It’s 6am on July 14th and I find myself standing on a cobble stone street next to a newly found friend. There's now four of us. We’re all wearing white pants, a white singlet and a blood-red neck-tie. On the neck-tie is a picture of a large black bull. None of us has slept, instead we’ve partied, however we are not alone. Quite the opposite in fact, we are lost in a sea of thousands of adventure-seeking revellers, crammed throughout the streets of a small Spanish town. They too are adorned in the white and red attire.
Although we’re all singing and cheering, everybody is nervously awaiting a gunshot. This gunshot is not immediately lethal; instead it marks the beginning of the race. A race between you and the newly released bulls.
Welcome to Pamplona, the location of the infamous “Running of the Bulls” festival.
A huge street party initiates the weeks festivities, with people from around the world filling rustic bars all night long, before, spilling onto narrow cobble stone streets thriving with energy and anticipation.
Running of the Bulls is a truly brilliant event.
Finally after what seems to be hours of waiting, a loud shot is fired into the air. As the smoke from the gun is ushered along by the wind, a large gate only three hundred metres further down the street is opened. A team of bulls are now on the way. Confined to a small enclosure over night, the bulls now run freely on a thin street-circuit leading into the colosseum-like Pamplona Stadium, a further kilometre up the slowly inclining road.
How it was ever deemed legal to release 12 fully grown bulls onto the streets of an otherwise quaint Spanish town; I don’t know!
In comparison, Australian authorities still restrict dogs from walking on beach.
The gunshot triggers an immediate cheer from the crowd, followed by deafening silence. The bulls are coming, but they are still out of the sight. The throng of runners start to move slowly, almost waking pace, up the hill. We’re all on edge, repeatedly looking over our shoulders, awaiting the first sign of activity from behind.
I’m placed half way through the pack of runners. The narrow and twisting street means I can’t see the front or the back of the pack, only those close to me. Onlookers perch on top of the high fencing either side of the street. There is no way out. They stare straight above our heads with large grins towards to rear. Their vantage point offers them a great view of what is to follow.
Alcohol still runs through my veins, and my voice is sore from singing and chanting.
Still no sign of the bulls. The pace increases slightly with nerves, and I find myself jogging, constantly checking behind me. Suddenly a loud cheer is heard just behind us. This cheer turns into a groan. Someone must have come too close to the bulls? On the fence, cameras are quickly raised. The bulls are near!
I turn one final time, and witness a huge parting of the crowd. White and red split frantically. There is no jogging now, just sprinting. The roar of stampeding hooves echoes off the buildings, and from deep within the panic explodes the lead bull. I am suddenly sober.
Twice as quick as any runner, this dark bull slices through the crowd seemingly oblivious to its surrounding. Almost robotic, its torso and head stay rigid while its legs pump like pistons below. Emotionless, its eyes fixate on the road ahead. Ominously, six other bulls join him from behind. This isn’t safe anymore.
There are no guidelines, no rules and no pre-run talk. Everyman for himself.
Some men chase the slower bulls, wielding rolled up newspapers, while others hug the wall. It’s seen as a sign of disrespect to touch a bull with anything but the latest in Spanish tabloid press. Locals beat those who do use their hands. One such man slips over in front of what appears to be the largest bull, immediately covering his head with his hands and tucking into ball on the ground. Straying from pack, the rogue bull lowers his head, and darts for the vulnerable man. The beast’s long horns narrowly miss his flailing legs, but the piston-like hooves don’t. The man is awkwardly trampled, however he’s lucky that the bull does not stop. Instead it continues on up the road towards Dead Man’s Corner, seemingly unaware of the damage left behind.
There is no time to stop and care for the man. A second pack of bulls are on the way.
Adrenalin enables me to sprint up the cobblestone road, tucked in behind the slowest bull. But still I can’t keep up.
The crowd of runners has split up some by now, and as I continue running, I see one man lying on the ground clutching his blood-soaked pants. A friend attends to him. I pass them quickly.
Some men holler with excitement, others walk with pain.
Up ahead, Dead Mans Corner nears. A wicked right angle turn renowned for causing chaotic spills. The turn is so tight, that charging bulls slam into the fencing on the farthest side, and on occasions take men with them. Becoming disorientated, it has been known for bulls, once back to their feet, to charge straight back into the oncoming crowd of runners.
The crowd becomes denser again as runners slow down to negotiate this ferocious turn. The bulls in front are now out of sight, and the roar of hooves has silenced. This gives my heart rate a welcomed rest. I regather my thoughts and slow to a jog in the congestion, however another roar from the rear injects me with anxiety.
A man grabs my arm from behind, and uses me to propel himself forward as if running from the police. Others do the same. I turn around and glimpse at the corridor of red and white again. A hundred yards behind, the second pack of bulls again split the crowd. Urgently, I look ahead. The men who had just passed me, disappear around the corner, one grabs onto a wall pipe, and scales it like a wet cat. In a panic, and without method, I just run as fast as I can, trying to round the corner whilst staying away from the far reinforced fence, but it’s hard now. Men not brave enough to stay running, cling to the apex of the turn, creating a soft cushioning to the corner, three or four men deep. The bulls are now upon us, and I find I don’t have enough time to make the turn. I’m forced to run full speed into the wall of men, turning on impact. Clinging for my life, I back myself as tight as possible, as if avoiding a passing train in a tight tunnel, arms spread for support. I am now the outer most person of this fabricated human corner.
Thankfully, I am grabbed from behind and pulled in tighter again, but still I’m exposed. Another man, too slow to negotiate the corner, is bowled over by the lead bull, sending him flying into the far fence. He gets to his feet quickly and stands up to face his fear, armed with nothing but a rolled-up newspaper. The same bull, mechanical in it’s action, approaches the corner with a wide berth, allowing him a tight line of passage into Dead Mans Corner. He leads bulls close in toe, tight in formation. One has a bell around his neck, a warning device perhaps for visually impaired runners? I can’t help but freeze. They head straight for me, showing no compassion or understanding of the danger they pose. A steely glaze is all they offer as an insight to their thoughts. Horns extend to either side of their head, ready to slash anything that stands in their way. On this occasion, me.
I am literally helpless, nowhere to run. I tilt my head back and breath in deeply, my grip tightening on someone behind me. I am just a spectator at this stage as the lead bull races past me, missing me by less than a metre. It’s a moment I don’t forget. The following bulls follow suit, a whisker away from causing bloodshed. A horn races past my chest as the sound of a ringing bell fills the air. It’s only after I consider the outcome, should there have been one more person behind me, that I release how lucky I am.
The danger passes, and the human apex breaks up. We are now in pursuit. There’s one final straight that leads directly into the awaiting stadium. The stadium acts as a finishing line for the race, but that’s just the beginning of another event equally as crazy.
Although the field of runners is now stretched out, we all race intensely to get into the stadium before the gates are shut. This happens soon after the third and final pack of bulls cross the line.
I run past the gates and into a tunnel that leads to the heart of the stadium. The tunnel is dark and stretches for about twenty metres. The third pack of bulls, typically smaller than the others, is catching us, although the immediacy isn’t quite the same. I can see the light ahead of me now, and I realise that I’m going to make it. Waving my newspaper like a jockey striking his horse on the final straight, I start to breath, as I burst out of the tunnel into the middle of what is a large sandy bullring. I’m hit by the noise of thirty thousand spectators in the stands cheering whilst looking down at us from the grandstands. For a moment, I’m a gladiator entering the colosseum. I hug the nearest person to me. Everyone is doing the same. Behind us, the last pack of bulls storm into the tunnel, although this time someone is seriously injured. I see the silhouette of a man pinned against the wall, as a bull gauges him. This bull has stopped in the tunnel and there’s now a blockage. Continuously it thrusts its horns into the man. Moments later, brave runners wrestle the small bull off the man, who does not move. The bull is the final one to enter the ring. He charges in and bucks his back feet mid-stride as men scatter from its path like bait fish avoiding a shark.
The next thirty minutes involves new energetic bulls being let loose into the stadium. My desire to touch a bull grows…… to be continued.