Pamplona's Running of the Bulls

July 22, 2018

One of the most adrenaline producing, terrifying, and unpredictable events on the planet.  The Running of the Bulls was established as a tradition in the early 14th century as a part of the San Fermin Festival in northeastern Spain. Since then thrill seekers from around the world have come to test their bravery and sprint with thousands of others down a narrow shoot being chased by massive bulls through the funneled streets directly into the Arena. Only 15 people have been killed since the first recorded death in 1910, but there are nearly 100 serious injuries every year and hundreds more sustaining less severe injuries.  The city expands from a population of 195,000 to over 1 million for the ten days of San Fermin to witness the morning running of the bulls, evening matador bull fights, the constant parades and music involved in the festival.  

 

As a bit of an adrenaline junkie, this event has always been on my bucket list.  My trip to Spain started off rough with a man attempting to steal my bag directly out of my rental car before I even left the parking lot.  Whether it was how fast I was catching up with him or the strong of colorful insults I was yelling, thankfully he dropped the bag.  Unfortunately, pickpockets are extremely accomplished and a few days later I still lost my phone.  Yet after a few hour drive from Barcelona, I arrived in Pamplona and checked into my Air bnb in the heart of the city. Luckily I met several other solo travelers who were also there to run and we quickly banded together.  After a night of drinking our way through the city and joining in with a large drum parade, we woke up early and headed to the start line. 

 

 Tourists and locals alike filled the narrow alleyway dressed in the traditional white and red.  Police carefully monitored the crowd and quickly pulled out anyone not following the rules that were continuously being played on screens around the starting line.  As the 0800 release time drew nearer, the crowd became more electric as the nerves continued to climb.  Shortly before the start the police backed up and allowed runners to space themselves along the route so we moved up the road to be closer towards the arena.  

 

Moments before the release, a canon sounded marking the pending start and the crowd began to pop up and down looking for a glimpse of the bulls as they rounded the corner.  The second canon sounded signaling the bulls had been released. People slowly started running past, but we held in place until hearing the thundering bulls and seeing the other runners begin to sprint by in full panic.  

 

As we turned and began to run in, the crowds turned chaotic and people began to get trampled and shoved into the side fences and to the ground. This is when it became obvious that the bulls were not the primary source of danger but it was the terror spreading through the other runners who were desperately trying to make it into the arena. 

 

It was challenging to stay upright and just moments after the start I glanced to my right to see the first massive bull an arms distance away, stampeding past towards the arena.  The bulls made it through the gateway but the run remained just as dangerous as the crowds remained in full chaos struggling to get in.  

 

After making it into the arena filled with applauding onlookers the relief was palatable as we linked up and all had managed to survive the 825 meter sprint for life.  However, that is when the true madness began.

 

Inside the arena single bulls were released to take on the idiots who remained in the center.  The smarter runners jumped out of the ring and joined the stadium filled with onlookers while the braver ones (or the idiots) remained in the middle and attempted to get as close as possible or even jump over the bull. The bulls were rotated to ensure they stayed pissed off and full of energy as they continually charged and threw the wannabe matadors.  

 

While the first day, I stayed safely on the sideline inside the ring, the second day I jumped into the action and almost immediately was singled out by the bull who threw me up and then trampled over me as he tore off across the stadium.  I quickly jumped up and beelined for the wall deciding my bull experience was complete.  As I jumped out of the ring the docs snatched me up and immediately cleaned up the cuts on my arms and legs.  As the adrenaline began to wear off the pain definitely increased and it took a few days for the swelling to go down to a manageable amount as I hobbled around and tried to sound reasonable while answering the "what the hell happened to you?" question.  Nearly everyone in my group had a least one run-in with the bulls inside the arena and we all walked away with some sore mementos of the experience. 

 

Despite the insanity of the run, there is much more to the festivities around the city than just the run.  Many observers watch the mad dash each morning from the safety of balconies lining the route or wait for the runners inside the arena.  There is also a Parade of Giants consisting of people in massive paper mache heads and figures twirling through the streets, mischief makers on paper mache horses who punish random passerby with a swift hit from their foam weapons, and plenty of bands and live music on every street corner adding to the festive environment.  

 

 

Some of the common tips for running are:

-Show up early.  Even though the actual event does not start until 0800 the streets are blocked off and the runners are set shortly after 7.  Get there early and join the other anxious runners in the cheers before the start. 

-If you go down, stay down. You may get stepped on by others but are less likely to get gored by a bull.

-Beware of pile-ups.  Once one person goes down it is easy for a pileup to occur which can be very difficult to get out of. 

-Hide any cameras before the start.  Cameras are not allowed during the actual running so if you plan to video the event, be sure to hide it well and don't bring it out before the start of the race or you risk being pulled out by the police.

-Follow the rules and show up sober (at least mostly).  The police are strict with their enforcement of the rules and for good reason.  If you do not want to risk getting thrown out, be sure to adhere to the rules.  

 

The Running of the Bulls is absolute madness but one of the most memorable (and painful) festivals I have ever attended.  Despite being rather unlucky in the arena, I was extremely lucky with the group of friends I made there and had an amazing time drinking in the streets and singing 'Ole Ole!' before being charged by the massive bulls.  It is definitely a once in a lifetime experience for any thrill seeker or a great trip recommendation for someone that you do not like and who is not a fast runner. 

 

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