Running of the Bulls

Thrill seekers converge at Running of the Bulls

The smell of sangria and cigarette smoke clings to the 7:30 a.m. air. It’s persistent, much like the lively crowd of revelers, adorned head to toe in white and red, vying for the best seats in the arena.

If their shirts splattered with the red Spanish cocktail are of any fortuitous and symbolic indication, there will be blood — just how much and whose, there’s no telling.

It’s July 10 and just as in the past eight centuries, hundreds of people will risk their lives for the thrill of feeling six bulls’ hot breath against their backs — and some ridiculous bragging rights.

The Fiesta de San Fermín is best known for its gory morning spectacle, El Encierro or Running of the Bulls. The event takes place every year from July 6 to 14 in Pamplona, Spain.

Though a long-established local tradition, it was author Ernest Hemingway who helped the festival gain international recognition with his depiction of the event in his book “The Sun Also Rises.” He wrote that he enjoyed watching two wild animals running together at once, one with two legs, the other on four.

To run with the bulls is the ultimate bucket list item that few are brave enough — or reckless, depending on your take — to cross off.

July 9

Of all the festivals I’m attending this summer, Fiesta de San Fermín has received the most hype.

Mom says our health insurance plan doesn’t cover stupidity. If the bulls don’t kill me, she will. Dad says he’d join me for a brisk, little run in northern Spain if he had the time and money.

As someone who has auditioned for “American Idol” on a dare and gotten into a pit with a 13-foot alligator, I am my thrill-junkie father’s daughter. But then again, I’m in Pamplona by myself with no one nearby who loves me enough to drop off a “Get well soon” balloon. That’s kind of sad.

My mind is telling me no, but my feet, my feet, are telling me “yes.” (Read to the tune of R. Kelly’s “Bump ‘N Grind” as that it is how it was written. You’re welcome.)

While on the bus to the campsite I’ll be staying at during the festivities, a tour guide has a few sobering words of warning.

“It’s not a matter of being heroes. It’s a matter of getting in the stadium and just finishing it,” he says.

This, of course, comes from a man who has run once himself. But no one who makes a pilgrimage to Pamplona simply goes for the heck of it. Ask anyone around here, local or tourist, and they’ve at least toyed with the idea.

For some, those who have dived off cliffs and swum with sharks, the decision is as natural as deciding what cereal to eat for breakfast.

For others, myself included, there are much weightier questions to consider: Do overpronated feet excuse me from the Running of the Bulls like it once excluded men from military service during World War II? Is risking my life worth the street cred? Do I want to be buried or cremated? Have I ever heard of the Book of Mormon? Do I know where I’ll spend eternity?

No matter how acquainted you are with the half-mile course, which starts near the river and ends in the center of the city at the bullfighting arena, there’s no guarantee you’ll walk away from the mad dash unscathed.

Upon arrival to the campground, word gets around that an American man who co-wrote the book “Fiesta: How to Survive the Bulls of Pamplona” was gored today — a slicing bit of irony. Bill Hillmann has long been seen as one of the best young American runners. Another man’s trachea was pierced in the same run.

“It’s not a matter of being heroes. It’s a matter of getting in the stadium and just finishing it.”

Maybe I’ll run after I watch it once from the barricaded sidelines or on the big screens of the bullfighting arena. Yeah, yeah, you know, I can pick up on the best techniques that way.

July 10

I’ve determined that to wait would be the best game plan as I head into the arena for the fourth day of the Encierro, which is my first. After all, I have two more opportunities to run if not today.

In the moments leading up to the run, participants can be seen engaging in a warm-up stretches and rituals. Many jog and jump in place. Some cross their chests and look up to the sky. One man draws a long puff from a cigar.

First-time spectators quickly learn that the run is a sport, one that you must take seriously — or the seasoned attendees will have your hide.

Before the run even begins, two men and a woman run into the arena early and are pelted with trash as the crowd chants “tonto, tonto,” meaning “stupid” in Spanish. To the crowd, those who only pretend like they’ve just ran for their lives are better off gored.

Stadium crowd
More than a million people are estimated to attend the festival every July, but the city isn’t that large. It’s home to just under 200,000 people.

After the unfashionably early are escorted out by police, pictures of the six bulls that will be taking part in the day’s festivities flash up on the big screen along with their weights. The cheers getting louder as the size of the bull increases.

Soon, hundreds of red scarves appear in the air as the run is about to start.

“A San Fermín pedimos, por ser nuestro patrón, nos guíe en el encierro dándonos su bendición,” the runners sing, asking the saint for his blessing.

The festival actually has surprisingly religious ties. San Fermín, the patron saint of the Spanish region of Navarra, was beheaded after becoming Pamplona’s first Christian bishop. The red scarves, or pañuelos, are said to represent his blood and sacrifice, while the white outfits are symbolic of his holiness.

It doesn’t take long for the first shot to be fired, signaling the release of six bulls and six  steers from the pin, but few of the runners move. They wait for the bulls to barrel at them before they start to run. If you’re going to cheat death, make sure you cheat it right.

Before officials even get the chance to shoot off the second rocket, signaling the bulls’ contact with the runners, a man is flipped upside down by a bull that’s run astray 21 seconds in. That’s one man down out of dozens who are generally injured each year.

Some runners carry rolled-up newspapers to divert the attention and ultimately the horns of the color-blind bulls. I wonder if they’ve bothered to read about the previous day’s injuries on the front page.

Maybe it’s not print that’s dying but those who don’t read it, those who don’t head its warnings.

Runners come flooding in the stadium and bulls barrel closely behind them. Thunder erupts from the hooves of the horned animals galloping triumphantly against the arena’s sand, embracing their believed victory. But with bull fights scheduled each night of the festival, all bulls will ultimately lose the battle.

Human participants celebrate by whipping out their GoPros and smartphones for post-run “selfies,” making me wonder what compelled people to run before their still-in-tact guts could be glorified with 200 “Likes” on Facebook.

Post-run selfie
Many runners take selfies once the run is over, but doing so during the run could mean harsh penalties to the tune of about $2,050.

To the first-time viewer, any run is gawked at as a gory and violent one. But it could be worse. Thankfully, no one died on the race’s course today, and no one has since 2009. There have been 15 recorded deaths since 1924.

Perhaps the odds of surviving are quite good given that there are thousands of people who run every year.

For now, the few brave souls who ran earlier in the morning — some of whom were inspired by a bit of last night’s liquid courage — stare blankly ahead pondering at their accomplishment in wonderment, the adrenaline still pulsating through their shaking fingers and legs.

They collectively agree that it was the most thrilling moment of their lives but one not worth repeating. It’s a good day to be alive.

Maybe I’ll be missing out if I don’t feel this thrill for myself. Perhaps I’ll run tomorrow.

July 11, the run

I decide to catch the earliest ride out in the morning to see if I still have a shot securing a good spot to watch the run. Though I’m on the fence, everyone else on board is running.

Much to the dismay of their girlfriends, Darren Stone and Anthony Mogridge are among them.

They’re two of the many Australians I befriended this week, convincing me that once you can get past a continent’s deadly pythons, dingoes and sharks, nothing truly phases you anymore. If there’s one concrete lesson I’ve taken away from my time in Pamplona, it’s this: Live every day like you’re Australian.

Taking on Pamplona
Cheers to the great group of friends I made from Australia and all the hours we spent laughing over inside jokes about Michael Jordan and Adam’s apples!

A survey conducted this year by the Pamplona City Hall has found that the majority — about 56 percent — of those who now participate in the festival are foreigners.

“It’s starting to rain. Does that make you nervous?” I ask Stone as droplets of rain collect on the bus windows at 6 a.m.

“Now it does,” he replies.

“Dear diary, today I just died,” Mogridge says as a form of greeting when boarding the bus.

Our laughter, though earnest, is uneasy. We’ll laugh harder if the number of people who boarded the bus this morning is the same on the return trip.

“Dear diary, today I just died.”

Upon arriving at Calle Estafeta, the main stretch of the run where I will watch it all unfold, Stone and Mogridge leave me. I tell them I’ll see them later, I hope.

Waiting for the run to begin, I chat with a man who ran the day prior. He said he didn’t let his family or friends know that he was running until after he did so, a common course of action among many participants I spoke with.

Before they’re even out of the gate, today’s bulls already have a reputation for their viciousness — they hail from the notorious Jandilla Ranch. The last time someone was killed in the Running of the Bulls, July 10, 2009, was at the horn of Capuchino, one of the ranch’s bulls.

Aside from a bull and runners losing their footing, particularly around Dead Man’s Corner, a tight bend where Calle Mercaderes meets Calle Estafeta, the run is much calmer and less memorable than the previous day’s.

There are no gorings to report, only seven trauma injuries — not a bad day. But many expert runners say a run is only good when you can feel the bulls’ breath against your back for multiple seconds at a time. Today’s bulls kept their distance.

Waiting on the bus to head back to the campsite, I’m relieved to see Mogridge hop on.

“Hey, you survived,” I exclaim.

“Yeah, I’ve got a bit of sad news, actually,” Mogridge says.

I then become intensely aware that Stone did not return to the bus with him.

“Oh my God, where’s Darren? Is he all right?”

“Oh, he’s fine. I mean that I didn’t get to run. The police saw my GoPro and threw me out,” Mogridge says.

With more phones and cameras floating about than ever before, Pamplona police now has a zero-tolerance policy for technology use among runners in an effort to keep the event, albeit an event where bulls run wild, safe.

July 11, the fight

Stone and the other runners might have been spared a trip to the hospital, but the day won’t be free of carnage. There’s still the evening’s bullfight.

Always a step away from becoming a vegetarian, I was initially hesitant to go to a bullfight. I actually had a nightmare two nights before the event that all the addictingly spicy crawfish I had ever eaten avenged me by taking my life.

But in order to make a remark about a culture, you must first experience it.

The atmosphere inside the bullfighting arena isn’t all that different from what I’ve experienced at any college basketball game or MLB game. Fans are cheering and chanting, but for whom or what, I’m not entirely sure.

Are people cheering for the bull, hoping it’ll give the man seeking to kill it a good scare with its horns? Are they hoping the matador finishes off the bull with one clean strike of his sword? Are they cheering only because so many did the same before them?

Spain’s relationship with its bulls is a complicated and divisive one.

To many, the bull is revered as a strong and beautiful creature. The matador, the man who fights it, is responsible for showing off its strengths before its demise.

Locals who run often rub their hands along the length of the bulls’ backs but will not touch their horns, out of reverence for their power.

The power dynamic can be confusing for just about any non-Spaniard, but even locals grapple with mixed emotions about all the bloody pomp and circumstance.

Bullfighting tradition in Spain is largely associated with the country’s former dictator  Francisco Franco, who ruled from 1939 to 1975.

During his contentious rule, the sport was a state sanctioned activity steeped in patriotism. Disapproval for Franco and bullfighting grew simultaneously in the push for democracy.

Catalonia, an autonomous and relatively progressive region of Spain, drew a line in the bullfighting ring sand when it banned the sport in 2010.

Curious but cautious, I asked Spaniards about their thoughts on the fights, but I find that they only answer me with questions, wanting to know my thoughts on the matter as an American.

Some I speak with say that bullfighting is deeply embedded in Spain’s culture, without it there’d be a gaping hole. Others say it’s senseless violence and sad to watch.

Regardless of our differing stances, we sit among each other in the stands.

With a pretty blue bow tied around its neck, each bull goes into the fight alone. It’s not long after it comes barreling out of the gate that its shoulders are washed with seeping blood.

First come the picadors, the matador’s assistants who ride on armored horses. One delivers the first blow by lancing the back of the bull to make its back muscles weaker.

Then the banderilleros follow. These men are on foot and are responsible for driving several barbed stakes into its back.

With each strike, the bull’s movements become increasingly labored. Now the animal is too weak to furiously ram its head against the barricade.

In his brightly colored suit, with its sequins glinting in the setting sun, the matador makes his way to the center of the ring to finish the job.

Matador and the bull
Six bulls are killed each evening. Three matadors take turns fighting them.

He gracefully twirls his cape, taunting the bull to dodge forward. Behind it, he hides his long sword that he’ll use shortly. Again and again, he pulls the cape up as the bull dizzily runs back and forth.

Finally, the matador pulls out the sword, gives it a light toss in his hand and stabs it right through the bull’s back. If he is lucky, he’ll pierce the bull’s heart in one strike and will be met with the adoration of the crowd. The bull in that case will be lucky, too, finally being put out of its misery.

With the animal’s every twitch, I find myself shifting uncomfortably in my seat. As it struggles to breathe, so do I.

The bull takes a mighty bow to his matador before he plummets to the ground, front hooves first.

If it’s a good fight, its ears and tail are cut off to be given to the matador. The carcass is promptly tied up and dragged behind a set of horses for one last circle around the ring.

Then it’s on to the next bull and the one after that and the one after that. As rowdy attendees cheer on from the cheap seats and throw sangria on one another, I sit in silent reverence for the fallen beasts.

I don’t know if I’ll understand the bullfighting, but I do know one time watching is enough for me.

July 12

I board yet another 6 a.m. bus after getting four hours of sleep, the same amount as the two previous nights.

Eyes drooping and patience wearing thin, I begin to wonder how Spaniards have the stamina for partying until dawn days in a row. Not much into nightlife myself, I feel exhausted for them.

Again, I find myself on the sidelines instead of the frontlines of today’s run. It’s raining yet again, which helps me rationalize that it probably isn’t the safest of days for a run. Those darn weather patterns.

Much to my surprise, the run goes pretty smoothly. Just as in Friday’s run, there are no gorings. Only a couple of bulls threatened to charge some runners. You never can tell how the day’s run is going to be until after it’s over.

I guess I’ll stick to risking my self-respect — instead of my life to a bull’s horn — by streaking public places and competing on televised karaoke programs. Yeah, that sounds good. Well, for now anyway. Ask me again next week.

IF YOU GO

Where to watch: There’s a bull run at 8 a.m. each day of the festival. Late-night revelers hyped on sangria extend their party into the morning, snagging all the good vantage points on the sidelines by 6 a.m. If you can’t beat them, join them — or buy a cheap ticket to watch the run unfold from the safe grandstands of the bullfighting arena.

What to eat: La Mañueta, a 140-year-old churrería,  is a rare, authentic find among a dying breed of establishments selling the traditional Spanish breakfast item. Here, churros are fried and hand-sprinkled with sugar right before your eyes. With the long line of people outside, the place is easy to spot. Buy a cup of thick hot chocolate for €2 next door.

When to run: Daredevils be warned. There’s never a truly safe day to run. To lessen your chances of getting gored, run mid-week when festival attendance drops and on a day with nice weather. Rain makes the course’s stones slippery.