With apologies to Three Dog Night, I’ve been to Oklahoma but I had never been to Spain. That is, until earlier this month when my wife Betty kindly indulged me in checking off something that has been on my bucket list for a long time: running with the bulls in Pamplona.
I am back to write this blog so you know already that I made it back alive and was not even one of the many participants hospitalized this year.
And I am also here to tell you that it was the most simultaneously exhilarating and out-of-control experience of my life (and I have jumped out of an airplane and off a mountain, and driven NASCAR and Indy cars 145 miles per hour). That’s why I am diverting from my usual postings here about HiDef and 3D to share my experience with you. Below you’ll find photos, video highlights, and a written summary of the bull-running experience.
Making all of that happen was the Spyns tour service, which I stumbled upon online. The very reasonably-priced service that Ryan King founded out of Canada about ten years ago also offers a personal bicycling experience during the Tour de France (hence the name, Spyns).
What a great find — Spyns offers the most personalized service we’ve ever experienced throughout the entire process, starting with the booking, and gratefully communicating at almost any hour via text, as well as e-mail (Ryan and the terrific Deborah Rimmer).
Since we booked the 7-day tour option (they offer shorter Pamplona-only tours), we also benefited by Spyns’ help in booking hotels in Madrid and Barcelona, and arranging trains to and from Madrid and Barcelona to Pamplona. Then they allowed us to enjoy those legs of our trip on our own without any pre-arranged itinerary.
The Hotel Atlántico on Gran Via in Madrid was modern in a classic shell with a rooftop lounge on the ninth floor and a lovely cupelo via spiral staircase to the 10th level with a 360-degree view of Madrid. It is so centrally located that we saw dozens of amazing sites by simply walking in all directions from the hotel, including palaces, government buildings, statues, fountains, lakes, art exhibits, museums, live theater and plays, plazas, unique buildings, structures, architecture – old and modern, and wide open and narrow public spaces. Among the highlights:
- Parque El Retiro: apparently way larger than The Big Apple’s Central Park. A beautiful giant shallow lake with boating; all-glass museum; picture-esque walking paths lined with statues and public art.
- Mercado de San Miguel: A modern farmer’s market and eatery space that is a cross between Grand Central Market in Los Angeles and a small version of Pike Place Market in Seattle.
- Plaza Mayor (reminiscent of the more famous Piazza San Marco/St. Mark’s Square in Venice) and multiple good restaurants and cafes with indoor and outdoor seating, including Restaurante Los Galayos, offering great paella (I went with chicken, rabbit, and veggies).
(Click here for full Facebook gallery of 80 photos from Madrid.)
After another pleasant train ride of several hours, the last two days of our trip were spent in Barcelona. Again, our accommodations — a quaint antique-themed hostel called Hostal L’Antic Espai — was ideally centrally located (note, this is a hostel, not a full-service hotel). In the first 24-hours Betty and I walked 15 miles around the city, enjoying everything from the Mediterranean Sea to Barcelona’s own Arc de Triomf and gorgeous adjacent park, as well as eye-catching classic and modern architecture, art and monuments. On our final evening we finally paid our first admission to anything on the entire trip: the giant, majestic, breathtaking Sagrada Familia De Gaudi cathedral that has been under construction for 123 years! And it still isn’t complete. What a stunning and amazing seemingly hodgepodge of classic and modern architecture; traditional European cathedral spires topped by Picasso-esque abstracts, giant bowls of fruit and Christmas trees – one evergreen and one aluminum. Next to beautiful stained glass is a figure that looks like Darth Vader. Myriad spiral staircases. It’s inexplicable yet we couldn’t stop looking at it all for hours – millions of intricacies and oddities. Thanks to the designer and webmaster for this site, Glenn Abel, for the recommendation to go here!
(Click here for Facebook gallery of 115 photos from Barcelona — 55 of the Sagrada Family Cathedral.)
To get to the centerpiece and heart of our trip, we took a very nice and fast state-operated (Renfe) train ride of several hours from Madrid to Pamplona — our coach turned out to be a party car with about ten excited young Spanish-speaking adults dressed in red and white, singing and chanting, and obviously very anxious and excited about their destination. You see, the bull run is a daily event at the annual eight-day San Fermin festival that draws about 1 million people to the 24/7 daily celebration featuring live music, nightly amazing fireworks, and lots of drinking (but very little crime or dangerous situations).
Spyns sent a driver (Henry from New Zealand) at nearly midnight to pick us up from the train station, see us to our hotel, and provide our welcome package complete with the traditional festival attire of white shirts and red sashes and neckerchiefs.
The next morning we were treated to an elegant breakfast buffet in a spectacular home once belonging to a royal.
The Spyns package also included seats in the world’s third biggest bull fight arena (tough to watch for first-timers but a true cultural experience), followed by an incredible VIP dinner with owner Ryan King at Palacio El Restaurante de Baluarte (I had the tastiest ceviche and the biggest and most tender and delicious lamb). As dessert was served the house lights dimmed so we could watch the biggest/best fireworks show we’ve ever seen right outside the restaurant window.
(Story continues below the following short video of the fireworks…)
Bull Run Prep and Reconnaissance
Each of the three mornings in Pamplona a Spyns representative picked us up at the hotel. If you’re doing the bull run, I highly recommend doing it the way we did — first day: do a walking tour of the route with Spyns guide and then observe the run from Spyns’ hard-to-book balcony above the route. You’ll gain so much valuable information on the tour and get a real feel for the event by watching it in person. The run is a much more complex procedural activity than you would expect — hundreds and even thousands of runner wannabes get shut out each day because they are standing in the wrong place — so it helps immensely to get all the pre-run insider information courtesy of Spyns.
No matter how much understanding you get about the run in advance, there is absolutely no controlling the situation once the bulls begin to run. It is total chaos and bedlam as there is no predicting how or where the bulls or the participants will run. You can’t predict how many people will run into you or how many will stumble and fall in front of you, causing unanticipated and unavoidable pile-ups. Even the bulls fall down, causing other bulls and runners to land on top of each other.
With so many runners and madness happening all around you, it’s also almost impossible to see all 12 of the bulls in the first wave well enough to try to run alongside them safely as they approach and run past (there are two waves of bulls).
The bull run is about a half-mile long and it takes the bulls about 2 1/2-minutes to run the course that ends in the arena where 16,000 screaming fans await.
There are anywhere from 1,000 – 3,000 runners each day, most of whom spread out to a chosen starting point all along the route because there is no way anyone can run 15-20 miles per hour alongside the bulls the entire way. Those who fall too far behind will not be allowed to run into the arena — officials follow the last bulls and close off the route to prevent any mishaps if bulls should turn and run the wrong direction (that happened on the day we were observing and it caused many serious injuries and unusual delays).
A good percentage of the participants start running like mad men as soon as the bulls are let loose even though the bulls are hundreds of yards behind them. Many run all the way into the arena well in advance of the arrival of the first bulls. (Some locals call this the coward’s run.)
The rest of the runners position themselves along building walls of the narrow course that is just a few yards wide with nowhere to hide. There are only a couple spots along the route where it widens slightly and there are gates and fences offering a possible escape route that present their own potential dangers — climb the fence too slowly and risk getting gored in the legs.
At this point, a family of four from Virginia who were also clients of Spyns — brothers in college and high school and their parents — decided it all looked too risky and would not run with the bulls after all.
Morning of the run
The first bulls are let loose at 8 a.m. each morning. Runners crowd behind a line near the course at 7 a.m., after which security begins letting them move forward to certain points at varying intervals over the next 45-minutes. During this time you are standing packed like sardines in crowds of testosterone-fueled mostly-male idiots like myself from all over the world who have no clue what’s about to happen. I was standing with a family of a half-dozen men who were also clients of Spyns — brothers, fathers, uncles.
You can barely move but your anxiety about the simultaneous fun, uncertainty, and danger of the upcoming run is growing. All that’s left to do is distract ourselves and kill time by joining in loud chants with words we English-only speakers don’t even understand. That, and gawk and wolf whistle at anything close to a sexy woman standing on a balcony above us, especially those women who eat up the attention and enjoy teasing us — suddenly we’re all momentarily transported back to our Animal House days.
Participants are not allowed to carry or wear cameras – there are security check points along the way. This makes it practically impossible to capture your moment on video. And family and friends will be challenged to videotape you since it’s difficult to even get access to a balcony viewing point, let alone coordinate a spot where you will be actually running alongside the bulls as you pass your friend’s camera.
Meantime, Betty was seated with her camcorder in the arena (tickets obtained for her by Spyns) not having any clue where I was, whether I was being gored, or if I was even going to make it into the arena at any point.
Given these challenges, I specifically broke with the traditional red and white clothing colors and wore a very bright yellow shirt given to me for this purpose by my father-in-law Lloyd Slaght, and also wore a purple baseball cap to give Betty the best chance of distinguishing me from all the others. (I worried a little that this might also draw more attention from the bulls, but after the event I learned that bulls are color blind, so supposedly even the red color of the capes does nothing more than any other color.)
I had decided to run forward to the point about two-thirds along the route below where we had been on a balcony the day before. This means I became separated from the six men in our Spyns group. But on the balcony I did see another Spyns client I recognized – Peter Chang from Australia, who took a photo of me seconds before the bulls started running. Spyns had recommended first-timers start even further along the street where it opens up wider, has a fence for at least a slightly better chance of escape, and is closer to the arena, giving us a better chance of making it there. But when I think of the bull run I always visualize runners on the tiny road between two walls of buildings. This might be my one and only chance, so this is where I wanted to experience the run.
Then, it finally started — we all heard the sound of the giant bottle rocket explosion at the beginning of the route and knew that the bulls would be arriving at our area of the path within about 75-90 seconds, and swarms of maniacal runners even sooner.
I paced back and forth looking for any possible favorable strategic starting position — considering the others around me, how much space I would have to run along the walls — walls of both buildings and people. I soon realized this was an exercise in futility as the situation was already changing by the second and would soon be completely and dramatically altered in the inevitable flurry of pandemonium.
The night before this madness, and early this same morning (I wasn’t getting much sleep, and neither was Betty), I had watched several videos of previous runs, looking for anything that might give me the best chance of accomplishing my two goals, while minimizing my risk of disaster.
- make it through the throngs of people to run alongside and touch a running bull
- run into the arena alongside the bulls
For the first goal, I decided to try to suppress the instinct to run with the crowds or to even start running when the bulls first came upon us (I knew this would be hard with an army of people running at me screaming and flailing). I would do my best to allow the first bulls to pass and then start running alongside the others.
For the second goal, since I knew I would not be able to keep up with the first wave of 12 bulls, I would drop back after they passed, jog slowly up to the entryway to the arena tunnel until the second wave of bulls approached and then run through the tunnel alongside those bulls.
While watching the videos I also looked for any mistakes made by runners that I could avoid. I particularly took note of a poor soul who looked to be employing the same strategy I had decided upon, of waiting to run out to touch the bulls until near the back of the pack. Unfortunately, he made the mistake of miscalculating — while he broke out and touched a bull while running alongside of it, he didn’t realize there was yet another bull behind that one, which caught up to him and head-butted him, catching him with its horn and tossing him in the air. He bounce-landed in a heap and was trampled by the bull and the swarm of people coming up fast.
So, I vowed to do a better job of counting to make sure I was running with the very last of the 12 bulls in the first wave.
It all worked to perfection — nearly.
I waited and waited for what seemed like an eternity (actually just a few seconds), pushing aside runners coming at me and getting buffeted by others. I counted as best as I could see through the chaos. Six, seven, eight, and there was another pack of what looked like four bulls almost upon me. I began running, pushing my way past other stumbling runners and got to the inside of the runners near the bulls.
There it was — a bull running right alongside me. I ran closer, reached over and touched it. Yes! I was doing it!
In the split-second after that moment of exhilaration, I suddenly remembered that I didn’t make sure I was running with the last bull in the pack — the very thing I promised myself not to forget. In a moment of panic I realized that I didn’t see any runners in my peripheral vision to my rear on either side.
Uh-oh, this isn’t good.
I quickly turned my head to look behind me while running.
Holy crap, I can’t believe it; there’s a bull directly behind me with his horns perfectly centered to my rear, running inches from my butt and gaining ground!
How did I let this happen?!
In this same fleeting nano-second were visions of me getting punctured and flung in the air, landing on the hard street, trampled, and worst: Betty waiting for me in the arena ahead, unaware of any of this and much later having to figure out what happened to me and tracking me down and coming to find me in the hospital.
I immediately accelerated (adrenaline-fueled) and headed away to the right side with the other runners, dreading the feeling of the bull’s head and horns at any moment.
That feeling never came, thank God. I let the bulls pass.
Ending run, entering the arena
With only a couple of moments to collect myself, I slowed my run to a jog.
One more goal to achieve.
Within a few seconds I saw the second wave of bulls and runners coming. Again, I paced myself to time my run alongside them as they were entering the tunnel — a very narrow and dangerous concrete deathtrap where many runners get slammed against the walls and floors and trampled. But there were only six bulls in this wave.
Again, I waited to run alongside the last bulls in the wave — they were easier to see and count this time. And by now I was at the wider portion of the path.
Perfect; I am running alongside the three bulls at the rear. Here comes the tunnel; hang in there and stay as far as possible to the right wall. I’m doing it! There’s the end of the tunnel and I am still alongside them. I just hope Betty sees me as I am about to run in the arena alongside the bulls in a few seconds. We’re in the arena! There is a sold-out crowd of 16,000 people cheering! I raise my hands in triumph while running in with the bulls!
Wow, I’m running around the dirt floor of the arena with several hundred others who made it here. What a rush. Now what? I really don’t know much about this part of the event. We were told that once you get to the arena they lock the entryways and exits so those inside can’t get out for 30-minutes.
The 18 bulls we just ran with have trotted across the arena and gone out the gate on the other side (six of them will be subjected to the toreadors and matadors tonight). I know they will soon be letting “cows” into the arena one at a time, and sometimes two at once. These are not dairy cows we are used to seeing on farms in the U.S., but female versions of the bulls, including the horns. And when they are let in to the arena, they will consider anyone in front of them a threat, and charge at them.
Not knowing how much time we have before the first bull is let in, I look for Betty and spot her remarkably fast (she spots my shirt and hat right away and asks the family of four who opted out of the run to all stand and wave and yell at me) – we exchange happy waves of relief and excitement. Betty is videotaping the whole thing.
Here comes the first cow — it immediately charges through the crowd, flinging bodies in all directions. The cow changes direction and its intended human targets amazingly quickly, and each time it does so, it sends anyone within eyesight turning and fleeing in waves of humanity at top speed even when the bull is nowhere close to them.
Some of the participants — many look like locals who have a lot of experience with this — challenge the cows by standing in front of them, taunting them, and even jumping over them.
I observe that about every five minutes, as one cow begins to tire, they allow it to leave the arena, give all of us about a minute to catch our breath, and then introduce a new full-energy beast into the arena.
As each cow enters the arena, dozens of apparent veterans of this activity even engage in some apparent ritual of laying down in front of the chute so the bull actually runs over their bodies.
After the first cow is let out, I spot only two of the half-dozen family of men from the Spyns group who made it to the arena. I go over to give them a high-five but one of them quickly tells me he is “not having any of this” and I hear later that he found a nurse to let he and his brother out of the arena. Probably a wise move.
Having no pre-strategy or even much interest in this element of the event, I quickly realize that while I can fairly easily stay out of harm’s way here, I must nonetheless keep my senses on high alert since the cows move so quickly and it’s hard to see exactly where they are through the crowds of people running in all directions.
On a post-run adrenaline come-down and yet realizing I must maintain my awareness for another 30-minutes, I know I will not be challenging or jumping over any of these cows. But neither do I want to spend the half-hour standing against a wall of the arena to avoid any chance of danger, as many others are doing (although even they sometimes try to scale the wall when a cow comes close).
I quickly devise my strategy: I make my way back over to the side of the arena where Betty is sitting and videotaping. If anything does happen to me, at least she’ll get a good shot of it. As each cow comes to my general area, if they decide to target me, I will stand my ground as long as I have the courage to do so, while others flee around me.
This happens several times when I come eye-to-eye with the animal just a few feet away from me for a brief moment, prompting Betty to be heard later on camera while filming saying “Oh my Gosh!”
In each case someone around me distracted the cow away from me or I turned to run.
Arena celebration of triumph
At the end of the half-hour, we were finally able to let our guard down and celebrate. This was a delightful moment and memorable experience as triumphant music blared from stadium speakers and the hundreds of participants who were still standing — mostly strangers; I didn’t know a single person — came together in unison, giving high-fives to each other, hugging, and even dancing; one man came up to me, took my hand, and twirled me. A shared cultural experience of the accomplishment of a dream with hundreds of people I didn’t know and will never see again.
— By Scott Hettrick
(Watch fast-paced four-minute video highlights of the bull run and arena experience below…)
(Click here for Facebook gallery of 70 photos from Pamplona.)