Travel Writing Awards Finalist
By James Norris
In the beginning of July every year thousands of adventurers flood the Spanish town of Pamplona for the San Fermín festival. The attraction is to share one common and intense experience – the experience of pitting yourself alongside a pack of ferocious bulls. Insanity? Maybe.
Pure adrenaline? Definitely.
This is The Running of the Bulls.
The San Fermín festival has ancient and almost mythical origins developed from old Mediterranean culture where bulls were seen as sacred animals. Over the centuries however the festival took on the influences of various religious and mercantile elements before finally claiming international fame with the publication of Ernest Hemingway’s novel “Fiesta – The Sun Also Rises”. This attracted the carnivalesque revelry that now forms the festival’s modern day face. Nonetheless, remaining at the heart of San Fermín is the traditional running of the bulls.
The run is known in Spanish as ‘El Encierro’, coming from the verb encerrar, which means to shut or lock in, and when you view the route of the run you instantly understand the meaning. The 825 metre course is bordered by large wooden barriers and solid stone walls, creating a sense of confinement, a dangerous gauntlet that ends either in the bullring or the emergency ward.
At 7 a.m. of the first day, already an hour before the start, huge crowds gather on the stoic cobblestone racecourse.1000 people all dressed in white huddle together in the crisp morning breeze to form a giant sea of nervous contemplation of the events that are about to unfold.
Every runner that is standing there, anxiously awaiting a herd of raging bulls to plow through, at some point, thinks to themself “Is this really such a good idea?”.
These are my exact thoughts right up until I notice Liam, the young Australian standing next to me. Scruffy haired Liam seems to be carefree and almost indifferent to the fact that we are about to face a bunch of angry bulls in a matter of moments. Epitomizing this point Liam decides to attend the run wearing a different shoe on each of his feet – on his left he wears a heavy leather deck shoe and on his right, a weathered canvass slipper. When asked as to the reasoning behind his choice of footwear he simply replies “one for handling, one for speed”.
I admire Liam for his lighthearted – or perhaps lightheaded – attitude towards this dangerous activity for it is indeed a strong contrast to most of the other runners, whose faces are painted with an intense look of concern.
As the clock draws closer to the start of the race a spontaneous wave of synchronized clapping breaks out and the sea of runners slowly move forward up the track, spreading out and chanting
“Viva San Fermín! Viva San Fermín!”.
There is an air of excitement about as the moment you have been waiting for arrives.
Suddenly you hear a loud ‘BANG’ as a rocket explodes to signal the beginning of the race. Roars from the crowd intensify and runners begin moving up swiftly and anxiously. Almost instinctively the runners mass together. As the streets swell with people, your line of sight narrows. Confusion and panic set in. You cannot see anything and you cannot move anywhere. Beneath your feet you can feel the ground begin to shake. It is fear now as you realize the unpredictability of those around you – a panicked mob with no room to move, fighting for space ahead a pack of rampaging bulls.
“TOROS!!!!” someone yells.
They have arrived, stampeding through the centre of the street. Six muscular black bulls gallop a metre away from you. You run in full flight trying desperately to keep your footing as the mob jostles violently. The screaming noise from the spectators suddenly erupts as a surge from the crowd somehow singles you out and pushes you towards the bulls.
For an instant of absolute exhilaration you find yourself right beside a 600-kg bull. You can hear his loud snorting grunt and the clapping sound of his hooves striking the stones below. Your heart is racing and your body is tense. Your concentration is crisp and focused. The eyes of the bull are dark and deep and he seems to stare directly into your soul. His horns stick out of his head like curved spears. You notice the thick black hairs of his coat as he strides alongside. You cannot believe that you are so close to this powerful animal. Adrenaline pumps through your veins like lightning. Your skin is tingling. For one surreal moment you feel a connection with the bull. A strange bond. The raw energy of this sacred animal is revealed in stunning purity. You really are running with the bulls. An eternity is captured in a matter of seconds.
Your muscles start to ache now and you notice fatigue in your chest, but you are only a few more metres to the entrance of the arena and the end of the race. The course bottlenecks into the small gate, and as you pass through the enclosure you are filled with elation. Leaving the gauntlet you enter the space and light of the arena to the sound of 20,000 cheering people. Your body explodes with euphoria and you throw your arms into the air. You made it! The high is incredible! You have just experienced an extraordinary event. Amidst the chaos of the run, the panic and exhilaration, you came across something truly unexpected. For a moment lost in time you discovered a brief, yet profound, connection with an ancient culture’s sacred animal: El Magnífico Toro. You were blessed to live through an age-old tradition stemming from legendary and mythical roots. Viva San Fermín, Viva San Fermín!!