ATTENTION: Taking part in the running of the bulls is an extremely dangerous event and all of you that intend to participate must understand all the risks and consequences.
With that being said, it was probably the greatest experience of my life. Being chased through the narrow cobblestone streets of Pamplona while 12, half-ton beasts with razor sharp horns sprint behind you, produces an adrenaline rush that is second to none. I will break down everything you need to know to participate in the main event of the San Fermin Festival in Pamplona and include some personal advice from my experience.
Each year, from July 6-14, the small city of Pamplona becomes the focal point of Spain for one week during the Festival of San Fermin. And mostly everyone is there for the same reason, to run/witness the running of the bulls. First bull run is on July 7 precisely at 8AM, followed by one every morning for the rest of the week, to make a total of 8 opportunities to run with the bulls. The length of the course is 876 meters (1/2 mile), which means you will not be able to outrun the bulls the entire time. The bulls speed averages to 15 mph, but can get up to Olympic sprinter speeds. Now enough with the boring stuff that you can read on your own from Wikipedia.
Plan your route the night before. Old city will be crawling with people drinking outside the bars, so it won’t be difficult to find the course. Ask people that ran that morning or a previous day to see which stretch of the course they ran to gauge their experience. The most likely reason you will get injured will be from another human, not a bull.
With this in mind, everyone usually thinks about trying to pick a spot on either of the turns (Plaza Consistorial or the famous right-hander on Calle Mercaderes) because they are the streets that open up and there is more area to move. WRONG! These two corners get packed with people. Not only will it be hard to move, but you will most likely not be able to see the bulls coming because of the crowd. This could result in getting trampled, not only by bulls, but by the people behind you pushing to get out of the way of the bulls that you can’t even see. Or even a worse possibility, you get stuck behind a group of people and miss seeing the bulls go by (this can and has happen).
I recommend taking your chances on the opening street of Calle de Santo Domingo were the street is narrow but will be less crowded.Once you have your plan, either drink the night away or go get a full night’s sleep.
THE DAY OF THE RUNNING
You need to arrive early. The running begins at 8:00 AM; however, you need to be on the course no later than 7:00 AM, otherwise they will block off the streets & fences to prevent any more runners from participating on that day. The street cleaners will be out and about all morning, cleaning up the mess created from the festivities the night before. Once you get to your spot, walk it out a few times to visualize where you need to be running. Have a few exit points picked out along the way, whether they are fences, doorways, or simply the opposite side of the street. Definitely take a few minutes to stretch, that would be the last thing to worry about when you break out into a sprint. You will be surrounded by men of all ages, hailing from all countries. Exchange greetings with them because you will be running next to them and potentially putting your life into their hands. This might help you not get trampled by a stranger if he remembers your face. You will notice a crowd of people all packed at the starting line, and no they are not all running from there. They are there to sing a benediction, or a prayer sung to the statue of Saint Fermin. The prayer asks for the saint’s protection. Viva San Fermín!, Gora San Fermin!” (Translates to “Long live Saint Fermin”). After the prayer is sung, everyone will disperse and make their way back to their respected positions. If you want to feel more confident, grab a roll of newspaper from the people on the street to draw the bull’s’ attention from yourself if they get too close. As the seconds tick down, all eyes are directed up the street towards the starting line. Bodies are jumping up and down to get a better view.
THE RUNNING OF THE BULLS
The first firework sounds off in the sky. This signals that the bulls have been released from the pen. A second firework immediately follows signaling that all the bulls have excited the pen. The crowd of people in front of you that was jumping will stop, and all at once you will see everyone’s faces moving toward you. The crowd will disperse towards the sides of the streets and then you will finally see them, the massive bulls barreling down the street. This image will be seared into your memory forever. Let instincts take over from here and run like hell down that street. The middle of the street will be significantly less packed than the sides, but also more dangerous. I suggest you run at a speed to stay with the pack of people, this way you don’t get singled out for being too fast or too slow by the bull. If you want an unforgettable experience, try to run in front of the bull for a split second or get close enough to touch the bull. They will be running at the pace of the crowd and the other bulls, a pace that slows down at the turns in the streets. If you get to your exit point and are alive still, make your move. If you allow the bulls to pass you, you will be able to make into the bullfighting ring, another unforgettable experience I imagine.
*Disclaimer*: I did not make it to the ring, so this advice is from my friends who made it in.
You have only a few minutes from the time the bulls pass you, until the time they release a set of smaller, slower steers from the pen. The job of these steers is to wrangle any rouge bulls/steers that did not make it into the ring. Once this set of steers enter the ring, they will shut the gates and no more runners will be able to enter the area. What happens in the ring? No, you won’t be bullfighting, but you do get to mess around with a bunch of smaller, cork horned bulls. After the bulls from the running enter the ring, they are put into their pens and the smaller bulls are released. By no means should you take them lightly, they are still powerful beasts. You will see a dozen guys gather in front of some of the gates in a dog pile formation. They are waiting for the gate to open and have the bull jump over them. The bulls run around the ring and the runners lure them and dodge them. People will get flipped over the horns and others will get pinned to the ground. Most of the injuries happen in the ring, but rarely are they serious ones. Jump over the walls when you’ve had your fun and let your heart rate return to a normal beat.