Running with the Bulls

Don Harris | July 2013

Each July thousands of Spaniards flock to Pamplona for the running of the bulls. During the Feria de San Fermín, there is a certain sense of excitement and abandon, even a test of valor, which appeals to the young men (or older ones clinging to their youth) as they sprint before the magnificent charging bulls. The atmosphere is more passionate than rational.

I keep a clipping of a Spanish ad campaign for San Miguel beer that captures this unique Spanish spirit of passion and danger. The magazine shows a flamenco dancer continuing to dance with complete abandon, despite the fact that her bleeding feet were wrapped with gauze bandages. The advertising banner for San Miguel beer proclaimed “Passion Beyond Reason.”

This kind of appeal captures uniquely the Spanish life view, which is far from that of the North American. I think of an American beer ad aimed at younger beer drinkers: “Grab some Buds.” It includes no dialogue, and features scenes of folks readying for a cookout, a baseball field, a rock concert and a grill-out and culminates with a young couple kissing at a bar. No bloody bandage there!

Several years ago Barbara Hurlburt, a member of the La Tienda “family,” wrote me a splendid description of the young men at San Fermín: “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.” 

She went on, “The risks are absurdly high, but for those who have been there for forty years, there is clearly something extraordinary about it. Yesterday an older man (one of the forty-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.”

The running of the bulls is called the encierro (literally “confinement”), referring to the narrow streets down which surge with both bulls and men. The encierro is deeply imbedded in the Spanish culture – some say since the 13th century. Devotion, pageantry and ritual is the essence of San Fermín, as the candidates don their white shirts, trousers and red bandanas and gather at the many tapas bars to trade embroidered tales of the encierros past. 

An abundance of beer and wine provides a dose of “Dutch courage.” As people endlessly party at the tapas bars, ambulances are looming in the background, standing ready to rescue the fallen.

The daily event begins on Monday and runs through the following weekend. The participants (largely young men) fill the narrow medieval streets every day for a chance to run with five oxen and six bulls as they race from their corral nearby to the Plaza de Toros.

At exactly 8:00 AM a small rocket shoots up to the heavens, signaling the start of the encierro. A line of police holds the crowd back from the huge gates, so the oxen and bulls are moving at a pretty good clip before they meet the first wave of people. The terrifying event lasts but three or four minutes, depending upon the behavior of the bulls. There is no possibility that the people can run fast enough to stay in front of them for very long. 

Some of the very valiant ones dart out in front of the charging bulls for a few seconds and then quickly press their bodies against the walls as the hoard of men and beasts roar past them. The intrepid ones may continue the pace for as long as their stamina (and adrenaline) holds out, but it is unheard of for even the most committed person to go the whole distance.

In contrast to the crowd of partying young men yearning to prove their courage, there are the valiant matadors who prepare to fight the bulls later in the day. They don’t just dash down the street trying to avoid the rampant bull; they choose to face the magnificent animal in the bullring, looking him in the eye. The courage these young men need to survive this encounter is palpable. They flirt with death every time they step into the ring. 

At its core, this encounter between a young man and a bull is a rite of passage that occurs throughout Spain, far from the cameras and the thrill-seeking foreigners. Our son Jonathan and his family experienced the running of the bulls through the narrow streets of the hilltop town of Arcos de la Frontera on Easter Day - they named the bull the "Toro del Aleluya.” Another time my wife Ruth and I visited Ciudad Rodrigo, one of our very favorite rural towns, in order to experience the running of the bulls far from any tourist cameras.

The heritage of Ciudad Rodrigo is that of a Celtic village, then Visigoth and then Roman, but today it is a prosperous farm town where they prepare for the special day by fashioning a bullring in the Plaza Mayor. The boundaries were defined by temporary barricades and a rickety grandstand, where people watched the young sons of Ciudad Rodrigo confront about a half dozen bulls. Some of the people in the stands were passing their bota wineskins to the people next to them. A man was carving slivers from a local country jamón, which he shared with others. It was a mellow occasion as they celebrated the courage of their boys.

We saw that one of the more agile young men succeeded in vaulting over a bull - quite a feat. I was amazed, for I remembered from art history class that young men were vaulting over bulls 4,000 years earlier! Maybe this sacred act has been passed from the Minoan culture in Crete to other Mediterranean people and eventually to such as those boys in Ciudad Rodrigo who also vaulted over bulls.

Bulls have always been a part of the Spanish patrimony – from the Bronze Age to the commanding silhouettes of black bulls which dot the horizon wherever you drive in Spain. For me the running of the bulls in Pamplona is more than a tourist attraction, or even a serious test of courage. It is something deeper that ties into the roots of Spain.