Raging Bulls

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

"Theese is not a joke.” That’s how the bartenders in Pamplona answer when you ask for tips on running with the bulls. Then they recite a litany of potential calamities—gorings, tramplings, concussions, broken ankles, beatings from an angry mob. And, of course, the big one. The bartender at a place called Txoko scribbled “1995” on a cocktail napkin, the last year someone—a young American—had died at the festival, and pointed at it. “This year, an American?” My friend and I nodded. The bartender slid his finger across his throat. “Muerto!”

REVELERS crowd the streets of Pamplona

Subtlety is not a salient virtue in Pamplona during the fiesta of San Fermin. For nine days each July, the city morphs into a riotous, crowd-swollen, Large Hadron Collider of a party. Bars do not close for a moment, day or night. Drums fill the night air, bands with varying dedication to their trade march to bar after bar, and troupes of dancers stagger through alleyways—everyone apparently convinced this is their last night on earth. Their famous all-white outfits seem like blank canvases on which they intend to paint a record of their drunken debauch for later reflection.

Entrepreneurs seem to have perfected the synthesis of selling and reveling. Like the long-haired capitalist we met on Calle San Nicolas, in the Casco Viejo neighborhood, who had set up shop with a wooden plank covered with nails. For a euro, he’d hand you a hammer. You then had three chances to pound a tenpenny nail fully into the plank. This is much harder than it sounds, which I suspect is why he seemed to let everyone win, even if they completely missed. Or maybe he let everyone win because as a prize, the victors got to do a shot of J&B with the proprietor, straight from his personal bottle.

But the fiesta is not a joke. Intimations of death animate seemingly every ritual enacted in St. Fermin’s honor, religious and otherwise. The saint himself earned martyrdom—by beheading—in the second century after proselytizing too vigorously among the pagan French in Amiens. Runners rarely die during the encierro, the daily bull run, but on any morning they might (13 have been killed since record-keeping began). And every bull that barrels down those streets will end up dead in the ring, felled by a matador’s sword during the nightly bullfights.

Such emotional complexity helps separate the fiesta from your average nine-day nonstop party. Edward Lewine, in Death and the Sun, calls it “the amazing Spanish ability to reconcile the high with the low, the grotesque with the beautiful, the morbid with the joyous, the religious with the unholy, and make sense of it in a way few other cultures can.”

I didn’t see much sense-making going on, and I suspect that enough sangria can do a lot of reconciling, but everyone in Pamplona seemed at peace with the festival’s spiritual duality.

Once the bartender at Txoko felt sure we understood his point about the muerto business, he calmed down and drew an intricate map of the route that the bulls would run through the city that morning. He pointed out the best starting points, the corners to avoid, the tricky inclines. In two hours, we’d follow this zigzag through Pamplona’s narrow, crowded streets. He offered us coffee. Finally, he shrugged and echoed nearly everyone else I had asked about the run: “If you have to do it, you have to do it.”

THE AUTHOR ASKS a local bartender for some last-minute advice

Observed from a distance, the encierro seems simple enough. Hemingway’s description of it in The Sun Also Rises, which introduced most of the English-speaking world to the festival, might just as well have been about a game of marbles, if not for the sparest of nods to mortality:

Down below the narrow street was empty. All the balconies were crowded with people. Suddenly a crowd came down the street. They were all running, packed close together. They passed along and up the street toward the bull-ring and behind them came more men running faster, and then some stragglers who were really running. Behind them was a little bare space, and then the bulls galloping, tossing their heads up and down. It all went out of sight around the corner. One man fell, rolled to the gutter, and lay quiet. But the bulls went right on and did not notice him. They were all running together.

The morning before our run, I stood on a stone wall overlooking the final straightaway that led into the Plaza de Toros, the arena where the encierro concludes and the matadors later on do their dirty work. The bulls begin their death march at 8 a.m. The explosion of a ceremonial rocket announces the opening of the gates to their pen; a second report moments later indicates that all of them are loose. (A third rocket explodes when all the bulls make it to the ring, and a fourth when they’re in the corral and the run is over.)

At about 8:03, I saw a group of wide-eyed men round the final corner, followed by six black bulls neatly escorted by some bulky, unhurried steers. After they had all entered the arena, two men slammed the substantial gates closed with a climactic metallic thud, in the faces of runners trying to gain last-minute entrance. Everyone clapped. Easy enough.

The next day, the police, without explanation, bumped us (along with perhaps a hundred other runners) off the street at our intended starting point. This meant we had to climb back in, through wooden barricades, about a hundred yards up the Calle Estafeta—closer to the bulls, and farther from the relative safety of the ring.

RUNNERS LINE UP and await the stampede

As the appointed hour neared, I considered the advice the locals had dispensed the day before: Take the corners close, because the bulls will always go wide; pick a running lane and stay in it, because lane-changing leads to ugly human pileups; and, most importantly, stay down if you fall, because a bull’s natural inclination is to step over things in his path—and to gore things that unexpectedly jump up in front of him. Only now did it occur to me that tips one and two would immediately enter into contradiction, and that three was worthlessly counter-instinctual. Onward.

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.