by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

PAMPLONA, Spain — They were running toward us, hundreds of men, their faces filled with horror because the bulls were right behind them. I looked anxiously at Pablo, my Spanish guide, whom I had met just hours before in the drunken streets of Pamplona. He had promised me, in broken English: “You run with me, you no die.”

It was a comforting thought.

And suddenly we took off. Somebody screamed. A man next to me went down and was trampled. I glanced to my right and saw a black bull just three feet away. “This is it, this is it, this is it,” I heard myself say. . . .

Nobody seems to know how it started, this tradition of running with the bulls through the streets of Pamplona. It has been going on 400 years, give or take a few. Hemingway gave it a literary kiss in “The Sun Also Rises,” and since then people have been coming here summer after summer. Thousands come now, to test themselves, to look death in the eye, to measure their courage against the mighty bull — and to do it all while they’re so drunk that even standing up is an accomplishment.

Maybe we shouldn’t call this a sport. After all, the whole run — beginning in narrow cobblestone streets and ending in Plaza de Toros, or the bull ring
— is only half a mile. Then again, I don’t care if it’s only 100 yards. Does Carl Lewis run with a bull behind him?

That is what brought me here in the first place. I wanted a different kind of sport. No cheerleaders. No money. Here, sometimes, people die. And the game goes on anyhow, eight mornings in a row, during the annual festival of San Fermin. Only it’s really not a morning affair, it’s an end-of-the-night affair — nights in which you drink and dance and sing and refuse to go to sleep. Then, finally, at 8 a.m., you hop into Santo Domingo street on the wrong side of the wooden barricades, and realize, with that terrible thunder of hoofs, that there are no exits, no way out, and you had better run like hell and hope a bull doesn’t find your rear end too attractive.

So why did I want to do it? I don’t know. Romance? Adventure? Besides, I was a sports writer on vacation. Where was I supposed to go? Club Med? I wanted action. I wanted to see this colorful tradition up close. I also didn’t want to die. Which is where Pablo came in.

I met him around 2 a.m. in the Plaza Del Castillo, a huge open area where tourists sleep when they can’t find a hotel. I had a hotel. Unfortunately, it was 70 miles away, in the city of San Sebastian. I had driven my rented car into Pamplona, parked on the sidewalk (everyone did it) and figured to sleep in the backseat until the sun woke me.

Pablo negated that idea. A tall, dark-haired fellow with dangerous eyes, he had lived in Pamplona all his life, and he knew this was his one week a year to grab some foreign intrigue. I was hanging out with some Americans from Illinois, two of whom were women who had just graduated college, and I’m sure Pablo was more interested in them than he was in showing me the secrets of the Encierro de toros. But I persisted.

“How long have you been running with the bulls?” I asked through a friend. My Spanish isn’t so hot.

“Thirteen years.”

“That’s a long time.”

“My father ran before me. My grandfather ran before him.”

And what happened to them? I wanted to ask. I didn’t. Eventually, Pablo agreed to take me on — provided I and my friends (and I think the emphasis here was on the friends) stayed out drinking and singing and dancing with him all night.

He drove a tough bargain.

Now, I confess a certain fascination with Spanish culture and bullfighting literature. Although bullfights are truly disgusting, there is a passage about a matador (I think it’s either Hemingway or Jack Kerouac) that I always loved: “A young man leaned back in his chair. No bulls would die today.”

It is a strong image. No bulls would die today. I expected strong images in Pamplona. And I found them. Unfortunately, many were throwing up.

There is social drinking. There is recreational drinking. And then there is festival drinking. Take all the alcoholic consumption at your average Super Bowl, Kentucky Derby and Mardi Gras, and you’ve got an average night during the festival of San Fermin. The bars do not close until the sun comes up, and the natives don’t worry about going to work the next day.

Into this fray we fell, behind Pablo, who seemed to know every joint in town. On one thin cobblestone alley named Calle San Nicolas (I called it “Hell Street”), there seemed to be a bar every three feet. People were hanging out the doors, out the windows, falling on top of each other. Music blared, traditional Spanish songs mixed with Bruce Springsteen’s “Tunnel of Love.” They danced on the bar. They danced on each other. They passed bottles of sangria and beer and wine from mouth to mouth to mouth, until, I was convinced, whatever disease anyone had in Pamplona, all had it now. The streets were curb-high in bodies and smashed glass. I saw a British girl cut her foot on a broken bottle, then dip it, bleeding, into a large cup of beer. The alcohol, she figured, would sterilize the wound. They call that the emergency ward in Pamplona.

By 4 a.m. I was beginning to drag. But Pablo wanted to go on. He was dressed in the traditional festival outfit: white shirt and pants with a red sash belt and red scarf around his neck. And he kept curling his thumb and forefinger together, then bringing it to his lips. This, loosely translated, meant: “Let’s drink to your Uncle Morty.”

Which we did. Past 5 a.m. Past 6 a.m. What was I thinking during all this? Don’t lose your car keys. That’s what I was thinking.

At 7 a.m. the sky turned a hazy blue. I pointed at my watch and Pablo finally nodded. He ordered a coffee from the barman (as if that would sober him up) and spoke to me of the bulls we were about to face.

“Stay near me,” Pablo said.


“But do not push me.”


“Mucho men is drunk,” he said, making two fists and slapping them together. “Bang, bang! They push you into bull. Very bad.”

Let’s be clear just how dangerous this is. We’re talking perhaps 3,000 people in a street barely wide enough for a car, chased by six loose bulls and four more tied together. The worst thing, Pablo said, was if one bull lost sight of the others, because then he had no idea where to go, and it was likely he’d go after whoever attracted his attention.

“The solo bull,” he said, shaking his head, which was sticky with champagne, “muy malo. Very bad.”

It was 7:30. We left the bar and began walking to where the bulls would be set loose. Spectators were already six deep behind the wooden barricades.

“Momento,” Pablo said. He ran off to buy a newspaper. Now? A newspaper?

“Take it,” he said, handing me half, then rolling it into a baton.

“For what?” I asked.

He thrust his paper at an imaginary animal. He grinned. This, I learned, was to be our sole weapon. A rolled-up newspaper. The bull gets too wild, you jab him with the sports section.

And to think I went into journalism for the writing.

We gathered at the bottom of Santo Domingo street, beneath a high brick wall. Above us it seemed as if the entire town had come to the windows. People stood atop buildings, on ledges. They were smart. Height meant safety. When was the last time you saw a bull jump?

In the middle of that brick wall was a small statue of Saint Fermin, the patron saint of the Pamplona, surrounded by candles. At five minutes to eight, Pablo and several dozen Spaniards began to sing to the statue. I guess it was a prayer. I tried to follow. Saint Fermin is not part of my religion, but if it kept me from two horns in my butt, I’d say anything.

“SAN FERMIN DAH DOO DOO . . .,” they sang, or something like that. My Spanish isn’t so hot.


After the final verse, they waved their newspapers three times and yelled,
“Hoy! Hoy! Hoy!” Then the mood shifted. You could hear a nervous rumble among the spectators. I would guess there were 10,000 people watching this thing, along the Plaza Consistorial and Estafeta street and of course, inside the Plaza de Toros, where it all ended. And we were in the thick of it.

Pablo signaled that I should follow him, and we darted through the crowd, past the wooden barricades and the police, who, I discovered, do not let you out once the run is about to begin. Something about too much confusion. Besides, what if a bull is on your tail? You want to bring him into the crowd? No way. Those people waited hours for those seats.

We reached Pablo’s favorite spot, about 200 meters from the gate. He froze. A cannon shot exploded. Then another. A woman screamed.

The bulls were loose.

I would like to explain what happened next in flowing, lyrical prose. I really would. However, I can best sum up the emotions this way:


Smack! Someone went down. Smack! Someone else went down. Pablo had bolted into the street the moment we heard hoofs on the cobblestone, and already he was 20 feet ahead. I charged to catch up with him, passing men who were already being trampled. Just then the bulls, big and angry, were right on my heels. I leaped to the side, then pulled even alongside a black one, his eyes, thank God, focused straight ahead. Then a brown one, then a spotted one. Then a body, then a foot. Colors and shapes. Helter-skelter. It was kind of like running between giant trucks on the interstate. “Don’t push!” I kept reminding myself. “Watch out for stray bulls!”

My heart was pounding. I saw feet and more feet, some alongside me, some dangling above me, feet everywhere, and screams, yelps, and always the undercurrent of the hoofs on the cobblestone, a devilish thunder. Two bulls began to pull ahead of me and I saw Pablo with his newspaper on one of their horns, taunting the animal, rubbing his sports section right on the deadly point. “Hay! Ha-eyy!” he screamed, as if to say, “What kind of bull are you? Fight me! Gore me!” I realized right then that Pablo and I would probably not keep in touch.

And then, just as suddenly, it was over. The bulls charged into the stadium, where one of them wheeled on a Norwegian named Thomas Fraser and stuck its horns in his guts, lifted him and tossed him 10 feet in the air. Fraser landed in the hospital, the first casualty of this year’s encierro. But it was a good run. No one died. You had to be happy with that.

I found Pablo a few minutes later, among the dazed mob that was already heading home. He shrugged and said it wasn’t his best effort, tomorrow would be better. We slapped each other’s back, glad to be alive, and he clasped two hands beside his head and made a sleeping face. I nodded. The night, indeed, was over.

And that was that. I found my car, eventually, and drove back toward San Sebastian. I lasted 20 miles before pulling off the road, too tired to continue. Killing the engine, I yanked down the visor and let my eyes close, happy in the knowledge that I had survived both the bulls and the sangria, although the bulls would not be giving me a headache in a few hours.

The sun was hot. I reached between my legs, found the seat release, and pulled. A young man leaned back in his chair. No journalists would die today. CUTLINE A large fighting bull charges among runners on its way to the bull ring.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

Subscribe for bonus content and giveaways!