Running with the Bulls—Trying to Understand the Culture

A poster from Pamplona, Spain

A poster from Pamplona, Spain

The small town of Pamplona, Spain is famous for its annual Fiesta de San Fermin, better known as the “Running with the Bulls” festival. Ernest Hemingway first brought international attention to Pamplona and the running of the bulls festival in his book “The Sun Also Rises.”   The plot of the book is not about the festival itself but he does describe it in great detail. Since I was in the neighborhood (nearby France) during the week long festival I decided to take time and spend a few days observing it and see if fiction fit with fact.  I stayed in the nearby town of Puente la Reina, close enough to check out the action but far enough away to have some peace and quiet. The following describes my own experience at the festival—what I saw, what I felt and, maybe, what can be concluded in a broader cultural sense or not.

Before going any further I should address why the hell should anyone spend their time here at all?  Isn’t this “Running of the Bulls” just another archaic, macho ritual that is better forgotten and not given the national and international attention it gets every year.  Why should anyone want to participate in both a dangerous and childish torturing of these “poor animals?”  Personally, I don’t have any good answers to such questions but only what I will say are “good feelings”. It is a bit of culture that I do not really understand, any more than I understand the culture behind bull fighting but which I have watched and saw the joy and enthusiasm of the “aficionados” of that “sport.”  Suffice it to say that same joy and celebration by the tens of thousands that participate in the festival each year is noteworthy in its own right and those of us who are not from that culture should not caste aspirations too readily unless we are prepared to defend such sacred holidays as Thanksgiving (the slaughter of millions of turkeys each year) or rodeos where we ride the bulls and then some, bulldog steers, etc.  It is what it is and I went there to see what all the hoopla was all about.  I will also note the advantage is all to the bulls, at least as it relates to the running down the narrow, closed streets—no one has any weapons or swords and no one is looking to harm them in any way.  They run from one end of the raceway to the other (about three kilometers) which is packed with upwards of five thousand people and are given the very real opportunity to get some payback for what will happen in the bullring latter in the day.  They have very sharp horns and weight close to a ton each, running in a very close and confined space.  Advantage all bull!

 In coming to Pamplona I was fully committed to simply observe the event.  I would never consider actually running with the bulls, an insane idea for someone nearing seventy!  At my hotel manager’s advice I got up at 5:30 am in order to get to Pamplona in time to get a “good” spot to see the start of the bull run which occurs every morning at 8 am during the festival.  It was o-dark-hundred at that hour, no traffic and I found my way into town fairly easily.  I got as close to the center of old town as I could before parking the car and proceeding by foot. 

 The manager had given me a map and I had plugged in my destination on the iPhone maps app to help me find my way there.  A good thing I did as the old town area of Pamplona is a maze of narrow streets and byways…normally very beautiful but now not so much as these ten days of festival are seen by the youth from the 500 surrounding miles as the annual excuse to let loose and party for ten straight days.  Almost everyone is dressed in white shirts, pants, blouses with red handkerchiefs, belts, etc adorning them.  However, a good number of them are falling down drunk as well and I had to wind my way through the crowds of “survivors” (many had headed home or to nearby parks to sleep or sober up) who were still enjoying the “time of their lives”.  Without too much in graphical description as to where I had to walk (and smell) I finally made it to my appointed destination for a “primo” spot on the “show/.” 

 The place suggested to me was at the very start of the run where I was above the actual street where the bulls would be running and with already hundreds and soon to be thousands of runners getting into position in front of the stampeding bulls.  Unfortunately, everyone else had been given the same advice as I had and the best viewing spots were already one or two people deep and no one looking like they were giving up their spots anytime soon.  My biggest advantage was my height so I was able to get within an arms distance of the railing and would be able to snap a few pictures, assuming someone didn’t jostle me at the wrong moment and make me drop my phone/camera!  With that I had a good hour and a half to wait for the start—with no coffee. Eventually, I got to know the American couple here on their honeymoon, the Venezuelan who taught international economic policy in Columbia and the several American young men (thirties) who were there to check out the run today and then themselves run the next day (“Such foolish young men”, I thought).

 Eventually, the time passed.  The crowds got larger.  The runners stopped pacing (it was too packed for them to even move) and then the opening rituals began.  A series of three “gritas” (shouts) which are actually prayers to protect the runners were made.  At the end of the third shout there was a slight pause, a loud rocket launched at the end of the street to signal the beginning of the run and then the bulls (actually six bulls and four cows) emerged out of the stocks and all pandemonium erupted!  As soon as the rocket went off I started trying to fire my camera (iPhone) with one hand stretched out over the heads of those in front of me at the edge of the railing—trying not too drop the camera and still get a shot of the running bulls and runners.  Within seconds (six tops) the bulls were gone and the crowds above and below were looking to see if anyone was hurt (miraculously, no!).  Shortly afterwards another group of bulls (mansos—tame bulls) ran down the street—they never attack anyone and are there only for show.  Their picture I got.  When I checked my camera I saw I basically got nothing other than the tame bulls!! 

Los Mansos...

Los Mansos…

All that time and energy and nothing!  My new Venezuelan friend was smarter and had his phone on video and so he had the whole thing from start to finish.  Ah well, I thought, I have two more days.

 Having failed to get the appropriate pictures I decided I would return the next day and do better.  I did so…but I didn’t bother getting there so early.  I figured it didn’t matter what time I got there as the real early birds would still be in position ahead of me.  So I arrived about a half hour beforehand, chatted with others waiting, and was heralded as an “expert” by virtue of my having been there the day before.  This time I put the camera on video and I was able to get some good shots of the whole thing, including the last grita, the rocket and the bulls running.  I had succeeded in getting my pictures. I could turn to other matters.

But something else had happened as well… a little thought had crept up into my consciousness—“Why don’t I run with the bulls?”  It kept going through my head.  “Why not?  Just how dangerous was it?”  I saw several guys my age who were there, one for the second day in a row—he was wearing a red Chicago Bulls tee shirt and easily stood out.  All I had to do was step aside as the beasts ran down the street and I was home free and with all the bragging rights!  I also thought—why else am I here?  If I didn’t and I could have I would be kicking myself for the rest of my life.  The seed had been planted and I was committed.

 When I got back to the hotel I asked the manager about running with the bulls.  Do you need to register? No.  Can anyone do it?  Yes, if they are sober and are wearing appropriate clothes (no sandals).  He took me aside got out the map of the run and we discussed strategy.  “Dead man’s corner” known to all, including the tourists, because the street turns sharply to the right and the bulls momentum carry them to the left and any unhappy “runner” who may be trapped there—so stay right.  The different strategies—at the beginning (they are fresher); the middle (the streets are narrower but the bulls are spread out);  and at the end (the bulls are tired and spread out but unpredictable).  I decide to go to his favorite spot, in the middle above  “Dead man’s Corner”.  I already had a red sash I hasd bought the first day.  I would spend another five euros for a red bandana. I had my running shoes and my white running shirt.  I was ready. 

 The next morning I arose early and followed my previous route into town and parked the car.  I got there about an hour and a half ahead of time so I could give myself enough time to find my “spot”, maybe get some coffee (I was no longer protecting a spot, outside looking in—I’m part of the show!).  I missed most of the drunks, the street cleaners were already out cleaning up last night’s party, and I got to spot above “dead man’s corner” I wanted to be.  Everyone was excited and happy and a bit nervous.  I was surprised at the number of women who were running (what would Hemingway have said?), maybe a quarter of the runners.  Also the number of foreigners surprised me—maybe half?  Lots of Americans, Brits and Aussies, along with French and Spaniards were all looking excited and ready to run.  The police began to block off sections of the run…I thought I was in the right spot but suddenly found myself on the wrong side of the barricade—I was now outside!  All of this and miss the run and only 30 minutes to go?!  Me and about 100 other folks (all foreigners) in the same predicament began to run around the block to the back side and up the street where the cops said we could get back in.  The first alley was blocked!  The next jammed!  Finally, we saw a spot where we could climb through the barricade and get back in the race!  Yes!  We could be bull fodder after all!!  Ok, a bit crazy but then it was that kind of moment.

 Because the police had barricaded the inside as well as the outside of the streets we were all pushed up to where the police said no one could go to until just before the start of the race.  Not sure why they did this except to try to spread the runners up and down the streets without having everyone jammed in a single place.  In any event we found ourselves fifteen minutes out jammed together like sardines… making rude jokes and showing maybe false bravado. Five minutes to go the police relaxed the lines and we were able to find our “spots.”  I quickly got around “dead man’s corner” and took up a position suggested by my friendly hotel manager.  “If you’re stationary, its more dangerous” was his last words of advice.  How else was I supposed to get pictures?, I thought.  Because of the noise of the crowd it was impossible to hear the “gritas” but we did hear the rocket blast.  They were coming!  We all looked about anxiously and then we saw the first runners…then more…and then the first bull turned the corner and everyone began to run…in all directions!!  I got pushed to one side (ok, I shoved back as well) but no one had much control.  I started taking pictures as best I could and within seconds the bulls had all passed.  We /I survived.  Soon the mansos followed but it was all over.

The real thing!

The real thing!

As it turned out I got some great shots and no one was hurt anywhere near me.  I read later that a few folks were gored but no one was maimed for life and I’m sure even those few unlucky folks will still point to their scars or bruises with great pride as they embellish their stories of “running with the bulls.”  Was it worth it given the risk? What were we thinking?  What was I thinking?  For me, at least, having spent several days observing and trying to relate to the whole thing it was worth the risk.  My logical engineering side said the probability of getting hurt by one of ten bulls and cows in a crowd of five thousand was rather low—many “targets of opportunity”—few “weapons of mass destruction.”  I can’t say I really understand the cultural side of the whole thing even now—this simply wouldn’t fly in the US or maybe anywhere else, even in Spain, except Pamplona.  But it was exhilarating and now one of my fondest memories of visiting Spain.

 Hemingway is often (and I believe mistakenly) seen as being in favor of the running with the bulls, just as he seemed fascinated with the bull fighting itself and it’s strong macho driven nature. In reality he apparently was somewhat ambivalent about and even against the event, using it only as a backdrop to his plot of fun-loving, ex-pats seeking wild and often drunken misadventures in Europe.  One of his characters in the book even questions the sanity of men trying to prove themselves by putting themselves in such obvious danger:

(the main character talking with a waiter) “Badly cogido,” he said.  “All for sport.  All for pleasure.”…All for fun.  Fun, you understand.”  “You’re not an aficionado?”  “Me?  What are bulls? Animals.  Brute animals.”…”All for morning fun.  Es muy flamenco.”

 Whereas Hemingway saw grace in toreros facing their toros in the bullring (he expanded on this theme in this and other novels), he saw only foolishness in men drinking too much and putting themselves in such perilous danger.  He probably would have found participation by women and foreigners even more distasteful, assaulting the “purity” of the event. But today, it is what it is.

 I didn’t read Hemingway’s book until after my own experience of running with the bulls.  Perhaps, had I done so I would not have been tempted nor succumbed to the  temptation to run.  However, I did and it is an experience that while not giving me a full cultural understanding of what this is all about it did give me a deeper appreciation and sense as to why this is such a singular event for so many.  I ran with the bulls!—Paul Maxwell


Paul's ride

Paul’s ride

Paul Maxwell is on extended sabbatical and periodically reports on his observations across various borders.


3 thoughts on “Running with the Bulls—Trying to Understand the Culture

  1. Ernest Hemingway would laugh at the misspelling of his name. Also your use of the term torredor is incorrect. Bullfighters are toreros. The toreador comes from “Carmen”.

    • Carol, alas I studied engineering and not English or Spanish lit. Thanks for catching my errors. Hopefully, Hemingway would have laughed and then we would have shared a cuba libre or two.

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