You've probably heard of the Running Of The Bulls -- it's one of those weird European traditions that baffle Americans, like teatime and free healthcare. Every July, hundreds of thousands of people gather in Pamplona, Spain to race through the streets in front of angry cattle ... often while drunk off their asses, and occasionally dying horribly. We talked with Alex and Stephen, who did the run, and Pepe, who lives in Pamplona. They told us ...
"One day I was watching the run from a window and beneath me the people were making the warm-up routine pre-run," Pepe says. "I watched this older guy with a white beard and blue eyes warm up. So, the run starts, the bulls run past us, and then I see this guy lying with his eyes open looking directly at me and not moving. Apparently he fell to the floor, hit his head on the curb and died instantly. Those eyes, I still remember them."
The good news is that, in the last century, "only" 13 people have been known to be killed during the Pamplona run (although in just one year there were 113 injuries, including 16 serious hospitalizations).
Oh, and Pamplona is just the most famous of many Spanish bull runs. 2015 saw 10 deaths across the country, which matched a record set in 2009, because it turns out that antagonizing large animals made of muscle and rage can be dangerous (at least violent American sports have the courtesy to kill people slowly). Veteran bull runners attribute the problem to the same thing that can ruin any niche hobby -- reckless newcomers. New people show up, don't take the risk seriously, and get hurt, as Alex learned first-hand.
"When the race started, I made an executive decision to stop and wait until I could see some bulls. People were running past me and I kept screaming 'Come and get me motherfuckers!' I saw the front three charging at me through crowds of people and realized just how large they were. I (figuratively) shit my pants and started smashing my way through people. And then I got hit. I felt like I got hit by a six-hundred-pound linebacker right in the small of my back. I guess one of their shoulders hit me hard enough to knock me down and I skidded on my knees for about fifteen feet. On cobblestones. That hurt like a bitch, and my knees were sliced to hell."
Ernest Hemingway helped popularize both the Running Of The Bulls and rampant alcoholism in America, so maybe it's not surprising that a lot of foreign visitors get the two confused and participate while completely hammered.
"Some years ago it was very common, mostly drunken foreigners did it, unaware of the dangers," Pepe says. "These days it's much harder, the police make searches and grab drunken people and expel them from the race, with a hefty fine. It's very dangerous to run drunk, because if you fall to the floor the consequences can be tragic."
If you're thinking that it wouldn't be the end of the world if a drunken idiot got some comeuppance, keep in mind that said idiot is running in a crowd -- a drunk guy flailing to the ground can take a few people down with him. So it's a little worrying that, in Alex's experience, "Only one in one hundred people that are wasted get booted." And he should know, because he and his friends basically smuggled in an entire liquor store with them.
"[We] were pretty drunk by the time we all got to Pamplona and made it to the center of town," Alex vaguely recalls. "We put on our whites and started dancing and drinking sangria almost immediately. We then got a couple [more] bottles. I'll admit that at no part of this story were any of us far from blacking out."
And yet they were allowed to race against a few tons of leather, horns, and fury and, because this was an interview and not a seance, you're right to assume they lived.
After all of the hype, the whole affair only lasts three to four minutes, because the longer something like this goes, the longer you're tempting fate. "The run is much shorter and faster than what I anticipated," Stephen says. "When you watch it on TV it makes it look like they unleash the bulls and you are running in front of them, with danger chasing you the whole time. That isn't accurate at all. You run with them for ten or twenty yards and then press into the walls and let them go by."
Walls if you're lucky; under hooves is option two.
It's a bull sprint, not a bull marathon. Bulls aren't especially vengeful creatures -- they'll gorge you if you get in their way, but they won't stop to give acupuncture with extreme prejudice to people who move aside and let them pass. Most importantly, though, is the fact that your standard factory model bull comes with a top speed of 35mph. Even an Olympic sprinter would wind up painting the cobblestones red.
"You only run in front of them for a few seconds before you get out of the way or get trampled," Stephen says. Otherwise it would quickly become the annual "Jogging well behind the bulls while hopping over the crumpled bodies left in their wake." But don't worry, adrenaline junkies -- those few seconds of bull-induced terror are only a small part of something much larger.
The Pamplona run happens every morning during a week-long, city-wide festival called San Fermin. It's ostensibly in celebration of a Catholic saint, but as far as we're aware he's not the saint of a sudden influx of drunken thrill-seeking tourists. And, because a four minute run isn't nearly enough to suck up all of that lust for danger, some visitors have started a new tradition of jumping off the fountain in the city center.
If that looks like a dangerously high fall to you then, well, you probably haven't taken any head wounds from voluntary plummets lately. "Some years ago," says Pepe, "nobody knows how or when, a bunch of Australians decided that it was fun to climb to the top of the fountain and jump, like in a concert, while the rest of the guys are below to grab you, and this became an unofficial Australian tradition." Presumably the possibility of a sudden, brutal death reminded them of home.
Shockingly, this can sometimes go wrong. "So everything is OK while the Aussies are there to grab jumpers, but there is a moment when they get bored and leave. In that moment a guy unaware of this decides to jump and usually hits his head. The results in all these years have been several deaths, paralyzed people, and several degrees of injuries."
Pamplona is trying to stop people from throwing themselves at concrete, but to little success.
Once you've risked a concussion you can head on down to the bullring (the bulls are being run there to be killed, they're not just taking them out for some fresh air and exercise). Pepe explains to us that the ring has two audience sections -- one for serious fans of bullfighting, and one for people who want to get hammered and start food fights.
"Prior to going, the pros grab some food from their houses, mostly sandwiches, some cokes, alcoholic beverages, a bucket of custard ... what usually happens is that you are there, drinking and partying hard, and you suddenly get full, so, what can you do with the leftover food? In your drunken intelligence, you of course decide that throwing it [into] the seats below is perfectly acceptable, they are also drunk so they don't give a shit. So, people start throwing things." And then, before long, part of the bullring erupts into a gigantic food fight. Hell, why not just do that and ignore the stuff with the bulls?
The whole affair is basically Pamplona's rich cultural history combined with the antics of drunken fratbro freshmen at spring break, which we're sure some locals love and others hate with the fury of a thousand suns.
If you're not too busy being pelted by empty beer cans, you'll discover that the bullring is where the run gets really interesting. "The run is not the most dangerous part of this," Stephen says. "At the end, the bulls are driven into an arena. If you are unlucky enough to get into the arena you are risking serious injury." As it turns out, Alex was unlucky/drunk enough to find himself there.
"When we got to the arena they got the big guys out of the ring and let in some calves for us to play with. They weighed probably four hundred pounds instead of the one-ton big guys. We were allowed to chase them around and slap them," which we're sure was equally fun for all concerned. "At one point, they led the calves out and people started to line up in front of the gate. Then everyone links arms and we hear hooves behind the gate as it slowly opens to the sight of a black five-hundred-pound bull charging straight at us. Just as it is about to tear its way through us, it jumps over our heads. I lifted my head to watch a giant pair of bull testicles fly directly over me."
Not everyone was as lucky. "On the way out," Stephen says, "we met a girl who was knocked down and trampled by a bull in the arena. She had a perfect hoof print bruise on her back that was as dark as any tribal tattoo." From then on, every vacation that doesn't result in one of those would have to pale in comparison.
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