In the summer of 2012 I finally did something I’ve wanted to do for almost as long as I can remember: I ran with the bulls in Pamplona. Last year, I did it again. This year I went for a third time. When people found out I was going the first time I got asked “Why do you want to do it?” a lot, now I get asked “Why are you doing it again??”. I’ve tried to explain the attraction of doing dangerous things previously but Pamplona is different, Pamplona is something special. It was an ambition that became a passion that now borders on an obsession.
You’ll hear a lot made of the connection between Ernest Hemingway, the San Fermín fiesta and how his writing inspired many to visit the medieval city but my inspiration was a little less highbrow. I saw Billy Crystal get hit up the arse by a bull in the opening sequence of the film City Slickers as an impressionable young teenager and thought “That looks like fun”. There began around 20 years of trying to convince friends to come and do it with me. As you may imagine, they were not keen, but eventually in the autumn of 2011 I took advantage of one who was in a vulnerable state of mind after he broke up with his girlfriend and found a companion. I immediately started looking for someone to book with and found the Pamplona Posse, who seemed an ideal match to the sort of experience we were after. As it turned out, due to a combination of my companion getting jury duty and a new job I ended up going on my own anyway but that was by the by, I was going to the bull run! I never expected to want to go back, I thought it would be a one time thing. Run with the bulls, then spend a couple of days getting drunk. That’s it ticked off the list and I’d have a story or two to tell at parties. I’d been at the fiesta for approximately four hours, I hadn’t even seen a bull let alone run with them when I turned to the man who became my first bull-running friend (and somewhat of a mentor), Gus, and said “I’m coming back next year.” His response was a knowing smile and a comment to one of the other fiesta veterans of the Posse, “This guy gets it!”.
I was pretty wide-eyed and naive about the whole thing when I first got to Pamplona. I hadn’t realised that everyone would be wearing white clothes with red neckerchiefs and sashes, I thought it was just the runners. I’d flown in from Madrid wearing my three-quarter length shorts and a t-shirt and felt immediately out of place watching everyone from the taxi. Everyone, and I mean everyone, was in white and red. Young, old, men, women. Babies in pushchairs, even dogs had red bandanas around their necks. I hadn’t read up on any of the history of the fiesta, just the running and party side of it and I began to realise this was something a lot bigger than I had first anticipated. I found my way to Posse HQ, checked in and Gus showed me to my apartment. I put on my fresh whites, stepped outside to start exploring and found myself still feeling out of place as everyone else’s whites were so covered with sangria I stood out like a freshly-bandaged sore thumb. As it happened Gus was about to start a walking tour of the bull run so I headed that way, determined to learn everything I could about how to run with the bulls in the short time I had available to me. Gus was taking it in turns to explain the course with another runner I have to come to respect and admire, ‘Buffalo’ Bill, and it was these two who were to fan the smouldering obsession I didn’t realise was starting. It was their passion for the run and the bulls that made me think “I want to be good at this”. Before that, in the weeks leading up to the trip, I’d been swinging between outright terror (“Of all the daft stuff I do, this is the one that could actually kill me”) and reckless bravado (“If bloody Richard Hammond can do it then of course I can”) and confided in Gus about this. He looked me straight in the eye and told me “Reckless bravado will get you killed” and gave me the single piece of advice I feel qualified to pass on to anyone else who has asked me for any since, “If you go down, stay down”. After that I hung on every word he and Bill said, desperate to take it all in and absorb it. Once the tour was over things got light-hearted again. Gus showed me where I could get a 2 litre bottle of beer for a few euros and we sat in the square where the sangria flowed freely, music played, and I was welcomed as an old friend. This was when I realised I was going to have to come back.
A big part of it is the atmosphere in Pamplona. Forget any romantic, Hemingway-esque ideas you might have of people sitting in cafés sipping brandy or wine and watching the fiesta parade past, pretty much everyone is drunk pretty much all of the time. People stumble around in sangria-soaked, dirt-streaked clothes and many sleep where they fall. Empty glasses and bottles line the streets (despite the heroic attempts of the municipal teams to clear them several times a day), and the place stinks, and I mean absolutely reeks, of piss. The constant revelry means that the temporary public toilets and those in the bars and restaurants cannot cope and are ignored by those outside with bins, doorways, corners, and trees taking their place as there is generally less of a queue. But as with any smell you get used to it and now if I go into a toilet with poor drainage or walk past an alleyway alongside a pub that particularly acidic smell makes me smile. And smiling is all everybody at the fiesta ever seems to do when they don’t have a drink near their face. It really is just one big party and everyone there wants to enjoy it as much as possible. There is singing, there is dancing, there are street entertainers, there are roaming drum bands. Oh God, someone save us from the fucking drum bands! There are processions, giants, acrobats, artists, dancers and demonstrations. It is all a constant assault on your eyes and ears that makes it a complete unreality and the most unique place I have ever been. Where else could you see Spiderman having a sword fight with a medieval knight or start a game of cricket in the town plaza and almost instantly be surrounded by a crowd of spectators wanting to join in? The place is magical.
My recollections of that first afternoon going on into the night are hazy. I went to a bullfight, watched the fireworks above the old castle, there were a lot of different bars, a lot of dancing and a lot of laughing. I stumbled back to my apartment just as the streets were being hosed down and the soberingly sturdy fences that line the course of the run were being built in preparation for that morning’s event.
Not many hours later I saw the run from a balcony overlooking The Curve and even from there I could feel the excitement below me. I watched the police lines break and the people stream up Calle Estafeta, a sea of red and white. When the first rocket went off and all hell seemed to break loose with people running I wondered if I’d missed something, then the second rocket exploded and I knew these people had lost their nerve and run early. More advice from Gus and Bill came back to me, “When the first rocket goes off, stand your ground. People will panic and bolt”. The shouts and screams suddenly increased and above that I could hear the bells of the steers, it took just a matter of seconds for the bulls to thunder through and disappear up the street but it was something hard to forget, especially as I could make out Gus below me, running in front of the pack. Despite the fact I’d only had a couple of hour’s sleep I was hyped up and feeling the thrill of it. The next morning I would be down there in amongst it.
That evening I tried to take it easy but as all I remember is going to the fireworks again I’m not sure I managed it. What I did manage was to get an early night by Pamplona standards and be in bed by 2.00am. I remember my sleep was broken and I was already awake when my alarm went off. I remember getting up and dressed in the apartment, carefully putting on my trainers and making sure they were laced up tight. I remember putting my neckerchief on and tying it with a slip knot as I’d been shown. I remember being in front of the town hall feeling the chill of the morning air, watching the clock tick round to 8.00, the tension in my stomach building as I talked to others who were running for the first time about where we were going to run and advice we’d been given. I remember the crowd getting tighter and tighter then surging forward towards The Curve when the police let us out of the square.I remember feeling the adrenaline dump itself into my system as everyone made their way to their chosen start points, wishing my new friends “Suerté” and leaving them to make my way to my starting point I’d picked out the day before.
I stood halfway up Estefeta, advice from Gus and Bill crashing through my head: “Run on the right, the bulls usually run up the centre or over to the left.”, “Stay about an arm’s length away from the wall.”, “If you go down, stay down.”. I stood there waiting, watching the people around me embrace friends, cross themselves and offer a quick prayer skywards. I was jumping on the spot, half as a warm up and half as a way of burning off the nervous energy, when the rocket went off and my heart jumped from my chest to somewhere just below the back of my throat and just above my stomach that was a little slow off the mark. All I remember after that is in flashes, people shouting and starting to run, being determined to hold my ground for as long as possible, staring up at the balconies and waiting for spectators to turn to get an idea of where the pack was on the street, hearing the steers’ bells and the noise around me getting louder. Then I was running and as I looked over to my left I could see two of the bulls coming past me just a couple of metres away. What I remember most clearly at that point is watching the bulls go past. One a golden-brown and the other a deep, glossy black, their heads bobbing up and down with their stride, and I couldn’t hear them. The only noise I was aware of was my panting as I ran, trying to keep up as long as I could without getting sucked into the crowd behind me. Then they were past me and I was concentrating on getting to the arena.
The rest of my run was uneventful apart from a slight panic just as I got to the tunnel leading into the arena when the sweeper steers came through and I thought they were a tardy bull but then I was on the sand and I realised I’d made it, I’d survived my first bull run! The rush that came from knowing I’d done it was incredible, I found someone I’d been speaking to in the square and we jumped around hanging on to each other screaming and laughing. It was a primal thing, the relief of having survived the chase had made cavemen of us and I loved it.
I’d decided I wanted to make it into the arena at the end of the course to join in what happened directly after the run. Once the bulls have been shepherded into their pen and the arena floor has filled with people, young fighting cows are released one at a time for around 10 minutes each. They are small compared to the beasts that run through the streets and their horns are corked but they have the same aggression as their older brothers as they charge through the crowds and I’d been told being part of this would be good fun. Right then I felt invincible and running around the arena with the vaqs seemed simple. Because of their smaller size it was impossible to see where they were, the only indication you get about their location is the pattern of the crowd. At one point I lost one completely until the crowd parted in front of me and I was face to face with it charging towards me. I jumped out of the way with others around me and heard the crowd in the arena cheer. It was the icing on the cake. I was, for want of a better phrase, hooked.
The buzz of Pamplona is not just the danger and the survival of the run, it is the fiesta itself. For a few days all reality is suspended. There is music, dancing, wine, friends and fireworks, brandy at half past eight in the morning, and I fell in love with it all, even the smell of piss. So now I go back with the intention of becoming a better runner. I have learnt from Gus, Bill and others and I want to build on my runs from previous years. The last run I did last year felt last slow to me and when I remarked on this to others afterwards they answered with a grin, “That means you’re running without panic.” which felt pretty good to me. Even more so when I found out that run had been the fastest of that fiesta so far. Now I can take more notice of what is going on around me in the street and enjoy it on a higher level than sheer adrenaline. Will I ever reach the levels of those I look up to? I don’t know, but I’m looking forward to the adventure I’ll have trying to.