Running with the bulls: Dominion’s Hemingway

by Ryan Frazier

ach year thousands of thrill seekers, adrenaline addicts and revelers flock to the Spanish city of Pamplona for the Fiesta de San Fermín, made famous by Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 classic, The Sun Also Rises.

The nine-day festival — from July 6-14 — is held in honor of Navarre province’s co-patron saint and features all-night street parties, people dressed in white with red scarves and sashes, late-afternoon bullfights and the notorious Encierro, the daily morning ritual of running with the bulls.

While the festivities are fun, Encierro is the star.

Bulls happen to be dangerous, unpredictable and huge, but also uniquely nimble and fast. The six bulls slated to fight that night and their accompaniment of steers cover the narrow, cobblestoned streets swiftly, charging 928 yards from the Corrales de Santo Domingo to the Plaza de Toros in as little as two minutes.

While waiting for an hour in the city hall square, packed tight with 2,000-4,500 of my closest friends, I had a lot to think about before hearing the blast of the first rocket at 8 a.m. For example, the fact that some runners get gored and others trampled every year, and that sometimes they die (15 deaths in the past century, the last of which occurred in 2009). With those dark thoughts coursing through my brain and about 10 minutes before the first rocket sounds, certain barriers are removed and the runners are allowed to find a less densely crowded area of the course, making it easier to avoid getting caught in a human pileup.

Everyone has a strategy or technique for staying out of harm’s way. Some runners enjoy starting close to the corrals or near “La Curva,” a sharp, 90-degree dead-man’s turn, if you will. Other risk-takers prefer the Callejón, the narrowest portion of the run and the passage to the bullring. The smart and sober ones among us — myself included — venture past the curve to Calle Estafeta, a street only 15 feet wide but with doorways deep enough to shelter runners from a raging bull, if needed.

On Estafeta, I hear the first rocket’s sound, signifying that the bulls have been awakened. Then the second rocket — all bulls have left the pen. The reality sets in that in 45 seconds, maybe a minute, a thundering herd of beasts with razor-sharp horns and aggressive attitudes will be blazing by.

The runners try to pick up speed — an impossible feat in light of the congestion in the street and the slick cobblestones. My mind races faster than the bulls thundering behind, telling me to stay away from the middle. Almost immediately comes the sound of clanking cow bells, worn by the steers helping to guide the bulls to the ring. A glance over my shoulder reveals the coming herd hurtling ahead, just a few feet behind and five feet to the right. In a heart-thumping instant, all have passed, save two straggling steers, 100 yards behind.

My fear subsides and, moments later, dies upon the sounding of the third and fourth rockets, suggesting that all bulls have entered the ring and the ring pens, respectively.

The runners continue to stream into the ring, whose stadium seats are by now full of patrons seeking a glimpse of that afternoon’s fighting bulls. The exhilaration does not abate, as the vaquillas — young, untrained calves — delight the onlookers by charging the runners milling around in the ring.

As a newly minted corredor, I cross this one off my bucket list, share some laughs, celebrate with friends and fellow runners and eagerly await another chance to run with the bulls in Spain.

Photos courtesy of Ryan Frazier and Karl Nembach
Video by Karl Nembach