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Remember that one time I ran with the bulls? July 8, 2013

Posted by sofiatuttle in Travel Log.
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Well I definitely just crossed something off my bucket list that I never actually knew was on there… running with the bulls in Pamplona!!!

We left at 5:30am on Friday to get to the train station in time for our train at 7:30 from Madrid to Pamplona, and the entire weekend, for me, was absolutely incredible! Most definitely the highlight of my study abroad experience so far, although only having been here for barely a week and half I can’t wait for what’s to come!

So now allllll about Pamplona: we arrived around 10:30 at the train station there. The train was on time and so convenient – it makes traveling so easy! No one had directions to our hotel, so we wandered in the general direction we thought it was for 2 or 3 hours. It was completely on the other side of town, so it was quite the trek. We stopped for lunch along the way, and I got a tasty bocadillo of chicken, tomato, and lettuce (a huge sandwich made with baguettes). At the hotel, we chilled out and napped for a few hours. Some of us had an eventful night the previous day, so the sleep was much appreciated. Then in the evening we all headed back into town for the nighttime festivities! The festival of San Fermin didn’t start until noon the next day (Saturday), but the town was full of partying nonetheless. To prevent a 45 minute trek all the time, we mostly took taxis to and from the hotel over the weekend (about 2 euros a person when we split a cab, so not too bad). That night we went out and walked around town – already very much alive with the nearly 2 million people that swarm to the town of a mere 200,000 residents for the festival of San Fermin. After staying in the main plaza amidst the crowd, we left when the concert stage shut down around 1 or 2am.

The next day I woke up a little late with a few others, and we went to the mall right across the street from our hotel to pick up some white clothes and a red bandana and sash – necessities for the festivities over the next 9 days. Dressing up along with hundreds of thousands of other people was SO MUCH FUN! It definitely complicated finding anyone in particular, since everyone looked the same in the crowd, but seeing packed streets full of thousands of people dressed the same was so neat! Around 11:45 we took a taxi into town, just in time for the opening of the festival of San Fermin at noon. We made our way into the outskirts of the crowd in the main plaza, not close enough to see the stage but definitely close enough to hear cannons going off to announce the festival’s start, and more than close enough to get completely sprayed with wine! That’s the hallmark of the start of the festival,  and we definitely left with wine-soaked white clothes.

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The craziest part was definitely the crowds though – when we headed into the side streets we were thrown into an absolutely crushing mob of people. Definitely an insane experience that we would have to get used to for the rest of the festivities! And, as we found out later, the people that were already partying at noon are the same people we saw the next morning after dawn still carrying on. I don’t know how the Spaniards do it for 9 straight days!

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So after a few hours of the crowds, finding food after searching countless streets and ridiculously crowded bars, and talking to newfound friends in one of the many parks throughout the city, we called it a day and headed back to the hotel. For me, at least, I planned on running with the bulls the next morning – and wanted to have plenty of rest.

Turns out, casual things like running with the bulls are easier said than done. The group that planned on running decided to watch videos and do some homework just to make sure we gave ourselves the best chances possible.. of survival. Such a Techie way to approach the “situation”. After over an hour of “highlight reels” and “worst gorings” compilations, we were all pretty quiet and contemplative. We had narrowed down our strategy to a few key pieces of advice:

1. If you fall, stay down. Countless people had told us that if you try and stand up, you’ll get knocked down by the bulls and/or crowd. The rule is to curl up and put your hands over your head and wait until someone taps you on the shoulder. We were told that the bulls would jump over you if you stayed on the ground. Some pretty scary advice.

2. Stay to the inside of the turns, especially on Deadman’s corner, because the bulls lose traction and slam against the outside wall when they’re running around. If there’s one place you DO NOT want to be.. it’s between a rock wall and a 1200 moving mass of horns and hooves.

3. Don’t run. Our teachers, guides, even fellow students .. could not express this enough.

Needless to say, falling asleep that night was not easy. I literally thought I was going to die. I’ve done some crazy things, but I can’t think of any that actually made me face possibly dying. Literally dying. It was more than terrifying. But I knew I just had to do it. Sometimes I don’t understand myself, and when I get an idea in my head, whether it’s erging for 24 hours or cliff jumping or running with the bulls… I HAVE to do it or else. I was already committed mentally, so it was just a matter of following through.

5:30am: The next morning we were all strangely calm – walking to the city before dawn to make sure we were let in. Turns out, we ended up climbing through a crowded fence into the street right in front of police officers. “Getting in” wasn’t as hard as we had expected. And the city was completely different from when we had left it the last afternoon. Passed out and sleeping people were in every spot of open grass, trash was piled in the streets sometimes knee high, and awful.. awful smells were drifting heavily through the entire town. Day 1 down.. 8 to go. Good luck Pamplona Sanitation Department.

6:20am: We get into the street and picked our spot – about a hundred meters up from the starting corral and on the inside of the first turn. We bought our newspapers – kind of a trademark item the runners have (supposedly to be able to tap fallen runners to alert them it’s safe to get up). The 1.5 hour wait was strangely calm. That all changed when things started picking up. The police started closing the gates – we were stuck inside whether we liked it or not. You saw the experienced guys casually smoking a cigarette, even reading their newspapers amidst the anxious crowd. We opened our newspapers.. to find profiles of all 6 bulls we would be (hopefully) evading. No thanks.

7:55am: The canción de San Fermin is sung 5 minutes before, 3 minutes before, and 1 minute before the run starts. For some reason, after the first singing the crowd panicked and bolted. We knew that wasn’t right, but when thousands of people are screaming and sprinting – you don’t stand still. A hundred or so meters down and everyone finally realized it was a false start. Probably caused by tourists who hadn’t known there were 3 singings and not just one. We had to quickly get back to our spot – the false start had pushed us farther up the street than we wanted to be. Had we started at that new spot, we might’ve gotten caught at “Deadman’s Curve” when the bulls passed.. something that was most definitely not wanted.

8:00am:We walked back and had a few more minutes of increasing anticipation.. until BOOM. The first cannon, signaling the release of the bulls, went off! The crowd erupts into excited yells and everyone starts jogging down the street. Then BOOM the second cannon goes off a few seconds later – signaling that the last of the bulls has left the corral. That’s like the branding iron on a bull’s rump (ha ha ha) because suddenly you’re sprinting along with an incredibly frantic crowd, whipping your head around to glance behind you every chance you get. Turns out, you can’t actually see the bulls until they’re right next to you. But that’s okay because the terror amongst the crowd increases exponentially when the bulls are on you.

8:00:40am: When I heard the fear and volume spike in the screams of the people behind me, I jumped to the wall and pressed myself against it as much as possible. It was incredible – a memory I see as a flash and slow motion all at once. I remember seeing a flash of brown and white run by, then very clearly seeing a guy on the ground – not even curled up, just spread across the center of the road. Then, two brown & white speckled bulls IN TANDEM leap over this guy. They got some serious height and I cannot believe I was literally mere feet away from a pack of running bulls.

Luckily, the bulls passed me right where I wanted them to: immediately before the first gradual turn, where the street was wide enough to where I could safely (statistically) get far enough to the side to let them pass me. After that, it was incredible relief. For a few seconds. The crowd, not knowing that the bulls had all passed, was still very panicky. I was still running, but just to keep up with the crowd and keep moving on the course. I ran the rest of the way with a crowd that was still terrified to run in the middle of the road for fear of more bulls charging up the streets. In all the chaos I had actually forgotten about the steers; there are six bulls released and then six steers to prod the bulls along. The steers are a lot slower than the bulls, so they passed me right as I was running in the street leading into the stadium. Luckily the crowd again alerted me to their presence, and I jumped into a group of people fighting for a spot on the side of the road. The steers passed by, and suddenly I was done! I still had to get out of the crowd, now packed in the tunnel to the stadium (the doors are closed once all the bulls and steers are inside), but knowing I was free from fear of bulls suddenly coming up behind me was such a relief.

Everything else that day I saw with rose colored glasses. I had run with the bulls in Pamplona (on the first and busiest running, mind you), and lived to tell the tale. We had the rest of the day to kill since our hotel checkout was at noon, so we found a shady spot in a park and relaxed in the grass for the entire day. It was a sad goodbye to Pamplona – the city that gave me one of the best weekends of my life. Hopefully I’ll return one day.. until next time, Viva San Fermín!!!

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