Every year in the Basque city of Pamplona between July 6-14 there is a festival called San Fermín. The city celebrates its saint with drinking, dancing, fireworks, religious ceremonies, gigantes (giant figures that dance through the streets), and general partying. But this is not what the festival is famous for. Every morning they run six bulls through the streets at 8am. The bull run season is from February through to October all over Spain but the big one is Pamplona. This is probably due to Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, which is the book that inspired my fascination with bull fighting.
Last week I returned to Pamplona for my 62nd run. That’s right, 62nd. I once ran all eight mornings of the fiesta in 1989.
I have written a book about the events that led up to my first run in 1982. It’s called A Hitch in Time and it tells the story of my hitchhiking days from 1977-1983. I travelled 72,000 miles in those six years, but the biggest trip was in the summer of ’82. I was living in Liverpool working for a Theatre in Education company, but I wasn’t enjoying it. I decided to sell everything I owned and head off on an adventure. England were playing France in Bilbao in the World Cup on my birthday. This journey led to my first encierro in Pamplona.
It’s like being thrown around in a tumble dryer with a load of strangers and some very angry bulls.
Your first run is actually the least scary, as you really don’t know what you have gotten yourself into! Each run after that is more frightening. You are running through narrow streets with six killing machines. You are in as much danger from your fellow runners as the bulls. They can trip you, push you, fall in front of you. It is full-on flight or fight. It’s like being thrown around in a tumble dryer with a load of strangers and some very angry bulls. This is because of the many tourists who are drawn to the event, as they don’t know what they are doing! When you see a good runner, it is beautiful, time seems to slow, they know every move the bulls will make. Aitor Aristregui Oloriz is the best in my opinion. Check out his Instagram page.
There have been two deaths in the time I have been running, an American in 1995, and a Spaniard in 2010. Over the eight runs this year there were no deaths but eight people were gored. I have been hit a couple of times. Once was in the ring during the encierro at the end of the run. Luckily, the horns went either side of me, but the bull hit me with such a force that I was lifted clean out of my canvas shoes and the impact knocked all of the air out of my body. I found myself lying along the bull’s back with a leg over each eye so it couldn’t see. I was now travelling backwards at 30 miles an hour. It is very unnerving to hear a sharp intake of breath from 25,000 people all at once!
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A lot of people ask me why I go back. Well there are two reasons. Firstly, it is a great party! Secondly, when I complete a run, I come out the other end and the sky is so much bluer, the wine tastes so much better, and I feel so alive! But the run has changed a lot. Would you believe that up until 1989 there would be a children’s run before the main run? It was for six to 13-year-olds, and the bulls were six-month-old calves. There was also far fewer runners back then. Maybe 1,500, whereas now it is more like 4,000. They have removed the kerbs from the sides of the roads. There is anti-slip paint on the cobblestones. They also run six steers with the bulls to keep them moving. In the old days, these would jog behind the bulls, but now they are much fitter and faster and clear the way through the runners.
Times are a-changing though. I don’t think the bull fight will be around much longer. Catalonia has already banned it. These are not bulls like we see on farms here though. They are Camargue fighting bulls. They have the best pasture land in Spain. For me, the bull run feeds an atavistic need to test myself against these beautiful, powerful creatures. To face death in the morning, and hopefully to survive.
A Hitch in Time by Andy Smart is out now (£9.99, AA Publishing)
Illustration: Priya Sundram