This bucket list item was completed on 8th July 2017 in Pamplona, Spain.
This post continues on from the story in #54 Run with the Bulls in Spain: Part 1.
I woke up around 6 am and the atmosphere had not changed much, compared to 2 am. There were still thousands of people running around the city, singing, dancing and drinking. In fact, I think there were probably more people as they had woken up early to get to the course. The course is well defined and is either blocked off by wooden fences or has buildings on either side. The run starts at 8 am but people begin to make their way to the course as early as 6 am.
It took me a minute to wake up and remember where I was. I looked around and saw James sleeping next to the fountain. I gave him a nudge to wake him up and said, “It’s time to run”. He grunted, blinked a few times and said, “Okay, let’s do it”.
We headed back into the narrow streets, walking in the direction of the course. We stopped at a shop along the way to get a sandwich and a bottle of water. If we were going to die, I didn’t want to die hungry.
We arrived at the course at 6:45 am and it was still dark. We had no clue where Guy and Jamie were but we gathered in the course and began chatting with the other runners. There were already hundreds of people in the course and, as the sun began to come up, more people began to arrive.
The course runs from the old part of the city to the bullring. It is 875 m long and as the bulls run into the ring they are corralled into the stables under the stands.
There was an American guy standing next to us who was offering useful tips to first time runners. It is known that six large bulls are used during the run and then those six bulls are used in the bullfights in the evening. However, he mentioned that another six steers run with the bull and then an additional three older steers run behind the pack with bells to encourage the herd to run the course. He told us to make sure we count when the herd goes by and always check behind us to make sure a straggler has not been separated from the pack.
He also looked at a few of our scarves and recommended that we adjust them. Instead of tying them in regular knot it was best to tie them in a slipknot. By having it in a slipknot, it would come free if a bull’s horn were to get underneath it.
The most helpful piece of advice he gave us was regarding Dead Man’s Corner. This corner is a sharp right hand corner, which is followed by a long straight stretch that leads into the stadium. It is common for the bulls to lose their footing as they round the corner, which pushes them out to the left side of the street. This long straight stretch has buildings on either side, so there are no outs if you get caught in this section. However, the bulls have a tendency to stay on the left side of the street for the length of the straight stretch, after they come around Dead Man’s Corner.
At this point we were positioned up from Dead Man’s Corner, nervously waiting for the run to begin. At about 7:30 am, all of the windows along the course began to open and the people who had paid for prime real estate began to look down at us as they sipped their morning coffee. At the same time the police began to aggressively push through the crowd. They were looking for any person with lose equipment such as GoPros, selfie sticks or anything that was going to add more danger to the already dangerous activity.
Also, anyone with baggy clothing or costumes, that looked like they would get caught easily, were removed from the course promptly. They began to push the crowd further along the course to make sure that we didn’t all bunch up at the start. As they pushed us along the course we rounded Dead Man’s Corner and looked down the long straight stretch that led towards the bullring.
There were tall buildings on either side and every balcony was packed with as many people as they could possibly fit. There were banners and flags hanging from the every balcony and the people were cheering at the top of their lungs. The run had not even started and they were already going wild. This is when I realised that they were cheering for us, a salute to the brave few.
As we waited for the run to start I could tell everyone was getting more nervous. Nervous and scared. People began to fidget more, they began to push each other and I could see the nervousness in their eyes. I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t nervous or scared. I was experiencing both of these feelings but I was running on adrenaline. I could feel it coursing through my body and sharpening my senses.
It all started at 8 am with the loud crack of a rocket. This was the signal for us to begin running. The crowd began to move and people were running past me, slowly. About 30 seconds later, the second rocket cracked over top of the city. This meant that the bulls were loose. At this point, everyone began to pick up their pace. I looked to my left and James was gone. Once the bulls are released, there are no friends on the course, it is every man for themselves.
There was an Australian guy standing next to me and we were watching as the mob was running past us. He looked at me and shouted, “Are you holding your ground?” I responded, “Yeah! Don’t move until we see the bulls”. He shouted back at me, “HOLD YOUR GROUND”. As I look back towards Dead Man’s Corner I shouted back at him, “HOLD YOUR GROUND”. Our shouting was a mix of fear, bravery and stupidity but it was keeping the adrenaline flowing.
The bulls were fast and they approached quickly. By the time we spotted them, they were only 20 meters away. In a split second my heart dropped and then my legs kicked into action. I turned my back to the bulls and ran. I ran the fastest I have ever run in my life. I knew I should be looking back to see how close they were but I also knew that would only slow my pace.
I kept running as fast as my legs would take me until I heard the sound of the hooves smacking on the stone street behind me. This is when I knew it was time to get to a safe place. As I mentioned there are no outs along the straight stretch but I remembered what the American guy had told me about how they stay on the left side. I jumped over to the right side and continued running while I looked back for the first time. They were less than a metre behind me and, had I not moved over to the right side, things might have ended badly.
As I moved over to the right side, my pace slowed and they began to pass me. While they passed me they appeared to have no interest in me and kept running in their straight line along the left side. For a few seconds I was running beside them at half an arm’s length away. This was exhilarating and the adrenaline was flowing at full capacity.
The bulls quickly passed me and I counted to make sure there were no stragglers. I continued running and followed the bulls as closely as I could as I ran into the bullring.
There were so many experiences during this adventure that were a surprise to me. One of the biggest surprises was when I ran into the bullring. I was not expecting anyone to be in the bullring, I just thought we ran there because it was an easy place for them to corral the bulls. However, when I broke the threshold of the ring, I was shocked to see 20,000 screaming fans, on their feet, cheers for us. I stood in the stadium with hundreds of other runners and I spun around in circles as I tried to take it all in.
At this moment, I felt like a gladiator standing in the Coliseum. I felt triumphant and proud to have crossed this item off my list. After a few minutes I walked to the middle of the ring and crouched down, placing my elbows on my knees. As I did this, a wave of emotions came over me. My eyes started to water as the gravity of the situation dawned on me. I could have been gored. I could have been trampled. I could have died. They were tears of joy and also partly from the adrenaline starting to subside in my body.
After I regained my composure I looked around the ring. Guy spotted me and ran over. We hugged each other and jumped around with our hands in the air. We exchanged stories of our experiences and how intense the run was. We carried on for about five minutes until another surprise occurred. We heard the large doors of the bullring open and everyone turned to see what was happening.
As we turned to look, a bull came flying out of the gates and into the ring with us. I had heard that this was part of the event but in all the excitement, I forgot. The bull charged into the ring and began running through the crowd. Most people were quick enough to avoid him as he charged across the ring but some were not as fortunate. Those who were not quick enough were flung in the air or were hit with enough force to send them skidding across the sand in the bullring.
They kept the bull in the ring for about five minutes before opening the gates and corralled him back into the stables. After another two minutes they released another bull. This part of the event went on for the next 30 minutes. It was at this point that I realised why the people were actually seated in the stands. We were actually gladiators for their entertainment.
Before each subsequent bull was released a few brave souls would lie down in front of the gate where the bulls were being released. They had their heads facing the gate from where the bull would charge. When I first saw them do this I did not understand their plan. I watched as the gate was slowly opened and saw a bull, further back, under the stands. The bull charged towards the people laying on the ground and at the last second he jumped and soared over top of them. Clearly they knew this was going to happen but I was completely shocked. As the bull entered the ring he proceeded to flip and trampled unfortunate individuals.
At one point I looked over and spotted James, getting amongst the action. He was positioned only a few meters away from the bull and was making quick movements to avoid him as he charged. I remember thinking to myself that he was crazy and was asking to get hit eventually. I was staying near the edge of the ring and tried to keep as much distance between me and the bull at all times.
After about 30 minutes they released one last bull into the ring to give the fans one last episode of carnage. At one point the bull came over towards me, and a few others, standing near the edge of the ring. The bull had one guy in his sights and began chasing him as they both passed by me. When the bull was about five metres away from me, he changed his focus and began to charge straight at me.
The bull was so close to me that I had no time to react. As he charged toward me, all I could do was take one little step to the right and a small jump before the impact. The last thing I remembered was my feet leaving the ground and an image of the charging bull. For the next 30 seconds my body laid lifeless on the sandy ground of the bullring.
When my eyes finally opened I was laying on my back and could see the blue skies over the bullring. With my peripheral vision I could see the stands filled with spectators and remembered where I was. Just as I woke, I felt the sensation of my head being lifted and came face-to-face with a paramedic. As he lifted my head he fitted me with a neck brace. This is when the situation became scary.
I looked up at him and said, “What the hell happened?” He spoke calmly and said, “Sir, you are in Pamplona. You have just been hit but a bull. Remain calm and try not to move”. I felt the hands of five or six other people begin to touch my body. The fact that I could feel them touching me was reassuring.
The team of paramedics lifted my body onto a stretcher and carried me out of the ring and into a room under the stands. They set me up on a table and began to ask me simple questions to assess whether I had a concussion. I was coherent and answered them all correctly, so they felt confident that I was not concussed. The doctor of the group began by placing his hands on my legs and squeezing. “Can you feel it?” he enquired. I responded, “Yes”, and breathed a sigh of relief.
He continued to move up my body and pressed lightly on my abdomen in several places to assess whether I had been gored. Luckily the bull’s horns did not connect with me. My only injuries were from impacting the sand as my body landed after being flipped by the bull. My arm was gashed and there was sand all through my hair and in my eyes. The paramedics flushed my eyes with water to remove the sand and then cleaned my face with a wet cloth. They cleaned the sand out from the gash on my arm and covered the exposed area with iodine.
After a few minutes they let me sit up and watched me to make sure I wasn’t going to fall over. I hopped off the table and stood up. The doctor told me that I did not appear to have a concussion and I had no major injuries. I looked at him and said, “What now?” He smiled at me and said, “You can go back to enjoying the festival”.
They opened a door, which led to the exterior of the bullring. I stepped out of the quite room and back into the commotion of Pamplona. I did a quick assessment of myself in the light of day. My clothes were covered in beer, wine, blood and sand. My arm was covered in iodine and sand was scattered through my hair. I was running on four hours sleep and had just been charged by a bull. I decided it was time to get back on the bus and return to camp.
Have you been to Pamplona to run with the bulls? Let me know in the comments below.
A month after the day I ran, I researched the statistics for the day. The official statistics revealed that there were a total of 60 minor injuries, eight serious injuries and two gorings. Luckily there were no fatalities on the day.
Make sure to check back for my next post, which will discuss the lesson learned by completing this item. Also, I will continue this story with #27 Watch a Bullfight, which I accomplished that evening in Pamplona.
Want to be notified when new blog posts are uploaded? Subscribe below.
Dave has been on a mission, since 2010, to cross off the 100 items on his bucket list. The stories of his adventures are complimented by life lessons learned along the way and his travel tips are unique to his experiences.