What It's Like to Run With the Bulls at Pamplona's San Fermin Festival

Migel, shutterstock
Migel, shutterstock
Mark Nayler

Pamplona’s annual San Fermin fiesta is world-famous for its daily bull runs – encierros – during which six fighting bulls and six oxen are run through the old town’s narrow streets to the bullring. They are accompanied by hundreds of adrenaline-fuelled runners known as mozos. But what is it actually like to run with the bulls on the streets of Pamplona and to become a mozo?

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I ran with the bulls in Pamplona for the first time on Tuesday 11th July, 2017 – a date that will forever be imprinted on my memory – with one of my oldest friends from London. The day before, we picked a short stretch of the course and, drinks in hand, figured out where we wanted to start and finish running. Most planning goes out the window amidst the chaos of the encierro, but it’s important to designate a starting point and an exit spot – i.e a specific point at which you move to the side and let whatever is behind you or next to you hurtle past.

We chose the the town hall square, a section at the beginning of the encierro that I had been told was a good spot for first-timers. Though the bulls come flying up Calle Santo Domingo – the straight and narrow stretch that leads out of the corrales into the first batch of runners – the left turn onto the square is a relatively gentle one and they take a straight line through it, usually sticking to the left side. By this point, too, they are normally still in one pack, or a couple of packs, which is less dangerous than when one bull falls and splits from the rest of the herd. This often happens on the sharp right they take onto Calle Estefeta after passing through the square and Calle Mercaderes. It is known as “Dead Man’s Curve” and many gorings and serious injuries have occurred on this part of the encierro.

Ultimately, though, you can read as much as you like and you can watch as many videos of past encierros as you want. You can go jogging and practice your sprinting and speak to people who have done it. All of these things are recommended, as much for confidence as anything else. But when you wake up on the morning of your first run – probably long before it’s time to get up – you are alone with your fear and when it starts your body takes over from your brain.

Knowing that the 8am encierros require early starts and light or non-existent hangovers, we extracted ourselves from the party at about half past midnight the night before. On the day, I awoke at 5.30am already nervous, as if I’d also been nervous in my sleep; as I found out later, in the room next door my friend was also wide awake. Walking to the course, our nerves were exacerbated by seeing two other runners kneeling in the doorway of a church and praying. We were on the town hall square by 7.15am and for the next 45 minutes there was nothing to do but wait. The atmosphere on the street was calm and quiet but extremely tense: everyone who takes the encierro seriously knows how dangerous it is. Police strolled the course checking no one was falling-over-drunk. Time slows virtually to a standstill as you wait for 8 o’clock to come. We didn’t talk much.

As 8am approached, I looked up at the steadily filling balconies. People were looking down at the mozos while enjoying their breakfasts and chatting. It is a thrill to be part of an event that San Fermines turn out to watch in their thousands, albeit a thrill tempered by the knowledge that absolutely anything can happen once the the bulls are released. At about 7.50am, everyone started jogging on the spot and stretching, all the time looking down the street towards the corrales. All my systems were on hyper-alert, but I didn’t realise this until the post-adrenal comedown sent me crashing into bed at about 11am.

Finally, 8am came and the agonising wait was over. Church bells started chiming and a rocket exploded high above the streets, signalling that the encierro had begun. It sends a shiver down my spine remembering that moment. Then the second rocket went off, telling us that all six fighting bulls had left the corrales and were now on the street. The cheers and screams of the crowd follow them up Santo Domingo and within seconds people were sprinting past us shouting, “Run, run!”. Other mozos were yelling, “Where are they? I can’t see them!” The bulls run at great speed and in less than ten seconds they were at the town hall square. Surprisingly, the stampede of six fighting bulls and six tamed bell-oxen makes no sound on the cobbled streets: in lethal silence they were upon us. We ran.

As we found out afterwards, that morning’s encierro had been an exceptionally fast one. A pack of three black bulls had raced away from the rest of the herd up Santo Domingo and one of these had completed the 875-metre course in an astonishing 1 minute 59 seconds (it usually takes between 2 and 3 minutes). From watching the video in the bar later that morning, I saw that these black bulls had come tearing past me as I sprinted, back turned, to the barrier on the right of the plaza. After having pulled in here amongst a crush of other runners – just before our designated stopping point – I looked to my left to see a beige bull steaming past a few metres away on the left of the square. Weirdly, my memory tells me all this took place in silence, even though the noise of the crowd and on the course itself was tremendous. The whole encierro was over in 2 minutes 13 seconds, making it the 8th fastest in the event’s history.

As soon as the fourth and final rocket goes off, signalling that Pamplona‘s streets are safe once again, the bars along the course remove their protective boarding and start filling up. Until 11am, when a shattering comedown sent us back for a siesta, I drank with my friend and we tried to reconstruct what had happened during those few seconds. The post-first-run drinking, by the way, is incomparable. You feel huge relief as well as elation and pride to have participated in and survived such a dramatic few minutes. You also feel respect for the magnificent animals you have just shared the street with, because without them this very special event would not exist, nor would it be possible to return home a mozo for life.

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