Suddenly we heard it. A wave of terror shot through the crowd. The fragile strings that silently hold society together, snapped. I was in a thin alleyway with 50 other runners and a stampede of bulls were heading, horns drawn, straight toward us.
My first impression of San Fermin, the Spanish holiday that encompasses the running of the bulls, was one of disappointment. As I walked the old quarter of Pamplona, I heard more English than Spanish. Australians, Canadians, Brits, and their youngest family members were everywhere. It was as if I had walked into a themed kindergarten pageant rather than a blood thirsty race for life.
When doing life list items I always have a conscious fear that if I don’t actively fight my normal tendencies, I will merely check the item off my list rather than actually live it.
My first impressions of this holiday, and the dilution of the authenticism, poured fuel on my fear. I went to bed disappointed and unexcited for the day to come.
The next morning, I arrived to the bull fighting arena (the finish line for the running of the bulls) at 6:30am sharp. The atmosphere there was the complete opposite of my experience the day before.
The narrow streets were crowded with locals and tourists alike. Old Spaniards were warming their legs up with fiery concentration. Old women were bustling around trying to calm their anxiety with busy work. Energies were high and the Spanish spirit was shining brightly. Every single person in eyesight was dressed in the traditional white and red. As I walked onto the running path, shop keepers were literally barricading their doors and massive gates were being folded out to block off the path.
People started scaling building to get good views and locals started appearing on their balconies.
I found a strategic starting place in a corner and waited as the old central clock tower moved toward 8:00am. The police were out in heavy force and the rules were broadcast ten times in multiple languages (no wearing anything with straps, no filming, no drinking or doing drugs, no disobeying police orders and no taunting the bulls.) Meanwhile, screens showed highlights of runners getting trampled and gored.
The police were quite strategic in first crowding the runners together and then spreading the group thin to check for hazards. I had my GoPro and watched nervously as police grabbed and extracted runners who mistakenly revealed they too were smuggling cameras The police were extremely strict but for good reason.
Each year between 200 and 300 people get injured during the runs. The most frequent injuries are scrapes and bruises from falling. The most deadly causes of harm are the not so rare instances of goring and the real danger of suffocation caused by pile-ups.
To my left was a Spaniard who was working his way through a preplanned stretching routine. His tone and attitude were the utmost serious and alert. It was clear that he was a veteran of the race. To my right was an American college student who was having trouble hiding his nervousness. He fidgeted while eyeing the people up in balconies who were eyeing him.
Exactly at 8:00am, a cannon went off in the distance and a large section of the crowd started to run. I stood back knowing the bulls would need time to get to my location. Meanwhile, flashbulbs lit up the alley I was in and TV cameras zoomed in on the crowd of runners.
As I waited for the bulls, my legs tensed up and I could hear my escalating heartbeat in my head. My mind was darting between questions. How do they stop the bulls at the end of the race? Should I ditch my hidden camera and just focus on the race? Where were the exit points I was expecting on the running path?
Suddenly the people hanging out the windows above me started screaming loudly. The bulls were in sight.
As soon as the runners on the street level glimpsed the beasts, real primal panic infected the crowd. I had prepared myself mentally for the bulls but I suddenly understood that the other runners were my real threat.
The crowd surged and immediately someone tripped. This caused a domino effect and raised the level of panic higher. The societal strings had snapped. A young man pushed over an middle-aged female runner and an entire mass of people pressed me into a wall. Every person put every ounce of effort they had into getting out of the way of the bulls.
I had experienced panic in my life but this was the first time I had experienced real terror. Both panic and terror are over saturated fear. The difference, I learned, is that panic is fast whereas terror is deep.
The street was too narrow and the walls were too high. Right in front of me, a pile-up of fallen people formed. Just then, the herd of bulls, horns drawn, dove through the pile of frightened and downed runners.
I had wanted hardcore realism and received it in the form of random people’s blood on my shirt and a hard strike to the back of the head. Instinctively, I put all of my body’s power into moving forward. The rush was terrifying but exhilarating!
Most of the bulls made it through the pile-up while only mildly slowing down (imagine a bowling ball hitting a group of human bowling pins) but one larger and slower bull fell onto a guy who was on the ground in the fetal position. The runners ran as the unlucky guy took a hoof to the mouth. Others shook around askew on the ground trying desperately to avoid the same fate.
The bull finally regained its footing and ran forward down the alley.
The remaining upright runners, myself included, did everything we could to follow the lone bull down the alleyway. One hundred meters down the alley, a bolt of fear hit the group as the sound of another bull went out. Someone kicked my shin and I hit a wall and a group of people. Off balance, I just barely stayed upright as I sprinted lopsided away from the upcoming bull.
Together the remaining runners and I poured into the packed bull fighting arena. The crowd of 20,000 spectators cheered and celebrated as we arrived.
As we entered the packed arena we echoed the cheers of the crowded stands. We literally jumped for joy! We had made it. The danger was over.
As people swapped cameras to take photos of each other, the feeling of glee was sharply interrupted.
Somehow, an angry bull had entered the arena.
I looked around franticly. The circular walls that enclosed us were at least two meters tall and all of the exits were blocked. As we stood on the enclosed stage of the bull fighting arena cramped in a tight, overcapacity crowd, we quickly realized that our new predicament was the real show. The 20,000 spectators hadn’t come to cheer us on, they had come to watch us squirm. It was a modern day gladiator battle.
It was a cruel joke that the entire city was in on.
Instantly, the same raw terror from earlier entered my body.
The crowd quickly surged as the entire group pushed up against the tall arena walls. I was packed in the crowd at least 8 people deep and the spectators above were cheering with excitement. The trapped group clawed at each other trying to scale the wall as the bull lurched around.
As the bull swerved away from me and my pile, I bolted away from it and scaled a pile of people near the fence. Somehow I simultaneously had a random foot on my shoulder and another one under my leg.
Up on the fence, I turned around and realized the hilarity of the situation. There was real danger in the on-going show, but up on the wall I could appreciate the harsh humor of the situation. I watched as the bull flipped a full-sized man into the air.
The organizers cycled in new bulls and the group of former runners gradually figured out the game. A few were too bold and got trampled but the vast majority scaled the fences without major injury.
I thought back on the previous 15 minutes and was both shocked and amazed. Running with the bulls had been far more intense and exciting than I had anticipated. It far exceeded my expectations and taught me a new lesson on the how deep fear can go.
Tips for Running with the Bulls:
(Special thanks to Dan Ciorba for the help!)
- Get to the running course early. I recommend 6:30am or earlier.
- Don’t bring any bulky camera equipment (I brought a GoPro with a “selfie pole” and ended up ditching the pole. I saw one guy get kicked out for the same offense)
- Remember that the fiercer and faster bulls are in the front of the herd.
- Be sober (or relatively close to it)
- There are 12 bulls, six wild ones that start the race and six older ones that bring up the rear.
- Try to remember how many bulls are still behind you. They are herding animals so if a bull gets loose from the pack and is alone, he’ll freak out and become more dangerous.
- Your biggest hazard in the race is typically the other runners – so keep your head on a swivel, looking forward for people and backwards for the bulls.
- San Ferman lasts for eight days. Most days start with a bull run and continue with parades, outdoor dancing, a bull fight and a fireworks show that lasts late into the night.
- My first major surprise was learning that the events start at 6:30am. The run starts at 8:00am but the drinking starts an hour and a half earlier. I’m a computer guy and didn’t realize that drinking could start so early!
A Note on Animal Rights:
Part of traveling the world and pursuing a Life List is exposing yourself to things that make you feel uncomfortable. Being mentally stretched is essential to personal growth. I am an animal lover but also realize my perspective is not the only one out there. I urge all of you to try to view issues that make you uneasy from the perspective of people on the opposing side. You don’t have to ultimately agree with them but understanding other viewpoints will help open your mind.
As I mentioned, I am an animal lover but I am also a meat eater. This Life List item is an example of my personal journey into exploring my complicated relationship with food and animals. It isn’t going to be an easy journey to watch but it is an important experience.
Photo Credit: Mike Brice