Running with the Bulls

NATE MENNINGER: I jumped as high as I could over the crowd to catch a glimpse of the approaching bulls, but my efforts proved meaningless.

All I could see was the endless ocean of white and red around me. An ocean that swayed in waves of fear and shook the ground with its excitement. An ocean that sang in only echoing screams.

I waited as long as I could but when the crowd surged towards me, I had no other choice.

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The Second Bus Siesta

Run. I thought. Just run…

My journey to Pamplona for the Running of the Bulls began on a Thursday night in early June while studying abroad in Valencia, Spain. At the dinner table, my host mom mentioned that the festival had already begun on Monday and would end on Sunday afternoon. In fear of missing a once in a lifetime opportunity, I immediately purchased a round trip bus ticket to Pamplona, a city in northern Spain.

Around noon the next day, I boarded my bus with only a backpack of clothes. The expected 3 hour journey transformed into a 6 hour extravaganza, which I probably could’ve anticipated had I taken into account the Spanish and their lackadaisical ways – I do love those Siestas though.

At 6 p.m. I stepped off the bus, shouldered my backpack and followed a crowd of people into the city. I had no clue what to do nor where to go. No hotel room, no friends to meet and no plan. Just me, alone in the city of Pamplona.

Like any veteran traveler knows alcohol is your best friend, so seeking some much needed companionship, I scurried into the nearest supermarket and purchased a pristine $1 bottle of wine. With the bottle stored safely away in my backpack, I found a vendor near the bull ring where I bought my outfit for the weekend: a white shirt, red scarf, red belt and white pants. I changed into my new outfit in a nearby restaurant bathroom and reemerged into the city feeling invigorated.

Finally, I looked the part: An official ‘Runner’ ready to take on one of the world’s most dangerous and idiotic races.

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A Monument to the Bulls

I desperately searched the city for a wine opener and finally found success at the third bar I asked. I felt a sudden burst of energy the second the red wine hit my lips. Confident, I strode further into the tiny streets of Pamplona, but the more I walked, the more chaotic the streets grew. Eventually the streets were so crowded that I literally couldn’t move anymore.

Trapped under an awning, I clutched my bottle of wine closer to my chest and avoided the drizzling rain. I noticed that the three men beside me were speaking English – albeit proper UK English, but English nonetheless. I struck up a conversation with them and we immediately became friends. Before long I finished my wine, they finished their beers and we said our goodbyes, but not before they graciously bought me a white top hat which I wore for the rest of the night.

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Plaza del Castillo: Photo credit to news.sanfermin.com

Feeling a bit tipsy, I squeezed through the crowd and stumbled deeper into the city. I spotted what looked like an open area before me, so with one last heave I pushed forward. Sure enough, I found the city center. La Plaza del Castillo: A beautiful open space with thousands of drunk festival goers meandering around.

Alone again, I held my empty bottle of wine for comfort and made my way towards the plaza’s center. I watched as three young adults before me approached two older men on a bench. Curious, I listened in.

English again, but this time my favorite type: American English.

“You guys American?” I asked

“Yea. We’re from Ohio.” Said one of the young men.

“Well what the fuck are you guys doing?” I gestured towards the bench

Turns out, the two Belgium men on the bench had purchased a 4.5 liter bottle of Absolute Vodka in Andorra (a country with no taxes) and were giving away free mixies. They placed these strange beverages in small plastic cups on top of an upside down trashcan with the sign ‘gratis’ (or free) hanging from it.

The Ohioans and I debated whether or not to accept the drinks, but considering our decision making skills were already out the door, we said ‘fuck it’ and grabbed the offerings anyways.

Mmmm…Coke and vodka. Strong but safe. At least for the time being.

I joined forces with Alex, one of the Ohioans, and together we paraded throughout the city picking up lonesome stragglers along the way. We found this one British man by the name of Shanka who was by far one of the crazy mother fuckers I’ve ever met. He biked all the way through the Pyrenees to get to Pamplona and had already ran with the bulls three times. Needless to say, I was very envious.

The three of us partied our asses off so much so that we lost each other entirely. Coincidentally, my friends from college sent me a message on Facebook and said they were in Pamplona as well, so I met up with them and continued my alcoholic rampage.

By 3 a.m. I was alone. Alex and Shanka remained lost to the city and my friends from college had retreated back to their hotel. I sat in the Plaza desperately attempting to make friends with the few alcoholics left but I failed on all accounts. With nothing else to do, I began my search for the race’s starting line.

For the next two hours I ran throughout the streets of Pamplona searching for the starting point. I ran so far back into town that I actually found the holding cell for the bulls. That’s when I realized how lost I actually was.

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A Shit Picture of the Church

Around 5 a.m. I found the starting point within a corral of wooden fences in front of Pamplona’s famous San Cermin Church. I hopped on top of one of the 6 foot high wooden fences and settled in for the three hour wait. Without warning, the man to my left toppled backwards off of the ledge and smacked his head against the brick road. Cops and paramedics rushed to the scene, but he got right up and wobbled away. Completely unhurt, just utterly shit faced.

The incident sparked a conversation between myself and the man to my right, a native of Barcelona. We talked for hours in Spanish about everything from our personal lives, to his religion to my idiotic pursuit to touch a bull. He was a veteran to the festival and kindly taught me the rules of running: Even though the police formally prohibit runners from touching the bulls, they never penalize for it – although he said only idiots willing to die touch the bulls. As for taking selfies and being drunk, the police harshly penalize runners with 1,000 euro fines.

Waiting in the corral
Waiting in the corral

Good to know I was only going to break two of the three rules.

At 7 a.m. people packed liked sardines into the corral and at 7:30 the officials closed the gates, sealing us within. My Spanish guide virtually held my hand at this point and told me where to stand and how to act so that the officials wouldn’t kick me out.

Just after they locked us in, two jumbotrons plastered to the buildings above sparked to life. They looped videos demonstrating basically everything my Spanish friend had taught me. Don’t touch the bulls, don’t drink and don’t take pictures. If you do, major trouble.

I will never forget when videos turned off, the clock of San Cernin struck 8 a.m. and the wooden gates opened. Like a tidal wave, we swept through a tiny back street of Pamplona searching for a place to await the stampeding bulls. Above us, crowds of rioters piled onto balconies and in unison chanted the Seven Nations Army song, but instead of the original lyrics they hollered “Paaaaaam – Plooo – Naaa,” over and over again.

Photo credit to theatlantic.com
Photo credit to theatlantic.com

I followed my friend through the hazy crowd to a bend in the road. He explained earlier that we needed to start far enough down the street in order to make it into the stadium, because the officials lock everyone out who attempts to enter after the last bull runs into the ring. I certainly didn’t want to miss the ring!

I locked down my spot and began nervously stretching beside an 80 year old man, some Spanish natives and a few younger women. I kept one eye on my friend behind me and another towards the approaching death. Although I’d been awake 36 hours, I felt more alive than ever.

Screams filled the air and like a school of fish, runners began fleeing

Almost ready
Almost ready

around me. I could feel the ground shaking more with every passing second. In anticipation, I jogged a few steps with the crowd then stopped to look back. Nothing. I repeated this about three or four times until eventually the white horns of the first beast surfaced above the crowd.

I sprinted forward as fast as I could and dodged any runner in my way. Undoubtedly, if my attention had strayed too much from the path, I would have collided with someone, fallen to the ground and laid at the mercy of pounding hooves and feet. Sadly, this is how most runners meet their end.

Obviously, I slowed down to let the bulls catch up. I wanted to run alongside these massive beasts; I needed to touch one.

Soon enough, the fleet of six bulls stampeded alongside me. I waited, waited, waited then suddenly seized my opportunity. I lunged from the ‘safety’ of the fence and firmly planted my hand on the hide of the closest bull. We ran as one for a few steps then when I felt satisfied, I withdrew my hand and retreated back to safety.

As I turned back to run towards the fence, I met the horns of another bull behind me. Fearing impalement, I recalculated my route and flipped around to the other side of the bull I had just touched.

From my new position, I watched the horror around me unfold. Beneath the fences to my left and right, fallen runners rolled into tiny balls in an effort to minimize their injuries. I could see the blood stained across their white outfits; the sheer terror on their faces as runners and bulls pounded over their battered bodies.

With adrenaline coursing through my veins my eyes shot forward to a fallen runner in my own path. Slowly, a pile began to form around him. To my right ran a bull and to my left a woman. Whether she knew it or not, only one of us was going to make it through this situation unscathed.

Drawing dangerously close to the pile, I instinctively threw my elbows out from my sides, shooting the woman face first into the pile before us. With more than enough space to move, I vaulted over the fallen runners and sprinted into the stadium. I can honestly say I apologize for my actions, but I sure as hell don’t regret them. I wasn’t going to be the one to fall.

I passed through the stadium tunnel and emerged into a bullring packed full with thousands of paying spectators. Nearly 300 hundred of us runners had successfully made it into the ring.

As the officials escorted the bulls out of the ring, I shot around the edge of the stadium and found my guide from earlier. We celebrated, snapped a few pictures and prepared for what would follow.10305173_10152256051781659_6709434691933400672_n

“Is it over?” I asked.

“No, now they bring the bulls back in one by one.” He responded,

Great. There’s more. I thought.

Pumped full of adrenaline, I rapidly scanned the ring. About twenty feet or so to my right, I noticed a group of people lying down beside the edge of the ring. Stupidly, I ran over to them, lied down beside them and asked what was going on.

“Keep your head down.” Said the runner beside me.

‘What, why?” I asked.

I raised my head to sneak a peek. There were about 20 of us split up into four rows lying directly in front of a gap in the perimeter of the ring. I squinted my eyes and looked down the tunnelleading back into the cavernous stands. Faintly, I noticed something barreling towards us…

“Oh shit!? I yelled and buried my head as far as I could under the ass of the Spaniard before me.

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The Jump: photo credit to telegraph.co.uk

A few seconds later, I felt a burst of air whip over my body. In unison, the twenty of us shot up off the ground to locate the culprit. There, behind us in the ring was the bull. It had sprinted down the path and leaped over us into the ring.

For the next hour, six bulls entered the ring. When one left, another arrived. During this time the runners, perhaps out of an effort to entertain their audience, created a game of sorts. Brave individuals attempt to smack the ass of the bull without getting gored. Most escape untouched, but some aren’t so lucky. Fortunately, I succeeded three times with three separate bulls, but I recall watching one bull knock a woman out cold and proceed to stand over her body like chattel. It was only until a few valiant men distracted the bull when others could pull her limb body from the fray.

The only other frightening moment occurred when the second bull jumped into the ring. There were five rows of people awaiting his arrival this time. One man in the final row raised his head to watch. But it was too late. As the bull jumped, its hoof collided with his head, knocking him unconscious. Rumor has it he was helivacked within the hour. I even heard he died. I never did confirm either rumor though.

After the sixth bull exited the ring, the tunnel reopened and we poured back into the city. The event was over; I had officially survived the running of the bulls.

My phone read 9 a.m. so naturally I grabbed a pint. After downing it, I fled to a nearby building where I had agreed to meet the Ohioans, Shanka and a few others travelers..

One of the Ohioans told me that he fell asleep in the street and woke up naked the next morning. Shanka had run but gotten gored. He complained about pain in his leg, but still decided to run the next day — he found out later that week that he had, in fact, broken his tibia. Alex had run as well, but like me sustained no injuries.

We exchanged contact information then went our separate ways. I attempted to stay up the whole day, but eventually crashed. I locked myself in a hotel bathroom for 35 minutes where I managed to regain a bit of energy.

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Me and My Old Friend Jesus

Later that night, I reunited with a very close friend of mine who I lived with several years ago when I first visited Spain. His name was Jesus. Together, we enjoyed an unforgettable night of debauchery. I planned to run again the next morning with a few of the people we met, but unfortunately I fell asleep standing up at a club at 5 a.m. If you take out the 35 minutes of shutting my eyes, I was up for nearly 48 hours straight…

In fear of missing my bus. I found my way back to the terminal. An hour later I was safely back on the bus heading home to Valencia.

Alive.

————–As an aside, over the course of the weekend, I learned so much about the maltreatment of these bulls and other bulls across the country. These animals are abused and while I enjoyed my experience running, I thoroughly acknowledge how terrible their treatment is——————-

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