A Different Kind of Fear

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Travel  |  House: Booksie Classic
When I was 24-years old and invincible, I decided that running with the bulls in Pamplona would be a great way to spend a few days in the Basque Country. What began as a simple “bucket list” adrenaline quest became something much more.

Pull up a chair, pour a glass, and I’ll tell you all about it.

Warning to my animal-loving friends: bullfights don’t end well for the bull. I tried to observe the culture as objectively as possible, but elements of this story are not for everyone. You may want to skip the first section.

Submitted: October 27, 2016

A A A | A A A

Submitted: October 27, 2016





The Plaza de Toros – Pamplona – July 7

The arena crowd gasped with the dying bull’s final charge.

The matador held control over the animal with a single pass of his cape; the epitome of grace and elegance. Man and bull moved together in a choreographed dance, each sensing that death lurked near.

The corrida, inaccurately translated as “bullfight,” had been building toward this moment over the course of three stages; a tradition unchanged for centuries.

In the first stage, the bull had exploded across the dirt floor of the arena and was greeted by a pair of picadors – spearmen mounted on heavily-armored and blindfolded horses. Instinctively, the bull charged wildly at the nearest horse, attempting to disembowel it. As it attacked, the picadors jabbed spears into the back of the animal’s rigid neck muscles.

The matador soon appeared and drew the bull’s attention away from the horse. Using his cape, he guided the animal toward a second picador, where the spearing process was repeated. Minutes passed, allowing the matador to make careful study of the animal’s behavior, its technique of attack, and the distinctive nuances of its personality.

During the second stage, the matador and his team gracefully sidestepped the charging bull’s attacks and further weakened the neck muscles with banderillas – small sticks tipped with razor-sharp barbs. Again, the matador used the occasion to observe the tiring bull, evaluating its strength and its spirit.

As the corrida evolved into its final act, the arena floor was vacated with the exception of the matador and the lone bull. The crowd grew quiet, and the final confrontation between man and beast was set.

The animal’s head and horns hung low, the result of the repeated attacks to its neck muscles. Using the knowledge he gleaned in the last few minutes, the matador guided the beast under his cape, performing a sequence of elegant passes, each more daring than the previous. By the end of the third stage, the matador had gained complete dominance over the submissive bull, and slowly, he built the crowd’s respect.

Sensing that the critical moment had arrived, the man commanded the bull to charge for a final time. The sharp horns slashed within inches of his right side. He raised his espada, the traditional sword, and with silent dignity, he inserted the blade between the bull’s shoulders.

The animal collapsed instantly onto the dirt floor, producing an outburst of applause from the crowd.

Many spectators, particularly foreigners, do not grasp the concept of the corrida. Virtually unchanged for hundreds of years, the event is not a sport, nor has it ever been considered as such. The corrida is not designed to be an even match, and the bull can never “win.”

The fierce fighting bulls of Spain are born and bred for a single purpose: to perform honorably and die in a corrida. Tradition demands nothing less.

Though all eyes focused on the matador, waving in appreciation, bowing, and basking in the attention, my gaze remained on the black bull’s bleeding corpse in the center of the arena.

For me, attending the corrida that afternoon to watch the bull fight, and die, brought a strange sense of closure; like attending a funeral for an old friend. Hours before, that bull and I had shared the cobblestone street together, in a moment, however brief, that will stay with me forever.

I watched as the bull’s body was dragged out of the arena by a team of mules, cutting a bloody swath across the dirt floor. The cycle was completed.

The matador bowed as the crowd came to its feet.

I wondered if the bull had any idea that today would be his last.

I thought it would be mine.


The Beginning – July 5

Two days before, my friends and I sat at a small outdoor restaurant in the heart of Pamplona’s old quarter, watching as a mob of foreigners descended upon the city. After years of planning and a lifetime of dreaming, something occurred to me.

I had no idea why I was there. It was just something that I needed to do.

In Pamplona, where visitors are reminded that they are not in Spain as the map suggests, but rather in the tumultuous Basque Country, it was the eve of one of the world’s great parties. The Fiesta de San Fermin, a religious festival known for its nonstop party atmosphere, would kick off at noon the next day.

Presented to the world by Hemingway in 1926, the nine-day fiesta gained international fame not for its party scene, or for some of the most prestigious bullfights in the world. It became known for the daily encierro, the “running of the bulls,” a deadly tradition which I’d had my heart set on for years, and had managed to drag some friends along to join me.

The six of us huddled closely around the table, chatting over plates of mysterious Basque food and bottles of San Miguel beer. We’d already survived much together in the last few days since leaving England, starting with a rough sail out of Dover across the Channel. The trip was choppy enough to make a couple of the vessel’s crew vomit, and the crashing and breaking of dinner plates in the galley could be heard throughout the voyage. By the time we dropped anchor in France, only two of us had managed to keep our lunch down; our pale faces and bloodshot eyes had been glued to the swaying horizon at all costs.

Our reward for making landfall in France was a thousand-mile southbound road trip toward the Iberian Peninsula, camping in the serene French countryside along the way. By the time we crossed the Pyrenees and into Spanish Basque Country on the third day, our spirits were high.

With me was Richard, a fun-loving North Irishman, and his girlfriend Hannah. Richard and I had backpacked together before and I had been gradually wearing him down about joining me for the bull run. Now, feeling the adrenaline of Pamplona rush through his veins, his excitement matched my own. He massacred a couple of different languages as he pointed to the restaurant menu. The confused waiter scratched his head with the tip of his ink pen. Hannah sat in silence.  How Richard had talked her into watching us being ceremoniously chased through the streets by cattle baffled me. As his attempts at communicating with the waiter failed miserably, she puffed on a cigarette and watched the rest of us eat.

Ian, an Englishman, was always willing to engage with Richard and me in anything with the slightest suggestion of adventure. The trip was my first meeting of his younger brother Andy, my tent-mate for the last few days, and whose 19th birthday we were currently celebrating.  

We were all kept sane by Gemma, Ian’s girlfriend, and the most reserved of our company. Gemma was the maternal voice of reason when the rest of us would take things too far. I knew that she’d have her hands full over the next few days.

It was the eve of the party. Abandoning the cars nearby in an underground parking garage, we walked in the dim light of dusk to the Plaza de Toros, the third largest bullring in the world. Once the fiesta began, the bullfights held here would be the focal point of the festivities every afternoon. It was also the climactic endpoint of each morning’s encierro, as the bulls would make their way here after charging through the crowded streets.

Centuries before it became an international phenomenon, running the bulls through the streets was simply the most efficient way to transport the animals to the bullfight. Herding the bulls through the streets was fast, resourceful, and undisruptive to local businesses since it occurred just after sunrise. Naturally, it wasn’t long before some ingenious drunks discovered that there was something to be gained from running alongside the bulls each morning on their way to the bullring. Knowing the event was becoming far too popular to prohibit, the city council began regulating encierros in 1867, sixty years before Hemingway would invite the rest of the world to the party, for better or for worse.

The route itself stretches a half-mile through Pamplona’s old quarter. Released from the corral on the city’s north side at exactly 8:00AM, a pack of six bulls with steer charge up an elevated sprint called Santo Domingo, and erupt into Plaza Consistorial, the town hall square. From here, it’s a fast run down a street known as Mercaderes, where they invariably lose their footing on the wet stones and slam into the wooden barricade at a 90-degree right-hand turn called La Curva. Once they regain their feet, the bulls rush down the long, narrow stretch of Calle Estafeta before rounding the final corner into the bullring. Here, they are held in pens until the corrida begins at 6:30PM, when they fight Spain’s greatest matadors and ultimately meet their demise. The process repeats each morning for eight days with bulls from different breeding farms.

From the bullring, the six of us worked our way up the narrow stretch of Estafeta with periodic stops into crowded clubs and bars blasting a hybrid mash of Basque folk music and Spanish rock. Amid the thick crowd, our group constantly became separated and we naturally fell into pairs. Richard had Hannah, Ian had Gemma, and I had Andy.

In one bar, while watching a news update of the Tour de France, Andy and I encountered an old Spanish man with his young grandson. Upon hearing that we would be running in an encierro during the coming days, the man transformed into an instructor, and the two of us became his pupils. In broken English, he gave us a string of tips.

“If you go down near bull, stay down,” he said sternly. “A lone bull separated from the pack… very dangerous. Toro Suelto. Very dangerous.” He covered his head with his arms and tried to form the fetal position while standing on one leg at the bar. “Hold your breath. The bull is drawn by movement. “If he sees you breathe, his work is not done.”

The old man extended his index fingers above each ear to replicate horns. “He will come at you like this.” The man used his entire body to imitate a fierce fighting bull scooping upward with his right horn. He jerked his head violently into my chest, drawing glances from the bar patrons and a giggle from his grandson. “Like a boxer uppercut,” the man said.

I absorbed all the old man’s advice. It was clear that we were in the presence of a professional. “How many encierros have you run?”

“Me?” The man laughed and shook his head dismissively. “No, no. Never me.”

The grandson giggled again.



As the bars began closing along Estafeta (in preparation for the official kickoff of the fiesta at noon the next day), we followed the masses to a large square called Plaza de Castillo. It was here, in a tiny cigar bar near Café Iruna that we met more of Pamplona’s unique characters. The bar was crowded with festive chain-smoking locals who welcomed us with hugs, passed us their bota wineskin bladders and insisted on us posing with them in family portraits. I take no small pleasure in knowing that today, mine and Andy’s grubby smirks are framed and lovingly displayed on a Basque family’s mantle.

I took a break from our adoptive family and headed toward the bar. Beside me was a somber man who seemed completely out of place. Faustino was a serious-minded, blue-collar Basque in his late forties who seemed reluctant to advertise his presence among the rowdy mob.

He said something to me in Euskara, the ancient and indecipherable Basque native tongue which is mysteriously unrelated to any other language on the planet. I gathered that he was talking about a cigar, and I muttered something back in my terrible Spanish which is well known the world over.

His reply in English was equally awful, sounding something like, “Cigar make good for the man on time.”

Faustino and I somehow managed to communicate for half-an hour in quasi-Spanish and English. He occasionally slipped into Euskara, which is the most fascinating language I’ve ever heard. He was a proud Basque, and we ended up touching on the delicate topic of Basque separatism and independence.

When viewed through the blurry party atmosphere of the fiesta, it’s easy for foreigners to miss that they are in the very heart of a strife-ridden land which has struggled for independence from Spain for decades; even when pro-separatist slogans such as “Gora ETA” are spray-painted on their hotels. Basque history is a sad one, replete with oppression, genocide, and a strict prohibition of local traditions and language in the not-so-distant past. Much like Northern Ireland, the Basque Country’s quest for autonomy spawned violent paramilitary campaigns, with bombings and assassinations responsible for hundreds of deaths in the last few decades. Even the jovial streets of Pamplona were not immune, as a bomb was discovered and diffused in a local hotel during the previous year’s fiesta.

By the use of crude hand gestures and a rough map sketched on a napkin, I mentioned to Faustino our plans to travel to the Basque beach-town of San Sebastian later in the week to recover from the bedlam of the fiesta. He quickly scribbled an address. “When you arrive to San Sebastian, tell barman Faustino said is ok. Show him this note.”

I never made it to wherever Faustino wanted me to go that weekend, nor do I know what type of secret Basque mafia brotherhood I may have been inducted into had I gone, though I kept the note for some rainy day.

As we bid farewell, I asked Faustino if he’d ever ran with the bulls in an encierro.

He puffed on his cigar and shook his head. His dark eyes squinted as if my question was absolutely unthinkable. “No.”

As Faustino made his exit, I found Andy in deep conversation with another foreigner at the bar. A calm, sober, and collected presence, Bruce, the Scotsman from Aberdeen, listened to Andy’s slurred boasts and plans of running in an upcoming encierro. Bruce hardly raised an eyebrow and listened calmly as Andy recited all the tips and tricks he’d picked up over the last few hours. Bruce sipped from his glass of water and only spoke when asked something directly; never volunteering anything. This reservation gave the impression that he was either incredibly wise, or purposely withholding something from the conversation, though his neutral face betrayed nothing. His clean-cut image and composed demeanor were stark contrasts to the boorish throngs of foreigners who were descending upon the city, which he undoubtedly assumed Andy and I were members of.

And he was right.

Though I’d only been in Pamplona for a day, it was easy to become disgusted with some of the other outsiders and expatriates invading the town. Most were tourists, in the saddest sense of the word; there only for a cheap thrill, careless about the culture, local traditions, or the beauty of what they were soon to be a part of. They were there purely to “check the box,” to get the t-shirt, and later, to frame the photo in their office. It’s hypocritical to think that my friends and I weren’t a part of that, after all, our presence in Pamplona was for reasons no one could readily identify.

The few words Bruce shared with us about the encierro were enlightening, dealing mainly with strategy; which corners of the course to take on the outside or the inside; the entrance of Mercaderes where the rising July sun always blinds the bulls; and hidden alcoves along Estafeta to seek shelter if needed. He was clearly in a different league, and he was a stark contrast to the boastful and freshly-christened “experts” who were all around – such as Andy and me.

Richard, Ian, and the girls succumbed to the Pamplona nightlife around 5:00AM, and retired to sleep on the grass near the parking garage. It is impossible to book a hotel in Pamplona during the fiesta. Meanwhile, Andy and I were making friends with the bar-staff in Café Gure Etxea, struggling through instructional sessions of Basque folk dancing, crashing family reunions, sharing botas of sangria with the locals, and lounging around Club Taurino like mobsters with long cigars.

By the time the two of us dragged ourselves away from Plaza de Castillo and returned to the garage, the sun was nearly up. We found our friends fast asleep in the middle of the street next to a group of Catalonian Spaniards. Apparently our friends had first settled into a deep slumber on the comfortable grassy lawn, but were rudely awakened when the sprinklers came on during the early morning hours.

Richard later confessed that he had thought it was a Spanish rainstorm.

Satisfied with our first night in Pamplona, Andy and I collapsed onto the wet street beside our friends. We fell into unconsciousness as sunlight began flooding through rows of buildings, bringing with it the opening day of the Fiesta de San Fermin.


The Txupinazo – July 6

I awoke on the street as rows of gleaming white shoes marched inches from my face, seemingly in slow motion. The sun was high and bright, and there was no sign of my friends or the Catalonians. For a moment I thought I had slept through the entire day, and then I sat up and found myself in the middle of a dreamlike vision.

The street was bustling with activity. People were pouring from alleyways and avenues from all directions and moving eastward in droves toward the old quarter. Men, women, and children wore the traditional white outfit of the fiesta with sashes tied around their waist. They held red panuelo neckerchiefs in their hands, knowing it was bad luck to tie them around their necks prematurely. I rubbed my eyes and was completely overtaken by the luminous field of white encroaching on all sides.

I spotted Andy through the passing crowd, unconsciously wrapped around the trunk of a nearby tree. The crowd stepped around him as they made their way by. I kicked him until he awoke, and minutes later we found the others down in the garage by the cars. Understanding our role to play in this sacred ceremony, we donned the white trousers and shirts we’d bought the afternoon before, tied our red sashes, and made ready our panuelos.

We fell into the crowd and made our way toward Plaza Consistorial, the location of the town hall where the fiesta’s Txupinazo opening ceremony takes place at noon on the sixth of July every year. This event officially kicks off the nine-day fiesta, and is followed the next morning by the first bull run at eight o’clock.

We wedged our way into the crowded plaza, noting that the city’s population had quadrupled in the few hours we were unconscious on the street. Richard, Ian and the girls nestled into a nearby corner while Andy and I ventured into the heart of the crowd – directly beneath the towering Baroque façade of the 17th century town hall. As the midday sun raised high, each of us armed with two bottles of champagne to usher in the fiesta, we were entrenched in the heart of the wildest and most uninhibited of Pamplona’s rowdy horde.

We were immediately initiated in the festivities, pelted indiscriminately with mustard, tomatoes, beer, champagne, yellow food dye, and miscellaneous foodstuffs of all types. Eggs were launched from the balconies above our heads, and buckets of champagne were dumped into the mouths of the masses. Our pristine white clothing never stood a chance. Enormous red beach balls bounced from the tops of unsuspecting peoples’ heads. Dozens of red, white and green Basque flags rippled from every corner. A man beside me turned just as a sack of flour exploded on the side of his face.

Minutes before noon, a group of city officials emerged on the high balcony of the town hall and addressed the crowd. After a short speech, we all extended our panuelos high in the air together above our heads, knowing our Spanish and Basque script by heart – “Viva San Fermin! Gora San Fermin!”

A city leader lit a single rocket that shot upwards from the balcony, exploding above our heads. The crowd erupted in unison as champagne was sprayed through the air and more rockets boomed above. Thousands of us simultaneously tied our red panuelos around our necks, where they would become encrusted and remain for days. The huge red balls bounced uncontrollably. Confetti exploded, revelers screamed like banshees in a dozen languages, and the Plaza Consistorial became a white sea of champagne and absolute decadence.

I felt like I’d been in Pamplona for a week, and I hadn’t even seen a bull. The party had only now officially begun, and wouldn’t end until we pulled ourselves, limping and scarred, away from the city walls days later.


The Plan

Forgetting all we had said about wishing to observe an encierro before running in one, at some point during the afternoon of July 6th, the boys and I convinced ourselves to run the next morning in the very first encierro of the fiesta. We also decided that our planned route would not be the long narrow straightaway of Estafeta as previously intended, but that we would instead run across Plaza Consistorial in front of the town hall, and onto the short street of Mercaderes. This would give the pack of bulls plenty of time to overtake us before they crashed into the barricade at La Curva, the slippery, 90-degree right-hand turn. At La Curva, the pack risked separation, which would render them the most dangerous. Without the security of his brothers, a lone bull becomes confused and nervous, and occasionally runs in the wrong direction. After separation, the bull is also much more likely to charge at anything near him.

By choosing to run in the plaza so close to the start of the course, our route would hopefully be less crowded, however, the bulls would still be fresh and charging at full speed; unlike the casual jog up Estafeta as generally portrayed in the media.

Our new plan gave us few precious hours to prepare by picking up on local gossip and rumors. We walked the route, memorizing escape routes and gaps under fences throughout Plaza Consistorial and niches along Mercaderes. Still soaring from the high of the opening ceremony, the bars and clubs in the old quarter were packed to capacity during the afternoon heat. Locals and foreigners alike collapsed for siestas on park benches, sidewalks, and barstools, or in bank machine kiosks and hotel foyers, whichever was convenient. For these nine days in July each year, social behavior in Pamplona is widely overlooked.

As I’d spent the last couple of years educating myself on such things, I polled the populace and became obsessed with finding the answer to a single question:  which farm would provide the bulls for tomorrow morning?

To my frustration, no one seemed to know.

The esteemed farms that breed and supply the fighting bulls are a huge aspect of Pamplona culture. Statistics are available showing which farm’s bulls are the most lethal, which are noted for being large, strong, and vicious, and which are small, lightning fast, and aggressive. Most importantly, awards and special status are granted to the farm which provides the bravest fighting bull during each year’s corridas. Having bulls from your farm selected to run in an encierro is a tremendous honor.

Bulls from the Miura farm in Seville are known for their great size and ferocity, and are held in such high regard that the Sunday encierro and corrida of each year are specifically reserved for them. One of the most famous Miura bulls was named “Murcielago,” and at a corrida in Cordoba in 1879, he bravely charged at the picadores 24 times in a feat of unparalleled courage. A rare instance, the bull was pardoned from death during the event and was soon mated with dozens of cows, continuing his bloodline to this day.

Lamborghini later named a car after him.

The Guardiola Fantoni farm earned fame in 1980 when a bull named “Antioquio” killed two runners during the same encierro.

Another infamous breed of bull comes from the Torrestrella farm in Cadiz, responsible for one of the most recent deaths during an encierro in 1995. Knowing little about the fiesta or its hazards, a 22-year old American, Matthew Tassio, arrived in Pamplona hours before his run and chose to participate on a whim. As the pack of Torrestrella bulls charged up Santo Domingo toward him, Tassio tripped over another runner and fell to the cobblestone at the entrance of Plaza Consistorial.

Then came his fatal, and final, mistake.

Rather than lying motionless until the pack had passed, Tassio came to his feet directly in the path of a half-ton bull named “Castellano.”

The bull plowed him squarely in the abdomen, severing a main artery and puncturing organs. The impact and momentum carried his body more than twenty feet across the plaza.

After distinguishing himself in that afternoon’s corrida, “Castellano” was awarded a trophy for being the greatest bull of the 1995 fiesta, an immense honor for the Torrestrella farm.

Tassio’s body was quietly retrieved by his parents and flown back to Illinois.

Somewhere I had heard a rumor that the Torrestrellas were running again this year, but I’d been unable to confirm. Though I was certain that theirs would be an amazing event to watch as a bystander, I certainly had no intention of running with the same breed of bull which had killed the last man in an encierro.

Andy and I scouted the entire route in reverse and worked our way to the start of the run – the foot of Santo Domingo, near the walls of the old city overlooking the Arga River. Here was the gated corral where the bulls would be released into the streets the following morning at eight o’clock. A group of English-speaking tourists was gathered near the empty corral, listening to the lectures of their guide.

To our amusement, we recognized the tour guide as Bruce the Scotsman. He was standing on the wall addressing the group on the various facets and techniques of running the encierro. I’d later discover that Bruce was one of Pamplona’s most-respected foreign runners.

Andy and I stood nearby to pick up some of what was being said. Bruce mentioned the secretive nightly unloading ceremony that happened at the corral. At eleven o’clock on the night before each encierro, spectators can climb the old quarter walls and watch the next day’s bulls being loaded into the corral. In what was previously a private event reserved for VIPs and dignitaries, it was now possible for runners in-the-know to sneak away from the crowd and observe the very same bulls with which they would share the streets the next morning.

After his lecture, I caught up with Bruce who remembered me from the night before. I asked if he knew which breed would be running tomorrow. Characteristically, he hid his emotion, though I could tell he was surprised to know that I, a rowdy foreigner, even cared. To my dismay, not even Bruce knew which breed of bull would be running the following morning.

Andy and I spent the remainder of the afternoon scaring the hell out of each other with gruesome statistics and random facts while souvenir shopping and photographing the Pamplona atmosphere. Large parades, marching bands, and religious processions overran the town. Members of the penas, the local social clubs, occupied long tables in the streets, indulging in great feasts with infinite supplies of sangria and champagne.

We opted not to observe what’s sadly becoming one of the city’s newest traditions. In epitomizing the very few things I came to disgust about modern Pamplona, watching groups of drunken tourists break their necks by diving from a nearby plaza fountain was not something anyone wished to endorse.

As Andy and I explored the streets, the rest of our group opted for a midday siesta in a nearby park before we all regrouped for dinner.

It was the night before our run, and we were scared. By the time we sat down for dinner, our nerves were eating away at us. Andy and Ian stayed quiet. The girls pushed food scraps around their plates with their forks. Richard just kept looking at me with an anxious smile and shaking his head.

After crossing the sacred cobblestone where Matthew Tassio had been plowed by Castellano, walking the width of Plaza Consistorial, and then finding the spot where his body had landed, sobering thoughts overtook us all. Even I, the loud-mouthed catalyst of this whole affair realized that things could easily get hairy once we entered the streets in the morning.

Memorizing maps of the run was one thing, as was listening to Andy’s knowledgeable and newly acquired boasts regarding strategy, however, the fact remained that in a few short hours there would be a pack of bulls charging down the street toward me.

At eleven o’clock that night, as a massive thunderstorm brewed in the sky across the Arga River, we made our way down to the corral to steal a peak at the bulls with which we would be running the next morning. We ducked past the string of bars on Estafeta, which were now even more crowded with anxious newcomers who would spend the night wrecking their senses, and then desperately attempt sobriety before eight o’clock. Everyone was walking into the town center, and we were the only ones walking away.

As the rainstorm began dousing the party below, we climbed the decrepit stone walls to reach our vantage point above the corral. A dozen Spaniards and Basques were already there, whispering among themselves and surveying the pack of animals thirty feet below. As I peaked over the wall into the blackness, a blinding jolt of lightning lit the surrounding countryside. Also illuminated were the distinct outlines of the dark, muscular animals occupying the corral below.

Like statues, the bulls stood absolutely motionless in the rain, seemingly staring in great concentration at the corral gate. They were so much thicker than I’d envisioned; striating muscles bulging beneath their dark hides. Bred purely to live and die fighting, these were Spain’s finest and most ferocious animals. Pairs of two-foot long white horns reflected in the streaks of lightning.

Only five bulls were present, instead of the normal six. As I later learned, the sixth bull had been gored by one of his own pack prior to the fiesta.

Lightning flashed again as we settled in among the locals. No one spoke. Everyone standing on the wall that rainy night studied the bulls, perhaps to identify the dominant one of the pack; the most aggressive; the most easily distracted. Any noticeable advantage was noted, in hopes that it would somehow help us the next morning.

I was hesitant to break the silence, though I knew my creeping curiosity would betray me. I turned slowly to the mustached Spaniard by my side. “Which farm of bull is this?”

Waiting for the lightning and a deafening rumble of thunder to subside, he whispered a single-word reply.


And so it would be.

I had researched the encierros over the last several years, I had studied the death of Matthew Tassio, and in less than nine hours, I would share the streets with the same breed of bull that killed him.

Though knowing it would dampen their already apprehensive spirits, I felt obligated to confess this information to Andy and the others as we walked in silence back to the garage. For a moment I was certain that someone, maybe even me, would step forward and announce that he was having second thoughts, prompting the others to do the same. Perhaps the notion of observing the first day’s encierro would be rekindled, leaving us the rest of the week to run any day that we wished. Maybe Gemma would talk some sense into Ian, who would then persuade Richard. In that case, who was I to argue with the better judgment of the group?

No one said a word.

The only sound was the increasing patter of raindrops beating against the cobblestone as we walked back to the cars.

The storm unleashed its full fury at midnight, with lightning streaking the skies and bouts of thunder disrupting even the impenetrable nightlife along Estafeta.

Sprinting through what would become the hardest rainstorm I’d ever seen, by the time we reached the garage the streets were soaked.

Wet streets meant slippery cobblestone, and slippery cobblestone meant falling runners and separated bulls running amok in the streets.

No one slept easy that night.


The Torrestrellas – July 7

I sat in the passenger seat of Richard’s cramped Renault and counted every minute from 4:00am onward. I debated taking a walk, but could still hear the rain pouring down on the ground above the parking garage. I thought that if I lay there just a few more minutes, sleep would eventually come.

Five o’clock arrived, and Hannah shifted uncomfortably in the back of the car. Richard groaned and adjusted his seat to compensate. I checked my fresh set of white clothing once again, as it was bad form to run an encierro in a soiled uniform. I laced and re-laced my running shoes.

I was still plagued with doubt about what the day would have in store, but I knew I couldn’t back out now. I’d traveled half the world for this.

For something.

My mind flashed to the haunting vision of the Torrestrellas in the corral, standing motionless in the rain and staring at the gate. Waiting for eight o’clock; waiting for that gate to open.

Waiting for me?

Photos I’d seen of Castellano impaling Matthew Tassio flashed through my head.

Six o’clock came and I was fully awake. An alarm rang inside Ian’s car parked in the neighboring spot. Minutes later everyone slowly crept out of the cars into the dark, moist air of the parking garage.

No one spoke.

Though voluntary, we knew we were preparing to enter harm’s way, and the circumstances and results of our actions would be largely out of our hands. The only thing left was to go through with it, to believe that it was somehow for some greater good, and to simply hope for the best.

The six of us emerged from the garage to a familiar sight – hundreds of white-clad party-goers in various states of consciousness moving toward Plaza Consistorial. The sun was hours away and the sky was still dark, though at least the rain had stopped.

As we arrived at the town hall, the distinction was abruptly made between those who would run, and those who would watch. While the population of Pamplona swells to over one million people each year during the fiesta, only 2,000 actually enter the streets each weekday morning for the encierros (a tiny fraction of one percent).

I spotted some of the most talkative and boastful blowhards whom Andy and I had encountered during the past two nights. While previously bragging about their plans for daring encierro exploits and glorious running, these same persons were now quietly perched high on fences and balconies, slinking safely out of harm’s way.

The girls took a nervous photo of Richard, Ian, Andy and I just before we entered the enclosed course. I look at that photo today and can still see the fear in our eyes.

An agreement was made that if, and when, we became separated, we would all meet at the Hemingway statue outside the bullring immediately after the run. Rich and Ian kissed the girls goodbye, and then joined Andy and me in the plaza with the other runners. It would be an excruciatingly long 90-minute wait until eight o’clock, when a rocket would be fired to announce the opening of the corral gate and the release of the bulls into the street. During this 90-minute wait, I witnessed some of the greatest techniques of fear-displacement the world has ever known.

Two New York businessmen chatted nervously in autopilot fashion, absent-mindedly repeating the same conversation every few minutes.

“Dow closed high yesterday.”

“Yeah. Good for my son’s firm.”

Their minds were 3,000 miles away.

An incredibly annoying and drunken Canadian was shoving and falling against people; blazing through an entire pack of Marlboros. He boasted about what a great athlete he was, how he planned to keep up with the pack along the entire route, and what he planned to do to the bulls when they approached him. He was an idiot, and everyone could tell how terrified he was.

A small, wild-eyed Asian man in a white butcher’s coat approached us, laughing hysterically. I’m not sure if it was alcohol, fear, or something else entirely, but he was clearly in an altered state of mind. He jerked his head toward me and asked, “Which way do bulls run?” He crouched on all fours and began pawing at the ground.

With a nervous smile, I pointed him toward the direction that the bulls would enter the plaza. “Bulls run right here?” he asked, kicking the cobblestone at our feet.

We nodded and he glared at us in manic disbelief. “Then why are you here?”

I didn’t have an answer for him.

The last I saw of that wild Asian man he was being hoisted over a wooden fence by Basque police.

“Dow closed high yesterday.”

“Yeah. Good for my son’s firm.”

My friends and I tried to boost our spirits by laughing and joking, though it was obvious we were all having second thoughts. The most demoralizing thing of all was to watch other runners change their minds before our very eyes and climb over the fences to exit the route. Many of the runners simply sobered up and left. This went on for 90 minutes.

Eight o’clock grew near and the sun was slowly rising. Hundreds of us were packed tightly into Plaza Consistorial, waiting for the police to allow entry to the rest of the streets. The square was so dense with people that I couldn’t imagine having room to sprint down the street, much less to avoid a bull.

We could barely hear the locals nearby offering the traditional daily prayer to the statue of San Fermin in an alcove up Santo Domingo:

We ask San Fermín to be our patron.
Guide us in the run; give us your blessing.

I began to jump up and down, increasing my heart rate. The crowd thinned out as police finally opened the rest of the course and runners dispersed down Estafeta. The American men and the drunken Canadian made their way down Mercaderes and out of my sight.

Someone near me wore a watch. He announced the time as eight o’clock – but there was no rocket explosion signaling the bulls’ release; there was no mass flood of people moving away from us.

My friends and I looked to each other for support, but only found nervous smiles and empty stares. There was no turning back now.

Something was wrong. According to the man’s watch, it was two minutes past eight.

From the balconies above and all along the wooden fences, the crowd began chanting: “San Fermin, San Fermin.”

My mind struggled to process everything around me.

What could be wrong? Were the bulls released, and the rocket misfired? Was it a dud? Would they still release the bulls if the rocket didn’t explode? If the bulls had been released, why weren’t people running?

San Fermin, San Fermin.

My mind was speeding out of control as I continued to jump up and down. I wanted resolution; I wanted the damn thing to be over with, I wanted…


A rocket exploded in the sky above my head, much louder than I had expected.

I instinctively flinched, as if I was falling under attack, but then again, I was.

I was completely numbed by a new feeling, an odd mix of adrenaline and pure, raw fear. That rocket meant that the corral gate had been opened, and somewhere down the course, there was a pack of bulls thundering toward me.

People around me shot off down the course, far too early.

The onlookers above me erupted in excitement. Police leaned over the barricades and began beating us all with batons to clear the fences. As runners sprinted up Santo Domingo ahead of the bulls, they would need escape routes along the sides of the course. Ian took a stiff baton strike across the shoulder blade.

I counted the seconds in my head. I vaguely recall a second rocket exploding overhead, signaling that all the bulls were in the street. The back of my throat dried.

The pace of runners passing me began to quicken from a casual jog to outright sprints. Soon, I was surrounded by people who were literally running for their lives. The crowd on the balconies cheered louder. They saw something that I couldn’t.

I heard the sharp clanging of the steers’ neck bells, growing closer by the second. The cobblestone started shaking beneath my feet.

The crowd emptied from the middle of the square and a pack of eleven snorting cattle exploded into the plaza. The onlookers burst into a crescendo.

My mind was no longer on some bucket-list goal, or running side-by-side with my friends on a dream vacation. Gone were my scripted plans and strategies of which path to take or which stretch of fence to climb over.

My attention was reduced solely to the purpose of self-preservation.

I looked over my shoulder and saw pairs of enormous white horns coming at me through gaps between runners. A large black bull led the tightly-grouped pack. I scurried down the left side of the plaza and collided with another runner doing the same thing.

The bulls were coming so much faster than I had expected. Hearing them approach, I clung near the fence. At the last possible second, I turned to face them – to see whatever fate I’d tempted coming at me, so as not to be surprised by it.

The black bull led as the pack stormed by a few feet to my left; grunting and breathing hard, moving impossibly fast. I’ll never forget those snorts. The ground rumbled. The sheer volume of the hooves and clanging bells was disorienting. It was incredibly fast.

As quickly as the Torrestrellas approached, they had passed, rounding the corner onto Mercaderes and onward toward the bullring. Desperately, I rushed after them down the narrow street, not wanting the adrenalized rush to end.

I caught Andy charging forward in my peripheral vision; eyes wide and laughing like a madman. We sprinted down Mercaderes as fast as our legs would allow.

Up ahead, the pack rounded La Curva, the sharp right-hand turn, with one black bull slipping on the wet street and crashing into the barricade. A second later they left our sight; the roar of the crowd faded with them as they rushed down Estafeta and deeper into the old quarter.

Standing on the wet cobblestone of Mercaderes, I felt as if I’d been struck by lightning.

Commotion erupted behind us. Turning back to face the plaza, we were overtaken by a mob of more runners sprinting toward us. My first thought was that the worst had occurred: a stray bull had separated from the pack and had fallen far behind.

Massive horns appeared around the corner of the plaza and rushed toward us. Caught off-guard, Andy and I ducked into a shallow alcove and sucked in our stomachs. To our amusement, Ian was in the same alcove, pressed up against the wall beside us, nervously laughing at this unlikely reunion.

A second later, a parade of three massive steer marched single file down Mercaderes; their neck-bells clanging in harmony. The height of the animals’ shoulders must have been six feet, with bulky heads and horns towering even higher. They were easily the largest cattle I’d ever seen.

The steer were the cleanup crew, dispatched to run the course shortly after the bulls. As a herding instinct, any stray bull on the streets is naturally drawn to the steer, and is then escorted to the bullring.

After they’d passed, the three of us stepped back out onto Mercaderes and took a breath. We had survived unscathed. My heart was pounding with life and there was no other place in the world I would have rather been at that moment.

A scream erupted down the street at the barricade near La Curva. The steer had made the turn and collided with a dense mob of people, forcing them to reverse course. People had fallen, and from the sound of the scream, had been trampled under the hooves of the enormous animals.

The animals made a brief attempt at charging back up Mercaderes toward us, but eventually broke through the crowd and marched on.

When the scare was over, Ian was back in the alcove, Andy had vanished completely, and I had scaled a wooden fence – ready for any other surprises the encierro might throw at me. 

A new fear struck us. Richard was nowhere to be found.

We searched Mercaderes and glanced down side streets with no results. We ran back to Plaza Consistorial, but had no luck there either.

We saw Red Cross members treating injured people behind the fences, but still, there was no sign of him.

We charged down Estafeta as fast as we could, making haste to the Hemingway statue near the bullring. Two more rockets blasted overhead as we ran, signaling that all the bulls had been contained inside the ring, where they would be kept until the corrida that afternoon.

As we reached the statue the crowd was growing thicker. White-clad runners were all around us, some bloodied with scrapes and cuts, reuniting with friends for the first telling of stories that would be repeated for the rest of their lives.

It was easy to spot the men whom the locals called Los Valientes, or “the brave ones,” by their soiled uniforms. These are the runners who rush down the course and into the bullring as soon as the first rocket fires, barely within a half-mile of any bull, and raising their arms in victory as if they’ve just completed some epic undertaking. They’ll return home and proudly boast that they indeed, ran with the bulls. Year after year, these runners are mercilessly pelted with eggs and tomatoes by the arena crowd, though they never seem to understand why.

Minutes passed, and still there was no trace of Richard.

Just as the brothers and I were beginning to fear the worst, we spotted him through the crowd bearing a huge grin. He’d climbed onto a fence as the bulls tore past him in the plaza and survived the run.

The girls arrived soon thereafter and we were all reunited. We shared hugs and stories and a great weight was finally lifted from all of our shoulders. There’s nothing more sobering and satisfying than getting away with something you know you probably shouldn’t have.

The first encierro of the Fiesta de San Fermin had come to a close. From the time the bulls left the corral until they reached the bullring, two minutes and thirty two seconds had elapsed.



Our encierro on July 7, 2004 resulted in eight injuries and no gorings. It was noted for being an uncharacteristically smooth and non-violent run for the Torrestrella bulls.

Of our group, only Richard and I chose to attend the bullfight that afternoon to watch our Torrestrellas fight three of Spain’s finest matadors. Each bull performed bravely before its death, drawing applause from the crowd as their bodies were dragged out of the bullring.

The next day, the front page of every newspaper in Pamplona displayed various photos of the obnoxious Canadian who’d stood waiting with us before the run. He’d fallen in front of the pack at the bottom of Estafeta and was trampled. The photos showed that he’d barely missed being gored through the back of his neck.

Two days later, during the third encierro, bulls from the Nunez de Cuvillo farm became separated near our spot in the Plaza Consistorial. Four runners were gored and five more hospitalized. At the same fence where I sought shelter 48 hours before, a man was gored by three different bulls because he didn’t stay down after falling.


Later that week, while recovering on the beach of Biarritz in the French Basque Country, I walked into a café to catch up on the latest news from the fiesta, which was still in full swing. I found a photograph of that morning’s run, depicting a pack of bulls slipping on the wet street and crashing into the barricade at La Curva.

Just ahead of the pack was Bruce the Scotsman, wearing a green and white jersey, carefully navigating the dangerous corner.

The photo captured the energy of the scene. From the look in Bruce’s eyes, I knew the unique emotion he was experiencing at that exact moment. It has something to do with the fact that there, in that place, during that week, there exists the full spectrum of human sensation – in its entirety, and completely undiluted.

Life, ecstasy, passion, and bliss; sadness, loss, agony, and death. During that week, each morning delivers life and each evening brings death - one meaningless without the other.

Brewing beneath the fiesta, the dancing, the sangria, and the nightlife, there is something much deeper. A primal fear exists, and it waits to be discovered. Unlike any other, it’s compounded with energy and adrenaline and it’s impossible to experience through means less than extraordinary.

No other time is existence painted in truer shades of black and white. No other time are our priorities more defined. Absent are the trivial matters of day-to-day life, overtaken by the raw experience of being alive.


© Copyright 2020 Johnny K.. All rights reserved.

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