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7/20/01 – That’s A Lotta Bull

Pomplona is a lotta fun in the dark.

Lemme start over.  I careened from Tangiers directly to Pomplona over the course of a day, arriving in the evening.  On the train, I hooked up with three other Americans, Brett, Phil and Vinnie.

Brett is ex-military and is partying his way across Europe.  Phil and Vin are just a couple of young backpackers, from Chicago but living in South Carolina.  In the end, we all had something in common with someone else, mostly a city or musical preference.

Brett and I latched onto Phil and Vin as they knew two girls who had spent the night in Pomplona already. Arriving in the city is a sight, the train is met by white and red clad hawkers offering rooms for rent or outfits for sale.  In the end, you usually end up buying something from a roadside stall.

Kate and Fran ushered us onto the #9 bus into the city center.  This was the start of, for me, a 48 hour party.  Even on the bus, people were guzzling a 50/50 wine/coke concoction that literally churned my stomach.  By guzzling I mean by the 7 liter jug.

The streets of Pomplona are always alive during San Fermin.  The festival writhes and seethes like an animal, at times feral and at others restrained. During the night, and I mean for the entire night, legions of white and red clad revelers wander the tiny alleys surrounding the arena.

Right off the bat it was agreed that finding a bed would be impossible and the best way to be ready for the Running would be to stay up all night.  As dubious as that wisdom is, we dumped everything but our silly costumes and money at a central bag check.

The Running of the Bulls starts at 8:00AM, but the path is fenced in by 7 and the best seats are gone by 6.  Naturally, all four of us being the manliest of men, we had elected to run.

Having friends, and after that night (and more importantly, morning) I consider all three to be my friends, with you before the Run is enormously helpful.  They help shame you into staying on the street and they share your terror and absolute disbelief that you'd do something so patently insane.

Again, I'm getting ahead of myself.

I don't think I can impress on you the nature of the street party.  It's like Mardi Gras and Carnival with a Spanish twist. You will be dressed in the all white costume, a red kerchief or sash around the neck or waist.  You will swill awful wine and you will gawk at the buskers who batter drums and spin fire and you will try to hammer a nail and win another wine and coke combo.  You just will.  It's a compulsion known only to those celebrating something late into the night.

Anyway, one thing I thought was kinda cool was a tiny French Raver girl was teaching one of the buskers how to perform tricks with his flails.  I tipped her instead.

Needless to say, somethings are pretty gross.  Public urination is at an all time high.  Some people get a little bit friendly, others more so.  But this just adds to the flavor, rather than seeming seedy.

So, by the time Vinnie was thoroughly stoned and we were all quite sick of hearing “It's Raining Men”, a Spanish language “Blue's Brothers Medley” and something I think was “My Heart Will Go On” we headed to the start of the Run.

Pomplona is a pretty city and watching the sun rise is a sight wherever you are.  But needless to say, when you anticipate thousands of pounds of angry steer to come stampeding toward you, some things seem just that much sweeter.

Anyway, we took to talking strategy with some of those who were more experienced and one thing was certain. You might arrive with friends, you might wait with friends, but when you run.  You run alone.

Anyway, the way the Run works is the six bulls used during the bull fight are sent down the lane.  This was the third or fourth night and they add steer every morning.  The steer act as a herd to keep the bulls headed in the right direction.

Oh, did I mention this has been the most brutal San Fermin yet?  Musta slipped my mind.

So the Run is mostly up-hill, (a gentle grade, but still) there are two major turns with a gate at the second. (first left, then right)  The gate closes after the bulls pass to give time for the alley to clear.  Then, after 30 seconds four steer are let go to catch any bull that's lagging behind.

Let me assure you of something, if you go to San Fermin and don't run, you might get the feeling that you're less than a man.  That somehow, you don't measure up.

Well that's absolutely true.

Anyway.  The wait for the first rocket, a 30 second warning, is one of the most agonizing periods of my life.  Time dilates and you seem to be moving and thinking faster than light.  Every single doubt that can passes through you mind and the giant, 15′ fences look as appetizing as… well, not prime rib because that's what's about to trample you to death.

People start moving already.  Some are too close to the start for their nerves to handle.  We were about two hundred yards up.  The entire lane is only 800 meters, which is a very long way to run.

The second rocket is the release of the bulls and already people are crowding forward.  Then, in the distance you see a crest of people and an empty space beyond. That's them.

The next few seconds never really happen.  You end up in a different spot and the gate is closed.

Seriously, the bulls are moving 30mph and the fastest runner will be close to them for only a matter of seconds.

In truth, the Run isn't dangerous.  There isn't time for danger as the bulls and steer pass you like a semi.  While they're there, sure, threat.  But the only people gored or trampled are those in the middle of the street, smacking the bulls in the face or shoved by another runner.

And there's the rub.  The biggest pain, the biggest danger, the biggest issue is other runners.  There's a lot of them.  All moving in the same direction, at the same time, at different speeds and with different courses.

See, the point is to get into the arena so you can play with the bulls.  But if you aren't fast enough or you start too far back you won't make it.  800 meters takes a person about 3 minutes, the bulls do it in 1.

The best chance is to lead the last four steer in, but there's the gate at the second turn and a long straight away after that.  Oh, and if you get to the arena much before the bulls you get spit on in a generally unfriendly welcome.

My own experience consists of an agonized wait.  What followed the second rocket was apparently this: (having been pieced together from eye witness testimony and not my own memories)

I began a slow jog, allowing others to pass me by until the bulls were about a hundred yards back.  I then sped up until I was running as fast as the crowd would allow.  Hanging to the inside of the first turn, I risked crossing the road to be on the inside of the second.  (the outside of the turn can be disastrous as inertia pulls the bulls in that direction)

Hazarding a glance back, I saw the first animal.  It was a steer, not the sleek fighting bulls, but still horned and big and moving.  What follows is a blur but I remember a flash of black and horn, a person falling and then diving through a fence.

Literally.  Running full tilt I went between the fence slats and managed to stand in time to watch the last of the steer passing the second turn.  I climbed back out in time to be caught behind the gate.  I met up with Phil who agreed this was a stupid, stupid thing to do.  Then the third rocket sounded.

Squeezing through at the head of the pack, I booked down the straight away.  Behind me, a jangling of bells and hooves let me know I was losing ground. Sadly, just as the steer were passing me, my money belt snapped and snaked its way down my leg.

In a panic, I dove to the side and watched as the steer trotted past and into the stadium, the doors closing behind them.

Brett made it, he told me the bulls have their horns sheathed with leather and you're allowed to taunt and play with all six in the arena for about a half hour.

I dunno, as far as I was from them, I don't think any closer would be healthy.

It's late and the Roman night life is calling.  I'll get to that next time, along with the bull fights.

Last Updated on June 3, 2019 by Dave Lee