By Michael Sullivan
The 6:00 a.m. wakeup call came early to the sound of Spanish music blaring through the radio. Today’s the day. We grabbed a muted breakfast of croissants and fruit and headed for town.
Weaving our way through the city square, we dodged a mob of drunks, athletes, and pickpockets, all adorned in white and red on the most dangerous half mile in Europe. We’re ushered into a nondescript doorway and brought from the second floor of a family home to a small balcony overlooking the main stretch of today’s encierro.
This was the highlight of the San Fermin Festival, or as it’s more affectionately known: The Running of the Bulls.
Below us, the police made way with large wooden barricades as the cobblestone streets were cleared of all the drunks and first-timers, and the actual “athletes” were ushered in from the starting point in the town square. Being a young teenager, my balls hadn’t dropped enough to sneak away from my family to run with thousand-pound beasts.
An adrenaline pumped prayer to the statue of San Fermin started the festivities followed by single firework promptly at 8:00 a.m., signaling the release of the bulls.
Situated towards the back 1/3 of the course, we saw anticipation building as the flow of people around the first corner transitioned from a brisk jog to an all-out sprint. Deadman’s Corner—a very appropriate name—is the sharpest turn on the route from start to bull ring. As the bulls rounded The Corner, runners frantically climbed the wooden barricades and barred windows as thousands of pounds of beef slammed around the turn at full tilt.
Most days go off without serious injury or death. Today was not one of those days. The front page of the following morning’s paper was a picture of the famed Corner with a bull’s horn sticking 10 inches into a man’s shin. It would become known as one of the most dangerous days in recent memory after one of the more stubborn bulls was separated from the pack.
Five of the six bulls trotted past us with little-to-no drama as today’s rogue struggled to get his bearings. The pastores (“shepherds”) and experienced runners attempted to guide him with wooden staffs and rolled up newspapers, but this particular bull had a sprinkle of Columbian marching powder with his morning Wheaties.
About 20 yards from our balcony, after trying to skewer every runner within reach, he finally trapped one in a narrow shop doorway. With a foot scrape followed by a short charge, this poor soul took a horn directly into his sternum. The bull reared his head in the air, picking up the man while turning 180-degrees towards the middle of the street. He was slammed into the cobblestones and trampled by the equivalent of a semitruck. Odds are this man is no longer with us.
The pastores finally managed to distract the bull and navigate him towards Plaza del Toros where another few hundred people tormented the beasts until all 6 were corralled to await that afternoon’s main event.
There isn’t much in the way of modern comparison for these bull fights. They’re a beautiful dance of life and death mixed with a crowd of drunks and aristocrats. I imagine this must be what the Roman Colosseum felt like on a much grander scale.
The 6 bulls got a shot at redemption against 3 combatants, all with a myriad of different fighting tools. The rogue bull from today’s race lived up to his earlier chaos and made sure he went out with a bang. Already blood-soaked from the banderilleros, he flipped an armored stallion and the spear-wielding picador atop him, while chants of “Ole! Ole!” rang out from the crowd. In the end, the matador almost always wins and with a skillfully placed sword, the bull crumpled, drawing a final breath.
The festival itself felt like Mardi Gras—if Mardi Gras went for 8 days. Just replace throwing beads to coeds with dodging angry bulls after continuous nights of heavy drinking. A mix of unwavering tradition and utter brutality, the San Fermin festival is worthy of Hemingway’s words in The Sun Also Rises. It’s also worthy of a place on any bucket list.