Running With the Bulls is fairly common among bucket lists, and it should be. It was one of the most exhilarating things I’ve ever done. It’s not like sky diving or bungee jumping in that you’re pretty much at the mercy of your equipment or instructor once you jump, you have to move yourself through a crowd packed shoulder to shoulder, all pumped full of adrenaline and running full speed as 12 1000+ pound bulls/steer come charging for you.
Let’s back up and I’ll tell you how we decided to do it, which I thought worked out perfectly. I was coming from Dubai in early July, after travelling through Asia for a couple months. I met 3 friends flying in from the US, one from Ireland, and one from Spain at our hostel in Barcelona. We had a few days there, then headed up to Pamplona to run with the bulls for my friends 25th birthday. Arriving in the evening around 6pm, we walked through town to find the apartment we booked near the famous corner of the run. Turns out we had one bedroom and a shared bath in what is normally one apartment, and they crammed 6 beds into this one room. There was virtually no floor space to walk, but this was fine as we weren’t going to spent much time in the room. I’m guessing this is pretty common during the San Fermín Festival, locals can ram their apartments full of beds and charge huge fees to rent them out for the week.
After setting our bags down, we hit the crowded streets of Pamplona. Our first priority was to get our outfits, as virtually everyone wears the famous white outfits with red bandannas and scarfs around their waste, both during the run and after. It’s really easy to buy in Pamplona, so don’t feel like you need to do it in advance, although it’s probably cheaper if you do. All suited and booted we continued walking around town. We walked past bands playing on big stages in the park, bands walking through the small crowded alleyways, people with mock bulls shooting off fireworks running down crowded streets, drunk zombies covered in sangria balancing on their drunk zombie friends, and all sorts of other characters and street performers.
People were having fun all over the place, the atmosphere was amazing. All we wanted to do was join the party, but we also wanted to do the run smart as we were all a bit scared. We still needed to figure out where we wanted to start the run, so we figured we’d walk the course and decide. Near the start of the course we got to see the corrals where they keep the bulls before the run, and the actual bulls we’d be running with the following day. From there we walked the course and came to a decision as to where we’d start. There’s a church with a very small square in front of it about 1/3 of the way through the course. 4 of us decided we’d start here, because by the time the bulls caught up to us, we’d be past the famous corner where they lose control and go smashing into the fence (the most dangerous part of the course). We’d also be in the long straight away between the buildings when the bulls passed us, so even if we wanted to, we wouldn’t be able to escape. And after the bulls passed us, we’d still have enough time to make it into the arena before they closed the gates. This sounded like the right balance of intelligence and bravery. The other 2 decided they’d start closer to the arena and arrive in the arena before the bulls. Then we picked a meeting point outside of the arena in case we got separated, I highly recommend doing this. After we got the work out of the way, we had a beer or 2, hung out in the streets for a while talking about the next day and people watching, then got to bed around 1 or 2am.
The next morning we woke up at 7am. The run starts at 8, we wanted to grab a quick bite to eat, a newspaper for smacking the bulls as they passed, and get to our spots before 7:30. Waiting in front of the church those 30 minutes until they released the bulls at 8 felt like an eternity. That was the point where the fear really kicked in, I just wanted to get it over with. 8 o’ clock came and the first rocket was shot off, meaning the gates were open and the bulls were loose. Some people started slowly jogging. Shortly after the second rocket was fired, meaning all the bulls were out of the pen and on their way towards us. This is when we started running, slowly at first, then when we felt and heard the rumble of the cobblestone street as the bulls approached us we picked up the pace. I’m getting a bit shaky just writing this as I think back to the anticipation, excitement, and fear.
You’ll know when the bulls are close if for no other reason than the hundreds of people behind you physically pushing you forward. This is where it gets dangerous, you’re getting pushed, running as fast as you can, but being held up from the people in front of you. This means you’re pushing the people in front of you also. Some people fall down, you have to avoid them, but you can’t see them so really you’re tripping over them, sometimes stepping on them, and there’s nothing you can do about it. I tried picking up a couple people along the way when possible, but it’s difficult because the crowd is so thick and moving so quickly. This is how most people get hurt, not from the bulls.
Our plan went exactly as we hoped, when the bulls caught up to us, we were in the middle of the straight away. That was the best moment, and the most scary, when the bulls were next to us. I cleared out to the side and got flat against the wall, all the doorways and other nooks and crannies were taken already. Then there was a strange moment, when you think the bulls have passed you, but you’re not sure. Some people are still running, some people are high fiving, some people are on the ground injured, but nobody really knows if all the bulls passed, or if they got split up earlier on he course. At this time most people have lost their friends also, I know we all got separated, so I just kept running, I still had to make it to the arena before the gate closed anyway.
After making it into the arena, I found 3 of my friends and we celebrated a little bit. Shortly after the gates were closed, they released a smaller bull with corks on its horns. People then messed around with it for a while in the arena, the bull got some people, but not badly because it’s horns were corked. Then the bull went back through the gate, people lined up in front of the entrance laying on their chests, and a new bull came charging for them. These people were pretty crazy, they knew the bull would jump over them, and that’s what it did, for the next 5 bulls. In total I think they released 5 or 6 smaller bulls for the people to torment. We stayed in arena for most of this, there was one or 2 times where the bull lined up towards me, but there are so many people taunting it, it’s target is constantly changing, so it never fully charged at me. 30 minutes or so later, we left the arena. We had yet to find one of our friends, so we headed to our meeting point where he was waiting.
This is where it started to feel really good, all of us survived mostly unscathed. We bought a bottle of champagne from a booth setup out front of the stadium, and popped it right there in the street. It didn’t stop there, we had life to celebrate, and we continued to get zombie drunk for the next few hours. There was a bit of a lull however, and we used this to nap and recharge for the night time.
Several hours later we woke up, had some dinner and hit the bottle some more. The party was everywhere, it spread out of the bars and clubs and onto the streets. It was one of the best times I’ve ever had, still high off the run, still having my friends and the birthday boy there alive to celebrate with. Plus we saw the guy who sings the Macarena song at one of the bars. If you visit Pamplona during the San Fermín Festival, be sure to stay and party after you run with the bulls, it’s part of the experience.
The following morning we woke up, watched the run from the dangerous corner, then went back to bed to sleep it off for a while. When it was time, we got up again, packed our bags, and checked out. All in all I felt we did everything really well. We got to see Pamplona during San Fermín sober, we did the run intelligently, we got to partake in the bull games in the arena, we got to experience the party, and we got to see the running of the bulls as spectators. The only thing I regret was not seeing the bull fight; we thought it was in the evening, and apparently it wasn’t so we missed it.
If you’re interested in participating in, or watching the Running of the Bulls during the San Fermín Festival in Pamplona, make it happen. It’s one of the coolest large scale parties I’ve ever been to. You don’t even have to run, just go and watch and experience the city during San Fermín. It doesn’t cost anything to run, and a lot of people don’t pay for accomodation either. Leave your bags behind in whatever city you’re coming from, hop on a train one evening, sleep in the park, watch/run with the bulls the next morning, party all day and night, then catch the train back the following morning. Yes, you’ll be disgusting, and exhausted, but you won’t regret it and you’ll leave happy you got to see Pamplona in it’s glory.
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