Running with the Bulls-Ryan


Written in the summer of 2006

“Nobody ever lives their life all the way up except bull-fighters.”

After a month and a half of smooth sailing my Euro trip finally ran aground.

Having started on the second of June, I had already witnessed the wonders of the World Cup. Thousands of crazy fans and die hard supporters flooded into Germany for what would prove to be the biggest party of my life. I moved on to Prague, and reveled in Kafka's home town. Vienna took my by surprise with its flower garden's and cool mountain waters. I was able to see Vimy Ridge on the way to Paris which was a true Canadian honor. From the beaches of Nice to the nightclubs of Barcelona everything was running well. Next on the hasty itinerary, Pamplona.

The running of the bulls has always been something I had trouble understanding. I remember seeing videos of 600kg bulls penetrating helpless people as they scrambled over the cobblestones of Pamplona. The look of horror in the eyes of both man and bull struck me as incredible. Man united with Bull, the ultimate testosterone beast.

Upon arriving at the San Fermin festival I promptly locked my bag up in one of the train station lockers, not wanting the burden of a 35lb pack to weigh me down. As I exited the station the sky lit up with fireworks. Having missed Canada day, which was a huge blow to my spirits, I was immediately put into a most festive mood. As all the colors of the rainbow showered down on Pamplona I smiled.

Let me describe the San Fermin festival the way I understand it. Basically there is this saint and his name is Fermin. He is the saint of wine and partying, or so I gathered. For seven days the entire city shuts down. Families get dressed up in the traditional costume of the festival; white pants, a white shirt, a red sash and a red bandana is tied around the neck. The next step in the process is the consumption of copious amounts of alcohol, at around noon. Then food stands open up and the smell of fresh meat wafts into the air. Thousands of drunk Spaniards and Basque locals (not to mention the tourists) take to the streets so that by 8pm the bars are packed. The streets get pressure washed about every fifteen minutes to clear the waste that is left by the mass of drunks. Also this washing is done to clear the course for the bulls, who as the clock strikes 8am, are released into their last day on earth. The bulls run a fixed course that has been the same for decades. They finish in a huge arena where, later in the day, they will die at the hands of a matador.

The night was young. The fireworks had just ended and now everyone is really starting to drink. Feeling the need to fit in, I too started to partake in some consumption. Being the thrift backpacker that I am, I had brought my own store of drink to avoid the pricy local beverages.

After about 30 mins I felt right at home. I bought the traditional costume that I mentioned and was the spitting image of any person wishing to run with the bulls. Feeling very social, I started talking to anyone who seemed to be in a good mood. After trying to communicate with several Basque people I finally met some Spaniards who spoke English. Now you would think that any true Spanish person would be proud of the running of the bulls. I expected them to praise my plans to test my manhood on the streets the next morning. To my great surprise they were opposed to it completely! They told me not to do it, flat out. They said the only people who did it were crazy, drunk, or American. Seeing as how I fitted only one of the criteria I was troubled.

Trying to enjoy myself I kept walking through the streets of Pamplona. Every bar was packed. People were everywhere. I kept seeing these wooden fences that looked battered and beat up. Not thinking clearly I wondered what those could be. Suddenly, it dawned on me that these gates where for the bulls. I had entered the course!

Starting off with a steep up hill pitch the course leveled off and started to turn. After about 200m there is a famous 90degree bend which has seen quite a few injuries over the years. After that run it is a sprint to the stadium with about 300m of straight running. The entrance to the stadium is terrifying since there is no where to hide. If you get stuck in the tunnel with the bulls you would be lucky to come out unhurt.

Having done my homework, talked to the locals,  and assumed the proper costume it was time for the mental game. I am told that professional bowlers visualize every bowl they ever take. Prior to picking up there ball they think of the way there fingers fit into the slots. They see the ball curving just right. And then they picture the pins falling down and the large X which flashes on the screen. That is essentially what I pictured only replace the ball with my legs and instead of hitting the pins (bulls) I would be aiming for the gutter.

I had promised myself that I would not sleep. Adrenaline would keep me awake. I even had a Red Bull in case I got really tired. I started to stretch at about 4:30am which is, in hindsight, way too early since the running occurs at 8:00am. After loosening and elongating my muscles I felt relaxed. Seeing a stone wall running next to a quiet road I decided to take a seat and rest for a bit. After a few minutes I made a decision that would prove to be the most important of the night. I chose to lie down. On the rocky wall I rested my head. Only for a minute, I thought as my eyelids grew heavy.  Well, way lead on to way, and soon I was asleep.

I awoke with a start. Oh no, I thought, I’ve over slept! I missed it! But no, a glance at the morning sky told me it was not yet even 7:00am! I was alright. I cursed myself for having slept but I did feel a lot better. I walked towards the start. Then, for no apparent reason I reached down to my money belt (the piece of cloth which contained all my most valuable possessions: passport, eurail pass, money, credit card etc). DISASTER!

My money belt was empty. I shrieked. It could not be. Not possible. I started to run towards my rocky bed receiving a few sarcastic remarks about the bulls being the other way. Reaching my bed I looked about for anything that might be mine. Alas, I soon realized I had been robbed. Completely swindled. And the thing that gets me and still gets me now is how it happened. For the thief to have robbed me he would have had to come very close to sexual assault. To reach into my white pants and unzip the belt would be to molest. And the thing that is worse is that I felt nothing. Perhaps it was the drink I had consumed. Or perhaps it was the stealthy fingers of San Fermin himself. Sent to earth to prevent me from running with the bulls. I was now a nobody. No train pass, no money, and worst of all no identity. I lost my dignity on that early morning. And the motif for the rest of the day was that of bull shit.

After begging my way onto the bus, I made it to the police station. I watched, on the verge of tears, as the bulls were released from there pens. Thousands of runners dashed madly down the streets as the bulls tore past. All this I saw in a Spanish police station where no one spoke English.

Let me say that the rest of the day was spent in a blur of hunger, shame and anger. Hunger, due to a lack of food. Shame, due to my having been molobbed(a cross between robbed and molested) and anger at Pamplona for the injustice.

But things were not over in that place just yet.

Having no money I could not leave the city. An ironic twist was put on my situation. Having no other place to go I had to sleep another night in the parks of Pamplona. It was easily one of the roughest sleeps of my life. Using a two liter pop bottle as my pillow and tucking my freezing arms into my filthy t shirt I sunk into a restless slumber.I awoke early, perhaps 4:00am. I felt a sudden rush of energy in my veins and heart. My groggy eyes lit up and I shouted: “Not on my watch San Fermin! ”No sir, I would run with the bulls. I didn’t care that I lacked identification. I did not need money, or a credit card to do something so basic to man kind.I walked the course again, with new interest in every part of the run. Having the benefit of the previous day on my side I knew where to be and where to avoid.

At about 7:00am I took up my spot just before the 90 degree turn. My greasy hair shone in mornings first light. My stomach growled like a wild beast about to sink its teeth into a baby lamb. My hands shook with the adrenaline and cold air. I talked nervously to Americans, Scots and Englishmen. We were all virgins that fine morning. We were all waiting for the truest test of manhood.

At 8:00am the first cannon went off. This signaled to release of the bulls. I started at a slow pace, just wanting to clear the dangerous turn. I took up my position about 50m away in hopes of seeing the taurus smash into the brick sidewall. I looked into the sky as the second canon blasted, signaling that all the bulls were on course, and said a little prayer. Tense, I waited. Suddenly they appeared out of nowhere. People increased there speed ten fold. I saw the first horns appear and I was off. Fight or flight took in and I have a vague recollection of the next 20 seconds. It took very little time for the bulls to meet me. I will always remember looking to my left as I ran for dear life. The lead bull glanced over at me. His eyes were full of fear and anger. He was scared, just like me. But we shared a moment there on the cobblestones and I will swear until the day I die that he mouthed out the words ' you da man' as he blew past me.The other bulls tore past and I gasped as I realized I had done it.I made it into the stadium soon after. The bulls were in their pens and the runners united in pride. No one had been hurt, only a few minor scratches. A very successful run all in all.

Things worked out for me in the end. I got an emergency passport, managed to beg my way to Barcelona, and eventually got some cash to fill my belly with food.

But at the end of the day, that loss of my things made the whole experience even greater. Running with the bulls seemed somehow more appropriate with nothing of value on me.

The sun will come up tomorrow, as Annie always said. And that is what happened to me in Pamplona.

Postscript: This story was written shortly after the events that were just described in the summer of 2006. Since then I have come to realise my mistakes but I still smile at the sense of adventure I had then. For anyone hoping to run with the bulls I would recommend getting accommodation lined up before you go. While it is true that there are real dangers associated with the running of the bulls I believe the risk is worth it. Recommended read: Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.

-Adventurer Ryan