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12 Things You Didn't Know About the Running of the Bulls

by Peter N. Milligan Jun 26, 2015

1. You have to wear the uniform. You want to wear the uniform.

It’s not really a uniform, but everyone, and I mean everyone, wears white pants, white shirts, and the red scarf around their neck and the red sash around their waist. There are some variations, but denim culottes and a t-shirt from the Gap in Munich will not pass muster. Really, joining in with everyone and adopting the unwritten dress code is just part of the fun. Legend says that butchers were the first locals to run down the cobblestones. The white pants hearken back to their white aprons. Or, it might be a religious reference. No one knows anymore. The red scarf pays homage to Catholic Saint Fermín who was beheaded by the French in 303. He is said to have picked up his head and walked back into Spain. They built the Pamplona cathedral where he finally sat down and died. The religious fiesta started in 1196. The bulls wormed their way into the fiesta as the headliner within years. The sash? It’s just for style.

2. The goal is to run with the bulls, not to touch the bulls.

The goal of running with the bulls is to show some bravery by getting in front of the bull horns and running with the herd of bull brothers for a couple of moments. Only the most spectacular of athletes can hope for more. Slapping at or grabbing at the bull, touching its horns, or tugging its tail, are not only insults to the local citizenry, and illegal, but also dangerous because it may distract the bull enough to come and find you. Or more likely, find someone who wasn’t foolishly grabbing at a bull’s tail. The rolled newspaper carried by runners is not for striking the bull, but for measuring distance, and for leading the bulls should they get distracted from running.

3. Someone tries to run nude every year.

Every summer, right before the rocket explodes and before the bulls come running, some genius strips nude to run. First, the police will remove him from the streets and arrest “Magic Mike” immediately. La policía will not be festive, and a picture of the perp in all his natural glory will likely be on the front of the local paper the next morning for giggles and pointing. Second, well—yawn—it’s been done and done and done again. It’s far from original. Finally, self-centered attempts to call attention to oneself violate the spirit of running with the bulls. It’s a communal experience where showoffs are shunned. At the opposite of the spectrum, wearing too much is not permitted either — no helmets, no protective gear, and no armor, please. The risk of injury is democratically spread amongst all runners equally. No costumes either. Leave it in the hotel room, Spiderman.

4. The bulls will kill you without consideration of your cool summer plans.

That guy with the hemp pamphlets at the campground or the community showers or at Left Luggage will tell you how the bulls are old or blind, or docile and domesticated. Or, how they have dulled horns. Big-time balderdash. In Pamplona, they run four-year old bulls—at their maximum, angry, masculine prime. The horns are razor sharp. The average bulls are 1,200 pounds. The big ones? Well, they are much bigger. Like a Toyota Prius. They all run around 35 mph, which is faster than you would feel comfortable driving on those cobblestones. Spanish bulls will kill you without conscience and for no good reason. With a casual flick of a horn, the bulls will gut you. They’ll say they didn’t mean it, but they’re liars. Don’t dare step out there in front of them without knowing it is a possibility. And, if the bulls don’t get you, the other crazed runners or the hard cobblestones can. Getting hurt, and badly, is always a definite possibility every morning—shattered bones, cracked skulls, concussions, eye injuries, and lost front teeth—or worse—are not uncommon. Even skinned knees can get you—don’t scoff—bulls (and the bohemian hipsters that ruled the streets the night before) are dirty, so even small wounds can easily turn into a staph infection if not quickly and properly cleaned.

5. There is no safe place on the running course.

“Guys,” your friend says, “I’ve got it all figured out. We’ll hide in this doorway/climb this downspout/duck under the fence/push other people in the way/cower in fear behind the crowds. We will stay on the right because the bulls always run left/we will stay on the left because the bulls always run right.” This same guy chases the docile steers that come after the dangerous bulls are gone. Your friend is, as the French say, a “moron.” A plan to push someone in the way of a charging bull means someone’s mother didn’t do a very good job. Also, a human shield will not stop a charging bull if he wants a piece of you. They are monsters and quite capable of goring more than one person. Furthermore, you are not allowed to climb up anything, unless there is a real emergency. A bull running by is not a “real emergency.” Doorways are unsafe and bulls catch “runners” standing all the time. You will not have time to daintily climb under the fences, and the bulls run to wherever they desire. There is an exception to every bull theory — like this, “The bulls can’t run on sidewalks, except when they do.” The safest place to run with the bulls? In the middle of the street, as fast as you’ve ever run in your life.

6. The bulls run every day of the fiesta.

On television, it looks like they run once and then everyone goes home. Not true. The bulls are in town for the entire bull fair. Six toro bravos are run every morning along with six steers at 8am, every day between July 7 and 14. That’s 48 bulls with your name written in their little black book. Surviving an entire fiesta, with all its non-bull related trappings, is the most exhausting marathon imaginable. The fiesta starts at noon on July 6 and ends at midnight on the 14. There are concerts, dances, competitions, fireworks, and parades. You get about four hours a sleep a day. Maybe.

7. The fiesta is not a drunken brawl. Bring your children. The fiesta is a drunken brawl. Don’t bring your children.

Both sentiments are true. You can find the “frat party fiesta,” or the “family fiesta.” Both mix at times in very entertaining fashion. Either way, you are getting white pants dirty. For the locals, the fiesta de San Fermín is a family festival. Do yourself a favor, and discover that part of the fiesta. After the bulls, there is almost nothing that’s not appropriate for children, or at least Spanish children. There’s ice cream and balloons. Giant puppets do wander the streets to scare kids and strike them in the head with a truncheon. And, at night they cover a life-sized model of a bull with fireworks and set it on fire. And then chase children. Other than that…well you have to see it to believe it.

8. There is always someone famous quietly visiting the running of the bulls.

While it started with Ernest Hemingway, with Orson Welles and James Michener and Arthur Miller and Ava Gardner following, it is not uncommon to see famous faces like James Franco, Charlie Sheen, Dennis Rodman, Joshua Jackson, Rosario Dawson, Rick Steves, Chuck Berry, Marky Ramone, and Tara Reid. Classy, right? The fortunate ones can usually be found staying in the Gran Hotel La Perla.

9. Pamplona is the (secret) cuisine capital of the world.

Ask the world’s greatest chefs to tell you where the next big food scene is unfolding. Now, foodies reading this might want to take a seat before continuing. There are at least forty Michelin-starred restaurants in Pamplona and the surrounding region. Chefs work in those restaurants, learn and take careful notes, and then start their own restaurant nearby and the natural process of building the Cuisine Capital continues. One hour north of the city, in the lovely beach town of San Sebastian, is the tiny plate (pintxo) capital of the universe. There’s Old Basque and New Basque, and you will happily debate around your table the difference. A grilled but nearly raw and mooing chuleta (a bone-in beef steak) in a Basque cider house is one of life’s great pleasures. Basque and Navarran grandmothers are like Italian grandmothers in the United States. “Oh, you’re full? Are you sick?” they ask. “Here, have some more lamb.”

10. Take a bull run selfie and the Pamplona police will arrest you.

Cameras are not permitted on the bull running course. Only — and this means exclusively — jerks take a camera out of their pocket to catch a snap when life itself literally hangs in the balance. In 2014, a photo of a “brave” bull runner taking a selfie with the herd right behind him was circulated in newspapers around the world. Yes, it was incredible, and yes the police are still hunting for him. Cameras and other electronic devices are barred by law and you will not be allowed to run with them. They will be confiscated, you might get confiscated, and you certainly will not be allowed to run. The Pamplona City Hall just loves GoPros. Like Parisians love Pepsi. Every morning, there’s Ansel Adams setting up a tripod in his pants to conceal his intentions, and then there are the police, and then there’s the short walk to the ATM for bail money. Seriously, if you think you will have time to snap a photo, you have absolutely no idea how fast and how dangerous the Pamplona bulls really are.

11. Ernest Hemingway never ran with the bulls.

Hemingway did a lot of things. He was an amateur boxer. He hung around Paris with Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound as part of the “Lost Generation.” He was friends with Picasso. His novel, The Sun Also Rises, is one of the most read books in the history of the printed word. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature. He loved fishing. His life of adventure and public controversy made him the model of American machismo for generations—the John Wayne of the ink pen. But, he never ran with the bulls — not once — despite his love for the Pamplona fiesta, which he attended nine times: 1923, 1924, 1925, 1926, 1927, 1929, 1931, and, after the Spanish Civil War and World War II, in 1953 and 1959. No one (and I mean no one) is more responsible than Ernest Hemingway for what the modern fiesta has become.

12. You cannot possibly experience Pamplona and come home unchanged.

While you might try your hardest, you cannot spend a couple of days in Pamplona without learning something. Run with the bulls, and you will learn more about yourself in those five minutes than you ever imagined. Soak in the surrounding countryside and the differing coexisting cultures there, and your world view will expand. It is unavoidable. Indigenous people—the Basques—have inhabited Northern Spain and Southern France for as long as history can recall. Columbus recruited more Basques to sail with him than any other ethnic group. They fought the Romans, the Visigoths, the Moors, the Catholic Church, Charlemagne, Napoleon, and themselves in one of the nastiest civil wars in modern times. For the most part they won every battle and lost every war. They have legends of dragons and giants, and stories of hidden, ancient treasures in the mountains, which old men in black or red berets will tell you about with a straight face. They raise sheep and cattle. They are farmers and fisherman, Godly and rebellious, and cheese and snail eaters that celebrate brute strength. They all love a good meal. They are subjects that answer to no King. Now, Basques, Navarrans, Pamplonicas, and the Spanish live together in relative harmony. Mostly. They are fascinating citizens of the world but hardly acknowledge the rest of the world exists. Trust me, you will learn something in Pamplona that changes your life for the better.

Peter N. Milligan, author of Bulls Before Breakfast (publishing June 30, 2015), has traveled much of the country and the world. As of this writing, Peter has run with the bulls 63 times in Pamplona, Spain. The annual Fiesta de San Fermín is his all-consuming passion. Peter resides in a suburb of Philadelphia with his wife and two sons.

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