Dispatch August 2007

Raging Bulls

Atlantic staff editor Timothy Lavin runs with the bulls in Pamplona and lives to tell the tale

We walked a few blocks among the crowd. For the first time since arriving in Pamplona, I saw no one drinking. Some men bounced on the balls of their feet, soccer-style; a few stretched; many prayed, heads down, some voicing a plea famous among runners: “To San Fermin we ask, because he is our patron, to guide us through the bull run, and give us his benediction. Long live San Fermin.” The only laughter came from up above, on the apartment balconies that line the length of the route and fill with throngs of onlookers. I got the feeling they were all rooting against me.

The first rocket exploded overhead, then the next. A few seconds passed in stillness. “During the encierro the street feels like war,” Ray Mouton writes in Pamplona. “The same emotions and instincts are present.” Then, the crowd around me bolted almost in unison. Men were already lying on the ground beneath me when I started to run, though I don’t know how. Runners in front of me looked anxiously to their rear, faces and limbs twitching like spooked deer. A persistent roar filled the narrow canyon between buildings. Then: “Toro, toro, toro, torotorotorotorotoro!”

In less than a minute, the bulls and steers were upon us, their clanging cowbells oddly pastoral among the urban din. They passed so closely, I could have punched one in the head. We weren’t being courageous; the streets are simply so narrow that a herd of bulls—1,300 pounds apiece, all muscle and horn and anger—takes up most of the available space. They rumbled by, scattering the bodies of men.

Eyes on the bulls, I collided with a pipe that stretched up the side of a building in front of me. I spun, cursed, regained my footing, resumed flight, and starting praying. The urge to use your fellow man as a blocker is stronger than you might think. Soon, runners around us shouted that the last bull had passed. Relieved, we jogged into the arena, Deion Sanders–style, showboating for the crowd.

Inside, the Plaza de Toros was filled with runners high on the intoxicant of danger averted—dancing, drinking, sweaty hugging, much singing of soccer songs. I saw not one woman. The gates to the bullring stood wide open, with crowds still flowing in. This surprised me, especially considering the sudden violence with which the gates had been shut the night before. We seemed to sing with the crowd for an hour.

Those of us who reveled in the ring were unaware that about a minute after the first rocket launched, well before the bulls had reached us, they’d hit a sharp curve. One of them, a big black monster named Universal, had skidded into a barrier there and fallen hard. The rest of the pack had accelerated and left him behind. He’d galloped forward for a bit, slipped a few times on the slick asphalt, slammed into a few white-clad runners with his arcing horns, and then seemed to lose his bearings entirely. He spun around, looked menacingly at the crowd gathering around him, and then attacked, again and again.

VIDEO: A bull loses his bearings

A lone bull, called a suelto, presents the most dangerous situation in any encierro—bulls are by nature pack animals, and when separated they panic and lash out. About the time the other bulls entered the ring, Universal had started heading the wrong way back up the street, throwing bodies left and right. A group of pastores—professional bull handlers charged with herding stragglers—had valiantly tried to lure him back around as he charged and charged.

By the time they’d finally coaxed him into the ring, 13 people were on their way to the hospital—the bloodiest day of this year’s festival. Two American brothers had found themselves simultaneously on the business end of Universal’s horns, an apparently unprecedented feat. “Dos Hermanos,” the Spanish papers called them, having great fun with it. Each went home with major gore wounds. “I can’t look back now and say I regret doing it,” one of them later told The Today Show.

Back in the ring, none of the runners seemed aware of any of this—certainly not me. Almost five minutes had passed since the last bull had entered. But then the crowd to my right surged. A pack of men ran toward me with the spooked-deer look. Universal stomped into the center of the crowd. I hurtled over the fencing and hit the ground hard, my friend right behind me, in an act that I presume conveyed only bravery and nobility to the other onlookers.

The giant bull in the ring conveyed nothing but self-confidence. Snot dripped in streams from his big nostrils, and his head shook left and right on his shoulders, like a boxer before the bell rings. He twice balked as the pastores tried to pressure him into the corral. Both times, the crowd audibly sucked in its breath, the young men in the ring, some of them 100 feet away, flinched and scattered, and the pastores prodded him anew. Then he strutted into the corral, the gates clanged shut on the arena, and the final rocket burst overhead.

As we walked out of the plaza, three paramedics passed us, escorting a limping man. He had an orange blanket draped over his shoulders, and he held a bandage over his right eye. Blood streamed down his face. He smiled at us. Encierro reminds us that sometimes you can do what the hell you want. Even if it kills you.

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Timothy Lavin is an Atlantic Monthly staff editor.

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