Journal (21Jul11)by Tourguide on Thu 21 Jul 2011, 10 PM CEST, Views: 2018
I’m standing on the streets of Pamplona wearing white pants and a red sash. The firing rocket went off a few moments ago and already I can feel an ominous vibration come up through the ground. The tension of the Mozos (“cowboys”) around me is palatable. Something terrible and incredible is coming our way.
At the end of the street there is a tremendous roar as a mob of runners bank the corner down the road from me. A solid wave of densely crowded sprinters at the front, …cresting like a tidal wave, surging past and over each other as various runners trip, fall and are swallowed up by the swarm. The look in their face is that of abject horror. Images of New Yorkers escaping billowing clouds of soot and crashing debris flash in my head.
My colleague Mark is behind me, bellowing out instructions “Not, yet, …no, not yet, wait for the cameras to move, …wait for the signal!”
Timing is everything here. Let the initial horde of runners blast past. Then wait for the multitude of cameras perched in the balconies far above to start sweeping towards you. Only then is it time to explode, to have a chance to run with them, to experience the spirit of San Fermín.
Tension builds in my blood until I can hear my own heart pounding in my ears. I brace against the wooden corral shoots as the initial wall of humanity smashes into us, …foreheads, faces, legs colliding. Bodies whipped to the cobblestone streets with slapping impact.
These were the trigger happy “rocket-runners” we were warned about. Mozos who took off as soon as the rockets fired, too far ahead of the herd to really be in harms way. However, their frayed nerves caused a stampede of fight or flight responses in everyone they passed. Clearly, everyone in this flood chose the latter.
The real action was still a few more life-dangling seconds into our future.
The first surge past us, we watched those cameras, those precious cameras in the sky, fixated on them like condemned inmates on a clock…”Damn it …do something already!”
And then there it was. A thousand lenses began to move in unison, …slowly tracing up the streets down below us like laser beams.
…Oh …My …God.
There again was Mark in my ear “…OK, OK!!!
“…3, …2, …1“
And in that moment of pure exhilaration, or terror, I grasped for a singular thought, “….how the hell did I end up here?”
“So, running with the bulls in Pamplona, eh?”
As my friend Mark made the suggestion to me, I sat back in my chair. I took a moment to gauge how serious he was before responding. I’ve done my fair share of adrenaline activities in my life, but most of the time I was an instigating factor in them. Honestly, it was a bit of a surprise to be approached with the possibility of a near-death experience by someone else for once.
Listening to Mark layout the details over lunch, one thing was clear. He was very serious about this. And he had been serious about it for years. Planning, doing the research, making local contacts, …determining the feasibility of it all. As he presented me his plan, I began to believe in his fortitude about not only truly pulling this off, but doing it *this* year. He had even already convinced some other guys to join him on this kamikaze pilgrimage.
It was all mapped out in front of me. Where we would stay, who our local guide would be, how we would prepare for the run, and how we would *survive* the run.
Noodling it around in my head, I must admit it was an attractive offer. The mythical Running of the Bulls. That would be a great feather in my adventure cap. All the work had been done, I just had to sign up. I need only don the white shirt with the red waistband and handkerchief, …and then run for my ever-lovin’ life.
Considering my propensity for all errands foolish and dangerous, I was actually a bit surprised that it had never occurred to me before. Hmm, I guess the idea actually had come to me, but I assumed it was a locals only thing. I couldn’t imagine they’d be OK with Americans showing up and playing the part of conquistador and all. Well, turns out, they don’t mind.
Bulls are equal opportunity, they’ll gore anyone.
Taking a look at the details more closely, I realized how little I actually knew about this event. Turns out there is not just 1 run, but 8. One for each day of the week plus long Festival of San Fermín. The run, which itself is called “El Encierro” (or “the enclosing”), covers a half-mile course through narrow cobblestone streets and alleys, and ends in the great stadium of the Plaza del Toros (the Spanish bullring).
The running of the bulls in Pamplona had, for hundreds of years, actually been a locals only thing. But then in 1926, beloved American author Ernest Hemingway wrote about the festival in his famous book The Sun Also Rises (soon to be the scourge of high school English students everywhere), and the secret was released to the Western world.
The origin of the run is practical: when bulls had reached the proper age and physique to fight in the Pamplona bull fighting arena, the Plaza del Toros, the breeders used the streets of Pamplona to transport their prized bulls from the fields to the bullring. In the same afternoon, all six of the bulls were expected to die by the sword of the matador.
It is still unclear as to what compelled these young pioneers of El Encierro to risk their lives and actually run with the bulls during this process, but they did. As an old man of Pamplona told me “a young man cannot resist the magic of beauty and danger.”
Sounds about right.
And so, for over 800 years, men have chosen to run with the bulls.
The real secret to the running with the bulls is this, ..it is impossible. An adult male bull can outrun even an Olympic sprinter, so there is *no* way to stay out in front of them. At best you hope to run alongside them for four or five seconds. Your real goal is try and cross their path once, and to make it all the way into the bull arena with them without falling. For the moment the last steer (the larger castrated bulls that take up the rear, guiding the younger bulls) enters the arena they close and lock the gate. You either made it in or you didn’t.
Once in the arena you have your chance to do a victory lap in front of several thousand people. Then one by one, they let the bulls back in (who had run clear through to the other side), and you play keep away as long as you can. The game ends when you either scurry up and over one of the red massive wooden protective walls, or are carried off.
Well, certainly intrigued, I took the offer home to the boss, and, amazingly, …she signed off on it. She wasn’t going to go with me, or have anything to do with it, but she knows me well enough to know that as reckless as I can be, I always manage to bring myself home in one piece. I’ve climbed into shark cages, climbed onto mountains, climbed into boxing rings, and climbed off of bridges, …and here I still am.
And just like that, three months later, there I was. On the streets of Pamplona with Mark, his friends Bill and Shawn, and their wives. I had even played the Pamplona iPhone game, “Angry Bulls” on the flight over. Except in this game you played the part of the bull. Hilarious, …I think.
We had already partied through 2 days, of what I must describe as the biggest street party I’ve ever seen, Mardi Gras included. And talk about the world’s biggest edition of Where’s Waldo?, try keeping up with your friends in this group, wearing your red and white PJs. Here is the view outside our apartment at 1pm, and here it is again at 4am. Also, here is a video of the bar *directly* below our room at 4:30am. Yah, the party never stopped, and you can forget about sleeping.
And what a fun, joyful and peaceful group they all were. I didn’t see any violence, which was saying something considering the levels of intoxication about. I was told this was due to all of the men’s “bloodlust” being satiated through the daily bull run and matador fights. They had no hostility left. Crazy, eh?
We had our own Hawaiian Luau, and even attended a bull fight. Which was fascinating and horrible all at the same time (the bull fight, not the Luau, ..though that was entertaining). Can’t say I stomached the bull fighting all too well, but I appreciated the nobility of it, and commend the Spanish for sticking to their guns (or sabers rather), and continuing their tradition, even though there is heavy international pressure to ban it. Plus a Matador got gored (video not for the faint of heart) right in front of me, so sometimes the bulls do win.
On the day before our scheduled run we met with our survival guide “Buffalo Bill” (center). He was part of the group The Pamplona Posse, and had done dozens of runs. With him we walked the 857 meters of the street course and hung on every word and piece of advice he offered.
There are several rules of survival during the El Encierro.