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The Travel Blog

San Fermin, Running of the Bulls

Image Title: The Bulls at Dead Man's Corner. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
The Bulls at Dead Man's Corner. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: Estafada Street before the run. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
Estafada Street before the run. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: Runners praying to San Fermin for a blessing before the run. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
Runners praying to San Fermin for a blessing before the run. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: Survivor Glee in front of El Churrero de Lerin after the run. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
Survivor Glee in front of El Churrero de Lerin after the run. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: Scarf from the Festival of San Fermin. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
Scarf from the Festival of San Fermin. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: The official start line - no runners allowed before this line. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
The official start line - no runners allowed before this line. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: Amateur bull fighting el becerro at a bull ranch near Pamplona. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
Amateur bull fighting el becerro at a bull ranch near Pamplona. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi and they’re gone.  A 1,200 lb (550kg) fighting Bull runs 100 meters in about 8 sec and can sustain this pace for about a kilometer. Empirical data suggests a 185lb (85kg), 50-something adult male in full panic runs 100 meters in more like 12 sec and can sustain this pace for about 80 of those 100 meters or until the panic passes. That difference roughly means that the heard of six fighting bulls and six steers released to run through the streets of Pamplona every day during the 8 days of San Fermin will overtake a running man in about three seconds. And that, boys and girls, is exactly what happened during my run with the bulls in Pamplona this year. All-in-all my run was pretty uneventful, but on the day I ran eight people required medical attention for cuts and bruises from falling and three people went to the hospital, two for gorings and one poor soul who was dragged 60 meters when his red scarf got hooked under one of the fighting bull’s horns. Not good, but to be fair, the day ended even worse for the bulls.

The San Fermin Festival is named for a 3rd century converted Catholic Priest and the first Bishop of Pamplona who was beheaded in France for trying to convert heathens and later martyred by the Catholic Church. The festival was started in the 1500’s when the citizens of Pamplona decided to turn their annual cattle roundup into a festival in honor of Saint Fermin. Sometime in the 19th century, the festival was turned into an early tourism activity and moved from October to July. In 1926, Ernest Hemingway wrote the Sun Also Rises and Running with the Bulls became an international sensation. Today, the sleepy city of Pamplona with 200,000 permanent residents hosts over 1,000,000 revelers in one of the largest festivals in the world. Over the eight day festival, from July 7 to July 14 annually, the city goes through millions of gallons of wine.

Every morning of San Fermin at 8:00am, the bulls are released onto an 850 meter (~ half-mile) barricaded course about 10 meters across with roughly 1,500 “brave” glory-seeking runners looking for bragging rights. In round numbers, 10 people will require medical attention and three will require a trip to the hospital each day of the run. Since the beginning of the run as a festival event in the early 1900’s, fifteen people have lost their lives to the bulls. The last fatality was in 2009 when a 27 year old Spanish runner was gored under his collarbone. Runners gather in the town square between 7:00am and 7:30am and the police start sweeping the course to chase people off of it and clear the bottles, cans, trash and tripping hazards. They also start checking through the runners to pull out anyone with a camera like a GoPro or phone with a selfie-stick and anyone who is obviously still drunk from the night before. Pro-Tip 1: Don’t bring a camera and don’t show up drunk. Pro-Tip 2: Even after the police sort through the runners, about a third of them are still drunk from the night before and there are still many of them that will still try to run and take a selfie at the same time.

At 7:45am, the police release the runners onto the course. Runners can stage themselves anywhere they wish along the course. There is a definite strategy here. The corners are dangerous because the bulls tend to fall down turning the corner and get up looking for someone to charge – Don’t stage yourself to run around a corner. At the end of the course, where the bulls run into the bull ring, the crowd compresses and there is not enough room for bulls and runners – Don’t stage yourself at the end of the course. The experienced runners looking to “Run on the Horns” will stage themselves somewhere along the course where they believe the bulls will be running as a heard and they can get a long run in front of the lead bull. Promptly at 8:00am, the bulls are released onto the course and a rocket is shot up from the corral. The rocket tells the runners to get ready because the bulls are coming. I staged myself at Dead Man’s Corner (YouTube Video) so I could time my run for the bulls to overtake me about 60 meters down Estafada Street where my wife was on a balcony taking photos. I could tell when the bulls were coming because a bow wave of panicked runners came charging at me. This is the most dangerous time. It's a lot like catching a surf wave. You want to be moving when the wave of runners comes and you want to be running at a full sprint when the bulls overtake you. The trick is not to get tripped by slower or clueless runners in front of you and not to get knocked down by panicked runners behind you – oh yeah, and don’t get run over or gored by the bulls!

Back to my run, the bulls overtook me in about three seconds, only eight seconds into my run. So my clever plan to time myself for me and the bulls to be under the correct balcony at the same time, was off by about 30 meters. Consequently, we have a great YouTube Video of bulls and a mass of runners of which I am hopelessly lost in the blur of white shirts with red scarfs. After the run, literally at 8:03am, runners gather at El Churrero de Lerin on Estafada Street for hot chocolate and cognac. By 9:00am, the sangria is flowing in an en’masse street festival.

The end of the festival is best described by the song sung by the thousands of people who pack into the town square at midnight on July 14th to light candles and sing:

Pobre de mí, pobre de mí! que se han acabao las fiestas de San Fermín (YouTube Video).

      (Poor me, poor me! for the finish of the fiesta of San Fermín.)

Going to Pamplona for San Fermin requires either a little planning and a few premium shekels to get a room or a lot of patience and a lot of premium  shekels to not get a room. Pro-Tip 3: request a room on the backside of a hotel without a view, preferably an ally.  The San Fermin party literally goes all night and is very noisy on the main streets and squares. An Airbnb or VRBO on the town square or the main plaza looks great, but would be difficult to sleep. Pro-Tip 4: Balconies all along the Bull Run and all around the town square are for rent during the runs and for the opening and closing ceremonies. 

If you are keeping track of all of the Pro-Tips, the biggest tip is to book with a reputable tour operator like Running of the Bulls, Inc.  Running of the Bulls, Inc. is a subsidiary of Festival Pros, Inc. and they are rock stars at San Fermin. They had a great – read, quiet – room in the Four-Star Pamplona Catedral Hotel and were able to book balconies for the runs and the opening and closing ceremonies as well as seats for a bull fights AND dinner reservations at Rodeo, the only Michelin Star restaurant in Pamplona. They were even able to book a tour outside of Pamplona at one of the Bull Ranches where the fighting bulls are raised. We were able to learn some of the bull fighting basics and we both actually got in the ring with a cape and led el becerro (the female baby calf) as she charged our cape. Ole’ !!!

If you decide to go to Pamplona for San Fermin, it’s an easy triangle-by-train to fly your international flight in and out of either Barcelona or Madrid and spend a week before or after Pamplona in San Sebastian (Pro-Tip 5: Book a tour to Rioja Wine Country with Alex from San Sebastian Trips) and then return to Barcelona or Madrid for your flight home.

DO’s and DON’Ts

  • DO Book through Running of the Bulls, Inc.
  • DO bring white pants or shorts and white shirts that can get stained with sangria.
  • DON’T wear a belt or your sash if you run, but DO tie your scarf in a slip knot that will come out if you happen to get hooked.
  • DON’T drink too heavy the night before if you plan to run.
  • DO book a balcony to watch the run at least one day.
  • DO the run twice if you have time so that you can really appreciate it the second time because the first time will go very quickly.
  • DO buy a bota bag and fill it with Rioja.
  • DON’T book a room with a balcony onto a main street or square, but DO book a balcony to watch the run.

 

Phil & Diane

[Disclosure: Running of the Bulls, Inc. provided a nominal discount to some events.]