Running of Bulls Helps Kick Off Pamplona Festival

Jennifer Vernon
for National Geographic News
Updated July 9, 2004
The northern Spanish city of Pamplona has kicked off its annual nine-day
festival. The celebration—which honors the city's patron
saint, San Fermín—includes fireworks, parades, music, dances,
bullfights, and religious ceremonies.

What first draws most foreign visitors to the festival, however, is a brief daily spectacle known as the running of the bulls, which began earlier this week.

A long-standing tradition among Pamplona residents, the event achieved international notice thanks to Ernest Hemingway's 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises.

"He took a small town festival and really immortalized it in his words so well and so eloquently … that it became romantic," said Hilary Hemingway, an author, documentary filmmaker, and niece of the famous writer.

For Pamplona's earliest residents, running the bulls started out as something quite practical: It was simply an efficient way to move the animals through town to sell at market.

Lucinda Poole, a journalist and 24-year Pamplona resident, said town lore attributes the practice of running with the bulls to 13th-century butchers who hurried slightly ahead of the bulls to be well placed to buy the bulls for slaughter.

Running with the bulls began to grow in popularity, despite efforts to stop it. By the late 1800s, it had become a well-established tradition.

Three-Minute Run

During the modern festival, the running of the bulls starts at 8:00 a.m. each morning. (The spectacle began this past Wednesday, the Catholic feast day for San Fermín.) Six bulls selected from Spain's top breeding ranches run in the daily event, called an encierro.

The bulls' route winds half a mile (0.8 kilometer) through town from an enclosure on Santo Domingo Street to the city's bullring, where each bull fights a matador in the afternoon.

The average encierro lasts a mere three minutes.

While short, encierros can be dangerous both to runners and bystanders. The size of the crowd, the bulls' unpredictability, and the inexperience of many participants add to the risk.

Fourteen deaths have been attributed to the San Fermín bull runs since recordkeeping began in 1924, Poole noted. According to last year's hospital admissions data, there were 57 serious encierro-related injuries, 11 of which were gorings.

Phil Ross, owner of the Scarlet Macaw, a Pamplona-based travel company specializing in trips to the Basque regions of Spain and France, has run with the bulls of Pamplona himself. But Ross cautions his clients against running—unless they prepare well.

"People tend to think of [these bulls] as farm animals," Ross observed. Nothing, he says, could be further from the truth.

The bulls that run during the San Fermín festival are bred to fight and can weigh over 1,300 pounds (600 kilograms). They also possess razor-sharp horns, keen intelligence, uncanny peripheral vision, and the ability to "turn on a dime," according to Ross.

Underestimating them, he says, can be a fatal mistake. "They're the most aggressive animals that I know of," he said.

Ross's advice to novices who choose to run with the bulls: Observe first, talk to veteran runners, stay down if you fall, and avoid attracting the bulls' attention.

Robert Fluhr, a 28-year-old salesman from Jacksonville, Florida, ran with the bulls last year and learned this last tip the hard way.

During the festival's final encierro, Fluhr slipped on wet cobblestones while trying to escape a bull "about the size of a Volkswagen," he said. Although Fluhr remained still, the bull gored him in the abdomen, injuring his colon and bladder.

Fluhr's injuries were the worst to occur during last year's encierros. They required a year's worth of surgeries and rest to recover from, according to Fluhr's brother and fellow runner Tim Wedel.

Undeterred by Fluhr's misfortune, both men say they would run with the bulls again.

Beyond the Bulls

Fortunately, most runners have better luck. Dianne Galliano, a financial planner in San Diego, California, is one of the few women to have participated in the event. She came to Pamplona in 2000 to see her husband, Robert, fulfill his lifelong dream of running with the bulls.

Once in Pamplona, however, Galliano decided to join her husband on his quest. The marathon runner says she was delighted to accomplish the feat but feels once was enough. "I don't want to tempt fate," she said.

Donald Zuk, 66, a former amateur bullfighter from Los Angeles, California, said the experience of his uncommon hobby came in handy when he ran his first encierro last year. "You learn to keep calm and [not] panic," Zuk said. "To conquer your fear—there's no feeling in the world that's better than that."

Nonetheless, Zuk, an insurance-company president, considers himself "very lucky" to have made it through unscathed.

Dan Blumenthal, a chef, restaurant owner, and self-described "adrenaline junkie" from Jackson, Mississippi, said he chose to run because the experience promised to be one of a kind.

"It's a time-honored tradition," Blumenthal said. "It's a wonderful festival, and … it's a very singular experience that you can't get anywhere else."

The fact that the encierros make up only a fraction of the San Fermín festival activities is something first-time visitors often are surprised to learn.

Robert Galliano said the festival is anything but "a drunken brawl." Rather, he said, the celebration showcases the warmth of Pamplona's people and hosts many family-centered activities.

"The running of the bulls only takes three minutes … early in the morning. You have the rest of the day to participate in the spirit of the town," Galliano said. "People are happy. They're alive … It's something unique that you see."

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