ON A BACKPACKING trip in 2009, I had the opportunity to run with the bulls. I wore the traditional festival outfit: white pants, white t-shirt, and a red San Fermín bandana tied around my neck. This is my story.
The Festival — Muy borracho!
The night before each run (there are runs in the morning each day of the week), there’s a huge block party out in the city. The community, which usually has a population of approximately 195,000, transforms into a city holding over a million people from all over the world.
All of the shops in the city are turned into bars and clubs. The streets become pedestrian walkways and are completely shoulder-to-shoulder with people. Instead of hot dog stands, the city has independent Sangria stands, where you have a choice of pint “cupas” or entire boxes that you stab a hole into and drink out of.
The bars in Spain are different than the US bars I’ve experienced. Everyone in the bar was very open to meeting new people. I (sort of) remember a beat-y, uppity song playing and a bunch of random strangers and I formed a circle with our arms around each others’ shoulders.
We kicked our feet in (left, right, left, right) while rotating in the circle. I ended up losing my phone. My shirt turned a dark purple from all of the Sangria that spilled out of cups and landed on me. Spanish girls had filled water guns with Sangria.
I was soaking in sticky purple wine-smelling goo.
By the end of the night (5:30 a.m. is the “end of the night” in Spain), I was exhausted but had to get to the bull gates before they closed at 7:30 a.m. On my way to the entrance, I saw a park that was filled with hundreds of travelers sleeping in the grass. I decided to rest my eyes in the middle of the park, near a couple of young travelers curled up in their sleeping bag.I woke up with nothing left in my pockets. Someone took my camera (with a bunch of pictures on it) and my booze cash. I guess it was my fault for sleeping in the park, but I feel like everything happens for a reason … getting all of my stuff stolen that morning was enough motivation for me to run with the bulls.
The police close the gates, and once they are closed, no one is allowed to leave. I was at the Cuesta de Santa Domingo, one of the first straightaways in the run. The announcer started to speak in Spanish, explaining the rules and tips to stay alive during the run. They said two loud bangs would signal the opening of the gates and the release of all of the bulls on to the road.
I was sweating. I had a pulsing headache from the copious amounts of Sangria I’d drunk, and my anxiety levels were growing as I saw police officers swatting at runners who were trying to leave because of a sudden change of heart (I would later find out that the police do this for the safety of everyone involved in the race).
The first cannon went off, and everyone started cheering and screaming. I looked back down the long stretch of the road (we were on a slight incline) and saw hundreds of runners speeding up the hill with newspapers in hand.
The sound of bells tied on to the necks of the bulls was faint, but grew louder as they quickly approached. It all happened so fast — everyone in front of me, everyone behind me, and everyone to the side of me was running. I was in shock and did not start running until an older man yelled, “CORRE AHORA!”
I bolted forward and heard the bells getting louder and louder. The stampede of hooves and sprinting feet were making the cheers inaudible. I’m going to die, I remember thinking to myself.
I looked back and saw people jumping toward the walls of the route as nine 2-ton bulls accelerated toward us at nearly 30 mph in the center of the road. I switched between looking forward to make sure I didn’t run into anyone or trip and looking back to pay attention to the bulls.Before I knew it, the bulls were right up behind me. In a quick panic, I pushed my way toward the left wall. People were frantically fighting for a spot against the wall, some were screaming, but most were laughing and cheering.
A number of people fell to the ground in the chaos, and neighbors tried their best to get them off the floor. As most experienced runners know, the most dangerous part of the event isn’t the bulls, but rather the runners. Some of the runners that fell threw their hands over their head to protect themselves (bulls will naturally jump over objects on the ground, which is why they suggest you get into the fetal position if you fall and don’t have time to get up).
The seven seconds it took for all of the bulls to pass by were the longest seven seconds of my life. The horns of the bulls were inches away from goring my neck and face and those of the men and women beside me.
Once the bulls all passed us, everyone began to cheer in unison. It was at this point that I became ecstatic, realizing that I had survived the encierro. I hugged three random Spanish strangers hoisting their newspapers into the air.
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Scott Shigeoka is a journalist based in Washington DC. He was awarded the 2011 Robert A. Mott Distinguished Excellence Award which allowed him to do backpack journalism in Guatemala. He is originally from Aiea, Hawaii and is a journalism graduate of Washington State University. He has written about his travels while backpacking through Europe and volunteering at a leprosy hospital in Ecuador.