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Friday, July 10, 2009

Running of the Bulls; the Process

50 years ago Ernest Hemingway had last run with the bulls of Pamplona. He was of old age. I didn´t know this until getting to Pamplona. The city was celebrating this fact along with the usual absolute insanity of San Fermin.

The process of the running of the bulls goes like this. At 8 in the morning a rocket is shot off, the corral door is lifted, and 6 monster bulls emerge along with 6 smaller black bulls and they begin to run into the ancient streets of Pamplona, Spain. It´s a run of less than a mile. In between are little sections where the runners assemble. Some of these areas are more dangerous than others. This is due to the presence, or lack thereof, of possible exits; how narrow the street is at that particular section, and the presence of any curves or turns; or in one case a huge turn, which they term the Dead Man´s Corner where the bulls many times go slamming into the wall not anticipating a sharp turn to the right. If any person takes this corner on the left then he nearly risks a good crushing from a bunch of massive tonned bulls. The running of the bulls is actually the transporting of bulls from their corrals to the Plaza del Toros, a big arena where later that day all of them are to meet their death at the graceful hand of a matador, in the day´s bullfight.

How such a process has turned into a huge risk-indulging, machismo-showing for people who like a good thrill, I cannot say. But this custom of running of the bulls has been going on for 5 centuries now, and it is entirely tied to San Fermin, a very early Christian in Spain who was matyred by the Romans, some say by being dragged through the streets by bulls, others say his teacher and mentor was dragged through the streets this way. Either way, the entire world knows of this custom and may willingly participate.

These runnings happen every year between July 7th and July 14th. So that´s 7 mornings a year in Pamplona that a person can have this experience. (And actually smaller festivals throughout other towns in Spain, France, and Mexico.) Each day it seems that thousands participate. Alot of them are locals. Though it seems that a majority of the Pamplonians that I met have not run, and some of the local girls are happy to express their thoughts that the whole thing shebang ¨loco¨.
For the most part the participants are alot of Spanish, alot of Australians, and quite a number of Americans, with here and there a German, or a Frenchman, a Kiwi, or a Canadian or a Brit in there. And surprisingly enough, both times that I ran, there were a few women that ran.

I was told that there are 3 rules and one golden rule to remember when running.
Rule 1) Don´t run drunk. It´s surprising how likely this can actually be during the Festival of San Fermin. Though the police look out for any drunks and kick them out. Not only is it a danger to oneself, but to a whole slew of people that may trip because you trip, and get trampled because you tripped.

Rule 2)Make sure your shoelaces are tied. That´s pretty given.

Rule 3)Make sure you count the bulls as they pass you before you chase after them. If you miscounted you could run smack out in the middle of the streets with a unforeseen bovine charging straight at you.

And the one golden rule to remember. If you fall down either by tripping or even getting knocked down by a bull. Stay down. Back in 1995, an American got killed because after he was knocked down, he got up to be in the path of a bull who lowered his horns and killed the poor boy right on the spot. Also, the bulls try not to step on you because doing so can hurt them.

When I first desired to run with the bulls, I thought that it was possible to run in front of them the entire time. I was grossly mistaken. The bulls are so fast that only a few seconds before you start running have they passed you. It is possible to run directly in front of them, but this action is usually only done by those either very brave or very insane individuals who have probably run with the bulls enough times to know what they are doing. They run alongside the bulls swatting them with rolled up newspapers. Call me a weiner, but I contented myself with running a good many yards ahead of the bulls. (Not too far for it to be easy, though.) and then ducking out, very quickly, right when they were about to be on me. And after they had passed, then back out into the streets chasing after them. Usually a person must be satisfied with only a few yards devoted to their tails actually getting chased. The rest of the running is done with you chasing the bulls, (which you'll almost never catch). You chase them into the Plaza del Toros. The big arena where the bullfights transpire. Shortly thereafter this the steers are ushered in and then the gates are shut. It is in this arena, that alot of the runners make it before they shut the door with crowds watching. The bulls run to their corrals. The audience cheers, in the morning sun, and that fine thrill of adventurous accomplishment awaits you. They show replays on the big screen in the arena of the run, mostly of either people getting hitvery dramatically or having close calls while everyone oohs and aahs over the danger of that run. Every day, there may be on average about one or two persons hit but with minor injuries. This is out of the thousands of people that run per day. However, just the other day there was a death. A lone bull went crazy and gored some young man. It was the day after my last day. And almost near the same spot that I was at. These bulls can be very unpredictable at times. But for the most part, the running is not that dangerous if you use your head.

Once in the arena, you cannot put your guard down, for without warning they unleash the black cows that run with their horns corked. These cows, they let go in the arena one at a time. And they go about knocking people over, at first charging at full speed. All of us runners, inside are allowed to taunt the cow and when he comes at us, we dodge him. Some even try to wrestle him down. Though the local Pamplonians hate this and throw things at the aggressive perpetrator who tries to wrestle the cow. In some ways this spectacle is almost as thrilling and probably more entertaining to watch than the actual running of the bulls. A number of people get downed by these 5 or 6 bulls that they free one at a time. Some get knocked through the air. Probably suffering all types of bruises. Occassionally the cow is overpowered by a group of men, and an almost dogpile is commenced. But soon the cow is up again knocking people around like a bunch of bowling pins. Sometimes she comes out of no where, catching people unaware. The crowds loves this. And seems to always cheer for the cow. I ended up touching the horn of one of this cows one time, and fortunately dodged a good pommelling. When these cows get tired, a massive steer comes out that is pretty much harmless except for its sheer size. He walks towards the cow to lead the cow back to the corral. Many times, people are so enmeshed in the riot of the cow, that they are caught unawares by this huge steer that knocks them down from behind. This almost happened to me a time or two, but I learned to keep my ears tuned for a dull clanging bell, which the steer wore around his neck. That's about it. I think in my next installment, I'll tell of my individual experience of the running of the bulls. Of what happened and how it all went down.


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