Running of the Bulls

Each summer, humans run alongside livestock through the narrow streets of Spain.  And that ain’t no bull.

Running of the bulls—called encierro, which means “confinement” in Spanish—is a practice of running in front of a small group of cattle let loose on a town’s streets.  Held in towns and villages across Spain, Portugal, Mexico, and southern France, the most popular encierro is held in Pamplona, Spain, during the Festival of Sanfermines.  Held in honor of Saint Fermin, the co-patron of Naverre, [a province along the northern border of Spain], the San Fermin Festival takes place in Naverre’s capital city each year from July 6 to 14.  First held in the 16th century, the festival was made famous with Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel, The Sun Also Rises.  For much of the year, Pamplona is a slumbering Spanish town, but in July it is transformed into a cosmopolitan bacchanal, as its population swells from 200,000 residents to two million visitors during the nine-day event.  The San Fermin Festival draws the curious, naïve and foolhardy from around the world to run through the streets pursued by six fighting bulls.

The festival of San Fermin is a deeply rooted celebration. The beginning and end of the fiesta are celebrated at the same place and at the same hour.  The event opens with the launching of a rocket at midnight on July 6, and concludes with the traditional singing of Pobre de Mi [Poor Me] during a candlelight ceremony in City Hall Plaza at midnight on July 14, followed by a fireworks display.  The festival also includes a parade of gigantes y cabezudos [giants and big heads], a Catholic Mass, and “The Roar”—a one-day event in which people gather in front of town hall one minute before midnight and make as much noise as possible for the next several hours.  Exhibitions and competitions take place every morning in the Plaza de los Fueros, a square close to the city citadel, that include stone lifting, wood cutting and hay bale hoisting.  There is a nightly fireworks display and, beginning at 6:30 each evening, a series of six bullfights takes place in the Plaza del Toros de Pamplona, the fourth largest bullring in the world.  Built in 1922, the stadium holds nearly 20,000 spectators.  Tickets are hard to find.

The running of the bulls is the highlight of the San Fermin Festival.  According to Spanish legend, the run began in northeastern Spain in the early 14th century.  While transporting cattle to sell at market, men would try to hurry their animals along using noise and motion to excite the beasts.  Over the years, this turned into a competition, as young adults would show their bravado by racing in front of the bulls without being overtaken.  As the practice gained popularity, a tradition was created that still exists today.

Pamplona’s encierro involves hundreds of people running in front of six bulls down a half-mile stretch of narrow streets in the old town.  Six steers run in the herd, followed by three oxen to encourage any reluctant bulls to continue along the route.  The run, which takes about three minutes with an average herd speed of 15 miles per hour, ends in the bullring, where the bulls are held until that evening’s bullfight, when they will meet their demise at the hands of a Torero [matador] and his sword.  The function of the steers, who run the route daily, is to guide the bulls to the ring.  The bulls are the Toro Bravo breed, a type of Spanish fighting bull characterized by its aggressive behavior, particularly when unable to flee.  Usually dark brown or black in color, Toro Bravo have horns longer than most other breeds.  Mature bulls weigh between 1,100 and 1,600 pounds and are especially well-muscled in the shoulders and neck.

Runs are held daily between July 7 and July 14, and begin at 8:00 am, when a firecracker is lit to announce the release of the bulls from their corral.  Runners arrive early to ask San Fermin for protection by singing a chant three times before a small statue of the Saint—“To San Fermin we ask to be our patron Saint and to guide us in the running of the bulls, giving us His blessing.”  The benediction, which has been a tradition since 1962, is sung in both Spanish and Basque and ends with the participants shouting “Viva San Fermin!” [Long live Saint Fermin!].  A second firecracker signals that the last bull has left the corral.  Once all of the bulls have entered the arena, a third firecracker is lit, while a fourth indicates that the bulls are in their bullpens and the run has concluded.  After the end of the run, young cows–their horns wrapped for protection–are released into the bullring to chase and toss the participants about, to the amusement of the crowd.  Spectators and runners wear a traditional red bandana [panuelo] around their neck and long red scarf [faja] tied around their waist, and runners carry a rolled up newspaper to ward off bulls by bashing them in the nose.

Pamplona has been broadcast live by Spanish public television for over 30 years.  Most runners are male—only five percent are women, who were first allowed to run in 1974.  Participants must be at least 18 years old, run in the same direction as the bulls, avoid inciting the bulls, and not be under the influence of alcohol–a rule that is rarely followed.  A set of wooden fences is erected to direct the bulls along the route—which has remained largely unchanged since 1852—and to block off side streets and protect spectators.  Gaps in the barricades are wide enough for a human to slip through but narrow enough to block a bull.

The event is dangerous.  Since 1925, 15 people have been killed while running with the bulls—most recently 2009—and every year between 50 and 100 people are injured during the run, mostly from falls.  In both 2009 and 2010, ten runners were gored by bulls and in 2013, 50 people were taken away by ambulance, twice the number from the previous year.  A major risk is runners falling and piling up at the entrance to the bullring, which is the narrowest part of the course.  A runner died in such a pile in 1977.  About 200 volunteers line the course, most from the Red Cross.  Sanitary posts are set up every 50 meters, each with at least one physician and nurse, and 20 ambulances are on hand.  The organization makes it possible to have a gored person stabilized and to the hospital within ten minutes.  Matthew Tassio, a 22-year-old from Glen Ellyn, Illinois, ran with the bulls in 1995.  Having just graduated college, Tassio was backpacking across Europe with friends before he was to begin his career as an electrical engineer.  Unable to stay in Pamplona because the hotels were full, he arrived overnight by bus from Barcelona.  During the run, Mr. Tassio fell and, never having participated in an encierro, did not know to stay down.  He was gored while trying to stand and died in town hall square within minutes.