It was ten minutes before eight when the line of policemen parted to the sides and freed the sea of people, dressed from head to toe in red and white, which allowed the crowd to dissolve into their own individual droplets down the narrow cobblestone street in Pampolona, Spain.
As I took that first step, my ears started burning and I felt my heart quicken. I wasn’t sure if this was caused by the Red Bull I chugged a moment earlier, or the fact that in ten minutes, real bulls would be charging up the road on which I was walking.
Relief swept over me as the crowd pushed me past “Dead Man’s Corner” and into the straight stretch of the running. I might be stupid enough to run with the bulls, but I’m also sane enough to stay away from any place named for the number of people who have died there.
After the corner I looked up to see hundreds of people smashed onto their tiny little balconies that lined the narrow road. They greeted us with cheers and applause that echoed down the street. These are the moments you remember when traveling. As the crowd sent up cheers to wish us well, my lips curved and pride welled up inside of me. From this moment on, I’ll forever be a part of this ancient tradition. In that moment, we were their heroes. Why shouldn’t we be? We were about to run with the bulls.
After running about 30 feet, I stopped in front of a small shop that had boarded its front doors with a metal gate to stop the Bulls, or the runners from diving through the it in order to save himself. This looked like as good a place as any to die.
Without a clock, you lose all sense of time. The bulls would be released any minute, but any minute was taking its sweet time getting here.
I quickly glanced at the two guys in front of me. Just an hour ago they were strangers, but now they were the only familiar faces in the crowd. It was good to have reassurance that I wasn’t here alone.
The minutes dragged on, and just when I thought that the bulls might have decided to take the day off everyone’s fist flew up as they repeatedly chanted.
“A San Fermín pedimos, por ser nuestro patrón, nos guíe en el encierro dándonos su bendición” (We ask San Fermin, to be our patron, and, guide us in the running of the bulls by giving us his blessing)
Just as the last singing finished the explosion of a rocket echoed down the street.
My pupils dilated with the sound of the rocket, my body numb from the rush of adrenaline. Silence was over the crowd from a split second as we knew that 12 massive bulls were racing towards us.
Then all hell broke loose.
I stood there waiting, my whole body pulsating. On all sides, people rushed past me, running faster than they ever had in their lives, their red sashes trailing behind them.
I couldn’t see any bulls in the madness, but from the way was crowd was parting to the sides I knew they were close. The sound of cow bells rang in the distance and the ground begin to shake. Through the crowd, I spotted a set of horns and that was my cue to run.
I ran through the chaos of people pushing, shoving, and climbing over one another to get out of the way. I sprinted up the hill towards the arena, sidestepping trash and people while I tried to keep an eye on the bulls. Two people slipped, I jumped over them as they slammed the ground. I crashed into someone as I landed; we both staggered, but luckily we didn’t fall.
In just a few seconds, the bulls overtook me. Quickly I dove into a storefront doorway. I watched as four bulls, large enough to look like they should be in a cartoon, pass and demolish everything in their path. As soon as the bulls passed, I bolted after them. I had to make it to the arena before the last bull entered and they closed the gate.
Soon the bulls were far ahead and I could see the guards closing the gate on the street.
Everyone slowed to a crawl as we approached the gate. I scratched my head. “Aren’t their supposed 12 bulls?” I wondered.
Then I heard the sound of cow bells growing louder behind me. Suddenly, the guards swung the gate wide. “More bulls”, someone shouted, panic gripping his voice.
I turned. Horns and hooves filled my vision. I sprinted past the gate. The group of bulls closed the gap behind me and for a few seconds I was literally running with the bulls.
Surprisingly, with all the emotions surging through my body, fear wasn’t one of them. I smiled as I swerved left and right making sure not to land on anything that would make me fall. I had chosen to play this dangerous game, now I had to see it to the end.
When there are six pissed off bulls chasing you all your first world problems fade away. Your body is reduced to its oldest and simplest emotions, the desire to live. I had no stress in the world, not one worry, and for that briefest moment I felt pure freedom.
The bulls were now passing on my left. If I let them get too far ahead of me, I would never make it to the arena.
We were on the homestretch, and a group of us stuck close enough to the bulls that we had a chance to make it.
“It’s still open”, another person shouted.
Everyone sprinted forward. For the rest of my life, I’ll remember the moment my feet switched from the cobblestone of street to the sand of the arena.
I looked up, every seat was full, as thousands of people cheered and chanted, welcoming those of us that had just arrived. Everyone waved to the crowd.
During the run, it is every man for himself, but inside the arena you feel as if you are with brothers. Complete strangers embrace, grateful to be alive. We had run with the bulls and we had made it to the arena.
Standing in the middle of the arena to the cheering crowd, I felt what I imagine victorious gladiators felt.
However, our battle was only half over!
Once the final bulls passed through the arena and into their coral, the doors locked and suddenly they releases five little bulls, one at a time, into the crowd. Now I don’t want you to get confused by the term “little bulls.” They are chest high but considered “small” because the “big bulls” are taller than a grown man.
The day before, I witnessed a bull charging a man. The guy jumped out of the way just in the nick of time, causing the bull to hit the arena wall with such a force that it broke its neck and died. These “small bulls” aren’t playing around.
Once the small bulls are released into the crowd, there are only two rules to live by. Rule one: Touch the side of the bull without it demolishing you. Rule two: Never ever disrespect the bulls.
Out of nowhere, the first bull charged through the doorway into the crowd. Its curved horns bent low as it parted the sea of people taking cover. It knocked over three people without stopping. Then I felt something I didn’t expect — fear.
Something about being in an enclosed space, with only a small wall to hide behind, struck the very core of me. “I like the way my face looks now. I don’t need a bull to give me reconstructive surgery”, I thought. “I can’t go out there.”
I jumped over the small wall and turned back just in time to see a bull flip a grown man in the air as if he was tossing a coin, then without losing a beat, the bull started charging toward his next victim.
Ten minutes later, they switched to a fresh bull. I still stood behind the wall and watched as one, two, and three bulls passed by me. Some people touched the bull, and the crowd went crazy after one guy, who obviously had a death wish, flipped over one. For the most part, the bulls were tearing through the runners like they were rag dolls.
It was my goal to touch a bull while in the arena, but my legs were jelly. Then, my friends, I’m ashamed to say, that I had an awful thought: “No one here knows you. You can just write that you ran into the arena, touched a bull, and became a Spanish hero. No one will ever know the difference”.
Yes, for a brief moment, that was my thought and I can honestly say I’m not proud of this!
Thankfully, I had another thought that counteracted my previous one — a thought so powerful that before I realized what I was doing, I had jumped over the fence and start walking towards the bulls.
“I would know”, I thought, “and for the rest of my life – which may only be a couple minutes, I’d know that when this moment arose, I watched it passed me by”.
That single thought filled my body with a new confidence. I walked towards the bull and as I did I saw an overzealous tourist, grab the bull around the neck, and tried to drag him to the ground. Within seconds, a group of locals parted the crowd, rushed forward to pull the guy off the bull and onto the ground. They started giving him the beat down of his life. The stadium filled with the chant, “pollo… pollo… pollo” (“chicken” in Spanish).
These animals are practical sacred to the locals. That is why you always follow rule number 2, respect the bull, and if you don’t, the locals will disrespect you.
Before I knew it, I was in front of the bull as he charged back and forth across the crowd. Within seconds, he turned, noticed me, and began to charge. I dodged while trying to touch his dark sweaty side; we both missed our target. He promptly found saw someone else and charged off to the other side of the arena.
I knew there was little time left. If I was going to succeed at touching a bull, I had to do it now. I worked my way to the front of the crowd and noticed that all the bulls were focused on other people. This was my chance. I bolted and heard the crowd roar as I firmly touched his side and then quickly ran away. This spurred the bull to the other side of the arena leaving me in the clear.
A few minutes later they corralled the bulls out, and again the crowd went crazy.
The Running of the Bulls was over.
I did it!
Everything I had wanted from the running of the bulls.
I ran, made it the arena, and touched the bull.