July 17, 2013

Source: Shutterstock

It is this pagan nature of the festival, the bacchanal and the abandonment, which allows the extreme depth of bonding between the people involved. If you have been drinking late into the night with someone and then run shoulder-to-shoulder with them as nine tons of hoof and horn rattle the cobbles beneath your feet, they become as brothers and sisters to you.

This also provides a wonderful process of filtration, a vetting of men and women by means of blood. No one who’s boring comes to Pamplona in the first place, and no one weak stays for more than a day. As can be seen in this series of photos from this year, the timing of running “€œthe curve of the death”€ is everything as the bulls are moving at 20MPH. As yet I have never got it right, either being too late or too early.

My finest run this year was actually on the long road of Calle de la Estafeta, when I set off at a jog in the middle of the street and slowly accelerated to a sprint all while either throwing people out of my way”€”and that of the bulls”€”or hurdling them where they lie. The entire herd, a tight pack of six with a couple of one-ton steers in the front, came up on my left-hand side and I looked down admiringly at the silky black flanks pulsing and surging next to me, the modern incarnation of the wild aurochs which in other breeds we have converted to a hornless, harmless box of meat and milk on legs. However, lost in this atavistic reverie, I failed to spot another runner go down in front of me and I hit the asphalt at a flat sprint.

The one rule of bull-running, especially in Pamplona, but even other, more ancient runs such as Cuéllar, is do not get up“€”the bull’s horns are low for evolutionary reasons, and on your knees your gut appears at the height of the herbivore’s ancestral enemy, the wolf. This was the fatal error 22-year-old American Matthew Tassio made in 1997. (The last death was of a very experienced Spaniard named Daniel Jimeno Romero in 2009, two days before my own first run. Since Ernest Hemingway first went to Pamplona in 1923 and made the city famous, fifteen people have died.)

However, lying in the middle of the street with at least four one-ton oxen and four hundred people about to run over you, I reverted to my torero training and rolled sideways, bringing down a few people on top of me, but infinitely fewer than would have been the case had I stayed where I was. As I reached the gutter I felt two strong pairs of hands grab my shoulders, and I was hauled to my feet by my old friends John Hemingway (Ernest’s grandson) and Graeme Galloway, a Scotsman who is larger than life or any description I have room to give.

I carried on running but the moment and the herd had passed. However, for this year, it was good enough. There will be others. Until then, ¡Viva Pamplona y viva San Fermín!


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