Surviving Pamplona’s Running Of The Bulls – The Infamous San Fermin Festival

by Marc Valentine

Running of the bulls pamplona

Taking part in the festivities of San Fermin in Pamplona has long been a dream of mine

From the moment I saw the Running of the Bulls on a travel show many years ago, I’ve yearned to tread on those cobbled streets in Spain & share a few adrenaline fuelled moments of chaos with the bulls.

I ticked San Fermin off my bucket list this year, & it was all I had imagined plus a whole lot more.


Pamplona’s San Fermin Festival really is a party to envy… from the moment we arrived on the day of the opening ceremony it was clear we weren’t in for a great deal of sleep during our 3 days in Pamplona.

As we surfaced from the underground bus terminal, we were exposed to a seemingly infinite sea of white & red… white pants, white t-shirts, white shoes… every single person within view was cloaked from head to toe in white – with the exception of one red scarf slung around the neck & a red sash dangling from the waist.

People young & were old celebrating in the streets in their sangria stained clothing… dancing, singing, eating, and of course drinking, on every conceivable inch of road, sidewalk, street corner & park.

San Fermin opening ceremony

How did it feel to run with the Bulls?

Was I scared? I was a terrified.

We are talking about twelve 600kg Bulls here, each armed with skin piercing horns, with no capacity for mercy, non of these monsters will give so much as a second thought to stomping me into the pavement – if I happen to be one of the unfortunate folk who find themselves between the bulls & their destination (the bull arena) each year.

Call me a coward, but that’s reason enough to make me little nervous!

Praying at the bull run

A journey into the mind of a first time runner at San Fermin

Up early & in position on the bull run circuit before the sun rises.

So I’m really going to do this… Aren’t I?

15 minutes out, a light drizzle begins to fall, slowly giving the dry cobbled street a dangerous, potentially fatal shine. At this point I clearly remember thinking to myself…

Perfect. Yes, this is the perfect excuse.

If this rain gets slightly heavier I can jump over the guard rail & disappear into the safety of the crowd on the other side. With my pride in tact, I can forever tell my friends & family (& more importantly myself) that I didn’t chicken out at running of the bulls.

The conditions were just way to dangerous to go through with it, I mean no one could reasonably expect me to go through with this in the rain…

Could they?

Moments later when I dragged my thoughts back into the present – the drizzle had stopped & I knew I had to go through with it.

As the minutes slowly count down… 10 becoming 7, then 5 becoming 3, the excitement begins to peak. Scanning the crowd trying to get a feel for the mood, I turn to say something to the guy next to me I’ve been chatting away nervously to. But he’s not there, the nerves have gotten to him… he’s made a dash over to the wall for a last second nervous pee – probably like so many have done before him.

The origins of the bull run

The origins of Pamplona’s famous bull run

The customary singing to San Fermin for protection rings out from the crowd.

A nervous minute or so later the chant rings out again.

Then the singing begins for the third & final time.

This is it.You’re committed.

You couldn’t get out now even if you wanted too.

Why do you get yourself into these situations you dumb ass?

On autopilot your past dominates your thoughts… it’s funny how only the good stuff comes to mind. Those tough & desperate times we all face in the trenches of life fade away to insignificance. You consider how blessed you’re life has been. A thought goes out to those you love – perhaps a quick prayer to whoever or whatever it is you believe in (15 people have been killed at San Fermin since 1924 attempting this run after-all!)

I’m not a religious person, but in moments like these, I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t resonate with this quote I once read from a famous war photographer

“I’m not a religious man, until I’m deep in it, then I drop to my knees & start praying”

The moment of reflection passes & it’s back to business, strategizing as much as possible. Scanning the crowd trying to spot any liabilities to avoid when those gates swing open & shit gets real… drunk guys the police may have missed during their sweep clearing the streets of intoxicated people who had every intention of running – spurred on by liquid courage from the previous nights festivities.

20 minutes before the run, one nearby reveller was so drunk he collapsed to the floor… completely failing to break his fall, he slammed face first into the cobble stone street & needed to be stretchered out, blood oozing from a deep gash on his forehead.

The bull run pamplona

Bringing the Bulls into position the night before the first bull run

There’s a lot of room for error, there’s the rubbish on the street, the pile-ups caused by others who have fallen, or my biggest fear, getting caught in a corner with a bull with nowhere to manoeuvre.

One thing I had decided on right from the beginning… I wanted to face the bulls on the street. I know it sounds stupid, but I wanted to know what it feels like in that brief moment when the bulls catch you. Does time slow down or even seem to freeze completely for a moment? Is it a split second of shear terror before it’s all over?

Those are the things I intended to find out in person.

Some guys line up so far towards the front they enter the bull ring well in advance of the Bulls & they’re bood by the waiting crowd when they enter the ring… I took the opposite approach.

Starting right in front of the gates where the bulls are first released, I was working on the theory…

“the bulls come out with so much pace & the crowd is relatively thin here, the bulls will be focused on running – not on maiming me”

Maybe it has a ring of truth to it. Maybe it’s absolute crap… who knows for sure? all I can say is that it worked out well for me.

The first cracker rang out & a massive wave of people surged forward. Not me, I waited for the second bang, that’s when I took off. It’s hard to say for sure but think I made it maybe 50 metres or so, before I heard the hooves, then risked a quick glance to the right – taking my eyes off of the path in front of me for a split second, where they were met by the commanding shoulders & menacing horns of the bulls plowing their way through the crowd.

Then just like that, it was over. Or so I thought.

A few hundred metres up the street at “dead mans corner” the road was blocked by a gate “what the f@ck is this I thought” am I too late?

Then a familiar surge of panic gripped the crowd and everyone madly scrambled over the top of each other to get out of the centre of the road… apparently they release 2 more steers after the main pack in case any of the bulls take a tumble & became separated from the others, it’s these steers job to guide any disorientated & dangerous bulls through the crowd into the bull ring.

the bull ring pamplona

The entrance to pamplona’s bull ring, can you imagine 12 bulls stomping through those doors?

I can tell you without an ounce of exaggeration… when I saw there were more bulls on the street, I was on the top rung of that timber fence in a heartbeat.

The worst bit about the lagging steers was the remaining few hundred metres that still had to be covered to get to the ring… running into the unknown. When I turn my back, are there going to be more lagging bulls ready to take me down from the rear?

Do I have any tips for first time Bull Runners?

  • You need to be careful not to buy into the panic, I saw waves of people start to run as soon as the crowd began to sing the first chorus to San Fermin… maybe 3 – 5 minutes before the bulls even hit the tarmac. Incredibly on the second chorus a minute or so later the same thing happened. You gotta keep your cool.

The last thing I wanted to do was get caught up in the panic, take off too early then get caught in a corner with no room to manouvre…

  • Stop drinking relatively early the night before & get some sleep.
  • Take a moment of your time to develop a strategy before the run. (do you want to see in the bulls on the street? or do you just want to be part of the run & get into the bull ring safely well ahead of the bulls)
  • Try not to die (you probably have people that will miss you).
  • Most importantly… Have fun – You’ll have a crazy fun time at Pamplona, don’t waste it panicking about the run. There’s way more to the San Fermin festival than just the bull run.

Good luck, there’s nothing quite like the incredible feeling you get when you knock another item off your bucket list.

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