Written by Brian Heller
My ideal 4th of July is not cramming in 6 hours of work, then driving for a few hours to JFK to catch a 9 hour red eye. But this wasn’t your standard 4th of July weekend. After years and years of wanting and wishing, I was finally heading to the small town of Pamplona in Northern Spain for San Fermin- the running of the bulls (encierro). The opportunity finally presented itself. And when it did, I made sure I wouldn’t miss it!
There were 8 of us traveling from near and far, meeting in Barcelona before catching our short flight to Pamplona. Once we arrived and made it to our apartment, it was obvious we were going to be right in the middle of all the action! The streets were flooded with patrons wearing the traditional white and red. If you were wearing anything but, you looked completely out of place. That was us. So, first thing on the agenda- buy a set of clothes that we would be living in for the next few days.
Once situated and decked out in the festive attire, it was time to hit the streets and see what San Fermin was all about. Tapas and cervezesas were on the menu, and the menu did not disappoint! We stuffed our faces with croquettes de jamon, sliders, and octopus, while washing them down with Estrellas and San Miguels. I thought I would definitely be affected by the lack of sleep, but the city was alive and the energy that was flooding the streets had a way of bringing me back. I didn’t think the first night was going to be that crazy. I thought it was all about getting ready for El Chupinazo. I was wrong. It was mayhem, it was a party, it was just the beginning of a wild and crazy weekend!
As crazy as the first night was, July 6th is when it all really begins. Each year at 12 pm San Fermin officially begins, and you better be ready to get wet. Not wet by water, but drenched in sangria, wine, beer, and any other alcoholic beverage the festival goers are drinking. Its literally a living sea of white and red, crammed in to the city square and surrounding side streets screaming and chanting “Viva San Fermin”, tossing all drinks in the air. Giant balls and floats are dropped from the balconies where people hang out to get a better glimpse of all the action. Whistles, confetti, flags, and the red bandanas in the air, and then 12 pm strikes, the rocket shoots off, and the people erupt! El Chupinazo- let the party begin!
The opening ceremony was nuts! If you don’t like crowds or if you are even slightly claustrophobic, you won’t survive. Luckily our crew all embraced the madness and had an epic time! After a quick bite to eat and a couple of beers, we decided to walk the half mile course where we would be running with the bulls. Thats when it all started to hit me. This was actually happening.. I was here to do something I had wanted to do for the past decade. The streets were narrow and all cobblestone. The wooden barricades were up. I was looking for any exit point along the route in case something went wrong. The nerves started to set in. I needed another beer! Another beer turned in to 10. Casually walking down the streets turned in to dancing with thousands of people at a concert. As the day went on, it just got better and better! The hours tend to fly by when you’re having that much fun. Before I knew it, it was 2 am. We had to be up in a couple of hours to make sure we were inside the barriers before 730. It was time to head back and get a couple of hours of sleep.
You would think that having your apartment right in the middle of town would be all positives. Well for me that was inaccurate. As I started to get ready for bed, it was clear the people outside were not going to slow down. The music kept blasting, the cars kept honking, and the paramedics drove by on an hourly basis. With all the commotion and with my mind racing a million miles an hour, sleep was out of the equation. Around 530 people started to wake up. The anticipation had taken over everyone. To make all of ours morning a little more stressful, the sky suddenly opened up. We sat and watched a gnarly storm roll through. All I thought was damn… theres nothing like running down a wet cobblestone road being chased by 1500 lb bulls dodging in and out of other people. But those thoughts lasted about 90 seconds. As soon as I started to throw on the white gear and red bandana, I knew it was game time. It was like a switch flipped. I was no longer tired and I was no longer doubting the run.
OK- so I wasn’t doubting the run while still in the apartment. But once we were inside the fenced off street, the anxiety went to a whole new level. The tension was in the air. You look around and all you see is 1000’s of people who have come out to see this world famous tradition. The balconies were full, people were perched on top of the fences, and climbing the light posts. This was something special, and was clear it means something to the people of Spain. With everything going on around me, all I was thinking about was the locals telling us we were complete idiots and dumb Americans for running. Then you see people praying. F*ck what did we get ourselves in to!!It didn’t matter because we were in and there was no turning back. The next 20 mins were the longest 20 mins I can remember.But as the time got closer to 8 am, the cheers and chants started. the energy picked up. It got loud, real loud, and then the canon. RUN!
We started the run about half way through the course. Within an instance I was separated from my friends. At this point it was every man for themselves and there was no looking back. I couldn’t believe that within 15 seconds the screams and people scurrying were creeping up on me. The bulls were close! I bobbed and weaved in and out of people and made my way out of the middle of the street. As the toros went flying by I kept a close eye on my rear to make sure there were no stragglers. When I made my way into the stadium it was pure chaos! the stands were completely full with people cheering us on. The runners were all congratulating one and other. Nothing but hugs, high fives and smiles. I needed to find my crew.
Finding your friends in the middle of that many people is not easy. I was moving around pretty quickly looking for a familiar face. Then all of a sudden people started running in all directions. A bull was in the arena! HOW DID NO ONE EVER MENTION THIS TO ME?!!! I went from grinning ear to ear, to running for my life. The stress was through the roof. The anxiety was at an all-time high. I wasn’t in a good place. After about 5 minutes the bull was taken out of the arena. At that point I was practically running through people to find my friends. Finally I found 3 of them. We all had the same response- stoked to see one another and also questioning what the hell was happening inside the ring. I wasn’t with them more than a minute, and another bull was on the loose. I was gone! running from side to side staying as far away as I could. I found the guys again and we decided we needed to get out of this situation.
After getting out, I was made aware that the bulls that were released inside were different bulls than the ones we ran with. These bulls had their horns capped, which made getting gored nothing to worry about. But people were still getting smoked. Regardless it didn’t matter to me. I was just glad to be out and even more glad to be reunited with the rest of our group. Beers please! Lots of beers!
Spain knows how to party, and San Fermin is the cream of the crop. The city doesn’t sleep for the entire 9 days of the festival, unless you count the people passed out in the streets. After the run, my nerves had calmed, and my mind was at ease. It was now time to enjoy the remaining time with some great friends and make the most of the limited time we had left together. It came quick, and it flew by. It was one of the most epic weekends I’ve had, and I will end by saying this- Ill see you again Pamplona!