Boom! The first rocket fired. Sangria-soaked white shirts, red scarves and sashes blurred as one stampede that spilled into the cobbled streets.
A dozen horns flashed through the gates in a thunder of hooves. Six “toros bravos” – Spanish fighting bulls, and their “guides” – six steers with bells on their necks, bulldozed through the runners.
Boom! Came the second blast. Last bull’s out, my brain screamed. Run! Run for your life!
Ahead of my thoughts, my legs pumped. I skidded on the flagstones, through the crush of panicked men, dodging lethal horns. An elbow jabbed my left flank. Something hit my right. Guys ahead stumbled, sprawled on top of each other, scrabbed to get up. People trampled over them. A bull hooked someone in his horns. A white-clad body flew and fell, thrashing.
I kept on running.
“Viva San Fermin! Gora, San Fermin!” The crowd’s chanting seemed far away, like the red scarves flailing in the wind, the cameras firing in jam-packed balconies and the helicopter rotors clacking overhead.
It was my first “encierro” – the running of the bulls, two years ago, in the San Fermines – the most famous feast on earth.
Papa Ernest Hemingway immortalized this revelry – and the cult of the bull – in his novel, “The Sun Also Rises”. He watched the “encierro” nine times, at least.
Papa never ran with the bulls though. He wasn’t as crazy as me.
It was just a few hours ago that I staggered out of my tent like a zombie at 3 AM, after a 21-hour overland and oversea crossing from London to Pamplona, Northeast Spain. I should have been knocked down flat. But I found it impossible to sleep when the camp was broiling hot by day and freezing by night.
Groggy from fatigue and chattering from the cold, I groped for the uniform of the “encierro” – white shirt and pants, red scarf and sash – and put them on in the dark.
White harks back to the aprons of butchers – the first runners – who herded the bulls to the arena centuries ago. Red signifies blood, tribute to the city’s patron, San Fermín, first bishop of Pamplona, who was beheaded in Amiens.
How the bulls became part of his feast seems a merry mix up.
San Fermin was a convert and pupil of San Sernin (Saturnin), disciple of Peter the Apostle and bishop of Toulousse, France. Pagan priests tied San Sernin’s feet to a bull which dragged him through the city streets to his death.
And somehow, the San Fermines was equated with the running of the bulls.
Dawn has not broken when I hopped in the shuttle from the camp grounds to the Plaza del Ayuntamiento (City Hall Square), the starting point of the “encierro”. Runners have to come early before the route is closed. They can’t wait or take off elsewhere.
The police swarmed all over, clearing the tracks, weeding out undesirable runners – those too drunk, too weird, attired improperly or wearing slippers and those brandishing go pros or video equipment.
Lots of rules here, I discovered. The fighting bulls are sacred until they are killed in the ring. It’s forbidden to touch them. Anyone who does risks a beating from the bull herders, the “pastores”, who man the route, holding long poles to steer the frenzied bulls on course. The “pastores” also use the poles on runners disrespecting the bulls.
A foreigner took one of the bulls by the horns in last year’s “encierro” and the “pastores” beat him up so badly, he landed in the hospital.
Locals also deem it cowardly for a runner to sprint ahead of the bulls in the arena. They’ll pelt him with eggs, vegetables, even bottles.
And before 1974, women weren’t even allowed to run with the bulls.
Of course, if I have more sense, I won’t be here.
As an adrenaline junkie, I’m not getting any younger. Worse, I’m not in top shape – no workout for years, with a fracture on my right shin from a race two years ago, among other injuries, totally wasted from my 21-hour trip … But I have to strike this item off my bucket list. If I’m to survive, I should choose the best section to run in and exit cleanly.
With a couple of hours to spare, I decided to case the “encierro” route, skirting past cleaner trucks and workmen hosing down broken bottles and the debris of last night’s revelry.
Others were putting up barriers to mark the route – double fences made up of 3,000 pieces of thick wooden planks. They’ve fortified the barricades because bulls have crashed through them twice before and gored spectators.
I studied the most dangerous section, a blind turn called Dead Man’s Corner. The biggest danger lurks in this narrow curve barely enough for four bulls running abreast of each other, not to mention thousands of men trying to run with them.
It’s suicide for beginners to take this section. Unable to control their momentum, both bulls and humans lose their footing on the slick cobblestones, ending on a pile-up of desperate runners, thrashing hooves and long curved horns that can gut you or rip your heart out. The bulls somersault and fall like overturned tanks. One time, people piled up here and the bulls trampled over them while one went through the barriers. A man trapped underneath died.
So far, the “toros” have gored 15 runners to death since record-taking started in 1924. At least twice, a single bull killed two runners in one day. Untold hundreds get injured each year – knocked off teeth and bruises, broken skulls and limbs.
Every morning, between July 7 to 14, as the church clock strikes eight, six “toros bravos” are released from the corral at the plaza central, along with six steers to guide them to their pen in the arena, 850 meters away, where they will fight matadors to the death in the afternoon “corrida”. The total of 8 runs in the 8-day San Fermines translates to sprinting with 48 fighting bulls.
The bulls, weighing 1,200 to 1,500 –pounds each, clock 24 kilometers per hour and race the distance from the gate to the ring between three to five minutes.
A lifetime – or a death – passes in five minutes or less.
It took only a minute and a half for the most recent runner to die. Daniel Jimeno Romero, a 27 year old seasoned runner who grew up in Pamplona, fell on the tracks and the bull “Capuchino” gored him in the neck.
Bulls who get separated from the herd are the most dangerous. A lost, confused and very enraged bull will gore anything in sight.
Beyond those hooves and horns, the biggest challenge is not getting trapped, tripped or trampled by the hordes sprinting alongside the bulls. That’s two thousand runners on weekdays and 3,500 on weekends.
Frankly, the crazy humans scare me more than the bulls.
Not that the bulls aren’t scary enough.
Bred for power, speed and ferocity from an ancient strain of wild bull which once roamed prehistoric Spain, fighting bulls range freely in special ranches till they reach their prime at four years old, when they are ready for the ring. In the arenas of the past, they fought not just wolves but lions. That’s how fearless they are.
They don’t come cheap, either. A fighting bull costs at least 12,000 Euros (P626,000) each. Some 20,000 “toros bravos” die in the ring per year. Spain holds about 2,000 bull-related events annually, hauling in 6 million spectators. Fighting bulls are the lifeblood of a USD$4 billion industry.
When the “toros bravos” face matadors in the “Plaza del Toros” in the afternoon, it will be their first – and often their last time, to fight a man.
And if there’s one “toro bravo” I’d love to run with, it would be the Miura – the breed of Islero, the fighting bull who killed Manolete, the greatest matador of all time.
The Miura, which originated in Seville, is famous for being large, fierce and cunning.
“There are certain strains of bull with a marked ability to learn from what goes on in the arena … faster than the actual fight progresses which makes it more difficult from one minute to the next to control them … these bulls are raised by Don Eduardo Miura’s sons from old fighting stock,” Papa Hemingway wrote in his book, “Death in the Afternoon”.
No wonder, Ferruccio Lamborghini made this breed the symbol of his industrial empire. He gave the name Miura to his line of classic sports cars. Two he named for celebrity killers – Islero and Reventon. The third, he named Murciliago, after a Miura who was so brave in the “corrida” his life was spared.
Before the “encierro”, the breeders draw lots to determine whose stock will run so each gets a chance to exhibit their “toros.” It’s a great honor for a breeder to be chosen. But the public won’t know the result until the day of the running.
Today, my wish was granted. I’m running with Miuras. The only other thing I can ask for is to survive the run itself.
As I took my place in the starting point, at the bottom of the Santo Domingo slope, a livid woman kept arguing with her husband, dissuading him from running. Others were warming up, stretching, jogging in place. “Even if you don’t hear the rockets, you’ll know the bulls are coming when the cameras in the balconies start flashing,” one of the girls behind me warned. The rest hugged family and friends – like a last farewell.
As the crowds clutching rolled newspapers (for gauging the runner’s distance from the bulls) took up the chant to San Fermin, those bunched around me began praying in earnest and crossing themselves.
Even before the gate of the corral was opened and the first rocket was fired, people were running, stumbling, falling over each other as they kept on looking back as they ran. The main mass, the sea of white and red clad bodies, parted as the bulls exploded out of their corral and charged forward. All hell broke loose.
The stretch widened as we fled into Ayuntamiento, through Mercaderes and turn right sharply into Estafeta. A couple of bulls hit the wall and crashed. One bull broke off from the pack and gored runners behind me. But the Telephone Exchange (Telefónica) at the end was in sight and before I knew it, I’ve shot past the Callejón and was inside the Plaza del Toros.
It was over in a flash and I made for the side of the arena, over the barrier, out of harm’s way, as thousands scrambled in all directions. The third rocket went off.
The “dobladores” dragging capes on the sand, drove the bulls to their pens before they can turn back on their tracks and cause more carnage.
Then the fourth rocket blasted at last.
Once more, it’s safe to party in Pamplona’s streets.
In the afternoon, I will watch those bulls fight in the arena, in the three-act dance of death with the “matadors” in the “corrida”.