To run or not to run, that is the question. Urban Travel Blog editor Duncan Rhodes reports from Los Sanfermines – aka The Running of the Bulls – in Pamplona Spain.

When I set off a fortnight ago for the San Fermin festival in Pamplona, with its infamous running of the bulls ritual, I had absolutely no intention of joining the deadly daily footrace with the horned beasts. Maybe it was the excitement of the fiesta, possibly it was the alcohol, or maybe it was manly pride after two friends of mine took their chances – and survived, but by my second day in the city I began to be swayed.

“It’s not dangerous at all. I didn’t even see a bull until I was in the stadium,” one friend nonchalantly assured me.

“It’s not dangerous at all. I didn’t even see a bull until I was in the stadium,” one friend nonchalantly assured me.

Stocking up on sangria

For those who are unfamiliar with the specifics, the controversial ritual involves the release of 6 fighting bulls, plus 9 steers from the Santa Domingo corral, which then run at full pelt down an 826m stretch of streets into the Pamplona arena on the other side of town. At 8am every morning, from the 7th to 14th July each year, a firecracker announces the release of the herd and a melee ensues as man and beast run pell-mell together towards the bull ring. Later, in the same arena, the bulls will be put to the sword by sharply-suited matadors in traditional Spanish bull fights; but during the chaotic few minutes of the early morning Death’s sickle hovers over man alone, and 25 have been killed since 1925 – the last in 2009 – whilst hundreds are injured every year, albeit more from falling over or being trampled on/crushed than by actual gorings.

…the controversial ritual involves the release of 6 fighting bulls, plus 9 steers from the Santa Domingo corral, which then run at full pelt down an 826m stretch of streets into the Pamplona arena on the other side of town.

One of the things of course that makes the event so dangerous is that it takes place at the end of a marathon all-night (and often all-day) drinking session. The entire town, swollen by hundreds of thousands from elsewhere in Spain and abroad – all dressed in traditional white garments with red sash and handkerchief – is consumed by a party atmosphere day and night. Most waste little time in between recovering from the night before and hitting the booze again (the drink of choice being Calimocho, red wine mixed with Coca Cola) and revellers typically continue until 5 or 6am when the bars and clubs close and the jostling for position starts for the running of the bulls itself. The prudent clamber on top of the safety gates or pay locals for a spot on their balconies for a prime view of the stampede, whilst the brave/stupid/drunk gather on the actual route and endure a nerve jangling hour or two waiting for the 8am firecracker.

Bystander’s view of the final stretch

After enduring a cold 90 minutes peering through the gap in a fence on Friday night for what turned out to be a rubbish view of little more than a rush of bodies and a horn-topped blur of brown hide – and then listening to my friends’ caws about how easy the run had been – I was determined to experience the ritual first hand on Saturday. I was confident that, being fleet of foot, I could avoid any real danger and gleefully update my Facebook status from somewhere other than a hospital bed. However as I walked backwards, with three determined friends, from the arena side of the route right to the start line I soon began to have serious misgivings.

I was confident that, being fleet of foot, I could avoid any real danger and gleefully update my Facebook status from somewhere other than a hospital bed.

The relatively open space at the end of the course (where I had watched the night before) comes at the end of a long and narrow snaking route which offers almost nothing in the way of cover except for an odd doorway and indented shop front… and even at 6.30am people were preemptively taking cover in these shallow, and unreassuring, havens. The gates that block off each of the street junctions are just about scaleable, but I knew that these would be packed with eager onlookers, making an emergency exit over the top nigh on impossible. What’s more it had rained that night and the cobbles of Pamplona were discomfortingly slippery. I started to imagine plausible scenarios, such as losing my footing at the wrong moment, a drunkard losing their footing and pushing me into the path of an onrushing bull, or even a bull losing its footing and crushing me with its vast bulk as it skidded into a shop facade.

Relaxed atmosphere before the run

What I was gambling on was a nice controlled footrace, where I would enjoy a comfortable headstart but, as the numbers of people gathering on the track increased, I realised I was just going to be part of a random mass of white trousers and red sashes hoping that the bulls chose someone else to butt as they ploughed through at 25 kmph.

“Just remember to stay down if you fall over and you’ll be all right,” an experienced runner from England told me. “Better to be trampled than gored.”

Equally unhelpful was the advice “whatever you do, don’t get caught at Dead Man’s Corner when the bulls run by.”

Not exactly the reassuring words I was looking for at 7.15 in the morning, with my life on the line. Equally unhelpful was the advice “whatever you do, don’t get caught at Dead Man’s Corner when the bulls run by.” Possibly through raw fear, or possibly thanks to the equally raw roadside bacon burger I had inadvisedly snacked on an hour earlier, I felt the urgent need to throw up. I also felt a pressing need to be away from the madness. There was a general air of calm and normality on the start line that was completely, and insanely, at odds with the risks. A young Australian girl, who looked far from athletic, started joking with me, but I wasn’t in the mood. This is plain fucking stupid, I thought. Hugging each of my friends in turn, I wished them luck and then breathed a huge sigh of relief as I stepped between the wooden gates and off the course. (Complete relief came 30 mins later when I regurgitated the aforementioned burger in the bus station toilets).

The party on the street lasts all night…

The resulting calm and well-being of eliminating a potentially deadly, and completely unnecessary risk, from my immediate future was of course strongly laced with regret. Regret that I’d missed out on a rare experience, regret that I couldn’t share the camaraderie of having run with my friends, and regret – perhaps most of all – that my stories from Pamplona could never be as good as those who’d experienced their three minute dice with death. The stupid idiots.

The resulting calm and well-being of eliminating a potentially deadly, and completely unnecessary risk, from my immediate future was of course strongly laced with regret.

On the bus back to Barcelona I ran into my only other friend who hadn’t run. He was not phased about missing out, wheeling out a quote by David Foster Wallace to make his point: “I think the world divides neatly into those excited by the managed induction of terror and those who are not. I do not find terror exciting. I find it terrifying.”

…although some may need to take a break

The six hour journey back to BCN certainly gave me plenty of time to think about the relationship the human race has between excitement and fear, and the different way people feel it. Some undoubtedly are addicted to the risks of high adrenaline pursuits such as free-falling, cliff diving, or off-piste skiing. Others, like myself – whose imaginations won’t allow them to disregard the consequences of what could go wrong – are likely to shy away from such leg-breaking activities, but almost certainly engage danger in more subtle forms, such as gambling with money, emotions or life decisions. It might sound like a Point Break-style cliché but without at least some danger, some risks, life really would be incredibly boring.

As today’s society becomes increasingly health and safety obsessed it would have been a high-thrills kick in the teeth to common sense and the mundane to have taken part in the running of the bulls… but it could have easily been a horn in the ribs as well. The quandary is you can’t do one, without risking the other.

Feature photo by Abir Anwar

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