Saturday, July 9, 2011

El Encierro (aka Running with the Bulls)

Hemingway has been credited with informing the English-speaking world of the San Fermin festival in Pamplona, Spain. And that festival is most famous for the running of the bulls.

"Run with the Bulls" has been #1 on my bucket list for a few years now, so I came to Pamplona and I ran with the bulls.

First, I dressed up like this.

Then I ran in front of these three bulls and three of their friends, and four or five tame steer.

This is where the bulls that I ran in front of were raised.

Isn't he beautiful?

The run starts every day at 8am. Runners must be in place by 7:30. By the time I made my way through the throngs of drunk-out-of-their-minds people it was 7:26. The police at the opening I found were not letting people in anymore. I hadn't come this far to be stopped by cops, so I went back a few yards, pushed my way to the front, jumped over the fence and down into the street.

I had heard that the most dangerous spot for a novice runner to be is the beginning of the course, so I went immediately to the beginning of the course. About 40 yards from where the bulls are being held is the little spot in the wall where they place the little statue/doll of San Fermin. I was right in front of it. At about 7:50 the crowd got quiet and a man sang a beautiful song in Basque, which I'm sure was a dedication or opening of el encierro.

When he finished we all held up our newspapers (used to distract the bulls if necessary and/or measure the distance between you and the bull) and shook them at San Fermin while chanting the song/prayer asking his protection and blessing in the running. The song is sung in Spanish and then immediately afterwards in Basque. I will have it stuck in my head for the rest of my life:

A San Fermín pedimos
por ser nuestro patrón,
nos guíe en el encierro
dándonos su bendición.

Entzun, arren, San Fermin
zu zaitugu patroi,
zuzendu gure oinak
entzierro hontan otoi.


After the first time through, all the women in the crowd and media people went their way. Women don't run the race (which Narda said is because they are too smart) and media people like their cameras. After three or four minutes we sang a second time and then anyone else who didn't feel like staying gets out of the way. Then it was just me and a bunch of other insane guys waiting for the rocket to go off that announces the bulls are leaving the ring.

I'll say it, I was nervous. I could feel it just above my knees. But thankfully it didn't last long. I psyched myself up and made my way down to the wall of police. I have watched videos of the run, so I knew where I could stand/jump around in order to be seen by the camera. It worked. I was about four people from the police line when the bulls came out of the pen.

They're a little ways away, but they move very fast. I stood there as long as I could take it and then turned and ran for my life. The first bend goes a little to the left and has a bit of an incline. There is a sidewalk on each side, which I tried to avoid so that I didn't trip (that would be bad). As you run you can hear the bell on the first steer, and it got closer and closer.

Sprinting while looking over your shoulder is surprisingly easier than I thought it would be. It probably helps that if I hadn't looked back now and again I would be dead. I made it thirty or forty yards before the first bull came up behind me, just over my right shoulder. The wild bulls usually fan out behind the first couple steers, so I knew it was time to merge. I moved left and jumped up on the sidewalk as a few massive black animals went by. As soon as what looked like the last one got up behind me I jumped back into the street and ran alongside it for a second, but they were cruising.

Then the bell got further and further away and it was over. I looked back once or twice, just in case, and then headed back to the opening where I was originally supposed to get in. I was on top of the world. I've had a few adrenaline rushes in my life, but nothing like this. My heart was pounding, I couldn't believe I had actually pulled it off, and I was ready to do it again. I still can't believe that was this morning.

Here's the link to the video of today's Encierro, and I'm in it twice:

You can see me jumping around above the fourth-from-the-left policeman at the beginning. If you pause the video at 10 seconds (clock in the top left of the video, not the video timer) you can see me really well (above that same policeman, a few heads back, white shirt, red scarf, glorious beard).

If you pause it at 32 seconds you can see me jumping back in right by that last bull (top right corner of the screen).

I am insane.


A Mitton said...

1) Love the outfit.

2) I'm taking credit for telling you about the Hemingway reference. You wouldn't have known that without me.

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