Notes from the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona

August 2008

Dear Friends of La Tienda,

The running of the bulls is deeply imbedded in the Spanish culture – some say for over a thousand years. In an earlier Reflection I described the event in rural Ciudad Rodrígo. Until now, I had never found a perfectly personal and pictorial description of the famous Running of the Bulls at Pamplona. The enclosed was forwarded to me by a dear friend who lives in the Basque Country, and who is quite an armchair enthusiast. In turn, I emailed the author, who had just returned from Spain, and she graciously consented to share her notes with you. I hope you will enjoy them.


July 11, 2008
Notes from San Fermín:

We have learned a number of things during the four weeks we have been here in San Sebastian: While numbers one and two probably don't surprise anyone who knows us, I'm guessing that number three might. It has certainly shocked us.

(1) Everything tastes better fried (as attested to by the fact that our rental unit has SIX frying pans in the drawer under the oven);
(2) Walking the paseo is better than walking anywhere else; and,
(3) Participating vicariously in the running of the bulls in Pamplona is addictive.

This week is the famous festival of San Fermín in Pamplona. San Fermín, by the looks of it, is the patron saint of outrageously dangerous behavior. The running (called the encierro here, because the bulls run along a narrow, closed section of city streets) takes place every morning this week. It began on Monday and will finish this weekend. 

Several thousand people (virtually all men) line the streets every day, with a low of about 2,500 to a projected high this weekend of as many as 4,000-5,000, for a chance to see/touch/run away from five oxen and six bulls who are moving from the pen where they've been kept to the Plaza de Toros where the bulls will be fought (and killed) in the afternoon. The oxen have apparently figured out that if they keep their heads down, they will live to lead new bulls to their slaughter on the following day.

We turned the TV on Tuesday morning just as the encierro was finishing up. It had taken about four minutes – much longer than normal – because one of the bulls got confused and turned around and there was a lot of dangerous stuff happening until the pastores (shepherds) with their long poles could help him find his way along the street to the plaza. 

Since then we have set our alarm to be sure we see the "pre-game" show – which includes interviews with runners (some of whom have been doing this for 40 years), discussion about the bulls and their origins, and a series of cánticos – chanted prayers to San Fermín asking for his protection and blessing. 

It is hard to describe what happens in the encierro itself. At exactly 8:00, a small rocket is lit that shoots up to the sky, signaling the start of the run. A line of police is holding the crowd back about 100 meters from where the huge gates open, so the oxen and bulls are moving at a pretty good clip before they meet the first wave of people. 

There's no way the people can run fast enough to stay in front of them for very long, so runners pick a section of the street where they want to run. Some of the very first group will literally just be in front of the bulls for a few seconds and then peel off to the sides and press themselves against the walls of the buildings as the group thunders past them. Others will run with them as long as they can, but nobody could go the whole distance.

Some days, the group of 11 animals stays together, but generally at least a couple of the animals lose speed or stumble as they fight their way through the sea of humans and then they are separated from the rest. Apparently, the runners like this because it means they have more of a chance to get in close – experienced runners do not try to touch the bulls (because they know it's…ummm… really dumb?), but sometimes even they are thrown into that situation by the people jostling and falling all around them. 

It is clear that the bulls themselves are just trying to get away from everybody and are trying to follow the oxen, who are in the lead and are wearing bells around their necks. When they fall or become disoriented, however, anything can happen.

Most of the injuries that occur are people-to-people things (when you go down, you are told to stay down – so that you don't stand up in front of a bull, I guess – which means that people are tripping over each other all the time). Occasionally, people will go down and then get run over by one or more of the animals, so getting stepped on by a many-ton beast is another problem. 

Amazingly, you can tell that if the bulls have a chance to do so, they will actually jump over something in the road – not because they are trying to avoid injuring the lump on the ground but, rather, because they are trying to avoid falling themselves.

We have seen virtually no one be gored. Bulls will just as often hit someone with their heads as get them with their horns. In the four days we've watched, there was one guy who got caught in the abdomen (he was on the ground and the bull tripped and was trying to get up and away from the bodies down there) and one who got caught in the leg in a similar situation, but there has not been any "attack" on a runner. Most of the injuries, as I said, are related to falls into the sea of humanity (or inhumanity) with people and animals just desperate to get away.

Today there were two bullfighters who ran – one for the first time. They were up in the TV booth just a couple of minutes after it was over and you could see that the one whose first time was today was still beside himself with fear and adrenaline. When asked what section of the course he ran, he said he thought he knew where he started, but wasn't even sure about that anymore. 

It was fascinating to see this guy who stands up in the Plaza de Toros and faces these animals on a regular basis admit to being absolutely terrified, disoriented, and lucky to be alive after his few-second encounter with the animals on the street. His comment was that in the plaza he only has to face his own fear. On the street, his fear was joined to everyone else's fear and it was overwhelming.

Watching the faces as they pray and prepare to start, watching them as they run looking ahead of them and behind them at the same time to avoid animals in all locations and to try to avoid each other, watching them go down and watching them drag each other out of harm's way – it is a bizarre and intriguing spectacle. 

The risks are absurdly high, but for those who have been there for 40 years, there is clearly something extraordinary about it. Yesterday an older man (one of the 40-year veterans) fell and hit his head on the street. We saw the image of his body as he lay there, unconscious. Today he was there – singing the cánticos with his colleagues. He didn't run today (and may never again), but he wanted to be there with them as they prepared to go.

That devotion to the pageantry and the ritual (and, at the same time, the fearless matador who made it abundantly clear that he will never do it again) is the sense of San Fermín I will take away with me. Images that will stay with me almost as long as the desire for everything fried...

Barbara Hulburt