At sunrise, a large crowd advances toward wooden barricades erected to protect storefronts and bystanders. Thousands of spectators, some of who spent the night in local parks, cars, or in the foyers of buildings, arrive early to claim an unobstructed view of the street, the bulls, and the runners, of which I am one.
Introduced to the world in 1926 by Ernest Hemingway in his literary classic, The Sun Also Rises, the encierro (the running of the bulls) is a half-mile run that takes place every morning in Pamplona, Spain, during the second half of a two-week event named La Fiesta De San Fermin. Dedicated to Pamplona’s St. Fermin, who was dragged through the streets by bulls, the encierro is tradition dating back five centuries. From July 1314, the town of Pamplona swells from a population of 150,000 to 1.5 million.
Tourists visit from all over the world to participate in the week’s activities, which include concerts, parades, puppet shows, and social mixers that stir from dusk until dawn.
On the morning of the run, unsure of what to expect, I plan my strategy: Get close to the bulls without interference from frantic runners. The streets become so crowded that a misjudgment in step or a collision with another runner could cause serious injury or death. There have been at least 13 deaths this past century4the most recent, an American, in 19954and 6,400 related injuries.
At 8:00 a.m. a rocket sounds off, signaling that the bulls are on the street, and a hush falls over the crowd. Seconds later, another rocket means the bulls are out of the holding pen. The crowd is in an uproar.
Over the din, I hear the clanking sound of a bell worn around the neck of the bull4the pack’s leader. They are approximately 15 feet away when the shepherds4men in the traditional white outfits with red handkerchiefs4head toward me. I slowly start to jog. Within seconds, the bulls are next to me and I run alongside them for a short while, but, because they are running at roughly 16 mph, it is almost impossible for me to keep up. As the pack breaks away, one bull in the rear veers left heading toward the runners. I am grateful for being on the right. The bull seriously injures two runners.
About 10 yards ahead I see the reflective strip of a paramedic’s jacket. He is huddled on the ground instructing people to jump over the body of a young man who is shaking uncontrollably. I follow his directive and continue toward the arena, where anxiety and fear give way to relief and triumph as I am greeted by thousands of clapping, cheering, and screaming spectators. A tidal wave of adrenaline rips through me. What a conquest. At this moment, a Spanish veteran of the run rushes to congratulate me and urges me to “never forget this feeling.” I ran again the next day.
For more information on La Fiesta De San Fermin and the running of the bulls, visit www.okspain.org