be damned. This is a PETA petition to stop bullfighting.
***I didn't write about Memorial Day 2015 when I was on the ground in St. Petersburg for 44 hours yet. It's not much of a story, but I have a ton of cool photos from the trip, so I'd love to share it.