And then we went to Venice and then Florence and then Nice and then Barcelona AND THEN …. I ran with the bulls!
Yes, I know I said I’d work up to it but I can’t stand it anymore … I’ll get back to the rest of that stuff later. For now, let’s talk turkey …er, steak.
On July 10, I ran with the bulls. (I just love saying it!) My sister cheered loudly and proudly from the sideline – screaming, GO BEEEEEEEK!!! when I went by and a short time later, RUN JENNE RUN!!!!! when six giant cattle went whizzing by her as she hung on the fence. I wasn’t by myself when I ran – of course – I’m not sure just how many people ran that day. 100? 500? I don’t know – there were a lot of us. But even though I had all those people pressed up against me (and later, trampling me into the cobblestones), I still ran alone.
The fencing begins going up at the crack of the crack of dawn – around 5:45 or 6- and I’m talking AM here. This double fencing is used to line the stretches of the route that are without buildings on either side. It is also used to keep an area clear of spectators so idiots like me can get out of the way when 24 hooves are getting a little too close for comfort.
Once the fencing is up, the slow and painful process of clearing the streets of people who have been drinking all night begins. And by drinking all night I don’t mean that poetically – I mean it literally. This, even more than the running of the bulls, is the distinguishing factor of the Festival of San Fermin. Bars stay open all night. Shops that aren’t normally bars stock up on beer and kalimotxo (which is a mixture of red wine and coca-cola. No, I’m not making that up) and turn into bars for 7 nights. The party starts on July 6 and doesn’t end until the festival does – July 14. Now, you may think you’ve been to a party before. You may recall frat parties or tailgates or late night binges. Let me tell you something, you don’t know party until you’ve walked the streets of Pamplona around 5 in the morning. Every night it was like someone said to the town and the people, Hey tomorrow the world’s going to end UNLESS YOU CAN CONSUME EVERY LAST DROP OF ALCOHOL WITHIN A 50 MILE RADIUS BY DAWN. And then someone else said, FIFTY? WE DID THAT LAST NIGHT JUST FOR WARM-UPS!
But the thing is, as much as it is crazy and what-not, it is still very – I don’t know – charming somehow. Sure people were drunk out of their minds but they were also very sweet about it. For example, while making my way up some side street stone cold sober at 5:45 on the morning I was running I was … oh what’s the word? molested I guess you would say, by a young drunk fellow who apparently thought I was his girlfriend … or a loaf of bread desperate for kneading. When I spun around to confront him and he realized I was neither his gal or dough, he smiled broadly and said, Oh! Hi! then giggled and patted me perfunctory twice on the bottom as if to say, no hard feelings.
So the fencing goes up … it has to, otherwise a good 200 people would drift into the streets slurring, BULLS??? I HAD 6 RED BULLS ALREADY THIS MORNING! OLE! And the clearing of the route begins. After the drunks are cleared, the bars and stores begin closing up. And by closing I mean the steel doors come down. And I guess that’s important otherwise you could have a thousand pounds of beef in your barra. Once the shops are all closed the street sweepers come by and then, slowly, the street begins to fill up with those people hell bent on running with the bulls.
I’ve had a dozen or so people ask me, Did you have to sign up somewhere to run? Or, Was there a waiver you had to sign? And every time I laugh. Not because they are dumb questions but because, well, they just don’t do things there like we do things here. I’m sure if we had some such event here, in the states, there WOULD be an official sign-up. I’m sure you’d have to compile a packet of information including a doctor’s note, proof-of-insurance, a waiver and (if my mom was involved at all) a note from your parents saying it was okay for you to participate. But in Spain, where they’ve been doing this for about 700 years, you just decide you are going to run and you run.
That’s not to say there aren’t some rules. You can’t, for example, just enter any ol where on the route. You have to go in at one of the two official gates. And you have to be IN the gates by about 7:15 or so. And there are other rules as well. You have to wear proper footwear. And you can’t carry anything with you – like a camera or a bag. And you can’t be drunk – although I saw many MANY people try to get past this rule. However, even though there are rules, it’s not like you are inspected on your way in to the route. Instead, the Policía make their way through the crowd of runners and yank you out if they think you aren’t properly fit, shoed, dressed or sober. And by yank you out I mean they grab you by the belt and the neck and toss you under the fence. There is no discussion. You’re out.
While you are waiting, a pre-recorded message plays over and over. It plays in 4 languages – English is one of them – not that that helped me understand what the nice man on the recording with the thick Spanish accent was saying. Thankfully it played about 100 times and finally I was able to make out that “it is impossible to run the entire route, chooooose a place you would like to run.” The Accent also tells you with trilling R’s, “Remember to stay down if you fall down and cover your head.” And my personal favorite, “Do not punch or hit the other runners.” Which made me laugh every time because what other event could you possibly participate in where that had to be clarified?
From about 7 to 7:55 the crowd at the town plaza (the official entry point) gets denser and denser. And I mean that in both senses of the word. The runners are all kept together in this area. At some point, the medics come out and fill in the empty space between the fencing. Also the police line up about 8 abreast near the front of the square. They create a line and then clear everyone out in the route in front of that spot. This keeps people from just jumping in at the end of the route. I’m not sure how the position of this line gets chosen and I saw many people get dumped from the route. Basically if you are behind the line you run. If you are in front of the line, tu no carrera.
The announcements continue.
The police continue walking the crowd and pulling out those who shouldn’t be there.
The watchers cheer and clap and use bullhorns - and I just realized how ironic that is.
Inside the route it gets tighter and tighter.
Then, about 3 minutes to 8 the Policía let you go find wherever it is you’ve chosen to run. Some runners like to run the same spot each year. Dead Man’s Turn is always popular as is a stretch along the Estafeta. The Estafeta is a street about as wide as my hips with shops on both sides. No sidewalks, no fencing. Basically it is a stretch of route that leaves you with few options should you be unable to run at the speed of light like some bovines I know. Some people like to run this stretch because it is dangerous. Also, it is the last stretch before the turn that takes you into tunnel and into the ring. This is the stretch I most wanted to run. Yes, because it’s dangerous and also because there is a chance if you run this stretch, you may just get to enter the bullring one step ahead of the horns and what’s the point anyway if it’s not a little scary?
When the Police let the runners go find their spots, you don’t take off running - not yet - you just meander. It’s a parade of sorts. Throngs of runners mostly dressed in the traditional garb – white pants and tops with red scarves - file down the tight streets past spectators hanging on fencing and off of balconies. Spectators cheer! Runners cheer back! For awhile the runners act like this is no big whoop. Like when you were a kid and you ate something really gross on a dare and you pretended for the first 5 chews that hey, it's no big deal. And then you puke. At some point, runners begin jumping up and down. The whoops continue. Runners hit each other on the arm, rattle off things in Spanish that are impossible to understand and slap each others’ backs. Then people break out in song. It gets louder and louder and then at exactly 8:00, a rocket goes off.
And that’s when the real madness starts.