Spain Sunday: Running of the Bulls

Yesterday was the last day of the San Fermin Festival! This means for the past 8 days we haven’t been able to turn on the TV without seeing the running of the bulls. The news here is notorious for showing things as they really happened. No censorship. So when a gas attack happened in Syria we watched weeping people sort through piles of dead children. When there was a rape trial a few months we actually saw a brief clip of the rape (filmed by the rapists) on the morning news. We’re talking “good morning, it’s 6:45 and here is the news -” with a woman being raped. It’s really intense and something we just can’t get used to culturally.

So with people running for their lives we figured we should stay away from the news. It’s over and everything was fine, so we thought we would write about it.

Only 15 people have ever died but pople do get hurt. Obviously. 50-100 people get hurt (200-300 people get minor injuries). Including last year someone was gored in the scrotum which, you know, happens when you do these kinds of activities. Good reminder that gored does not equal killed – gored can sometimes just mean gored aka stabbed or completely penetrated through.

We’re getting ahead of ourselves. Everyone knows, inherently, that you run from bulls probably wearing red and white. Here are some more facts about it:

It takes place in many cities, but is most famous is Pampalona. They happen all over Spain and other countries like France and Portugal have runnings. The most famous one for the world is the one in Pamplona (capital of Navarre). Probably because of Hemmingway who wrote about it in Pampalona.

It’s only one part of a large festival. It’s part of the San Fermin Festival -celebrated to honor Saint Fermin – a Roman senator from Navarre who was killed either by decapitation or by a bull dragging him down the streets. Just in case it was the latter (and since a yearly mass beheading would be less popular) people still run down the streets from bulls.

The rest of the festival (which lasts 8 days) is equally riotous

  • it starts with fireworks
  • the big wigs do a ceremonial walk
  • there is chanting
  • they walk a giant Statue of Saint Fermin around in a big religious ceremony
  • there is a giant paper mâché guy festival
  • everyone gets together to make as much noise as possible for no reason at all (seriously, called Struendo, the roar) for hours (video here)
  • at the end everyone gets together, holds their red bandannas up and sing Pobre de Mi “Poor me” (youtube video here)
  • everyday there is bullfighting. There is a bullfight each day of the ceremony where 6 bulls are killed.

The running of the bulls comes from bullfighting. They needed to get the bulls from their pen to the bullfighting ring. The way they used to do it was just run them through the town into the ring. Young men, presumably drunk from all the religious ceremonies going on (because religion and drinking goes together here like Santa and cookies)  would say “sostenga mi cerveza” (hold my beer) then run in front of the bulls. It was just dumb teen boy showmanship that is now tradition that over 1 million people do every year. This is seriously how the tradition started.

How it works

1: At 8 am, 9 bulls are released.. 1 firecrackers announces their release and another announces they are actually running now. Meanwhile people have sung their benediction to Saint Fermin to bless them on their run.

2: The bulls enter the city proper

3: It’s getting serious now. There are more people running and we’re very much in the city. People watch from balconies above.

4: A bull has slipped and pushed a man into a barrier. Note the Carrefour Express – that’s a grocery store. This is a real downtown, not just some random street. Imagine your downtown boarding up all the glass windows and just praying (or calling their insurance).

5)The most dense crowd was waiting for the bulls and begins running with them. There is a risk of a crush here (people piling up on top of someone else who tripped).

6) The bulls (and people) have made it to the bull ring! As soon as they’re all in, they close the gate so it’s not like the whole town runs inside.

7) Folks (probably actual matadors) distract pissed off bulls from now-boxed-in-people and lead them to the holding pen.

8) Not pictured. 6 of the 9 bulls wait for the bullfight. 3 are just there to encourage running.


Official rules say you must

  1. be at least 18 years old
  2. run in the same direction as the bulls
  3. not harass or hurt the bulls
  4. be sober (ha!)
  5. not climb up the fences or hide in doorways (although people have to- to escape the inevitably goring)
  6. not carry anything while running
  7. not take photos while running. I can’t believe they have to say this but, yeah.

That’s it for official rules. There are a lot of guidelines though.

There is no dress code, although everyone wears the red bananas (symbol of the San Fermin festival). Particularly bravado men might wear a brightly colored shirt to incite the bulls (or just appear better in photos). “Look ma! I’m on TV! … No, not the guy in the white shirt, the guy in pink getting gored through his testicles!”

If you go down, stay down. This is probably the most important rule. If you watch the video (this is a tame video I don’t think anyone gets that hurt) you can see tons of people fall down. They immediately go into the fetal position and cover their heads and then wait it out. Loads of these people get stepped on by other people or by bulls but they’re mostly okay. Trying to get back up is what will get you gored. It’s actually chill to stay down for a long time (all 9 bulls might not be past you) locals will tap you when you can get up again.

Quick Facts

  • The biggest risk of this crush is where the street narrows to the opening of the bull ring. People have actually suffocated to death under piles of people in this area.
  • “Anti-skid liquid” is now poured on the cobblestone streets but many bulls used to be injured or break legs.
  • The course is under half a mile
  • The average speed of the bulls is 24 km/h (15 mph)
  • No one can run the first part (and uphill run) because you really would die. They can run uphill faster than we can
  • PETA obviously hates this whole thing so they staged a Running of the Nudes (video with exposed breasts) They don’t do this anymore (from what I can tell) because it was a running of the perverts.
  • Some people aren’t allowed to run. Because too many foreigners are participating drunkenly and out of shape they can be pulled out of the run by authorities. They also sometimes just move foreigners to a safer starting place.
  • There is one doctor and one nurse about every 50 meters with about 200 medical professionals present.
  • People carry rolled up newspaper to smack the bulls’ noses.

We can’t use other people’s photos but if you want to look at photos over the years- here.

Here are the best photos from this year – got lots of people looking very, realistically frightened. It’s not all bravado, sometimes it’s pushing up against other men and screaming.

2 thoughts on “Spain Sunday: Running of the Bulls

  1. Wow….fantastic photos from El Pais! Some of these guys look like professional runners; almost comfortable next to the bulls. Others look really stupid.

    Are all the bulls killed? What happens to them?


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