The winding narrow lanes of Pamplona’s old quarter safely housed the population in the middle ages. The imposing defensive walls offered security, keeping the danger out. And yet, once a year in July, the danger is willingly brought into the town. During the eight-day festivities of San Fermin, more than eight tons of bovine flesh is shepherded through the town, their hooves announcing their presence like a thunderous gift from the gods.
The high-speed transfer of the bulls from their corral on the edge of town to the plaza de toros is known as the encierro and takes place every morning for eight days every July. The 2,800-foot sprint attracts foreigners and Spaniards alike and instils an adrenaline rush that only being feet away from a 700kg beast with sharp horns can.
The morning starts early with most runners walking to Plaza Ayuntamiento from their respective hotels, or bars, at around seven in the morning. The ominous music and health and safety notices remind the runners the sheer lunacy of what they are about to undertake.
The run is free and almost always has too many participants. Runners must stay in the square until just before eight o’clock. Only when you see the Spaniards begin to move up the course, should you leave the square. If you leave Plaza Consistorial before eight o’clock, you will be removed from the course and unable to run. They do this to reduce the number of participants.
Once they announce the start of the encierro, the organisers open the gate and you can take your place up the course. Most foreigners start after dead man’s corner, the 90-degree turn which sends both bull and runner alike crashing into the wooden barrier and by far the most dangerous part of the course. If you want to continue the adrenaline-fueled celebrations in the plaza del toros you need to enter the arena before the final bull does, so many start closer to the arena.
A rocket is fired to signify that the gate to the bull’s enclosure has been opened, a second will announce that all the bulls are on the course. I ran the first encierro of the festival, with the Jandilla bulls, and nothing can prepare you for those 20-30 seconds when you know the bulls are on the course, you can hear the screaming of people and thundering of hooves, but you have no idea how far away they are.
People start jogging. Then sprinting. You can hear a cowbell. How far behind me did that sound? You risk a look over your shoulder, even though you have to slow down to do so. Now the noise is deafening. You can’t see a bull, but there is a clear indication of the crowd parting ten meters behind you. You sprint a little longer. Then throw yourself against the wall. Less than five seconds later a mass of hair, hooves and ground beef hurtles past you so close you can smell the stench of their pen on their hair.
Is it over? How many went past? A wave of euphoria washes over you. You are jogging towards the plaza del toros, cheering with everyone else, happy to have escaped a trip to the hospital. Not everyone has been so lucky. The street towards the arena is littered with those less fortunate.
The feeling is short lived. The screams and cattle bells signify that there are still more bulls coming up behind you. The sudden rush of adrenaline sends you sprinting into the plaza de toros, the cheers of the packed arena explodes in your ears and you dart to the side and jump the fence. The final two bulls are ushered away by the dobladores and then you can breathe a real sigh of relief.
A mounted camera above the street has followed the bulls has captured the whole thing, which is then projected on the big screens of the arena. In slow motion, you see a bull’s horn send a runner face first through a drainpipe, another is flipped in the air as he tries to get out of the way. Reminiscent of Roman blood sports these are cheered with enthusiasm; it isn’t just the bulls they like to see get hurt, people will also do.
The camera pans back across the course and shows the scenes of carnage and chaos left in the wake of the bloody parade. I count three ambulances on the scene waiting to take people to the hospital. A Spaniard, with his leg severely bent out of place, being worked on by paramedics, salutes the camera with his full cup of sangria, much to the crowd’s delight.
It’s over. Would I do it again? Absolutely not! Would I go back to Pamplona and take part in the week-long party that is San Fermin? Just try and stop me.
The video of the day I ran the encierro is available here. (http://www.rtve.es/alacarta/videos/sanfermines/primer-encierro-san-fermin-2015-rapido-peligroso-toros-jandilla/3200585/)