I Still Don’t Know Why I Ran With the Bulls
There is nothing noble, nor brave, about running with the bulls. Nothing of the sour smell of drunkenness and strewn-out drunkards in the early Pamplonan morning, the stench of rotten food in the street and the smell of shit —nor the bloodshed of bulls— is worthy of anecdote.
But I knew that. I did it anyway. And I still don’t know why.
The first day of the encierro at the Fiestas de San Fermin thickens the air in my lungs. I say goodbye to friends who join the fiesta on the sideline, and wait alone beside a tightly-packed crowd of sweat-glazed men dressed in white; some wear weathered and once-brilliant red neckerchiefs, or pañuelo, others have bought theirs from roaming street-vendors with bright pins and sewn-on badges and veterans shake hands.
American tourists in gaudy Captain Morgan fedoras ask for validation that I am indeed of all three things: a woman, a journalist, and a participant in the run. They run every year, they say, and I see their eyes light up in the lead-up to the first rocket. The group of four commentate from beside me on the colour of my eyes and question how young I must be as I turn my back to them, no longer interested in hearing their reasons for running. Marching bands move swiftly down the narrow streets bathed in sun, where I turn my shoulders to push through eager and stretching runners and find space to breathe.
Spectators perch in earnest above on juliette balconies with cameras, where they say little and stare intently. There are children piggy-backing on older shoulders, and weathered grandparents sitting silently. My eyes make contact with an older woman and I can’t discern her thoughts of me; if she were to ask of my being here, I simply couldn’t tell her. Schools of policemen and paramedics push through the chanting crowd, a homily in Spanish and Basque to Saint Fermin, patron of the fiestas; I don’t join in.
“A San Fermin pedimos, por ser nuestro patron, nos guie en el encierro dandonos su bendicion.”
We ask San Fermin, being our patron saint, to guide us in the bull run and give us his blessing.
The loudspeakers hung up in the street and the televisions above us broadcast a series of precautions in English and Spanish: Do not touch the bulls, do not jump over barricades, if you are knocked down, stay down. I grind sticky shoes on sickly cobblestone still saturated from the rain and wine-soaked fiestas, I swallow the stomach acid churning in my throat, and I hear the first cannon.
It pierces a screaming symphony of voices all the way from the bullpen, and for only a second there’s nothing but white noise. Behind me I see no-one running. It’s as if the men who had pushed away the fear of dying had just watched it come flooding back, and for the first time, I see the fear. Bellowing from the crowd I hear just one word: “Run.”
An outbreak of bodies makes the ground shudder in waves. The blast of the second cannon sends the crowd out into a soaring current, and people begin to fall over one another into a heap; I hear myself cry out when I push past a cluster of slow men with melting faces using a swift forearm, knowing this is the first time I’ve laid hands on a stranger. But my now overwhelming need to survive is bound by the roaring echo of hooves.
A white sea is parting, alerting me the bulls are close, and as I look behind my shoulder to lock eyes with the most breathtaking animal I’d seen yet — an enormous, muscular Spanish fighting bull — toros bravos, thick hooves bruising pavement, charging behind me.
It’s at this moment I realise that I don’t fear the bulls; I fear the people.
The screams and sounds of danger are deafening as my feet carry me, almost like flying, to the clustered corridor of the pavement. A man I’d seen before then run extends a strong arm to me, but I scream for him to keep running. Frightened men use me like a shield and my head knocks against the pulsating walls; I hold onto the hunched shoulders of a man who looks no older than I am and for a silent moment, we share our fear, and then he’s gone.
I don’t count all six bulls before the third cannon. Before a bull-run, you’re told by veterans and run-enthusiasts to count each bull as they pass you, so as to be certain there is not a suelto, a lone bull, left charging through the crowd. But the advice of those who’d run before me, left the second I let my feet go. The fear and the adrenaline blind me as I find myself standing before the just-closed gate of the arena where the bulls will die later this afternoon, and I hang my head in my hands.
It takes strength not to let myself weep like a baby; not for the run, nor the exhilarating realisation I ran beside bulls and lived, but for the uncertainty of it all — a failure to understand my true intentions — that sends tidal waves through my chest.
A seasoned man, with a face much like the deep crevices of an old tree I know back home, smiles at me and pinches my shoulder: “You did it,” he says barely panting, and before I can respond, before I can ask of his insight into my choice, he is reuniting with family in pools of people that spill into bars, in the aftermath of the forever-running encierro.