How to Run With the Bulls
Whether you're looking forward to your first dance with death or pride yourself on being a seasoned veteran, these tips will help you enjoy a safe run with the bulls
For eight consecutive mornings six half-ton Spanish Fighting Bulls and several bell-oxen rampage through the streets of Pamplona. Whether you’re planning to attend this year—for the first time or the tenth—or just dreaming of participating one day in the ultimate red-blooded adventure, you’ll want to know what you’re doing and how to get the most out of the experience. With that in mind, we’ve put together the ultimate step-by-step guide on how to run right, breaking down our top 10 tips so that they’ll work for you, whether you’re a beginner, intermediate or expert.
The duty of all Mozos (bull-runners) in the Encierro (bull-run, enclosure) is to help transition the herd from the pens at the edge of town to the corrals inside the arena in the swiftest and safest way possible. Runners are meant to lead the herd with their bodies, much like herding dogs with a flock of sheep. The experts do this by running on the horns (running just inches in front of a bull’s horns), but we don’t recommend that if this is your first time out.
The absolute worst thing a bull-runner can do is to interfere with the herd and cause an animal to separate from the pack. As we’ve seen in the past, interference often leads to the severe injury or death of a runner. The Spanish do hold a grudge, even after they’ve beaten you bloody. That word of warning out of the way, know that, done right, running with the bulls can be a whole lot of fun.
Before the Run
Prepare For the Run of Your Life
The hour before the run is a tense time for any runner. The run starts at 8 a.m. sharp. The first stick-rocket signifies the corral gates are open. The second rocket signals the last bull has left the pen.
Beginners: Be at Town Hall by 7 a.m. If you are standing anywhere between the police line on Mercederes and the arena, a line of officers will push you off the course. Trust me, it’s real. They did it to me my first Fiesta.
Intermediates: Grab a newspaper at Carmelo’s Bookshop (36 Estafeta Street) and look for photos of your friends and yourself from the run the morning before. Don’t be a sardine at Town Hall. Go down to Santo Domingo to sing the blessing to San Fermin and hang back in the less-crowded stretches of Santo Domingo until the police line breaks at about 10-‘til.
Experts: You’ve been around long enough to know people. Find an apartment with a door that opens onto the run. Relax on a couch. Take a nap. Watch the previous day’s run on TV. Then at 10 minutes to 8 a.m. and the beginning of the run, walk down and enter the mass of soon-to-be runners on the street. If you are a true elite they’ll invite you to the runners mass.
Run Like You've Never Run Before
At the beginning of the course the terrain is a fairly steep, which can be dangerous. You probably run slower when moving uphill, but the bulls run faster. Plus, they’re fresh.
Beginners: Position yourself an arm’s length away from either wall. After the second stick-rocket explodes run like you’ve never run before. The herd will likely be tight and out in the center of the street. Stay to the side but keep your head on a swivel. In 1971 a bull scraping the wall here nearly disemboweled Pulitzer Prize-winning author James Michener. Sometimes bulls just decide to break from the herd. If that happens, hit the deck.
Intermediates: The most popular chunk in this section is the Suicide Run. Get a front row position on the police line. Then, as the bulls approach, start pushing (really, how often can you get away with pushing a cop?). As the herd gallops forward at speeds approaching 35 mph, run directly at it (it’s a sick game of Chicken that you will lose). At the last second, dive off to one of the sides as the herd barrels on.
Experts: In the old days the Butcher’s Guild would gather here in their white cloaks. Like our suicidal intermediates, run downhill at the herd. Yet at the last possible moment, stop, turn around and sprint up the street just before the tips of the lead bull’s horns. Legend has it the Butcher’s did this to ferret out the most aggressive animals to make their job of selecting which bulls they’d cut that evening a little easier.
Timing Is Everything
Town Hall is a technical section but tends to be fairly quiet. That said, a bull gored Mathew Peter Tasio to death here in 1995 after he fell and stood up in the path of the herd. The bull gored him in the heart and threw him 20 yards. He bled to death within seconds.
Beginners: Start before Town Hall. Stick to the left side of the street and stay an arms length from the barricades. Wait until the cameramen on the balconies above start to take photos and pan, following the herd. The ground will begin to rumble with the tremendous weight of the stampede. Then run. Keep your head on a swivel and if you fall down, stay down (that rule goes for anywhere on the course).
Intermediates: Running either side is fine, though sometimes the herd swings wide-right and hits the barricades. When the herd is close, the street opens up. Stay away from the beginners on the left as they will suck you into the barricades and ruin your run. When it opens-up, go for it.
Experts: Wait it out. Your entry can be from either side but needs to be timed perfectly. This is a fast section. A 30-yard run on the horns here is an accomplishment.
The Run Takes a Turn For the Worse
The Curve, Hamburger Wall, Dead Man’s Corner—it has a lot of nicknames because, after so many years of accidents and mishaps, danger is almost guaranteed on this section of the course. The herd flies into this hard-banking turn at full go. They crash and fall and chaos ensues.
Beginners: Don’t even think about it. If you are a beginner and you run La Curva most veterans would say that you deserve whatever horrific wound the bulls give you. Beware, you may attempt to run Town Hall, but if you leave that section early guess where you’ll end up? Pancaked under a half-dozen fallen bulls.
Intermediates: There is an old technique popularized by American Joe Distler that the Spanish have been using for an eternity. Stand in a doorway on the left side entering The Curve. After the herd hits the wall, break into a sprint. Catch up with the pack as they rise to their hooves. Run them up the street as far as you can. But beware; there may be a straggler or two.
Experts: Scotsman Brucie Sinclair created a modified version of Distler’s run. He started halfway up Mercederes in a doorway on the left. After the herd passes, sprint right up to their backs. When the bulls hit the wall, swing out around them and onto the horns. Take them up the street. Another Scott, Angus Ritchie, had a hell of a Fiesta last year doing just about the same.
Note: Deaf and mute Spaniard Jose Antonio has spent decades at The Curve doing the impossible. He stands nearly in the center of the curve. As the herd passes, he picks up any straggler bulls, quiets them and leads them up Estafeta. But you probably don’t want to try this: Jose’s super-human sensory-perception and insane courage are the only things that keep him alive year after year.
One Is the Most Dangerous Number
A suelto is a lone bull that has separated from the herd. The bull loses his herding instinct. It looks around and sees all runners as predators. Just like a Cape Buffalo attacking a pack of lions in Africa, the bull goes in to kill.
Beginners: This one is simple. If you see a lone bull on the street, run. Not further down the course, but to immediate safety. Run as fast as you can to a barricade and dive under the bottom rung. If you try to climb over you will be a slow and easy target for the suelto.
Intermediates: You know how dangerous it is but this is one of the places where you can gain incredible experience. Wade in slowly. Keep your distance. Be sure not to trip anyone up. Aim your shoulder at the animal and keep your hand feeling for runners behind you. This is a team action. Wade as close as you dare but know if you get too close it might be the last thing you do.
Experts: Attract the animal with your newspaper or hand. Remember that the bull sees better broadside. If he is facing you, make your motions low where his vision is OK. If a suelto is goring a fallen runner, dash up behind the animal and grab hold of his tail. Do not yank but apply a steady, heavy pressure. The animal should stop. Try to turn him with low or peripheral motion. Then lead him toward the arena.
Please Note the Nearest Emergency Exit
This is a long straightaway. James Michener said that if you’re in Paris and someone is trying to tell you how to run bulls in Pamplona, tell them you always run Estafeta and the conversation with end.
Beginners: There are four exits on Estafeta—at the two intersections. Use them if you need to, but note that you are probably safest on the street while running toward the arena. Start about halfway up Estafeta. Get an arm’s length away from the wall. It is vital that you wait until after the second rocket. It will take over a minute for the herd to reach you. A series of waves of panicked runners will flood past. Don’t run with them. Wait until the cameras on the balconies start to flash and pan with the herd. Then run.
Intermediates: The stones on Estafeta are very smooth and slippery. It’s like sprinting on a slip-and-slide. You can’t accelerate quickly or cut side to side. Start running early and fight for the center of the street. Do whatever you must to stay on your feet.
Experts: The legendary David Rodriguez dominates this section. He does it with iron will and courage. That said, even he still falls from time to time. Start running early and hold the center of the street. As the herd gets close to you, the crowd will thin. There is a bubble of space before the herd. Sprint full speed inside that small bubble. They’re fast here, so you better move quickly or they’ll use you for traction.
Don't Even Think About Touching That Bull
These guys are like the bull’s little, green-shirted ninja bodyguards. They carry long, elastic willow canes that draw blood in bright, explosive patterns.
Beginners: If you think it will be a lot of fun to run up, grab a steer’s tail and pull on it for no reason, then you are asking for trouble. A pastor ran up beside someone who tried this last year, swung with all his might and broke his cane across the man’s nose. A huge gash ripped across it and gushed blood onto the stones. If you so much as touch an animal during the run (that includes swatting it with a newspaper) the pastor will react promptly and without mercy.
Intermediates: Don’t touch and don’t break the pastores line if they’re halting runners due to a suelto or you’ll end up another notch on their willow cane.
Experts: The pastor's job with a suelto is to keep the crowd in the street back. It’s your duty to help lure the suelto to the corrals.
Beginners Not Welcome
At Telefonica the street widens and it becomes more difficult for all of the participants to keep the herd of bulls together. Sueltos are a problem here and controlling them is made more difficult by the fact that lots of intermediate runners pack the street in this section. Cappuccino of the Jandilla ranch killed Daniel Jimeno Romero at Telefonica in 2009.
Beginners: Though its width seems inviting, its location at the end of the run makes it hazardous. If there is a suelto on the loose he will likely cause the most havoc here due to exhaustion and frustration. You don’t belong at Telefonica. If you leave Estafeta early and end up here with bulls in the street, dive under the barricades and take cover.
Intermediates: Telefonica is a great place to push your boundaries. You can make a lot of mistakes here and still pull off a decent run. Fight for the center of the street but keep your head on a swivel. Juan Pedro Lecuona will fly through here, clearing a path for the herd while also leading it forward. Stay clear of him. He is the top dog at Telefonica. Try to fit in where you can and roll all the way into the arena with the bulls.
Experts: The stones are drier here and your maneuverability is better. Run the center of the street. Watch for fallen runners and maneuver around them. The herd will find you. If you spend a lot of time looking back, you’ll drift to the sides of the street where other runners will trip and tangle you up. When the herd finds you, accelerate into the open pocket. Say hi to Juan.
Beware of Pile-Ups
Callejon is known for the deadly montons (pile-ups) that occur here. One runner falls, the next falls on top of them until there is a stack of bodies five high and the width of the tunnel. The herd arrives at full speed. They buck, gore and stomp their way through the pile-up. The injured fill the local hospital beds to capacity.
Beginners: You don’t belong here. This section is even more hazardous than La Curva. If you are approaching the tunnel with the herd still in the street, dive under the barricades.
Intermediates: If you’re in good position ride through the tunnel with the pack and get out to either side. If you fall in the tunnel don’t forget about the small openings at the floor. Crawl in as quickly as you can to avoid causing a pile-up.
Experts: Roll through the Callejon—into the tunnel and through to the bright, explosive pandemonium of the packed 20,000-seat arena. Sprint straight into the center of the white-sand bullring and hand the animals off to the Dobledores with their pink luring capes. They’ll get them into the corral at the back to the arena.
After the Run
You Survived! Now What?
This is a time of unparalleled euphoria. Hemingway said that the most exhilarating feeling a man could experience was being shot at and missed. That is the joy of running with the bulls.
Beginners: The herd has passed you by. Go for it! Run toward the arena. Beware, there may be a suelto; but if there is, you now know what to do. Run into the arena and get out over the bullring wall. Once the final rocket goes off and the arena starts singing, climb back in. They release vaca (wild Spanish fighting cows) into the ring after the run. Hemingway used to pass vaca with a cape here. Go to the corral gate and kneel with the other maniacs. The vaca will leap over you—hopefully. Then run around like a lunatic. Don’t pull the vaca’s tail or the Spaniards will lump you up.
Intermediates: Get over to Bar Txoco and figure out if your friends have all made it out safely. Talk about what happened and try to contemplate how to get better. Ask the experts questions—most accept drinks as payment. Have a beer or two. You earned it.
Experts: Stroll to Bar Txoco and spread the wealth of your knowledge and experience. Don’t be cocky. It’s bad karma and will mess up your next morning’s run. If you’re lucky and someone invites you, go to the Runners Breakfast. It’s one hell of an honor.