Growing up, I was constantly told what I could not and should not do. Don’t touch that, don’t leave that there, you can’t eat that. However, someone forgot to mention to me that I probably shouldn’t rub shoulders with eight 750kg bulls on a slippery cobblestone street after a huge night of Sangria and parties.
Being a boy, I have done many a stupid activity in my life, but none as adrenaline fuelled as running with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. If you like pushing it to the limit then this one is for you.
The annual Running with the Bulls festival began originally as herders running behind the bulls to round them up. Some smart guy in 1852 decided to run in front of them and from there the tradition started. It is part of the San Fermin festival, which is actually a deeply religious event. However it has been popularised as a feat of bravery now for travelers and adventure seekers around the globe.
The night before the run is filled with a party like atmosphere in the streets of Pamplona. Everyone is in traditional white and red, and the Sangria flows copiously the entire night. Music is non stop and the locals and travellers mix together as one.
For many runners, myself included, this means nursing a hangover. Note to future self: Do not run with bulls with a hangover. The next morning you need to be up very early in order to make sure you get the best possible jostling position for your run. To put this in context, the same street you party in, is also the same street you do the bull run. It is a narrow path, cobblestone, so it is nice and slippery from the night before. The run is only 800m long, but I promise you, that seems like a very long way with a bull about to spear your rear.
The crowd swells in the tiny street as I struggle to maintain our position, as close to halfway as possible. According to the locals I met last night, this is the place to be. Apparently, if you enter the stadium before the bulls, you are jeered, heckled and called a coward for not “running” with the bulls. If you are too far behind, then they close the arena gates and you are left outside.
So the run is not long but continues once or “if” you make the arena. Inside the stadium are a whole new set of problems we will get to shortly.
The nervous energy is contagious as all runners (boys only as girls are prohibited to join the run) are crammed together in the narrow street. There is literally no space to move and everyone is shoulder to shoulder. Everyone is carrying a newspaper, used to smack the bull on the backside as it flies past you.
And then, BOOM. The first gun goes off. This signals the bulls have been released. This is shortly followed by the second shot to indicate the bulls are out of the gate.
This is when the chaos really starts. You cant see the bulls, only the screams and shrieks of spectators and runners. But you don’t want to move too early; otherwise you will enter the arena too early, so it’s a game of chicken. Except Bulls have horns, very big ones. So we hold out spot. People start sprinting past us looking back towards the directions of the bulls. You need to ignore these runners as they have jumped the gun.
You hear them before you see them. And boy, are they big. On my run, we had the 800kg bulls. The commotion that comes with the sound is unforgettable. And then you see them. And you run. Fast.
But with thousands of bodies in small streets, you have no chance to outrun them. So you need to find a safe place within seconds, behind a bin, in a doorway, anywhere. The bulls are focussed on moving in one line, and do not usually divert, so get out of the path.
I managed to make into the arena, without a shoe no less, after nearly being killed several times, and jumping over dozens of runners to make it in with the last bull. My best mates had also made it as the crowd of thousands applauded us.
Here I was thinking it was all over. I was wrong.
Once you get into the arena, all the bulls are escorted out the back. However, you are not allowed to leave. Only about a thousand of the bravest remain in the arena in font of the fans for Part 2.
They let the steers out on us. If you don’t know what a steer is, think baby bull with the ability to run faster, be extremely agile and TRYING to hit people. These things can really move and you have to be so alert so you don’t get hit. There are people tying to leave the arena, but the local in the crowd are throwing them back into the ring to face the music. Finally after the steer tires out, we breathe. Only for them to bring out another. And Another. Another 5.
Finally it is over. Like animals, we are let out of the arena to the applause from the crowd. By far the scariest, most enjoyable, riskiest activity I have ever completed.