My son, Rex and I reported to Pamplona’s Plaza Consistorial, joining the other couple thousand runners (encierros) before 7am. Some were praying. Some were rereretying Nike laces. Some were doing nifty 1960’s-style warm up moves/stretches. They were male. They were young. They were eyeing me with a “What the f are you doing here?” look. One came right up into my face and pointed urgently to his eyes and then to me. I translated this as “watch out, stupid old woman!” Of the exceedingly few females, I tried unsuccessfully to spy one anywhere near my age. That familiar adrenaline pulsed through my once weary veins.
My father has spoken about the Running of the Bulls (Festival of San Fermin) since I was a young calf, so I’ve been vaguely familiar with the 500+-year-old tradition my entire life. Not EVER something I considered doing. I watched highlights on Wide World of Sports or later Sports Center, the bulls and their horns in non-threatening 2-D. I remember cringing when some idiot who volunteered to put himself on the street would get gored or trampled. Fast forward past my brawl, and when the opportunity for me to be one of those idiots I mean a part of this incredible tradition presented itself last week, I enthusiastically hooked it with my horns. #YOLT
So, back to the early morning pre-run festivities. Before the encierros and bulls are let loose, the 800 meter course between the corrals and the Plaza de Toros is completely cleared of peeps so the broken glass, vomit, and God knows what from the night before can be fire hosed off the cobblestones. Pamplona police form a human barrier holding the runners back from each section as it is cleaned. Rex and I joined the large group of runners staging near the start of the course. Our fellow encierros were still hammered from partying all night long and they very vigorously shoved the crowd to and fro, many with lit cigarettes dangling from their rancid lips. If you have a problem with sudden full body presses against strange, smelly men, you may not enjoy this part of the event. If you have a problem with claustrophobia, you may not enjoy this part of the event. The stench of the crowd is muy fuerte. Hotel rooms, and therefore showers, are not important to men who are only concerned with partying their brains out for a week, dozing in parks for a couple hours here and there. I doubt they pack toothbrushes or Arrid Extra Dry.
I was nervous that I may lose Rex in the rowdiness, so I kept a tight grip on his arm. Finally the police line loosened up, and we were able to move forward with a little air between us and the strange, smelly men. If you have a problem with male Spanish police officers performing full body pat downs on you, you may not enjoy this part of the event. Despite the rough start and the massive invasion of my private space, I was still all in.
These police lines form at three spots along the route, to allow for the street cleaning, which actually leaves the uneven cobblestones rather slick – not ideal conditions for runners/bulls staying on their feet/hooves. Each time the line is released and moved forward, a portion of runners stay behind to stake claim on a doorway, wall or fence – their choice for starting the run. The rest advance down the course. The most rad runners have serious strategies, planning to jump in and ‘run on the horns’ only 18″ in front of the raging bulls. It is considered an art form. I love art’s many forms, but I felt more like a chicken than an artist this particular morn. As we walked around Dead Man’s Corner, I tried (failed) not to wonder as to the origin of this cute, catchy name and what mayhem was about to occur there a few minutes later. At the next stop, we looked up and saw Todd and Mychaela watching from a balcony above Calle Estafeta. By now my watch read 7:53am – 7 minutes to go! My heart rate approached red line levels.
The runners were spread out now along the entire path. We staged ourselves pretty far down the course, which we determined to be the safest bet for surviving with all limbs and skin intact. My bod is still not quite able to move like before, so a long distance at high speed was probably going to land me in big trouble. The only potential disaster with our plan would be if there was a pileup in the narrow passage into the arena. Encierros fall all the time, due to slick, uneven ancient cobblestones or other runners tripping ahead of them, looking for bulls behind while running forward, or just too many runners being chased by horns with no where to go. Checking the watch again, it’s now 7:58 – only two more minutes! I began repeating my mantra: head on a swivel, head on a swivel, head on a swivel. We learned that you MUST watch behind you as much or more as in front of you. Another unnerving tip: all scarves and sashes must be tied in quick release slip knots, just in case a horn comes between you and your crimson accessory. Many a runner gets dragged by a horn for a furlong or two.
WTF am I doing here? I could be up in that nice balcony there with those friendly folk who are now amusedly pointing down at me, nibbling a pastry and sipping espresso. 7:59… Sh*t!
The 8am rocket screams, jacking heart rates and notifying the white and red clad idiots that the gate is open and the distance between them and the frenzied, sprinting bovines is quickly diminishing. We were standing along the right side of the street, up against a wood barrier that keeps the bulls and their potential victims on the course. We waited. We waited some more. When the roar of the crowd grew closer, I knew the bulls were approaching, so I grabbed Rex and we ran into the arena ahead of the horny beasts. Once inside, we took a hard right, the bulls entered, ran and snorted across the dirt and out the other side. Another rocket fired to let Pamplona know the bulls were safely in their pens, but that’s hardly the end of the morning’s festivities.
You see, the stadium is filled with 20,000 local spectators thirsty for blood, human blood 🙂 You know the types, rubbernecking past accidents on the 405. What many of the 200+ encierros (that make it into the arena before the doors are closed just after the bulls enter) don’t realize is that while they are busy high fiving and selfie-ing on the dirt floor, a fresh new bull is released into the ring. Rex and I got wind of this, so we stayed to the side and looked on at the impending carnage. This bull, the first of five, was hyper pissed and hell bent on causing muchos problemas. He snuck up behind a nice young blonde standing right in front of us. She was completely unaware of the lurking danger, and was instantly scooped up by the horns and thrown in the air, landing like a rag doll. She squirmed a little, then was stomped in the head by a devastating hoof. She was left completely lifeless. About six guys grabbed her and rushed her behind the wall, where paramedics surrounded her. We saw her moving, so we’re confident she survived.
And we survived – with no injuries, despite the fact that each run produces dozens of lacerations, contusions, gorings and/or worse. The local news covers the event in great detail, with a Regis & Kelly-type couple discussing every aspect of the event from their studio sofa and the Pamplona paper giving play by play on each contact, updates on famous runners and deets on each bull.
Also on the media team is a white coat clad doctor dedicated to reviewing and giving a prognosis for each injury suffered on the course. Later, while watching coverage of the run, we saw a man get gored in the leg while standing in the exact spot we stood just seconds before.
After a few more bulls were released, and more fellow runners tossed and trampled, we left the arena, adrenaline still flowing. We stopped into one of the myriad bars open at that hour and ordered two Mahou Clásica Cervezas to go. We walked the route one last time through the little old city, toasting, chests puffed a bit, basking in brilliance. This was a huge check on my Bucket List, something I’ve dreamt and had nightmares about for decades. Getting charged on Pamplona’s outrageous energy with Rex during the Encierro was simply phenomenal. No bull!
Our visit to Pamplona was an add-on to a European trip that included a couple more Bucket List checks. My entire family (parents, and Leason’s family, too) met up in Devon, England, where a worldwide Pomeroy family reunion was taking place. It has been my dream to visit the castle built by my ancestors in the 1400’s on land given to my great (x 38) grandfather, Ralf de la Pomerai by William the Conqueror in 1066 as a thank you for aiding him in defeating the Saxons at the Battle of Hastings. The ten of us toured the beautiful structure, connecting the dots to our past. Originally it had a moat and a drawbridge à la fairy tales. Berry Pomeroy Castle is touted as the most haunted castle in England. Many centuries of Pomeroy poltergeists!
I checked another box when Todd and I enjoyed a successful truffle hunt in Provence, France thanks to Kita, the truffle hunting dog 🙂 We gave a truffle to our hotel chef, and were the beneficiaries of a truly scrumtruffleumptious 31st anniversary dinner!
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