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Travel Tuesday: My Encierro Experience

We are just a week back from Spain, and we are still dreaming of it. Such an amazing place that I know I will be back to.

The same can be said about my experience in Pamplona for San Fermin, and particularly the encierro (running of the bulls). One of the ways we convinced ourselves to do the run was by saying that it was a once in lifetime experience, and how many other times will we be in Pamplona this time of year, so we had to do it. After our experience, I can tell you that not only was this not our last San Fermin, but definitely not our last encierro.

Since we did so much during our Spain trip, I am breaking my reviews and accounts up into 4 parts: my encierro experience (today's post), San Fermin, Barcelona and Seville, and finally our 5 hours in Madrid.

I will begin today's post with my first hand experience of running, and will follow with my advice and tips for anyone who is ever thinking about running. One thing I learned that I feel was crucial in being the most safe and prepared was to do a lot of research on every aspect, so I am all too glad to pay that information forward.

Me just prior to the bull run, trying to remain calm, and dressed in the uniform of San Fermin (head to toe white with a red sash and bandana)

San Fermin is a 24/7 party that does not stop. Therefore the hubs and I decided to do our encierro on the first morning we were in Pamplona so that we could fully enjoy the fiesta afterwards. We felt it wise not to stay up to late or drink too much the night before, so we went to bed pretty early. This was really tough, not only because we were staying in the town center and there were fireworks, music, and partying all night all around us, but also because we were too excited with the anticipation of the encierro. We ended up barely sleeping as we were way too fired up.

We walked to the encierro route at 6:00 am, knowing that they close the streets off by 7:00 and that you should get there early to ensure a good spot for the run (which begins at 8:00). Having done our research ahead of time and walking the route the evening before, we knew exactly where we wanted to start, where we'd run, and where we'd stop. We took our spot at the top of Cuesta Santo Domingo, about 10 yards below the Ayuntamiento curve.

Maybe the most difficult part of the experience was the anticipation as we waited there for 8:00, especially as the police close and fence off the street around you and spectators begin to gather in the balconies above you. You get the feeling that you are really doing this, and that there is no turn back. Thankfully, we were distracted with conversation by the other runners around us. Everyone is strecthing, fired up, and sharing advice that they had learned from others or from their own experiences if they had run before. Ironically, we met the most Americans (and several Aussies) here in our spot on the encierro route than we did in any other part of Spain during our trip. Perhaps its because the Americans and Aussies are the craziest for doing something like this, who knows. It was great to pass the time this way, however, and you really feel a sense of comraderie with these other people who are risking injury and even their lives alongside you to be part of this centuries old Spanish tradition, and (of course) for the thrill of a lifetime.

The adrenaline started pumping through me as the time inched closer to 8:00. We were standing right before the Ayuntamiento which had a large clock tower, so it enabled me to keep track of the time, though I ended up checking every 10 minutes it seemed. As you can't have any bags, we didn't bring cell phones or anything that could get lost or broken, or make the physical aspect of our run any more difficult. In fact, the police will kick out anyone with a camera or bag, as this is a serious event that requires focus, and you can not be distracted or put yourself or anyone else in danger by stopping to take a photo. The one thing people were allowed to carry, and almost everyone does, is a rolled up newspaper. They read about the injuries of the previous day's encierro, study the facts about the bulls that are about to be unleashed upon us today, then they roll the paper up and use it to smack the bulls if necessary to help heard them. As nervous as I was, I also felt very confident, because we had a plan and we had done much research on what to do in certain situations (see my advice below). However, there is that part of you that has to be prepared for the unexpected, which is what made me a bit nervous. Not to mention that I was one of only a handful of women that were running (BTW, the other women I met? Aussies and Americans, of course). While this was on one hand empowering, on another it was a little intimidating knowing I was entering into this male-dominated tradition where women have only recently even been allowed to participate, and knowing that when the time comes that all chivalry would be out the window with my fellow runners. If it came down to it, we'd all be out for ourselves, and I would not be as physically strong as some of the men if I had to push and get myself to safety.

The last 15 minutes before 8:00 am actually went by pretty quickly compared to the previous hour and a half. The police officers did their final sweeps of the crowd, removing all the noticably drunk people, as well as anyone with bags, then they took their places on top of and behind the fences. I began to anticipate the traditional pieces that would precede the run, which made it all more real, but also surreal at the same time... knowing I was living something that has been portrayed on film for so long, and that has been going on in Pamplona for much longer.

The crowd went from laughing and bumbling to dead quiet. Then, at 7:55, the first chant/prayer to San Fermin began below us on Cuesta Santo Domingo. This is repeated three times before the opening of the corrals (5 minutes, 3 minutes, and 1 minute before 8:00):

"A San Fermín pedimos, por ser nuestro patrón, nos guíe en el encierro dándonos su bendición." (We ask San Fermín, being our patron saint, to guide us in the bull run and give us his blessing). Then they shout "¡Viva San Fermín! ¡Gora San Fermín!." ("Gora" is the Basque word for "Viva" - Pamplona is in Basque Country).

After each chant, different groups of runners come up from Santo Domingo to begin jogging towards the Plaza de Toros. The first to enter are boo'ed by the crowd, but usually don't care because they choose to start the jog early to ensure they make it into the arena (since the bulls are faster than most of us). When people started running, it became incredibly real. After each chant my anticipation amplified until I saw the clock turn 8:00. At that moment I turned to my husband and said something to the effect of "Holy sh*t, this is it! I love you."

It is all a whirlwind after this. So fast, but at the same time, an eternity. We heard the first rocket go off, which meant the corral doors were open and that the first bull had exited. My blood was pumping but I was focused. We waited to hear the sound of the second rocket (letting us all know that the last bull had left the corral), but it took longer than we expected. This is one sign that it is important to note, as bulls that get separated from the pack are more dangerous to runners. The long amount of time between rockets indicated that at least one bull had fallen behind.

Photo from our actual bull run from Here the bulls have just left the corral on Cuesta Santo Domingo and are making their way up hill towards us.

All of the sudden, you see the crowd at the bottom of the street start to move (more seasoned bull runners - it is only recommended that you start that low on Santo Domingo if you are physically fit and have done this run before, as the bulls come out of the corral at 30 mph and don't slow down until after the uphill run and as they begin to tire). People start literally screaming, and spectators on the balcony begin communicating what is coming ("toro, toro!" Which was really helpful at getting warnings up and down the route line whenever something occured that we needed to be on the look out for). I am focused, waiting on the moment when I know I need to move. It was incredible how fast the bulls approached. One moment we saw them halfway away, and what seemed like just a second later, they were bearing on us, and my husband yells "Go!"


More photos from our actual bull run from Here the bulls are approaching us up Santo Domingo.

It's not like I necessarily needed his cue, as we could all see the bulls bearing down onto where we were standing, and since people are running up from behind and start pushing you in fear of they own safety. I couldn't have remained where I was if I wanted to. But I had my plan and I had to stay focused. I kept thinking to stand firm and strong as I moved so that I would not get knocked down (though I knew that if I fell, it was much safer to stay down as a bull is far more likely to jump over a fallen runner, and would much more likely gore/run through a runner that made the motion of getting up right in front of them), and I kept thinking that I would stay as close to the fence as I could. This was for two reasons: 1) to have an escape route if necessary (climbing the fence), and 2) based on my research I knew that the bulls tended to turn wide on corners, so I wanted to stay as close to the inside curve as possible.

Another photo from our actual bull run from We are actually just ahead of the bulls here as they make the curve from Santo Domingo into Ayuntamiento. Notice how runners have already fallen.

Now I am scrambling along the fence, paying no mind to the runners that are pushing me (luckily the husband and I were already prepared for that, otherwise we may not have been OK with people shoving us). The police on top of and behind the fence are yelling "move" in Spanish much more rapidly now, telling us that the bulls are right here with us. All of the sudden they grab me, yell "stop" and I am shoved against the fence, my husband caging me from behind, protecting me just in case. In this moment time actually stood still for me, as I knew it was the moment of truth. 6 angry bulls plus their accompanying steers were right next to us, just feet away, and there was no outrunning them. I consciously turned to look at them, which was not easy being pressed against the fence. But I needed to be present and take this moment in. I turn my head and I can both see and feel the bulls as they run past. Their hooves literally thunder down the old streets, their heat radiates to all of us around them, the early morning Pamplona sun shines down and illuminates the scene so that the bulls, the fence, the street all seem to have a thin halo glowing off of them. I will never, ever forget this moment. It is dead silent where we are all huddled against the fence waiting for the bulls to pass, as we know to be on the alert for anything that may change and mean potential danger. We waited, knowing that there was a bull that was late and behind the main pack, and that he could mean trouble. We waited for Flamante to come up behind the rest.

Another photo from our actual bull run from We are actually in this picture somewhere against the fence on the bottom of the photograph as the bulls and steers come by.

A photo of Flamante from our actual bull run from We are just ahead of Flamante against the fence on the curve.

Both my husband and I saw it: the look in Flamante's eyes as he eyed our corner. We both instinctually felt like he contemplated coming towards us. I was mentally prepared to scale that fence as fast as I could... Spiderman would have nothing on me.

A photo from our actual bull run from We are actually in this picture somewhere against the fence as Flamante passes us.

Thankfully, Flamante had better things to do, because he looked back ahead and continued trotting around the curve towards the Curva de Mercaderes. Though we were wise to be cautious of Flamante, because he continued to cause trouble his whole way towards the Plaza de Toros.

Another photo from our actual bull run from Flamante goes rogue and goes after an unlucky runner.

After Flamante passed, runners continued after the bulls to try and make it into the Plaza. My husband and I had no desire to make it into the Plaza this time. We had a plan, and we were sticking with it, so we would wait in the Ayuntamiento until it was safe for the streets to open back up again. Our hearts were racing and we felt victorious. Before we could get too comfortable, a buzz came up from behind us on Santo Domingo ("toro, toro!"), and my instinct took me up that fence just as fast as I imagined I would earlier (I was very proud of myself for how quickly and easily I got up that thing). Could there be another bull lagging even further behind? It turned out to be two more steers that had been released to help wrangle up Flamante ahead of us. I felt much safer, but did not descend the fence until I knew they were past. Then we heard the news pass back down from Estafeta through the runners and the onlookers on the balcony... a bull had turned back our direction. We were on guard once more, but the police were able to close a barricade on Curva de Estafeta (also known as "dead man's curve," a blind curve onto a very narrow street where many a runner has been gored throughout the years) to avoid Flamante from getting back too far. The entire encierro usually averages 2 and a half to 3 minutes in length, but ours was close to 7. Flamante did not want to go the the Plaza (perhaps instinctually knowing what fate awaited him and his brothers once he made it there). He bravely fought and tried to turn, while the bravest runners fulfilled their traditional duty of hearding him into the Plaza. When they finally did, the third rocket sounded, letting us all know that all bulls had made it into the arena. The barricades were opened, and we were all able to continue down Estafeta towards the Plaza, where we were able to safely leave the encierro route, having participated in something mighty.

Immediately my thoughts went to the next time I would be in Pamplona, and how I would try to run with the bulls a little farther, perhaps stopping just before dead man's curve. I also pondered jogging with the runners after one of the pre-encierro chants and making it into the Plaza to have that experience as well someday. And I thought of all the friends I knew would be brave enough to do it with me, and that deserved to have this awesome life experience at my side the next time.

The adrenaline started to subside, and I knew it was time for an early siesta on this day. We went back to the hotel to email our friends and family, letting them know we survived. Then we crashed.

Now that you have lived this experience along with me, here are some key pieces of advice and helpful information should you wish to attempt this someday.

Some key rules:

1) If you fall, STAY DOWN. This is something we heard over and over. Just the day before our run, the runner who had gotten the most injured was someone who made the mistake of getting back up after falling, and getting rammed and tossed by a bull. I know this is hard to do, but you must curl up, cover your head and wait until a runner taps you with his/her rolled up newspaper to let you know it is safe to move.
2) If a bull is coming at you and you are at a fence, go up and over the fence and not down under the fence. Per my picture above of Flamante going after a guy trying to go under the fence, you can see why. Bull's vision is not that great, and they are more likely to be distracted and annoyed by something moving right below them than something going up over them.
3) BE PREPARED. Study everything you can get your hands on, watch YouTube videos of other runs, learn the way the bulls generally move at different parts of the route, talk to others who have done it before, and KNOW THE ROUTE! Study it, then practice walking it the day before.
4) Decide on your plan ahead of time: know exactly where and when you plan to run, how far, and if you are running with someone, plan a meeting point outside the route after the encierro should you get split up. It is too dangerous to turn around and try to find someone during the encierro should you get split up.
5) Line up by 6:30 am, as they do close the streets off at 7:00, and the best starting spots (like Ayuntamiento) fill up even before then.
6) Do not bring cameras, bags or anything else that will get you kicked out of the run.
7) Do not attempt to do the encierro under the affects of drugs or alcohol. If the police do not catch you and kick you out, you would be putting your life and the lives of those around you at risk.

The route:

A map of the route from

1. Corralillos
2. Cuesta de Santa Domingo
3. Plaza del Ayuntamiento
4. Curva de Mercaderes hacia Estafeta
5. Calle Estafeta 6. Curva de Telefónica
7. Callejón
8. Plaza de Toros
9. Plaza del Castillo

Some really helpful links:

The Philly Pena - Great advice on the encierro, Sam Fermin, local food recommendations, and the Basque Country from an experienced San Fermin-goer.

Pamplona Posse - Site with great basic info and personal encierro accounts. - The official site of the fiesta with program information, and even a calculator for the risk of danger for doing the encierro on a given day. - A Spanish site that has pictures of each day's encierro. - A Spanish TV site that has great coverage of San Fermin and high-definitition videos of each day's encierro. - A site with some detailed description of different parts of the encierro route.

So now that I have sky-dived (dove?) and run with the bulls, I am starting to run out of items on my bucket list. What is there to fear and conquer now?

Feel free to contact me any time if you would like more advice or a first-hand account, and stay tuned for my other 3 Spain blog posts.

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