After 1 flight, 2 trains, 1 bus, and one exhausting trek through the streets, we finally reached the city we crossed an entire ocean for… Pamplona. A trip that all began with the backhanded suggestion that we should go run with the bulls. Now fast forward 5 months and some heavy convincing of a few friends; there were the seven of us, dressed in white, running for our lives down the cobblestone streets of Pamplona as half-ton beasts trailed only inches behind us. As my mind raced furiously before the Bulls were released, my head was completely clear of thoughts once that first step was taken. Only for a split second did I think to myself, “What am I doing here?”
What all started with a suggestion to my roommates that I had always wanted to run with the Bulls in Pamplona ever since I read a book about San Fermin in my high school Spanish class. Their immediate responses were yes and from that point on we were dead-set on getting to Spain. Given a strict timeline we could travel, combined with a group that is now 7 guys, made for quite the interesting logistical nightmare getting to the running. After we missed the only direct train from Barcelona that day, we finally arrived in Pamplona on our 9th day in Spain. Due to the high demand of hostel and hotel rooms during the festival weeks, we were forced to find a hotel on the outskirts of town. All the traveling that day unfortunately did not bode well for our hunger levels, and the trek from the train station in Iruna to our Hostel was a long, hungry, miserable, angry walk for the seven of us.
Checked in at the desk, bags down, and boom, we were out the door again. Solved our hunger problems with the usual gyro and duram, and now the impending activity of the following day began to grow more and more real. The potential danger was on everyone’s mind, yet no one talked about it. Rather than it was talks of our night in Ibiza or the beaches in Barcelona, nothing about the razor sharp horns of the gigantic Bulls we would see in a couple hours.
It was about 11:00PM by the time we walked into Old City to go check out the route and plan our strategy, when we were surprised to see a massive party pouring out into the streets outside the bars. People from all countries, dressed in their sangria stained white shirts and trousers, singing and dancing along Calle de La Estafeta; most likely celebrating their survival from the morning’s running of the bulls. This same street, come morning, will have a much different view (or so we thought). After making it through the crowd, we finally reached the spots where we planned to run, the Plaza Consistorial. The original plan was to start at the plaza since it was a wide open left handed turn that would allow us the most room to evade the beasts if necessary. We then walked all the way up to the starting area, where the Bulls are released, to gauge how far the bulls had to run before they’d be on us.
Feeling satisfied with our preparation, we walked back to the hostel only to lie awake, tossing and turning in our beds that were separated by 3 inches. We all said it was the colds & coughs we had developed throughout our trip, but for me, it was the fear of being gored by a bull, two thousand miles from home. To add insult to injury, literally, I pulled my hip flexor two days before while in Ibiza and could barely lift my right leg… let alone run on it in a full stride motion.
Alarms go off. It’s 5:00AM. But it woke none of us up, because all of us were already awake. We donned our uniform. White trousers, white shirt, red scarf wrapped around the waist, and a red handkerchief tied around our necks. No breakfast, no conversation, just our bodies following the plan. We headed outside to catch the first bus of the morning into downtown. The inbound bus was completely silent, even though it was filled with people, all dressed in red & white. We arrive on Calle de La Estafeta, and to our surprise, the party from the previous night is still in full swing. And it looked like no signs of stopping. The cobblestone below our feet was littered with glass bottles and plastic cups, still sticky from all the spilt sangria. The seven of us passed further up the street and were forced out of the way as the crew of street cleaners came rumbling down the course, preparing for the run that was only a few hours away.
Taking into consideration some advice we were given the previous night; the three of us, Christian, Ben, and myself, decided to split off from the group and change our plan for the running. We were going to move further up the street, towards the start, where we would be on the first stretch on the straightaway. We would be facing the Bulls, head-on, via Calle Santo Domingo. We still had two hours before the fireworks would be shot off, indicating the Bulls were released. Normally, more time to think and prepare before you do something this intense would be a good thing. But we did not feel that way at all. Instead, it was two hours to sit with your thoughts, trying to convince yourself to not back out. This became tougher and tougher with each sight of other runners with scarred faces and broken arms in casts from injuries acquired in the previous days’ runnings.
The shrine of San Fermin, passed through the crowd. In a reactionary response, I just ran over to it and touched it, asking for his blessing of a safe running. The hours turned into minutes. The chants then began to roar through the streets and out of the tiny alleyways. “…Gora San Fermin” They finished and the crowd, which was packed by the starting line, then retreated to their respective positions along the course. I knew the end was close, I had convinced myself that this was going to be worth it. But I’ve never been more scared in my entire life. My heart had sunk so low in my chest as my pulse began to beat uncontrollably fast. Ben was 10 yards ahead of me up the street and Christian was a dozen yards down the street. I was alone.
There it was, the first firework exploded in the air, echoing down the narrow street, immediately followed by the second. One by one, runners began to repeatedly jump into the air like the fans at a Duke Blue Devils game. The was a sea of white in front of me, jumping up and down, trying to get a glimpse of where the Bulls where. Then, without warning, the crowd parted down the center and there immersed 3, great, black, beasts, with heads lowered and horns pointed right towards us. Without even thinking, I immediately turned and began to break out in a full sprint. Adrenaline was now coursing through my veins. Against better judgement, and common sense, I began to run with my head looking back to see how far, or rather close, the Bulls were. Didn’t need a yardstick to determine that distance. By this point, I had veered towards the right side of the street as we passed a church on our left. One by one the Bulls & steers began to pass me on my left, but it wasn’t all of them. Another look behind me revealed a rogue bull trailing behind me. The guy behind me went to the ground and the bull ran over him. I then began to panic, bad! I felt that I could no longer outrun the bull and feared I would be trampled if I couldn’t dodge this bull. I juked to the right. Pressing my back against the wall, hands crossed my groin (as if that would protect me), and just braced myself. The bull’s head was sweeping the street, left and right, horns pointed straight ahead and at knee high. I watched as the bull passed right in front of me, never breaking eye contact with the beast’s pitch black eyes, as it moved by within a few feet of me. I did it!
Looking to my right, there was Christian, not four feet to my side also pressed against the wall. We both broke out into a sprint, directly behind the last steer, be lining it to the slatted fences in the Plaza Consistorial. Christian dove through the middle as I bucked my body over him, onto the top rung. The two of us, elated with joy and excitement, hugged one another and stood in disbelief that we just survived one of the most insane things you could ever do.
We ran through the side streets of Pamplona to reach our meeting spot by the statue dedicated to the Encierro. One by one, our group began to return, each with a different story from their experience. It wasn’t until Ben finally returned did we realize the three of us had the exact same story and that we were all on the same wall without even realizing it.
You can see exactly the scene I just described in the full running of the bulls Day 4 video below at 45 seconds. Look on the left side along the wall!
After the three of us took refuge along the wall to avoid the last bull, he broke into a dead sprint towards the Plaza de Toros. He made it into the ring before the last steers arrived. It was a madhouse of smaller Bulls jumping over runners that were huddled on the ground near the pens and others running around. Once he saw one runner flipped over by a bull, he immediately jumped the ring’s wall into the crowd.