My heart was racing, thumping against my chest wall threatening to explode when everything else in the background became white noise. Looking from side to side at the crowds of people around me and up at the hundreds of people cheering down from balconies, the sounds that should have accompanied their lively expressions and body language were somewhere in the far distance.
Staring down at myself, my hands were shaking, sweating, while my feet were twitching with the adrenaline that was coursing through my body. It seemed that every runner was having a similar reaction to this as the whole course as far as I could see became a sea of heads bobbing up and down as people jumped with anticipation.
I watched as a runner in front of me clutched his beaded necklace and mumbled what must have been a prayer to himself before tracing the sign of the cross in front of his face with his hand.
And that was when it happened. I barely registered the sound of the rocket announcing that the bulls had been released before everything exploded into action; in this one instant, the sound of my surroundings crashed into me with severe intensity and I started running for my life.
I remember this once-in-a-lifetime experience like it was yesterday (trust me, there’s nothing like life-threatening adrenaline to sear a memory into your brain), but I also remember what it was like the hour before the run.
I didn’t have any clue about what to expect from the event as I hadn’t watched any videos or read any harrowing stories beforehand and I didn’t know what to do other than run. I actually remained blissfully in denial about how dangerous this experience actually was until the moment my friend and I got pushed into a narrow pen which was the course and we were squished between hundreds of big dudes who had obviously not missed a gym day in quite a long time.
It was this exact moment where it dawned on me and my friend and I looked at each other with that kind of “oh crap, what have we done?” expression.
Luckily, an older Portuguese man took pity on us. Even though he didn’t speak a word of English, he guessed that this was our first time and so told us to stick with him. He had run four or five times before, so with our limited Spanish, we spent the next hour listening to his every word as he gave us some solid advice about not dying.
I honestly don’t know how the run would have gone if we hadn’t got this advice, I don’t like to think about it, but what I do know is that he really made the experience for us. In that hour before the run, we did spend it scared (hello, we were counting down the minutes until bulls would be released into the streets?!), but we also spent it excited, calmed by the knowledge that we knew exactly what to do (and what not to do) to ensure that we were as safe as we could be.
It’s for this reason that I wanted to share Giraldo’s life-saving advice as well as my own in one complete survivor’s guide to the running of the bulls.
Running of the Bulls with Stoke Travel
First off, I just want to explain what to expect at the running of the bulls because if you’re like me and you did zero research, you won’t have any idea either and may miss out. I decided to do this activity with the guys over at Stoke Travel on a whim and didn’t really know what to expect.
Although internationally known as Running of the Bulls, the week-long festival that Pamplona celebrates from July 6th to July 14th is actually San Fermín, a festival that celebrates Saint Fermin, the co-patron of Navarre.
The celebrations are 24/7 and they involve many fiestas, siestas, and sangria. Running of the bulls is actually just one of the events that take place throughout this festival and it is the daily bull runs that bring in tourists by the thousands. After the event itself, Stoke Travel had their own parties to keep the celebration going.
What to Expect at the Running of the Bulls
So San Fermín actually begins at noon on the 6th of July. This is an incredible moment to witness and is not to be missed, as before noon the whole city is wearing white until at exactly 12 o’clock, the traditional chupinazo (opening ceremony) is announced with fireworks and everyone puts on their red neckerchiefs to signify the beginning of the celebrations.
The crowds erupt with the traditional song “Pamploneses, Viva San Fermín, Gora San Fermín” (“People of Pamplona, Long Live Saint Fermín”) and there is one massive sangria fight. The day is then spent celebrating in the streets, singing, salsa dancing, and drinking and eating with friends – yes it is as awesome as it sounds.
When you’ve spent the first day celebrating in sangria-soaked clothes, the rest of the festival days start with a bright and early Encierro (bull run).
This is where hundreds of people run in front of six fighting bulls and six steers through an 825-meter (0.51 mile) stretch of narrow streets and end up in the bullring in the center. The whole run lasts about 2-3 minutes.
Every morning at 7 am, the participants are let into the course before the run starts at 8 am. It is really important that you don’t move too far forward when you get into the course as if you cross a certain point, the police will shuttle you out and you may miss it all together.
This is purely for crowd control and to weed out people who don’t want to run or are too drunk or hungover to realise what is going on, if you stay near where you have entered and only move forward when everyone starts, you’ll be fine.
About 20 minutes before the run, you’ll be allowed to walk the course and choose the point where you want to start running from. Once you’ve chosen your spot, a series of rockets will go off; the first announcing the start of the run at exactly 8 am, the second signaling that the six fighting bulls have been released, and the third announcing that all bulls are on the course.
Once you can see the bulls in the distance, it’s time to start running. Trust me, they’ll catch up. Focus on looking where you’re going (and not falling).
At the end of the run, if you started running towards the end of the course, you will find yourself in the middle of the bullring alongside hundreds of other people and surrounded by thousands of spectators sitting in the arena.
If you’ve ever seen Gladiator, you’ll know exactly the scene that I’m trying to paint. My advice here? Take a quick picture or video and get the hell out of there! We didn’t know what happened after the run and were so overwhelmed with intense relief that we were alive that we were too busy drinking in the atmosphere to realise that a fighting bull had just been released back into the bullring.
Long story short, get out of there before the crowds crush you against the sides of the ring and you hurt yourself trying to climb over to safety.
Each of the six fighting bulls is released back into the bullring one by one after the run, where crazy runners who have stayed inside tempt fate by dodging the charging creature. I really didn’t like to watch this, so my friend and I left to join the celebrations in the streets, but this happens after every morning run for the next hour and every evening ends with a traditional bullfight.
These events are not for everyone but they are deeply rooted in Spanish culture, so if you don’t wish to witness the tradition, you don’t have to. If you’re like us, there is much more fun to be had drinking sangria, dancing in the streets, and eating your way through the amazing street food that they have available instead.
Packing Essentials (what to bring with you)
Another looming uncertainty that was on my mind when preparing for this trip was “what do I even bring?” Turns out, you don’t need that much. Here is a list of the essentials that you’ll need:
- Good running trainers – any particular ones that you run faster in would be good!
- Traditional white clothes, a red sash, and neckerchief – whether you are running or not, you need these and you can buy them from almost any shop and stall in Pamplona. I recommend buying two if you’re going to the opening ceremony or you can just bring detergent to wash the stains off of one set the night before the run. It’s considered disrespectful if you’re not wearing white, so if you bring nothing else, make sure you’ve got clean white clothes to wear.
- A bottle of water – make sure to drink it before 7 am so you can dispose of it before the run.
- Mobile phone holder – obviously, it’s best not to bring your phone altogether but we all want to capture amazing moments like this and you’ll need it if you’re spending the day in the city. My phone was fine in my white trouser pocket, but I was worried because they were quite open. If I was to do it again, I would probably take the phone armband that I use when I run.
- Hairband – if you’ve got long hair, bring a hairband to tie it back. There are enough obstacles running on the narrow course without your hair in your face!
Survival Tips When Running with the Bulls
There are so many different factors to this experience that could go wrong and no run is the same. In fact, they are all incredibly different. Not only do the type of bulls change every day, so some may be more aggressive or faster than another breed, but the weather also makes a difference (it rained heavily before our run so both people and bulls were slipping) and of course, people are unpredictable and life is down to chance, luck and circumstance.
Another factor that determines the level of danger is when you run. You might not be surprised that we didn’t know this before we ran on the first day, but the first day of the run is actually the most dangerous. Not only are there significantly more runners this day than any other because tourists flock here for the opening ceremony, but most of these runners are tourists who don’t know what they are doing so falls and injuries are a lot more likely to happen.
While many things may be out of your control, there are a few things that you can do to reduce the danger and ensure that you’re being as safe as you can be.
1. Get Plenty of Rest the Night Before You Run
This might be stating the obvious but you’d be surprised how many people didn’t get to sleep till late and then had to drag themselves out of bed for the 5:30 am bus into the city. You want to be at your best when you’re risking your life in the morning (duh!), so skip the partying for one night and get some sleep.
Oh, and don’t run when you’re hungover, it’s one of the biggest rules not to be inebriated when you run and the police will march you off the course.
2. Dress Smart
You need to be wearing the traditional white clothes to run and make sure that they are clean and that you wear the red sash hanging on the left (unless you want people to know that you’re a tourist). By dress smart, I mean to dress for the worst-case scenario.
Another handy Giraldo tip (the Portuguese guy and running of the bulls guru) was to tie a slip knot in our neckerchief and sash. In the unlikely event that a bull’s horn gets a hold of you, the last thing you want is for your neckerchief to choke you or your sash to keep you hanging on the bull while it runs at 35mph!
3. Start Running about 100m from the End of the Course
This is completely down to your own preference but I’m just trying to keep you safe here! When choosing where to start running on the course, avoid dead man’s corner. If the name isn’t reason enough not to start here, you should know that this sharp turn at the beginning of the course is where bulls often can’t slow down and crash into the side crushing any person who was unlucky (or stupid enough) to be there at the time.
Hence, the dead man. I recommend starting at about 100m from the end of the course before the last corner, as you can run alongside the bulls right before they enter the bullring. This ensures that you definitely make it inside the bullring before they shut the gates to take in the atmosphere before getting back to the street celebrations.
4. Pay Attention to the Rockets
A lot of people freak out and start running on the first rocket, but if you’re closer to the end of the course, this could mean that you miss the bulls altogether. Plus, I heard, that if you’re running into the bullring and there are no bulls, that the locals throw tomatoes at you.
I can’t confirm that that’s true but it’s worth noting. You should start running on the third rocket as that is when all the bulls are on the course, or if you’re close to the end, start running when you can actually see the bulls in the distance.
5. Don’t Stop Running
The worst thing you can do is to stop running and hog the side of the wall. Yes, this might make you feel safer, but it actually puts you in more danger as well as those around you. People are more likely to bump into you and fall causing pile-ups and run-ins with the bulls which you don’t want (trust me, it happened to me and it was terrifying), so keep running and the bulls will run without bumping into any people.
6. Don’t Look Back
This is a controversial piece of advice to give as many people would say “well if you don’t look back, how can you know if a bull will run into you?” but from my experience, it is much safer not to. If you’re always looking ahead, you are much less likely to fall, and this is where most injuries occur.
Not only that, but the bulls always run through the middle of the course anyway, unless there are people falling into the middle, so concentrating on running close to the edge and not falling should be a priority.
7. Stick to the Left
Giraldo saves the day again! Apparently, the bulls always favour their right side, so you are much more likely to get hurt if you run on the right and they fall over or overcompensate. I ran on the left side and only got an injury from climbing out of the bullring, so is it worth the risk not to?
8. If you Fall, Stay Down
This might seem strange and I would think that you would have to override any survival reflex that you had if you did fall down, but it actually makes sense. With hundreds of people running towards you, not to mention 6 bulls and 6 steers, if you crouch in a ball and put your arms over your head (abort the fetal position if you will), then those people and said bulls can jump over you or run around you.
If you try to get up when all of this commotion is happening, it actually leads to more people falling and more injuries. I actually did this event through Stoke Travel and they had people running at the back of the crowds who would tap you on the shoulder when it was safe to get up.
9. Don’t Touch the Bulls
Again, another obvious tidbit for sane people is to not touch the bulls during the run. Many locals do, maybe to add even more thrill to the run, but the safest way to run is to stay as far to the left edge as possible and look forward while the bulls run ahead of you.
10. Don’t Get Stuck in the Tunnel
There is a short tunnel before entering the bullring and it is important that you don’t find yourself running in there when the bulls are running through, so either run through if you can make it and dive to the side or slow down slightly to let them go ahead of you.
The tunnel is narrow and the bulls start to spread out in anticipation of entering the wide bullring, so as you can imagine, this leads to many falls, injuries, and gores that could be avoided.
11. Get Out of the Bullring as Fast as Possible
As I mentioned previously, we didn’t know that the bulls are released back in after the run, so we actually got hurt here as the crowd pushed us suddenly against the edge of the ring and crushed us against the barrier. For me, this was the scariest part of the run as we couldn’t climb over to safety as people were pushing us against the side. All I kept thinking was if the crowd suddenly dispersed, the bull would charge straight into us, but we were lucky enough that some guys on the other side helped pull us over. Moral of the story? Get your ass over quick and ask people to help.
Stay Safe at the Running of the Bulls
We know that there is a lot of controversy surrounding this event, especially when it comes to animal rights, but immersing myself in the center of this tradition for 4 days showed me how much this festival isn’t just about this one event.
Many people just come here for the ceremonies and street parties to honour Saint Fermín and then there are many people who do enjoy the traditional elements.
I genuinely felt that, regardless of where you stand with the running of the bulls, the festival was more about being thankful and celebrating together. Deciding what to participate in and what not is our individual decision and I think it’s more important to honour the decision of others even if we don’t necessarily agree with it. After all, it wasn’t my culture. I was just glad to be learning about it and to be a part of it.
Whether you choose to run or not, we hope that this survivor’s guide will help you be as safe a possible during the week-long festival. As always with such big events, just be aware of what’s going on around you, keep your valuables safe, and don’t put yourself in any risky situations.
For me, I went to this festival with my best friend so we were two young women among crowds of mostly men. I can honestly say that I never felt unsafe or threatened. We had heard that we may get shouted at by locals who still disagree with women running (an out-dated rule of the event), but we didn’t experience any animosity while we were there.
Lastly, although I was obviously afraid of running with the bulls, I remember being more afraid of the people. With hundreds to thousands of runners, I was imagining being pushed, grabbed and trampled by people running for their lives.
This wasn’t far wrong as it is every man for himself out there, but as always, the mind conjures up the worst of images that are never normally anywhere near as bad in real life. Plus, the whole run is 2-3 minutes long and your survival instinct kicks in right when that first rocket goes off, so it’s honestly not worth worrying about.
Running with the bulls at the San Fermín festival was by far the most terrifyingly exciting thing that I’ve ever done in my life. I’m so glad to have done it and to have been a part of this centuries-old tradition, but I think that I can safely say that I never want to do it again as risking it once was enough! It was definitely an experience of a lifetime! If you’re doing it, good luck and be safe!
If you want to experience this for yourself, check out more details of this trip here.
Want to see more once-in-a-lifetime experiences? Here are a few of our favourites:
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