The Anatomy of a Bull Run

Running with the Bulls

It began with the sound of singing coming from street level, rousing me from a somewhat broken sleep. Dreams of fluttering red sashes as the people ran from the creature that was chasing them down the cobbled stone streets; The dream that was to become a reality all to soon.

The mood within the flat was tense, intermittently broke by someone busting out a dance move, a distraction to help us forget what was coming and the uncertainty of the run. As I donned the red and white outfit for the day I stopped at the red sash, running my fingers over the thick embroidery of San Fermin on my sash – the Saint that watches over the bulls and the runners – before knotting it a second time to ensure it would not trip me.

We’d discussed it, read about it, we knew the anatomy of what was to happen over the next two-hours. The waiting and then the run which lasts not even three-minutes long, but nerves were forming butterflies in all of our stomaches as we descended to street level – I was over analysing everything and it left me with knots in my stomach and a sense that something was going to go wrong.

Jeannie Mark and Nicole Smith from Girls Run with Bulls

On street level the world around us was moving too quickly, as people ran down the streets to get inside the barriers before police closed them off; and the smell of last night’s fiesta – the smell of urine and the sangria that stained the cobble stones – seemed to act as a guide towards the run. People milled, many in the street stretching or preparing themselves, but more packed were the balconies where we had just a day earlier been standing in safety.

We’d agreed, we’d run into what was nicknamed ‘Dead Man’s Corner’, the meeting of Mercaderes and Estafeta, the most dangerous corner in the whole run. We predicted that with the wet cobblestones – they were hosed down each morning before the run – and the 90degree angle of the turn, that if we stuck to the apex we’d be alright; a plan we had developed after walking that section of the run and watching the run from a balcony.
But meeting with a camera crew to talk about our Girls Running with Bulls campaign, the camera operator, an experienced runner himself, wisely told us that we should move down the street. Our carefully laid out plan changed, now the uncertainty of my decision to run was welling up inside of me and the nerves I’d spent the morning carefully suppressing had risen inside of me and threatened to burst as we walked into our starting position.

Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain - bull runners

Walking to the new area we were to wait, the nerves of the crowd were evident as people jumped on the spot or sung, distracting themselves from the two-minutes of chaos that was ticking closer.
Oneika and Nicole sang and dance, the crowd cheering and laughing at these two Americans doing their thing; many more were just amused that we were running – only two other females could be seen in the crowd nearby.

At three-minutes to 8 the crowd began to sing. At two-minutes to 8 the crowd sang again. At one-minute to 8 the crowd sung for a final time – the chant to Saint Fermin to protect them in the bull run and bless them.

“A San Fermin pedimos, por ser nuestro patron, nos guie en el encierro dandonos su bendicion.”

As the men finished the chant the third time there were shouts of  ”Viva San Fermin!, Gora San Fermin” and we all broke into yells and whoops.

Then the first cannon sounded.

It’s in that split second you have to choose between the fight-or-flight instinct. Though I knew the bulls were still a good 90-seconds away from me, I took off, the surge of the crowd ensuring that I moved forward. We tip-toed along, trying to hang back far enough to ensure we ran with the bulls, but the police along the sidelines urged us in Spanish to keep moving, even forcibly pushing us.

Then the second cannon sounded – that meant that both the bulls and cows had been released.

As the seconds ticked by and no bulls appeared I got more nervous, my protective instincts kicked in yelling at the girls and Jarmo to stay together, to move, to run. The mood of the crowd running past us were more desperate though; fear seemed to be written across many of their faces, like they were running from death – I suppose in some ways they were.

“Hey!” A shout from the railings broke my concentration to where our friend Michael was perched atop a railing filming the run. All I could do was glance up, smile, and yell a quick ‘Hi’ before continuing, the need for movement too great to ignore.

Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain - anxious bull runners

Looming ahead of us was the bullring – an area where we had planned as a group not to enter. As we got closer people dived through railings, escaping the run, escaping the bulls. The shouts behind us had intensified and we were used as human shields, as people clambered out of the railings marking the fence.

It was then that the first frightening thing happened: Oneika disappeared out of my line of sight, and then the others, as two bulls ran past my right and a fresh wave of adrenaline coursed through my body. The open mouth leading into the bull ring lay in front of me as runners streamed in and the cheers of the people inside could be heard.

And then a second frightening thing happened – a guy about two metres in front of me fell on the slope into the bull ring and bought two others with him.

Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain - escape from the bulls into the bull ring

As hands appeared out of no-where – what later turned out to be a hole in the side of the bull ring entrance for runners to slide down into if they fell – pulling at the mens clothing trying to get them to safety before they were trampled by the sneakers and hooves, I had a split second decision to make – should I jump over the men, risk falling but potentially make it into the bull ring and complete the run or should I stop in my tracks and crawl out to safety.

So I jumped.

My brain didn’t process the jump; nor did it process the bull that ran past my right-hand side as I entered the right. Nothing made sense as my world filled with the sound of cheers and I clambered up the railing of the bull ring to something that felt like safety.
Jeannie and Jarmo joined me next, then Nicole – we weren’t reunited with Oneika until we left the ring – as we hugged and cheered having made it into the bull ring safely with only a split lip (Jarmo) and a bruised eye (Oneika) as injury.

But our adventure wasn’t over, oh no, it isn’t quite that simple; because then they released the cows…

Just how close did we get to the bulls during the run?

Girls run with Bulls - Nicole and Jeannie

Photo appeared in Diario de Navarra.

For more information on how to run with the bulls
check-out Girls Running with Bulls.

Huge thank you to RoomoramaEurail, and Hostelbookers for being our sponsors. 

Would you run with the bulls?

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  • Reply
    November 16, 2012 at 8:23 pm

    Wow – great account of the bull run! I had the opportunity to do it this year (right place, right time) and was so close to doing it… Then I chickened out (I’m not a massive fan of crowds and having to run whilst in one with bulls chasing me doesn’t sound like a good time to me!). Maybe one day though 🙂 It’s great reading other people’s stories about it and living vicariously through their experience!

    • Reply
      November 18, 2012 at 3:43 am

      Oh, I wish I knew you were in town. We could have all run as a group, or at least had the safety if you did decide to run.

      I hope you get to run one day; It is exhilarating!

      • Reply
        November 19, 2012 at 1:40 am

        Oh that would have been great – safety in numbers an’ all that (might have actually motivated me to do it!) Definitely one day though! It might take a few years to psyche myself up though 😀

  • Reply
    Natasha von Geldern
    November 16, 2012 at 8:54 pm

    So impressed with you all and great post Nicole. I’ve just read Hemingway’s account and would love to do it next year!

    • Reply
      November 18, 2012 at 3:36 am

      Thanks Natasha! I’m hoping to attend, if not run, with some more girls this year. Hopefully we can meet up or form a group. =)

      Will have to read Hemingway’s novel. Been told by you and a number of others it’s a good read and he is quite a figure in Pamplona.

  • Reply
    November 18, 2012 at 4:22 am

    Wow, this had me totally hooked. Running with the bulls sounds so intense! I can’t believe how close you got to the bulls. I’ve lived in Spain for about a year and a half now, and I’m hoping to go next year.

    • Reply
      November 18, 2012 at 4:25 am

      It’s an amazing experience, Jessica. I do hope you get to run!
      Let me know if you do and hopefully I’ll see you there for a sangria or two. =)

  • Reply
    Stephen S.
    November 18, 2012 at 9:41 am

    So awesome Nicole. This has been on my bucket list since I started traveling, and I am finally doing it this July. Reading this post got me so excited. I am counting down the days. My goal is to make it into the ring like you.

    • Reply
      November 18, 2012 at 11:35 am

      Good luck, Stephen!
      It is such an exhilarating experience. I definitely recommend starting where us girls did if you want to make it to the ring (will double check exact location on a map and write it down.)

      I’m hoping to be back there in July so hopefully we can meet up for a drink post-run – think we’ll need it! 🙂

  • Reply
    David Wang
    November 21, 2012 at 6:51 pm

    Great story and picture of the bulls! Wow, you’re one plucky gal for running with the bulls 🙂

  • Reply
    Remembering to be Thankful
    November 21, 2012 at 11:09 pm

    […] have discovered some wonderful friendships with people across the world, wouldn’t have run with the bulls, nor visited Copenhagen or Canberra. I wouldn’t have eaten at the world’s cheapest […]

  • Reply
    November 25, 2012 at 3:11 am

    I love your courage for doing this! Can’t say that I could ever do the same, I run so slowly that I pretty much run backwards. I’ll take part in the sangria fight though!

  • Reply
    December 7, 2012 at 5:28 am

    OMG, this kept me on the edge of my seat. I want to do the bull run next July and I am doing research to know what to expect!

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