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- Travel Tips
Run with the Bulls Advice No 1#
Mon, 03/20/2006 - 09:30
Another article from the Pamplona Posse about running with the bulls in Pamplona
Blood on the Streets
The morning of 7th July, the first encierro of the fiesta and a Saturday. We had planned not to run knowing that it would be particularly busy, and having never seen the running we felt that it was important to view it from the fences first. However, the intense experience of the txupinazo and the effect of the alcohol had persuaded us to change our minds.
Knowing that it was important to be on the streets early to ensure a place in the running, we go up at about 6am. The rising tension was palpable from the moment we woke, all through the preparations of carefully putting on our whites. Suddenly things were getting a little bit serious and any hangover quickly vanished. It was an incredibly sobering experience to get ready for something that may just leave us hurt, injured or worse. As a finishing touch to our dressing we tied our panuelos, but rather than a plain knot we used a running knot. The purpose of this was t prevent strangulation or neck injuries should we be tangled up with the bulls horns, other runners or anything that might snare it. It was a conceited action, but a preparation, we would not have done without.
When we stepped out of the hotel, the day we discovered was gloomy but dry. We walked into a world of two entities: those returning from the party – staggering, merry, drunk and distant, and those going to the route of the encierro. We walked with purpose and had our newspapers ready prepared having brought them from England especially. Mark sought breakfast but I was too preoccupied and not the least bit hungry.
We reached the Ayuntamiento, or Town-hall Square to find a scene of chaos. The crowds were thick and it was impossible to distinguish those still enjoying the party from those gathering to run. A huge street cleaner was making its way down to the top of Santo Domingo clearing the litter at a rapid pace, the barriers were almost completely in place and some of the audience were already being forced to vigorously defend their positions from the many would-be interlopers. We squeezed past the rubbish cart and made our way down to the bottom of Santo Domingo.
Down here, near the start of the run we stopped and stood around in the street near the niche that would hold the little statue of San Fermin. It was quieter here, the majority of the people here were experienced runners who would start there or sing the homily first before dashing off to find their start point. Further down was the corral and a loose line of Police stopping runners straying down too far. On the high walls above us people were sitting and standing so that they would get a good view. There was little conversation between the runners and the watchers. It was like two different worlds, the audience and the warriors in the arena.
We had quite a long wait on our hands, we had arrived very early but at least we were there. I was nervous, but not particularly so and had it well under control. Mark was very calm and more concerned about his breakfast, we said very little to one another as the time ticked away. The one thing we did do was to go over our plan numerous times. We aimed to start approximately two thirds of the way up Santo Domingo and run into the Ayuntamiento. We aimed to reach the square just in front of the bulls; we would then run with them for a while before pulling off to the side. That was the plan.
I kept thinking it through, checking the time and looking at the variety of excited, calm, worried and rough faces all around. We leaned against a fence and watched the people milling about. Eventually one of them, an American, came over to us and asked us where the run started from. It was a ludicrous question to me after all our preparations, but not totally unexpected. “If you don’t know then you shouldn’t be here.” I said calmly, “Start wherever you like as long as it’s nowhere near me.” I was very conscious of the fact that we were running into spot where the last fatality of the run occurred. He too was an American and he too didn’t know anything about the run. I didn’t want to be around people like that on this day, though I would probably have little say in it, my own inexperience was enough to contend with.
Equally annoying was the small group of American first-timers who seemed to be following us wherever we chose to wait. One in particular was very animated; whooping and yelling and getting very excited. Every time we moved they seemed to gravitate in our general direction and kept bumping into us and yelling in an incredibly irritating way. This put us on edge more than anything else did and we found them particularly difficult to shake off.
With only 10 or 15 minutes to go a small group turned up and erected a step ladder below the niche. A tiny woman clambered up and carefully balancing she affixed a board bearing the various panuelos of the Pamploan penas. Then she placed the statue of San Fermin in the niche followed by some candles that she lit. When she got down there was a hush and a faint tune was played on some kind of whistle or flute. When it was done the group retreated and there was a sporadic round of applause. Now the elements were in place and the time was almost upon us. Some people were even doing stretching exercises, which seemed ludicrously pointless, but most were standing around nervously, clutching their newspapers.
Now we were just waiting for the homily, the half-sung half-chanted prayer to the saint recited in Spanish. We had learned the words off by heart but had never sung them before. Waiting for this little ritual to start was becoming increasingly frustrating, 8 O’clock was getting closer and closer and still the chant had not begun. I wanted to get to our place before the bulls were released. It was at this point that I was the most nervous, I wasn’t at the stage of ‘fight or flight’ but simply wanted all the pieces of the jigsaw to fall into place. It was such a relief when the newspapers were held in the air and a low note was sung to ready the runners. Then it began:
“A San Fermin pedimos, por ser nuestro patron, nos guie en el encierro, dandanos sus benidicion.”
Then it was immediately repeated and was followed by a few victorious cries before we finally dispersed for our marks. It was just a couple of minutes before 8. We stood on the left hand side of the street, some of the crowd were still working their way upwards and there was an excited ripple of chatter. Higher up the street people were jumping up and down trying to see as far down to the start as possible. We were all waiting for the first rocket to go off. When it exploded the sound was much louder than we had expected. It was a sudden boom that echoed down the streets and was followed by a roar of excitement, fear and the release of tension. The gate was open, the bulls were released.
Mark and I had moments earlier shook hands. Now when the rocket exploded we looked at each other and said, “Shit.” We turned to watch down the street, people were running up towards us already and yet the second rocket hadn’t gone off, we were destined not to hear it and couldn’t tell if the bulls were split up or not. We started to walk up Santo Domingo, Mark was ahead. I was behind shouting instructions with one eye on the crowd. At first we just jogged, the bulls were still nowhere in sight but the advancing swell was getting thicker and faster. “Jog faster!” I shouted and Mark responded, the top of Santo Domingo was up ahead and runners were sprinting past us all the time. I looked back and saw a mass of bobbing heads. I could tell from the shape of the crowd that the bulls were there, in amongst them but I couldn’t see them. Then, as I watched the crowd parted and I saw the first of the bulls trotting forward, looking almost pedestrian but in reality coming on at a great pace.
“Run!” I shouted and immediately picked up the pace. I somehow overtook Mark and we hit the corner of the town hall. I came round the blind corner and hit a wall of people. The sudden change from sprinting to wallowing almost made me fall. I was convinced I was about to hit the ground. There were people sprawled on the floor and runners blocking my path. Knowing that the bulls were very close I didn’t want to jump straight out into their path and get flattened by the pack. I continued to fight the mass for a few moment when I hear Mark’s yell; “Mat, get up here!” I turned to my left and saw the Promised Land – a merciful gap on the barriers in front of the town hall. I jumped up enclosed by people and a huge feeling of relief as the first set of bulls thundered past.
We stayed where we were; there were more bulls to come. I seem to recall being on the fence for the duration but we have photographs showing us standing side by side as the other two bulls came round the corner together. They were so close we could almost reach out and touch them, but as they came past one of them stumbled and went down on its rear legs. For a moment it looked around and we were worried that it might charge the barriers – we were too close to it for comfort, but it carried on and we were reprieved.
Shortly afterwards the three clear-up oxen ambled past and all was done. We strolled up towards Mercaderes stuttering our first relieved and analytical phrases since the end of our run. Then suddenly the crowd turned and began surging towards us: a loose bull – a suelto. We leaped for the barriers in panic but the alarm ended as soon as it began. A few moments later we heard the third and fourth rockets. The bulls were safely in their pens, we were safe on the street, unharmed, ecstatic and wide awake. We walked up the street and gradually reached the main crowd in Estafeta. It was very busy for no apparent reason, but then we saw the ambulance and in front of me some paramedics took an injured woman away on a stretcher. Someone pointed to the far side of the street and we saw a huge pool of blood. She had been gored in the thigh and was badly hurt. Things changed from then on. Up to that moment we had only seen the events of our little world and the run we took part in. Only when we stopped took stock did we discover the extent of the drama. There had been six gorings, nearly all of them on Estafeta, and three of them were life threatening. It was described as the most perilous (peligroso) day of running since the last fatality. The streets were full of anxious faces, nervous laughter and tales of near misses.
My mood quickly changed from the exuberance at the fourth rocket to horror, shock at the sight of the blood and shear fear of the run itself. Now, in the comfort of safety, I felt more afraid than I had before or during the event. Suddenly it wasn’t so simple any more; suddenly it was something to have the utmost respect for. At that point I could have gladly never run again. We sipped tea in a café near the hotel and I just felt glad that it was over, but also felt intense trepidation for future runs because I knew I would run again.
The newspapers told the story of that bloody day in glorious colour. Though my Spanish was poor it wasn’t hard to interpret the stories. The Diario de Navarra showed the moment of one goring with the headline; “A un centimetro del corazon.” Or; “A centimetre from the heart.” Inside was a large pullout section containing a host of pictures, descriptions and diagrams. The run had taken 3 minutes 48 seconds during which time 62 people had been injured in some way. Many of these injuries were captured in colour and splashed across the papers. It all made for grim but slightly exciting reading; this was something we had been involved in. Yet it merely added to my fear, added to my awareness of what could go wrong and went some way to convincing me that I wasn’t keen on running again.
We didn’t run the next day, it was a tremendous relief to me but I knew it was only delaying the inevitable. I had made a promise to do a run for two other people wearing a panuelos that I would give to them as a memento. The first run was for me, but that left at least two more runs to complete.
We ran the next day. I knew I had to get it over with. It was rainy and grim, I tried to hide my nerves but found it difficult. I shivered for two reasons as we waited by the niche down on Santo Domingo. A man noticed us talking and dashed over to warn us that this was the most dangerous part of the run. He had heard our English and assumed we were total novices and out of our depth. We assured him that we knew what we were doing and he wandered away.
Our plan was the same as the first day. There was a certain advantage in the familiarity, but when it came to it we ran too fast and too soon. When we came around the corner into Ayuntamiento there was no great mass of people. I saw the barrier and made a jump for it. Mark came past and got out of the way. The mass of the bulls went safely wide of us. Then, as I watched from the barrier, a lone runner came past being pursued by a suelto. He made no attempt to get out of the way and the bull caught him in the back and sent him cartwheeling up the street. It was an image that lodged in my mind and also made the front page the following day. Luckily for the runner the horns had missed him and he was relatively unharmed, he had simply received an almighty headbutt from a monster of a bull.
Safe in the knowledge that I had only to complete one more run I relaxed. There were five more days to do that run, a bit of a luxury. But that night events took a fresh twist that meant I would be standing on the route once more the following morning. We had befriended two young Canadian women who were backpacking through Europe. They had only a limited stay in Pamplona and were due to leave the next day. That night they announced that they would do the run; this despite the fat that they knew nothing of it and were very badly dressed to take part. Furthermore they said that they would just run anywhere that took their fancy. This declaration of intent had me a little more than worried. I was certain that if they carried out their plan they stood a higher chance than average of being injured. I knew that I couldn’t just let this happen so decided to intervene.
My first move was to take the girls down the course and try to find the safest spot possible for them to run. Not surprisingly this is far from a simple task. There is no safe place on the run; doorways can become traps, tight corners can become dangerously crowded and runners are often plucked off barriers when they think themselves safe. The one exception I could find was about two thirds of the way up Estafeta. Estafeta is long and thin with no way out, but further up it suddenly widens on the West Side. My guess was that any pack of bulls would be unlikely to make a significant shift to the right at this point. A runner should be able to start before the wider section and dodge safely to the right if necessary. It was this option I recommended and the girls agreed. But I was still very nervous about the situation and concluded that I would never forgive myself if they got hurt. Mark and I discussed the situation and decided to run with them. It actually made some of my overall anxiety vanish.
We went back to our hotel to rest and change as we had been up nearly all night and it was only a few hours before the run. Before we left we agreed to meet up with the girls by the Hemmingway statue. When we went back there was no sign of the two, but we could not be sure if they still intended to run. It could be that they were looking for us on the course. I stayed by our intended start point while Mark went looking, but he soon returned alone. We decided to run anyway but almost fell foul of the few rules surrounding the encierro. To take part in the run you must be on the streets and within the barriers before 8am, but it is not as simple as that. In order that the streets do not become too crowded a large amount of clearing takes place by lines of Police and the Civil Guard. Once the barriers are erected there are limited points of entry and many parts of the course are closed off until just a few minutes before 8am. Runners are meant to wait in a ‘controlled’ area that stretches from halfway down Mercaderes all the way to the start. This area is maybe a third of the length of the course and when we reached it after being ejected from Estafeta it was uncomfortably packed. It was so packed it was almost claustrophobic. Loudspeakers were playing vocal warnings in various languages and there was no homily. It was clear that we were in the section dominated by tourists, newcomers and those ironically called Vallantes, or ‘valiant ones’.
I wasn’t enjoying the crush and was anxious. We were a long way from our start point and it was close to 8am. We had not seen the girls at all and unless we met them at the start point it would be everyone for themselves. Mark was joking and doing his best to keep me cheerful. I was becoming increasingly agitated and was tempted to get off the street when suddenly the police moved and we were free to find our spot.
On the way up I was dismayed to see so many people climbing up the sides of the walls in order to watch rather than run. Windows, drainpipes, unattended balconies, ledges and lintels – nothing was left empty. Many people were cowering in doorways and I began to feel a certain amount of contempt for them. When we got to our start point we went through our plan again. This time we agreed that we would not start to move until we had a clear sight of the first bull. We were actually full of the desire to do this properly. We shook hands and quietly chanted the homily to ourselves, then we were ready.
When the first rocket went off it prompted a loud gasp similar to that of the first day. The difference was that this gasp was more out of fear. Some of the runners began to head off towards the bullring right away, many of them looked afraid. We casually leaned against the wall of the bar that marked our starting point and watched the passing traffic in amusement. Clearly there was a high percentage of Vallantes here. To our left was the deep doorway of the bar and a young couple were using it as a hiding place. The woman was almost hysterical and was talking quickly in Spanish. We couldn’t understand her so simply smiled back reassuringly. By now lots of people were sprinting past, but we knew that the bulls were at least two or three minutes away. Every now and then I would step out into the street and peer down to the curve, but there was still no sight of the bulls. So we continued to wait, very relaxed and very calm.
Eventually we saw the mass of bobbing heads coming our way. We waited and waited and waited. We even said ‘wait’ out loud over and over again. The first two heifers came past us and we still waited, then we saw the first bull and ran. It wasn’t far to our peel-off point and we moved off to one side just as the bulls came level with us, it was a magnificent sight. As we stopped we realised we were in no danger and decided to run on. To our amazement we swept all the way down the Callejon and right into the bullring. The sight was fantastic; we ran off to the right and stopped, staring at the mass of cheering crowds. We were in the middle of a wonderful scene; it was like walking into Wembley Stadium for the cup final. This was beyond our plan, beyond our expectations and beyond our wildest dreams.
Later we discovered that the Canadian girls had not bothered to run, but this no longer concerned us. We had experienced our best run of all and my fears had been greatly dispelled. I even agreed to run again from the same spot. After a break of a couple of days we were back on Estafeta, very relaxed and highly amused at the fleeing tourists as we leaned nonchalantly against the outside walls of the bar once again. The doorway was now a haven to a couple of frightened young men who actually asked our permission to stand there. We gave them an amused nod and went back to our idle chatter.
The run turned out to be the best of the lot. The bulls were split into three groups and we managed to run alongside all three of them. It was exhilarating and despite a brush with an annoying tourist, who was tripping other runners because he was trying to pick up his camera from the floor, we managed to make it into the bullring once again.
Apart from a Vallantes run we took part in on the last day, (we were doing this as film extras) that turned out to be our last run of the fiesta. Originally I had intended to run just the once, but eventually we ran four times. We were totally unscathed and the encierros had got better and better. Our limited experience proved to be incredibly valuable by the end of the week and our nonchalance contrasted wildly with my abject fear in between the first and second runs.
Despite this one factor remained true all through the encierros. Even though I felt various levels of fear my whole attitude changed when the first rocket went off. As soon as that report echoed throughout the streets of Pamplona I lost all but the smallest amount of fear and a very organised side to my character appeared in its place. I was the one shouting instructions to Mark. I was the one who decided when to run, where to go in the bullring and what to do. It was an amazing contrast.
I don’t believe that during the encierros I did anything particularly courageous. I did not weave a magical and breathtaking path in front of the bulls. I did not come uncomfortably close to the bulls’ horns. If I had suddenly been face to face with one of the beasts I cannot say what I would have done. Certainly the newspaper I carried was more out of tradition and conceit than anything else. I would not have known what to do with it. I am sure that if it came to it I would simply have run away and looked for the nearest barrier to leap over.
Yet I can say that when the rocket went off I kept my head, remained rational and made an attempt to guide myself and my friend through the danger and out the other side. In the chaos of the encierro where hundreds, if not thousands of people run we stuck together and on two occasions jogged side by side through the giant doors of the bullring. Running with the bulls is a form of testing ones self, that test is a very individual thing. My personal test was to endure the fear and deal with it. The exhilaration after the runs was testament to the fact that I had passed the examination, the fact that the blood on the streets was not mine, was the hard proof.