Running in Pamplona: Bulls vs. Balls

Article by: Chip Conley|@ChipConley

Mon July 15, 2013 | 00:00 AM

Upon reading my first two posts from Pamplona, my aunt Joyce wrote me and suggested I cancel my trip to Montana in early August to experience the annual Testicle Festival. I was looking forward to tasting the Rocky Mountain Oysters (calf bull testicles), but, frankly, I’ve gotten all the bulls and balls I could handle for 2013 while in Pamplona.

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Let’s be real. You put this many people into this small of a space, then throw in a dozen big animals for good measure and you can be assured there will be more mayhem than magic. This, magnified by the “machi-schmos” that show up drunk, tired, and looking for their Andy Warhol quarter hour. Sadly, over the past weekend, men (I’m not sure a woman has ever been gored) were gored in the thorax, armpit, and rectum, and an Irishman was in critical condition after being nearly smothered to death in a pile-up at the narrow entrance to the bullring that left two-dozen people hurt. And, someone died from a heart attack watching all this blood and gore.

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The truth is the number of runners escalates quite a bit on weekends, which makes that the most dangerous time to run (for the humans; for the bulls, there’s no safe time to run as the run leads to the bullfights and certain death…for more on the ethical controversy, read my post Conflicted in Pamplona). Fortunately, I chose well for my day, Wednesday: midweek and mid-festival. But, as I paced over to the racecourse, it was staggering how many other “schmos” were in my shadow. As one long-time runner told me, “Keep one eye on the bulls and the other eye on the pile-ups of drunk people.”


Arriving early is the key. If by 7:30 a.m. you haven’t fought through the crowd that’s four-deep along the fence, you can probably forget about squeezing through the fence into the enclosure. Things start to heat up about that time. The efficient and generally friendly police officers, not distracted by the chaos of the fiesta, create lines that shape how runners will make our way through Calle Mercaderes and the long narrow Calle Estafeta. I felt well-stationed knowing my Welsh cameraman Nick could capture me. But then the police pushed us forward and the next thing I knew a few hundred of us had been escorted out to a side street and we had to do a quarter mile run to get back to the main plaza to get back onto the running route. Maybe this is the way to give those with second thoughts an ability to opt-out, but for me, I was now all-in.

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Just a few minutes before we start, there’s a frenetic tension in the air, an adrenaline rush becoming the common bond with all those around me. And you get to know some of the people around you as there’s a crush of the crowd on all sides. I spent a few minutes chatting with three guys in this video from three different countries who’d just met each other. You can feel the nervousness running through the collective veins as we ponder this deeply irrational undertaking.

As we inch toward 8 am, the crowd starts to lurch forward and with the first rocket the pace begins to heat up. The bulls are already running. The runners on the initial stretch of the Cuesta de Santo Domingo have little time to get out of the way. For those further down the road like us, this first rocket causes novices to start running fast but I know that’s unwise as I don’t want to get to the bullring before the bulls. We wait for the second rocket and we calculate the time we have left before we see the first sign of the bulls on the narrow Estafeta alleyway. I keep my eye on the television crew elevated at Dead Man’s Corner behind me, knowing that when they start pointing their camera in my direction, the bulls are probably just 100 yards behind me.


Everyone around me is bouncing up and down to try a get a glimpse over the crowd and then I hear the rumble of the cobblestones and hear a few screams and then I see the bulls about 50 yards behind me. Shit!!


My jog becomes a sprint and I narrowly miss falling over a pile-up of a dozen guys in front of me. Then, the speedsters from behind me, who are trying to keep up with the 35 mph speed of the bulls, are knocking down a few of their human brethren to stay on pace with the animals.


I know the bulls are a few breaths away since the “mozos” (expert runners who pace the bulls) are on my shoulders. And, then, I hear the clang of the bells around the necks of the tame steers, I smell the musky odor of these rampaging beasts, and the thunder of their hooves now vibrate the ground. I’m exhilarated more than I’m frightened, although I do occasionally look at the doorways of this narrow street like a burglar looking for a point of entry in case there’s a pile-up of bodies and I’m face to face with a bull. This Estafeta is famous for having no easy exit, as this poor chap learned this year (Warning: this is a very hard video to watch as it shows the dangers of the run).

For those few fleeting moments, when I literally was running with the bulls an arm’s length away, I achieved what’s called “templar” when you match your own best speed with the rhythm of the animal. It’s a strangely moving experience rumbling with these bullies who are flanked with mozos like Secret Service quickly escorting the Pope’s motorcade. But then, the bulls have moved beyond me and a sadness overcomes me. That is, until I realize there’s another smaller set of bulls behind me.


Now, all the bulls have passed me and it’s just a matter of jogging to the stadium. No one had warned me of just how narrow that opening to the stadium is and how many bodies you have to scale (fallen bodies on all sides) to make it to the end. And what a shock it is when the narrow tunnel opens up to a stadium filled to capacity with thousands of roaring fans cheering you on and a series of novillas (baby bulls with padded horns) being released so mobs of runners can play matador games with their bodies.

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I stayed on the dirt and then wished my newfound buddies “suerte” (good luck) and scampered up so I could take some pictures of men acting like boys.

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I saw lots of people passing around calfskin flasks full of red wine and Coca-Cola in the stands. It was about then that I realized I’d twisted my ankle on the cobblestone run into the bullring so I took a swig and marveled at this absurd theater of testosterone.

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One of my United Nations buddies (the three guys I interviewed earlier in this post) arrived by my side, smiling ear to ear. He told me to “look proud” so that he could take my picture and I could show all my friends. In Pamplona, pride translates into power and this is how I unconsciously posed to symbolize the word “proud.”

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The drug-like adrenaline rush wore off within moments, as my pride turned to a certain amount of disgust as I watched the bulls being taunted in the ring. Someone asked me if I was coming back for the bullfights that evening. While the matadors (literally means “killers”) would be displaying some historical sense of courage and valor, my conscience hit a big wall in that stadium. I didn’t want to come back.

Within five minutes, I’d left the bullring and within an hour, I’d decided to leave Pamplona a day early as my growing unease was making me queasy. Fifteen people have been killed in the past century on bull runs and dozens were taken to the hospital this year after the festival’s eight runs. And, of course, 48 bulls are killed each year in the evening bullfights. Amidst that carnage, most of the merry participants in Pamplona are enlivened by the smell of summer and the taste of sangria.

But, as I made it back to my place to pack and make an early exit, navigating the obstacle course of high-fiving runners who were ready for another day of drinking, I felt like a fish out of water. Or maybe I felt somehow my conscience had been castrated by this experience. I will explore those thoughts tomorrow in my fourth and last post in the Pamplona series.