Every year on the 6th of July, the festival of San Fermin starts in the small northern Spanish town of Pamplona. Popularised by Ernest Hemingway in his novel the “Sun Also Rises”, it is a week of drinking in the streets until midnight and most famously for the “encierro” or bull run that takes place every morning through its tightly cobbled streets.
I am a man who is naturally risk averse. An almost late tax return amounts to my brushes with danger for this year. However, at the age of 26, I had become obsessed with the thought of running with the bulls in Pamplona. The negative points against it were undeniable. It was unethical, letting distressed wild bulls run through the narrow streets of a Spanish town drunk on sangria and undoubtedly dangerous for the runners who were powerless the will of wild animals.
Yet, I remained desperate to do it, for reasons I am still finding difficult to articulate. Perhaps it is easier to justify foolish actions to yourself when you are 26 and your greatest responsibility is making sure there is enough beer in the fridge and you haven’t exhausted your overdraft too heavily. For once in my life, I wanted to take a risk. I persuaded my long suffering flatmate Michael from Sligo to come with me, and we boarded our Easyjet flight to Bilbao with hoards of American and Australian thrill seekers swapping stories about the worst goring they had seen on youtube the night before.
Pamplona is an unremarkable Spanish town. It is a reasonably sleepy place, with well kept buildings and friendly townsfolk. However, when San Fermin descends, it is transformed. Imagine the regular Ibiza crowd taking the wrong ferry and intending up in Portaferry and you will get some idea. Everyone, from the town drunk to tiny toddlers are dressed in white outfits with the ubiquitous red scarf or “panuelos”.
I had taken the liberty of buying our panuelos in a souvenir shop in Bilbao the day before. Using my rusty A Level Spanish the kindly Granny in the shop pointed me towards ones with a green and white design that looked becoming. It was only when we wore the scarves and were told by some haughty southern Spaniards lining the streets that we were promoting Basque separatism indadvertedly in a town that was a former stronghold of Franco’s government. An easy mistake to make.
The drinking and the dancing started in the streets from midday. Music was pumped from every shop, whether that was a drapery or a doner kebab stand. Traditional wine skins holding rough red wine were passed by locals to foreigners and back again. White shirts were stained purple by cheap sangria. A parade of giant figures that represent regal figures from all over the world danced through the streets to the sounds of traditional Basque music as the hours drifted rapidly.
We had resolved that if we were going to do the bull run, we were going to be sensible. The hostels in Bilbao were filled of horror stories of drunken runners getting trampled and gored by bulls. Conversations between bunk beds were largely concerned of stories of brutal injuries, some concocted and some undoubtedly real. We stopped drinking at 3am and joined the hoards of people sleeping in a field by the bus station. The jet of bitter red wine that a beautiful Basque girl had sprayed down my mouth was still warm in my belly when I fell gratefully asleep in the warm air, filled with excitement.
We woke up suddenly, freezing and disorientated barely an hour later. We were stone cold sober and dressed in only our thin t shirts and shorts as cold air blew through the field. To stay warm we walked the course for the run through the old town. The streets were emptying rapidly with people eager for their warm beds who could watch the bull run from the comfort of their balconies.
Rain had started to fall lightly on the town’s cobbles making them slippery when we reached the end of the course, and stumbled past the bull pen. In the dark, I peeped over the wall and saw the bulls. There were six of them, almost docile, quietly grazing with little idea of the madness that was going to happen a few hours later for all of us. They didn’t want any part of it, and by that stage neither did we.
We both sat for four hours behind the barricades in a mental wrench. Worst case scenarios were playing both of our heads. A bad injury was a realistic possibility, for what? A test of manhood that was now looking idiotic. Terrified animals with horns were about to sprint through slippery streets disorientated by masses of runners. Neither of us said anything. Both of us were secretly wishing the other would call quits on the whole operation, but neither of us did. Michael sat quietly taping his glasses to his forehead, and sat hugging my knees against my chest feeling guilty for persuading him to come with me.
The sun creeped up slowly, and the police ushered us into an area for the runners, there was to be no escape now even if we wanted to. Thousands of spectators lined the streets and balconies, looking at us curiously. We both knew a good goring would make their day, they hadn’t come to see a community fun run. The Spanish runners remained cool and calm, many of them were regulars. The man beside us calmly read the newspaper’s sport section that was to act as his sole defence against a bull’s horns in a matter of minutes. He caught me starring at him. “Que pasa?” he asked. “Some advice would be great,” I stuttered. “Vale, ok, keep your eyes open at all times, this thing will be like a tsunami, do you know what that is?” We nodded. “I have done this run ten times, and it’s violent, extremely dangerous and crazy. If you get hit by the bull for god sake stay down and protect your head. Just stay down ok?” He hadn’t reassured us.
All the runners turned in one motion towards the statue of San Fermin and prayed for protection chanting the words loudly. The town reverberated with noise. I am a Protestant from east Belfast, but I crossed myself twice with the others, I needed all the help I could get. Michael and I had decided to separate from the outset. But it turned out we weren’t that brave, we couldn’t help sticking together. We wished each other luck and bounced on our toes trying to sense when the bulls were coming.
The first rocket went off, the crowd howled and whooped and the stampede surged through the streets. I looked wildly at Michael. Should we stay or should we go? We went. The second rocket went off and we knew the bulls were soon going to be at our heels. I was sprinting at full pace sidestepping Spaniards who wanted to touch the bulls. As we hit the town square Michael grabbed me and we were bundled into a crash barrier followed by hundreds of people.
We heard the clatter of hooves on cobbles in a steady rhythm growing louder and louder. Eight huge bulls steamed past us, a huge locomotive with horns powering through the streets blissfully staying in a steady formation, thankfully the bulls weren’t disorientated just yet. We pushed away from the crowd and followed the bulls at pace, joining the massed frenzy of people running behind willingly caught up completely in the madness with our hearts beating faster. A huge mental barrier was erected in the streets to stop a crush of people, slamming into us. We got past quickly, leaping over it and the policemen below and kept running.
A few more bulls ran past us, but they had little intention to cause harm and were slow and docile, and wanted to get out of the run as quickly as we did. We ran together at a steady pace, constantly checking behind us and slaloming through the crush of people on the cobbled streets. The ecstasy of near safety proving incredible. We reached the bull ring and it was over in an instant. Strangers hugged us from all over the world. An Irish flag was put on our shoulders and we had our photograph taken. A little over 800 metres and it was over. We hugged each other deliriously, it felt great to be alive at that moment. A television journalist put his microphone over the barrier and started asking me questions in Spanish. I found myself unable to steady my shaking hands as I stuttered in Spanish that I would never do it again.
The television highlights were played out in cafes throughout the town. It had been a good run by local approximations. Runners young and old of every nationality played out their run to anyone who would bother to listen. Regular local runners called “los divinos” recalled their acts of heroism to their long suffering wives and girlfriends over double espressos. The newspapers were already waiting outside the hospital to interview the injured runners for the evening edition of the local newspaper.
Michael and I knew we had been lucky to get out with no injuries. Reports later that day confirmed that a Japanese man had been gored and the horn had nearly missed his neck, dragging him around the bullring like a toy. We had tickets for the bull fight that evening where the bulls that had run that morning would meet their death in the early evening sun. We sold them at the arena. We were physically and mentally drained. We slept the whole way back to our hostel, dreaming deeply of what might have been.