You know you’re living in a foreign country when you turn on the TV of a morning and instead of the usual news programme, you have live coverage of a bull run. This week has been Sanfermines (the feast of St. Fermín) in Pamplona and the fiesta just keeps getting bigger and bigger.
A large part of the celebrations in Pamplona and something that has become synonymous with the city around the world are the daily bull runs. Each morning at eight o’clock sharp, six bulls are released on to the city’s streets and driven along a short route to the bull ring, where they will later on be fought. The part that makes the whole thing interesting is that the fenced-in route is packed with the brave, the foolhardy, the crazy and the drunk and whose goal is to accompany the bulls on their scramble through the narrow streets and, if possible, avoid being gored or trampled.
For something as famous (or infamous) as the bull run and something that attracts thousands of runners from all around the world every year, it is over in the blink of an eye. The route is only 826 metres (903 yards) long and, given that the bulls travel at anything up to 15 mph, the run only lasts for a couple of minutes. What can add extra minutes to a run is if the ground is wet and the bulls slip when cornering or if one of the animals decides to get ornery and turn on an unlucky Australian or Californian. There are mechanisms in place to keep the whole run going smoothly. Firstly, the six bulls are accompanied by four steers — or bullocks, if you prefer — who already know the route. Their presence usually keeps the more aggressive bulls chugging along in the right direction. If a bull turns back on the route or gets distracted by a particularly obnoxious runner the release of a further three steers two minutes from the start of the run can have the effect of guiding the errant bull to the ring. On top of this there are all sorts of professional and semi-professional correadores (bull runners) along the route to put manners on the animals — the bulls, not the Australians et al.!
The traditional form of dress for the run is all white with a red belt and handkerchief. They say the way to tell a local from a tourist is through adherence to this dress code. There has been a trend recently for groups of runners to turn out in team colours or T-shirts supporting a charity — something opposed by traditionalists. Something that also excites the opprobrium of traditionalists is the running of women. This had been permitted since 1974 by those in charge of the run, but even after forty years of equality on this front to see a woman elbow-to-elbow with her brethren along the route is still a rarity. I would like to think that women have too much sense to pit themselves against six four-legged, long-horned half tonnes of speeding and irate flesh.
It was the writings of American author and journalist, Ernest Hemmingway, that first brought the Pamplona bull run to the world’s attention. He painted the run in the light of a testing of one’s masculinity, of putting your life on the line in opposition to one of the great forces of nature. In reality, the bull run is not that dangerous. Since record-keeping began in 1910 only fifteen people have died as a result of injuries suffered during the run. Every year there are between two- and three-hundred injuries, mostly from falls or being trampled by the other runners. There are only a handful of gorings per annum, from which we are to conclude that one’s fellow runners are more of a hazard than the poor bulls.
In spite of all the opposition the bull run faces from animal rights organisations, it looks set to continue for a long time to come. The feast of St. Fermín is the highlight of Pamplona’s calendar and the bull run is an integral part of the celebrations.