7-7-07 – that’s quite a date! Each year, on the seventh hour of the seventh day of the seventh month, the famous Festival of San Fermin begins in Pamplona, Spain. For the next seven consecutive days, the festival runs night and day. The Festival is most noted for its tradition of allowing thrill-seekers from around the world to congregate in the streets and then to risk their lives and limbs while fleeing in front of bulls and steers which are released each morning.
I experienced this exciting festival and ran the bulls in 1973 and hold it as one of my great European memories. Each year, I’m reminded of that experience by the brief media accounts, sometimes recounting serious injury and even death.
Generally, people think that the bulls are free to roam the streets in Pamplona, but actually there is a set route of less than one-half mile that the bulls run each morning from a holding pen to the bull-fighting arena. At 7:00 a.m., a cannon blast is sounded for all to hear. That means that the gates of the holding pen are open. A second blast means that all the bulls and steers have left the pen. If a second blast goes off shortly after the first, it means that the six bulls and six steers are running in a pack and not spread out. That’s a good sign, since they tend to lope together. However, if the second blast occurs after a longer period of time, that means the bulls might be running “solo” and without any general direction. That is when the bulls stop to pick off or gore those in their way.
There are different methods of risking your life. At the sound of the first blast, some of the craziest runners actually charge down the first street directly at the bulls. There are 10 to 15-foot stone walls on either side, without any hiding spots, like doorways, to squeeze into. At the last moment, these runners throw themselves into the area where the stone wall meets the street. I don’t know who exactly San Fermin is, but hopefully that saint is watching over those runners. They need all the protection they can muster.
My law school classmate Rick Schuster provided the motivation and persuasion for me to come to Pamplona, high up in the mountains of northwest Spain. I had hitchhiked down from Munich through Switzerland, through La Provence in France, the French and Spanish Catalan provinces and the Pyrenees, and finally through the little country of Andorra to get there. Rick had run the bulls a few times and was showing me the ropes. We started our run about halfway to the arena, named Plaza del Toros. Dressed in light-colored clothing with a long, red sash around your waist and red bandana around your neck, we began to slowly jog at the sound of the first blast. Within 200 yards, we had increased our pace significantly, and before you know it, you can hear the excited cries of crowd of onlookers behind you as the bulls approach from the rear. The bulls can run twice as fast as a man, even if they are just loping. The runners pick up the pace to a near-sprint and everything becomes frantic and frenzied. As the first bulls approached from the rear, we had reached the point where the road bends down toward the arena tunnel entranceway. Perfect, since just as my classmate had planned, that’s where most of the photographers snap there pictures.
But I realized that this was a terrible place to be, and I thought I better get to the wood railings along the course, to escape over if necessary. Well, that was impossible, because there were runners six to seven deep, all which had come to the same conclusion simultaneously! Plus the locals will push escaping runners back into the course on the theory of machismo. You made the decision to run, so you need to fulfill that responsibility.
Being “jostled” would be a good description at this point of the run, especially when my glasses were knocked off.
After the first few animals had passed, I immediately sprinted down through the tunnel, leaping over some fallen bodies. The advice given to runners is that if you fall, you should stay down and immobile and these big, powerful animals will gracefully avoid you, one hopes. As soon as I burst into the arena, I made a hard left because the bulls tend to run straight into the arena. Lastly, once all the bulls have arrived in the arena, the runners test their daring by getting close to the bulls to taunt them. Yet another opportunity to get hurt, although you are free to climb out of the arena into the spectator seating. While the biggest true danger is the bulls, the other danger is all the other people running around you, falling on top of you or tripping in front of you. Add to this mix the alcohol factor, which means that many of these runners are partaking in physical effort of speed and dexterity while very drunk. After the last bull has arrived in the arena, a third cannon blast is heard. The total time for the morning run is usually three minutes.
Although history has it that the bulls have run in the streets of Pamplona for 700 years, more recent legend states that the tradition started to allow the bulls to have one opportunity to run after the butchers in town. The world came to hear about this tradition mainly through the writings of Ernest Hemingway in his 1927 novel, The Sun Also Rises. Between 1924 and 1997, 14 people have died and more than 200 have been injured by the bulls.
The festival mostly began with the bullfights, but then was expanded to
include music, dancing, comedies, parades and shopping. The Festival was
first held in July 1591, but only lasted two days then. Now, that has expanded
to an entire week. The majority of the participants are still Spaniards,
but now there are participants from around the world. The Spaniards say
that the presence of people from other lands “make the city more
amusing.” The growing popularity of the festival and the overcrowded
conditions have become a problem for Pamplona in recent years. Since 2002,
the Running of the Nudes takes place on July 5 as a protest and a humane
alternative to the running of the bulls. The nudes run the exact same course
as the bulls. Their goal is to abolish the annual running of the bulls.
But after the early morning excitement, there is much time for breakfast with numerous cups of café con leche in the main plaza and good conversation with new and old friends to recount the events of the morning and prior days. I met people from other parts of the world with whom I still have contact. I’m glad I have the memory from then, because I certainly wouldn’t attempt the run now, although I’d love to return to Spain and Pamplona and watch others participate.
Paul V. Carlin is Executive Director of the Maryland State Bar Association