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A Death-Defying Guide On How To Survive The Running Of The Bulls

BY JERRY ALONZO LEON

About the Festival:

The Running of the Bulls, known locally as the encierro (from encerrar, to enclose or confine), is an annual race held during the festival of San Fermin (July 6th to July 14th), patron saint of Pamplona and Navarra.  Though the festival has roots dating as far back as the 13th century, it was originally celebrated in October up until 1591, when it was moved to July to coincide with more clement weather.  Perhaps most famously popularized by Ernest Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises, the festival has now become a phenomenon, attracting tens of thousands of people from all over the world to run with the bulls!

1 Plaza del Ayuntamiento

Accommodations:

If you plan on staying in Pamplona during the festival, then you should book a room as early as possible.  This is especially important for the budget traveler as hostels can fill up quickly.  Many recommend booking six months to a year in advance.  My room, booked just three months in advance, cost 90 euros (about $125 USD) a night!

Some popular alternatives include staying in the coastal city of San Sebastian, where, for eight euros, buses travel to and from Pamplona in a little over an hour.  Overnight trains and buses to the city are also available.  Many travelers also choose to go without accommodations and spend their nights outside, whether in the city square or park.

Before the run:

The chupinazo, or opening ceremonies, begins at 12 noon on July 6th, where the mayor, from the balcony of the Casa Consistorial, asks everyone to don their handkerchiefs and formally announces the start of the fiesta!  At 11pm, an impressive display of fireworks ensues and the city now enters nine full days of non-stop partying!  Live music, dancing, and drinking will be had all night and day, so make sure to pace yourself as the Bull Run is not until 8am.

Spectators who want a good view of the run should arrive early (anytime between 3am-6am is fine) as places by the railings will fill up quickly, especially by the Cuesta de Santa Domingo, where the run begins.  Or, if you’re lucky, someone will invite you to watch from one of many balconies overlooking the run.  And, if all else fails, you can enter the Plaza de Toros early to get a good seat, since this is the bull ring where the race will eventually end at.  Just be sure to buy tickets in advance if you plan to do this.  Many people are season ticket holders, so seating in this 12,500 seat stadium (the third largest bull ring in the world) will be limited.  Also, make sure to dress the part.  You can buy everything you need at any local shop throughout the city.

2 Spectators

The run:

Now, if you want the ultimate view then get ready to run!  This 825 meter (half a mile long) course starts from the Cuesta de Santa Domingo, across the Plaza del Ayuntamiento and straight through c/Mercaderes.  The dangerous curva de Mercaderes hacia Estafeta lies ahead, otherwise known as ‘dead man’s corner’.  Calle Estafeta, the longest stretch of the race (300 meters or 985 feet), heads into another sharp turn known as the curva de Telefónica.  And finally you arrive at the Plaza de Toros.

The bull running occurs every morning at 8am sharp, when a rocket will go off signaling that the gates to the corralillos (corral) have been open.  At this point most people run, not realizing that it is not until the second rocket goes off that the bulls have actually left.  Given the noise and raucous atmosphere in the streets, it can be difficult to hear the initial rocket, especially when you see waves of people rushing past you with no bulls in sight yet.  Now the thrill (and danger, really) of anticipation kicks in as you try to time your run just right to run just ahead or with the bulls, rather than behind them.

First time runners should play it safe and start after ‘dead man’s corner’ (la curva).  There are also guided walks the day before each race so runners have a chance to familiarize themselves with the course.  More experienced runners, or self-proclaimed daredevils, can start anywhere before this point for added thrill.

The real danger is not with the bulls, however, but the hundreds of people racing along with you.  The more densely crowded your starting point is (most people start at the Plaza del Ayuntamiento) the more congested and difficult the run becomes, which can result in pile ups.  Please remember this absolute cardinal rule that if you go down, stay down!  You risk being trampled or injured by other runners, or by the bulls themselves, if you try to get up.  If you fall, cover your head with your arms and lie still.  Also, try to hug the corners and stick to the sides of the streets as the bulls tend to make wide sweeping turns, crashing into corners (e.g. ‘dead man’s corner).

Also, make sure to get as much sleep as possible before the race.  Be careful with taking video or photos inside the course as police are known to confiscate cameras, GoPros, etc.  Do not drink before the race, and if you do, try to limit yourself.  These bulls are fast and you will not be able to outrun them, trust me, so it’s important to stay sober.  Many people, of course, never adhere to these warnings.

And, yes, people have been known to be seriously injured and even killed here—since 1910, fifteen people have died, mostly due to goring.  A multitude of medical personnel (physicians, nurses, volunteers and Red Cross members) are present at all times. When you hear the third rocket, the bulls have now entered the Plaza de Toros and a fourth, final rocket will sound once the bulls enter the bull pen, effectively ending the run.

5 Churreria

Plaza de Toros:

When you enter the bull ring, quickly move to the sides to avoid the bulls and people rushing in.  Once the gates close, baby bulls with shorn off horns, enter to chase the runners around the ring.  They can’t gore you, but they can still pick you up and toss you into the air.  Then the bulls are brought in, and those brave enough can entice them by waving their red handkerchiefs around or running close by as the bulls charge full speed right at them.  Loud cheers and applause is bestowed to anyone able to either touch the bulls and not get hurt, or actually grab their horns and hang on for as long as possible.  Although, it is no secret that the crowd loves to see inexperienced runners tossed helplessly into the air, showcasing their daring wits of reckless abandon; they always seem to get the greatest cheers, of course.

There are multiple wooden barricades located inside the ring along the fence line, providing much needed shelter from a charging bull.  Keep in mind that once inside the ring you don’t have to stay there.  You can simply hop over the fence and into the stands if you wish.   After about an hour or so, the bulls are taken away, until 6:30pm when the bulls are brought back for the evening’s corrida (bullfight).

After the run:

Once the run is over, there is not much to do afterwards but explore the city and continue the party.  After surviving your run with death, why not treat yourself to some of Spain’s best churros y chocolate.  You can also watch live replays of the race on television monitors throughout the streets, at any cantina (bar) or online at sanfermin.com.

At midnight on July 14th, the last day, city patrons and tourists alike come together for a candlelight vigil at the Plaza del Ayuntamiento, to sing the traditional, yet somber notes, of Pobre de Mí.  Handkerchiefs are removed and the mayor wishes for everyone’s safe return next year to the festival.

Whether you can’t wait to do it all over again the next day or looking for the quickest train out of town, I’d say you earned yourself a well-deserved siesta.  So savor those churros, nurse that terrible hangover, and reflect fondly on your death-defying tale, as your friends and loved ones won’t believe that you ran with the bulls and survived!

6 Siesta

Vale!

For more information about the Running of the Bulls and the festival, please visit sanfermin.com and www.bullrunpamplona.com.

Jerry Leon contributor profile

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2 Comments on “A Death-Defying Guide On How To Survive The Running Of The Bulls”

  1. April 27, 2014 at 5:39 am #

    Someday I’m going to make it to one of these… Been telling myself that for years though. Maybe someday. Nice post by the way.

    • Jerry Leon
      April 30, 2014 at 3:45 pm #

      Thanks, I appreciate it. It’s definitely worth the trip. Trust me, you won’t regret it.

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