Finally I did something Ernest Hemingway didn’t. Sweet!
My pristine white outfit, red neck scarf and belt either made me look like a local or a fool, for the moment I didn’t care. I was more focused on the bad feeling in my stomach, which was caused by a mix of fear and adrenaline. It would all be over in four minutes and the pristine white outfit I had on would be dirty and covered in blood. The bodies pressed up against me reminded me of being at a heavy metal mosh pit except more dangerous. People starting singing in Spanish. It was almost time. Singing turned to yells and fear as the first bottle rocket fired into the sky and exploded. The mass of humanity began to move towards me. A few seconds later when the second bottle rocket exploded, signifying that all the bulls were in the street the encierro, or running of the bulls had begun.
Today, 6 July, is the beginning of the seven day festival of Sanfermines, better known as the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain. The first bull run will not occur until tomorrow when at 8am for the next seven days, six bulls and six oxen will be released into the streets so they can be taken to the bull ring to die. A practice that goes back as far as the 14th century and made famous in the Western world by Ernest Hemingway.
A few years ago I had the chance to join some friends to experience the encierro. I must admit it was singularly the most stupid thing I have ever done. That from a guy who has almost two hundred carrier-arrested landings in the U.S. Navy and jumped from the highest bungee jump in the world, in South Africa.
Our group met late at night at the Barcelona airport where we rented a car and drove all night to Pamplona. We arrived at 5am, the city had not yet stopped from the revelry from the previous night. Amped to be there we quickly joined in. By 11 in the morning we hit a wall. Since we planned to keep this trip as cheap as possible, we had no hotel nor plans to find one. We simply fell asleep on the grass median in the middle of the main road, where we comfortably slept for almost four hours.
Refreshed, we headed out to find our traditional outfits for the running the next morning. And to grab a sangria or three. The festival is quite a spectacle to behold. It is a cross between a State Fair and Mardi Gras. The city cannot handle the influx of visitors which drives people, like me, to sleep in the park. The are not enough bathrooms facilities either, so the city smells like piss and vomit. Wonderful, I know.
As stupid as running with the bulls was, we did take it seriously. We stopped drinking early in the evening and walked the entire 903 yard course taking careful notes and talking strategy (we were kidding ourselves). I had studied the streets and knew where the most gorings and deaths had occurred, pointing those out to my buddies as we walked. Finished with our reconnaissance, we all agreed to drive out of town and try to find a hotel to get some sleep. We had to be up early and back to the course early.
Which brings me back to beginning of the story. Once the second bottle rocket went up, the crowd was moving pretty fast, myself included. Then something incredible happened. I got such a huge shot of adrenaline that I sprinted down course, literally leaping over people as they fell in front of me. As I approached the bull ring, I realized that I had yet to see a bull. I was outrunning the bulls! How could I say I had run with the bulls if I got to the ring before them? So I stopped. I waited. I could hear the screams and the roar of the spectators as the first wave of bulls approached. I stood to the side as two big bulls ran right past me. Seeing a hole before the next group of bulls I decided to jump out and follow the first wave into the ring. With only a small opening through the gates of the ring, you don’t want to be there when a bull goes through or you are toast.
As I moved forward I fell, cutting my knee open on the cobble stone streets. It was only a flesh wound (key Monte Python) but the amount of blood looked impressive on my white pants. Extra points for coolness factor. It is a good thing I decided to go when I did. As I moved a girl who was standing next to me, who was from Oklahoma, decided to wait for the second wave of bulls. She got gored in the calf, taking a big hunk of meat out of her leg and sending her to the ER. Too close for comfort.
As I sprinted through the tunnel and into the bull ring the crowd, full to capacity, roared with approval. I got a small sense of what it must be like to run out onto the field for the Super Bowl. Between the elation of surviving the run, the uncontrollable amount of adrenaline in my blood and the approving crowd I experienced one of the greatest natural highs of my life.
After the run, I found my buddies and we all posed for pictures and took a little bit of sand from the ring itself. One day I will frame up my scarf, the picture and the sand, it should be a nice conversation piece for my, “I love me” wall. Momentos gathered we did exactly what you might expect, we headed out for beer and sangria. We found the most perfect cafe where we could drink and people watch. I got lots of approving grins when people saw my bloody leg. So very much fun.
Checking the Running of the Bulls off of my bucket list was a huge accomplishment. I can’t blame you if this crazy event is on your list as well. That said, I offer you great caution. This run is very dangerous and not to be taken lightly. Fifteen people have died over the past 87 years and 200-300 people are injured every year. Every year. My recommendation is to go and enjoy the festival and avoid the run. The Spaniards know how to party and you’ll have just as much fun without risking your life. There is a reason that Ernest Hemingway was so taken by the event but never ran with the bulls himself.
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