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The Thrill of the Chase

July 14, 2011

It’s a couple of minutes to 8am on a brisk summer’s morning, July 7 in Pamplona, Spain. Despite the fact that the temperature will soar up around the 30s later in the day, for some reason it drops down to levels cold enough to make us shiver in our nylon tents at night, giving us the worst of both worlds as those same tents become unbearable saunas by about 10.30am.

Today there’s not a cloud in the sky, and the bright blue strip above shines down on me as I, along with about two thousand other white-clad locals and foreigners, am pushing and scrambling and literally running for my life.

I arrived on the streets which would host today’s run about two hours ago with a couple of friends, as those streets were just beginning to clear out the revelers from the previous night’s drunken festivities. Yesterday was the opening ceremony of the San Fermín festival, when at 12 noon a rocket released from the Town Hall announced the start of a week of madness which would descend upon this small town. As the town square in front heaved and rolled with hundreds of people, local and foreign, all once dressed in the festival’s uniform of white pants and shirt, now mostly dyed a bright pink from the sangria flying through the air from every direction, a forest of arms shot up holding the red neckerchiefs which everyone then tied on and would not (in theory) remove until the end of the festival.

The town square started to flow out into the city, where all through town, it was difficult to spot someone who was not dressed in this fashion, sometimes with the optional red cummerbund and/or beret, though different areas had different levels of drunkenness, and therefore different levels of pink. At any rate, after I had returned to the campsite at a not-too-unreasonable time in order to get rested for the morning’s run, the citywide party had continued until the morning, as drunks cheered and yelled out at, or even joined in with, the runners who started to arrive on the course.

The running of the bulls, which has become the main feature of the San Fermín festival, originally was simply a procession of giant bulls from the holding pen in one part of town, through the streets and into the arena where they would be fought that night. People started to try and run the course with the bulls to prove their bravery, and as the numbers of those idiots increased, somewhere along the line it became an event in itself. Now, every year, for each day of the festival, bulls are set to run the 835 metre course through the centre of town as hundreds, or thousands, of people try to run with them.

Nobody runs the entire race alongside the bulls. The course is over 800 metres, and the bulls will get from one end to the other in two or three minutes. Even if it was just one man, he wouldn’t run that fast. With the number of people crowding in on all sides, there’s no chance. So the idea is to get as far along the track as you can with the bulls, while staying alive and uninjured. And if possible, to make it into the arena before it is closed, as it will be a short while after the last bull has entered.

So with that in mind, we arrived on the course around 6am to try and find a good spot to start from. After walking the course through once, we decided to start on the arena-side of Dead Man’s Corner, the sharp right-angle about halfway along the run where the bulls, huge in weight and speed but lacking in agility, tend to skid out, crash, get disoriented and angry, crushing anyone on the outside of them and making them far more unpredictable once they recover, sometimes even sending them back up the way they came, straight into hordes of unsuspecting people coming towards them.

Locals came up to us, asking us what we were doing. We told them, and they entreated us to leave, or at least to be careful. Everyone had advice to give us – stay on the inside of corners, try to stick to the walls, if you get knocked down, just stay there and protect your head since getting up will just enrage the bulls, or if nothing else put you at the mercy of the stampeding bulls and people who will be crashing down upon you, unaware and unconcerned about your own situation. Nervousness began to really set in. Commitment to actually go through with this suicide mission was running at about 50%. We saw another guy we knew. Where was his friend? His friend had decided to call it off and stayed away at the last minute. Smart guy, said a passerby. Over there, a young Spanish girl was crying as her boyfriend left her and headed out into the street with a look of grim determination. A local walked past us and, looking us in the eyes, ran a finger slowly across his own throat. Commitment to go through was at about 30%. A group of Americans. One talking about how if he got the chance, he’d try to punch a bull in the balls. Realisation I was on the same course as these people. Others testing emergency escape routes by grabbing window barriers and hauling themselves up. Cleaning trucks came down the street, spraying water everywhere to clean up after last night’s party. The cobbled streets were left shiny, wet and slippery.

The barriers were up. I had the image of people bailing from the course by jumping fences as the bulls got close. The actual course showed me that wasn’t going to be the case. By far, the vast majority of the run was down narrow cobbled streets between concrete walls. Most doorways, windows, or other areas of refuge had been boarded up. The places with barriers were only about four or five entrances to narrow side streets throughout the entire run. And the stories were that if you tried to jump out, people often pushed you back.

The streets within the barriers were filling up. A newspaper showed the six main bulls who would be running with us. They were all giant, brutal looking things weighing in at as much as 635kg (That’s about 1,400 pounds, Americans). We decided that with the number of people here, so long as we stuck to the sides, hopefully if the bull headed our way, it would get someone else first. That gave us a bit of relief, until we saw it. A huge horn-shaped gouge taken out of the wall beside us at about stomach height, ripping out a chunk of the wall like it was butter. Obviously the sides weren’t all that safe. Commitment about 10%.

A local man opened his door onto the street and watched amusedly as the street filled more with nervous-looking people. He tried to say something to us in Spanish, but it was far too fast and complex for any of us to work out. He was just shaking his head and pointing off the course. I busted out some Spanish 101, “¿Aquí, beuno?” He laughed while shaking his head. “No, no. No bueno.”

About 7.20am.  The streets were quite full, but I had set my mind. Odds of someone actually getting hurt, quite low. With this number of people, odds of that person being me? Surely low. Expected payoff when the bulls rush past? Very damn high. I had decided. Commitment 100%. Then the barrier shut behind us. For some reason, a barrier had closed just behind us, blocking off the rest of the course. Nobody seemed to know why, but then the police arrived, and started pushing everyone towards the arena. Amongst the confusion, nobody knew what was going on, but apparently we were being herded closer to the end of the course. And then, up ahead of us, another barrier. We weren’t being herded towards the front of the course, we were being herded off it. Suddenly we were in the side streets, with the running course behind us.

What happened? Don’t know, but for some reason they must have wanted that part of the course clear, and now we were out of the game with about half an hour until the start. After all that emotional turmoil, and finally deciding to go through with it, we were getting kicked off? Hell no. People started running, maybe we could re-enter from the other side of the barrier? But the side streets were few. Having no better idea, we just ran with the crowd as it poured down side streets in some kind of warm-up for the big event. People still in local bars cheered at us as we ran past, until it was obvious we had gone well past the cut-off barrier. We re-emerged at the barrier near the Town Hall, close to the start of the race. No option but to force our way in here. We climbed past the spectators, through the slats of the fence, and into the crowd on the other side. And it was a crowd. The square in front of Town Hall was just like during the opening ceremony, with people jammed so tight against each other that even raising an arm was near impossible. Reassessing the situation, we realized that we were now at the bull end of the town square, fairly close to the start of the race, amongst a huge immobile crush of people, with a few minutes until the opening at 8am.

In this crowd, you could barely even turn around, let alone escape the horns of a furious bull. How the hell was this going to finish without a huge number of gorings? I realized we were metres from the spot where the Spaniard died from a goring to the neck in 2009. A guy over there vomited into his shirt. My throat was sandpaper. A guy next to me said, I hear they’re using the most dangerous bulls today. Apparently they use different breeds of bull each day, and by coincidence, today they’re using the most dangerous. I looked around. On the far side of the barriers were several medical teams. I couldn’t decide if that was comforting or not. I asked a random person how the hell we were supposed to move. He said that at five minutes to 8am, they would open the gates further down the run, and people could start moving.

5 to 8 came, and still nobody moved. 4, 3 to 8. The clock on the Town Hall continued to labour through the longest 10 minutes of my life. Why wasn’t anyone moving? The bulls would be released, just down the road, in just over two minutes. Then they’d surely be here within one minute of that. Why couldn’t we move? The spectators looking down on us from the barriers and balconies around the square grinned.

Then we did. Just a little. There was a little more space, and with a roar, the crowd started pushing. Everyone wanted to get the hell out of there, but there was still nowhere to go. The mob had started moving so so slowly, but everyone needed it to go faster. Two minutes to the bulls. The crowd started to loosen up just a little.

And so now everyone is pushing as hard as they can against the back of the person in front of them, who is hardly moving at all, while getting squashed mercilessly from behind. All around is a deafening roar of cheers and panic as everyone desperately tries to get anywhere other than where they are now. Though it’s difficult, and a little dangerous to do so, a quick glance back at the Town Hall shows that it’s one minute to eight. Suddenly I realize that I am on the outside of the corner as the course leaves the town square and files into the street. If the bulls come now, this is not a good place to be. But there’s no helping it. It’s almost impossible to be anywhere else, and the crush of people is intense. I actually feel like a rib is going to crack for a few seconds, but luckily it passes. I’ve totally lost my friends. My heart is jackhammering at my chest as I begin to be able to actually put one foot in front of the other instead of just shuffling as I head down the street off the town square, and an explosion booms across the sky. The bulls have been released.

Oh shit, here they come. Move! But the crowd of people is still far too thick to move with any comfort, and people on the sides have stopped moving and are hugging the walls, several men deep. The only options are to hug the outside of the human wall, unmoving and exposed, or keep moving down the centre. The panic and exhilaration of the moment make me feel like my chest is going to explode. And then there in front is Dead Man’s Corner.

I’m moving towards it, trying to stay as close to the inside wall as possible, hard with the number of people already there and with the unstoppable crushing flow of people desperately trying to clear it before the bulls get here. How far away are they now? How long has it been since the rocket? I have no idea, but surely they must be about here by now. The corner itself is bulging with human bodies. The only way to clear it is to run around the centre or outside. No way. I try to press into the mass of sweating white just this side of the corner. But then I realize how far out I actually am into the street. All I’m doing is acting as a shield for the guy behind me. Where are the bulls? Can I make it around the corner before they get here? I hope so, I think as I break away and dash around the corner.

And I make it. The tumor of people bulging from the inside of the corner lessens and now people are actually running. There are still people all around, but now there is enough room to actually run away. Still, I’m still in the centre and the bulls must be just behind me. Surely it’s been a couple of minutes at least since that rocket. I try to move in towards the walls, but the dickheads lining the walls push me away, laughing, not allowing anyone to move into a safer area. There’s no time to waste, so I keep running. I’m going to have a heart attack. And then, a rise in tension behind me. Is it an increase in volume? I don’t know, but I can sense a huge spike of fear, panic and thrill at my back. I’ve been told to look up to the faces of those on the balconies to judge where the bulls are, as taking my eyes off the mayhem in front is a recipe for suicide, but in this situation I’m not thinking, just reacting. I glance behind me and see a huge gap. Where there should be a mass of people, there’s just one or two, and a mass of angry, rippling black accentuated by deadly white points, rushing as quick as anything right towards me. I throw myself to the right, just as horns come flying past my side. A surge of black amongst all the white-clad runners passes right by me with the rumble of hundreds of kilograms of aggression, and then they are gone.

The waters break and the crowd behind floods into the gap left by the bulls, yelling and cheering and hollering, and I join them, running as fast as I can towards the bulls. All that’s left now is to follow them into the arena, and get there before the gates are shut. But was that all of them? We have been told we should count, as there should be six bulls altogether, but sometimes they get separated. Did anybody count how many? Nobody did. But hey, we’re safe! As we emerge from the alleys, the arena comes into sight and cheers go up from everyone. The communal thrill and rush is indescribable. The spectators crowded at the barriers between the alley and the arena entrance are cheering and partying. We see the gates to the arena are still open, we’ll make it in!

The entrance to the arena is narrower than anywhere else, so the crowd slows down a bit as people bottleneck. The sense of deadly urgency is gone, so instead everyone is just celebrating life with the strangers around them, now best friends. As we file into the gateway, all grins, a man above the gate points frantically behind us. A brief jolt of panic, a glance back, but seeing nothing but hordes of white, we’re convinced he’s just trying to scare us and move into the gateway. The arena opens up before us and the cheers of the packed spectator seats greet us as we come through the narrow entranceway – then suddenly, about half a second of realization that that same sense of panic from earlier has happened once again behind me. I don’t even have time to turn around before the last bull comes charging past right beside me and barrels into the arena. A sobering moment of silence, then a realization that it really is over now, and I am in the open arena, safe and finished, with the comradery of thousands of runners and spectators roaring all around us on a beautiful sunny Spanish morning.

(What happens next? The dark side of the festival here)

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Pete permalink
    July 15, 2011 11:18 am

    Sounds a bit daft to me and you’re lucky to be alive! But you survived to tell the story, I wonder if anyone was injured? It’s not on my bucket list but does sound exciting.

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