An Inside Look at Pamplona’s Running of the Bulls
The annual Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain is a centuries-old tradition that has long been drawing daredevils from near and far to come and test their fate amongst the notorious beasts. Whether it’s the thrill of the chase, the hunger for danger, or perhaps the simple pleasure of diving headfirst into another culture’s long standing [and seemingly wild and crazy] traditions, The Festival of San Fermín is widely recognized by people from across the globe.
What started out as a solely religious celebration, La Fiesta de San Fermín took place as a way to honor Pamplona’s first bishop and patron saint, San Fermín, who was beheaded back in the early 1200’s while spreading the gospel in France. But the Running of the Bulls aspect of the festival (known in Spain as El Encierro) didn’t come into play until later. In the 13th century, bull running was used as a herding method for butchers and cattle herders: men would run ahead of the beasts in an effort to entice them to follow, the ultimate goal being to get them off the barge or out of the holding pen. Eventually, beginning in the 1800’s, townspeople started joining in on the fun — using the bull running as an opportunity to prove their bravery and showcase their strength — and soon thereafter the two traditions (La Fiesta and El Encierro) merged together into one big celebration.
Today the Running of the Bulls is a festive occurrence that involves masses of people herding a ranch of twelve bulls along the half-mile stretch from their corral all the way to the fighting ring, where they will [unfortunately] likely meet their demise later that evening. Dressed in traditional clothing and wielding rolled-up newspapers for swatting bulls away (a laughable defense mechanism if you understand the strength and power of these massive animals), runners begin the day in the streets singing a traditional homage to San Fermín, asking their patron saint to guide them and keep them safe through the run. Following their near-death experiences, runners and non-runners alike flood the bars and tavernas to have a few drinks (understandably), show off their battle wounds, and share their war stories. Then it happens all over again the next day. And again the next. For eight days straight.
Sounds like a fun way to celebrate your last birthday in your 30’s...right?
Benjamin Goldberg was born on July 7th 1979, a day which just so happens to be the first day of El Encierro during the Festival of San Fermin in Pamplona. Although the festival begins every year with a massive city-wide celebration that starts at noon on July 6th, the first run always takes place on the morning of the 7th, kicking off eight consecutive days of this risky dash, which culminates on July 14th. Alongside three good buddies, Ben elected to partake in the festival for the first time ever, and ran with the bulls on his birthday...which he *hoped* would not be his last.
[Spoiler: It wasn’t.]
“I didn’t have any idea about anything until I got there,” said Ben. “I went there knowing nothing. I hadn’t watched any videos, I didn’t know what was going on, and I had zero expectations of what was going to happen. All I knew is that I’d seen it all my life: people running away from bulls in the streets of Pamplona.” And he knew he wanted to participate in the temerarious tradition. Er...kind of. “It was brought up randomly as something like, ‘If it could be arranged for us to go run with the bulls [with the guidance of this expert bull runner named Dennis] would we go?’ and I honestly didn’t think anything of it — I didn’t think the chance would be there so I just said yes.”
Lo and behold, it happened.
On Friday, July 6th Ben and his friends landed in Madrid and hopped in the car for a little four hour jaunt to Pamplona. Although they got to town a little too late to partake in the city-wide party that began that morning (and to be fair, they weren’t interested in raging on Friday, what with their first run looming early on Saturday — these guys wanted to be fresh and alert) that afternoon they met up with a fellow named Dennis Clancey who showed them the course and offered some sage advice.
Psst - Dennis is an expert bull runner who has been doing this for something in the neighborhood of 12 years. He runs almost every single run, every single year at La Fiesta de San Fermín and is widely known for his ability to “run on the horns.” He directed and starred in an award-winning documentary about his wild hobby, Chasing Red, which you can watch on Vimeo.
“You sort of understand the course just by seeing it, but you don’t necessarily understand how to utilize it — like, where you would want to start,” said Ben. “Starting in specific areas can make it exponentially more difficult or dangerous, so Dennis suggested we start in town center.” Located within the first third of the course, Town Center, locally called La Plaza del Ayuntamiento, is a safe spot (relatively speaking) to start the race because of its size. Wide and open as it is, starting in Town Center means runners have greater bull visibility, less proximity to the bulls themselves and less of a chance of trampling one another. When confined to a narrow street like Calle Estafeta on the other hand, things can quickly take a turn for the worse if you’re not smart...or simply not lucky.
Following their meeting with Dennis, Ben and his buddies found a bite to eat and then got their butts to bed. The fear was creeping in and they sure as hell weren’t eager to cap off their Spanish vacation with a trip to the hospital. As the saying goes: Full stomach, clear mind, can’t die. That is the saying...right?
At around 6:30 on Saturday morning July 7th (also known as Benjamin’s 39th birthday), he and his buddies put on their fresh white bull running suits, tied red scarves around both their necks and waists, laced up their sneakers nice and tight, and hit the streets.
“Basically what happens is, you get into the streets around 6:30 or 6:45 in the morning. You sort of walk the course and figure out where you’re comfortable starting and then you stick around that spot. It’s kind of hard to explain, because until you see it or until you’re there in the streets you sort of don’t recognize the fact that people die doing this. So it becomes very intense at about 6:30 AM when people are praying. That’s kind of when you start to realize. There was a very strong sense of uneasiness throughout the people in the streets.”
While the air in the streets is thick with tension, the air just two stories up is full of joy and excitement...and probably a bit of alcohol. “It’s also a festival environment,” Ben explained. “There’s people up on all the balconies singing and dancing and chanting and lots of the people are too.” The dichotomy between the immense fear and the intense jubilation could certainly make for quite an experience in and of itself, but as a way to quell some of the fear, runners down in the streets swap stories and share gameplans.
Total, utter novices to the spectacle, the most beneficial (or perhaps confusing?) conversations for Ben and his compatriots were those with veteran runners that focused mainly on strategy. “You’re sort of just trying to understand what to do,” said Ben. “You’re asking, What have people told you? How are you going to do this? What is your plan? And then you sort of adjust your plan according to what everyone else in the street is going to do. Which makes zero sense...but it’s just kind of where your mind goes.”
At eight o’clock on the nose, eight bells chime at the church of San Cernín. After the last bell sounds, a rocket goes off, announcing that the gates have opened and the bulls have been set loose. Shortly thereafter (although not always) a second rocket goes off, signaling that the last of the 12 bulls has left the corral: they are all officially in the street, and they’re making their way down the course.
Their route looks like this:
The bulls take off from their corrals, running up Calle de Santo Domingo — often the most dangerous portion of the course due to the narrow nature of the street itself — until they reach La Plaza del Ayuntamiento. (*Reminder: this is the Town Center where Ben and Co. began their run.) After they pass through the wide plaza and move onto Calle Mercaderes, the course takes a big right turn at what is known as La Curva (The Curve) or La Curva de Muerte (Dead Man’s Curve) due to the incredibly dangerous nature of this particular spot. Because of the sharp angle of the turn and because of the relatively high speed at which the bulls are moving, it is not uncommon for the beasts to lose their footing on the slick cobblestones, slide across the street and knock down a handful of runners like dominoes. Plus, the animals tend to get confused and thrown off track while making the turn, causing them to lose their steady footing; it makes the home stretch of the route even less predictable. (Hence why this was not a suggested starting location for our novice Nashvillians.) After La Curva, the bulls end up on the straightest and longest leg of the course called Calle Estafeta heading for the Arena de Toros (Arena of the Bulls) where the run concludes.
The run typically only lasts about 3-4 minutes in total, and the portion that one person spends in the vicinity of a moving bull is far less than that. But the excitement, fear, and thrill of it all makes it well worth the little time spent. “Basically you’re running along and they just run by you,” Ben admitted.
At least, that’s how it is for the novices. For seasoned bull runners like Dennis Clancey, El Encierro isn’t just a fun one-time bucket list experience — it’s a sport. “The goal of running with the bulls is what they call ‘running on the horns,’” said Ben. “That’s when you run directly in front of a bull for however many yards you can. Bulls are faster than people, so you’re trying to run directly in front of them for as long as you can...without getting hurt.” Dennis, who has been doing this for a while — and always does so clad in his signature black t-shirt as opposed to the traditional white garb -— managed to make it through the run unscathed. Ben continued, “Dennis is very highly regarded in that universe because 1) He’s American. 2) He wears a black shirt so he is very easy to spot. And 3) He is extremely consistent. He has found a way to run on the horns on almost every run. That is not a normal situation; it’s just the way he’s been able to learn and adapt to what the bulls are doing.”
But not everybody who ran that morning was as lucky as Ben or as skilled as Dennis. Ben and his group didn’t even get within an arm’s length of the bull during their run (and who could blame them? It was their first time, they had had zero training, and they wanted to make it back to Nashville in one piece) but one of their neighbors did not fare so well. “There was a person probably less than 10 feet away from me — almost directly to my right — who got hit by a bull.” Ouch.
Although nobody was killed in the running of the bulls this year in Pamplona, there were plenty of injuries and a fair amount of gorings. Benjamin’s run on July 7th (which, again, was the first run of the week and, as a Saturday run, is considered one of the most dangerous due to the debauchery that often takes place the Friday night before) yielded one goring and five hospitalizations, so it could not be considered a clean run...but what constitutes "clean" isn’t necessarily what you’d think.
Ben went on, “So a ‘clean run’ — which is kind of comical — is considered zero gorings, but that has nothing to do with how many people were injured in general. Goring means the horn penetrates the skin. So that means someone could be trampled and have to go to the hospital, but if there were no gorings the run would be considered clean. I, however, view a clean run differently than they do. For example, on day two there were I think three hospitalizations but zero gorings, which made it clean. I mean, I would not consider that a clean run. But those crazy Spaniards — they sure thought that was clean!”
When the run is over and the bulls are safely in the arena, and the police are opening up the streets to normal traffic patterns, and those who have been injured are most likely being whizzed down a hospital hallway on a gurney...the runners who made it out unharmed head to a place called Bar Choco. “It’s the bar where Hemingway used to drink,” said Ben, of the American writer who helped to make the Festival of San Fermín so widely popular through his work. “You drink cognac and chocolate milk. It’s delicious.”
Especially after a near-death experience.
The next morning, on day two of Los Encierros, two of Benjamin’s friends elected to run the course again, but not this guy. Having jumped into a doorway to avoid the two cleanup bulls* the day before, Ben elected to take in the race from a different perspective: from the safety of the balconies up above. But the race on day two was a far cry from what ensued just one day before. “Each race is a completely different experience. We were taught that when the 2nd rocket goes off, that means all of the bulls are in the street and that’s when you get your shit together — when you know to get ready and run. But on day two, they had some trouble getting all of the bulls out [of the corral] and so there were a group of bulls that had made it to Town Center before the 2nd rocket even went off,” Ben explained. “If that had happened to me I wouldn’t have even understood what was happening. I would have been scared out of my mind.”
But maybe that’s part of what makes the running of the bulls so exciting; and maybe that’s why the tradition has carried on for so many years: each race is unique. Whether you’re an expert runner who treats the event like a sport, using skill and tact to outrun the bulls, or you’re a wide-eyed rookie who’s hoping for a bit of excitement and a cool story to tell your grandkids — or heck, even if you’re just a birds-eye spectator watching from above with a glass of sangria in hand! — the fear and excitement is felt by every single one of the literal million humans that choose to attend the festival every year. “But being down there in the streets is an experience of a lifetime. I will never forget how scared I was when the rocket went off.”
La Fiesta de San Fermín is a religious festival, a cultural celebration, and somewhat feels like Mardi Gras. With booze in the streets, partying all night, a hearty dose of drama, and millions of people from all over the world, there sure is something about it. “It is a spectacle,” said Ben. “And it is one of the most interesting and fascinating things I’ve ever been a part of.”
*Note: the “cleanup bulls” Ben refers to are two older, slower bulls that finish the race after the other bulls have been released and are making their way down the course. In case any of the main bulls elect to turn around and head in the wrong direction (an occasional occurrence, and one that can be really quite dangerous) these cleanup bulls are supposed to be there to stop them and keep them moving the right way. Sure, they’re not as frightening as the main herd, but they’re massive horned animals...so they’re pretty damn scary nonetheless.