Juan Macho (yes, his real name) wasn’t in the packed street in Pamplona, Spain, where he said he’d be, between the barriers where the bulls run. Juan had walked the course with me the afternoon before. He showed me where to run and where the bulls would probably be. He soberly told me, and made me repeat, the rules for running with the bulls. The rules that make your odds of surviving without being gored better.
He stopped in places to show me where I could escape under a fence and to show me where people had died in the street.
In front of Pamplona’s City Hall Juan pointed out where Mathew Peter Tassio of Glen Ellyn, Ill., made two fatal mistakes: When the bulls pounded close he sprinted across the street, not with the crowd and the bulls, as you should; this is why another runner knocked him down. He then broke the cardinal rule of running with the bulls: He got up in front of a bull. A Spanish fighting bull is a wild animal. It will destroy whatever moves in front of it. Its horns are sharp and curved forward. The lead bull simply drove a horn into Tassio’s aorta and flung him across the street without even losing its place in front of the herd. Tassio got to his feet once more before falling dead.
As I waited for Juan I was standing right where Tassio died. It was just after 7:30 a.m. and the Spanish police had closed the barriers—meaning no one else could come in, or go out.
This was my first run and I remember thinking that each of us crowded shoulder to shoulder stood alone in an anxious crowd. There were so many of us filling the narrow street in Pamplona I had to turn my shoulders and push against the crowd to move. We were all wearing white clothes with red sashes and bandanas bought from street vendors in the small city. The veteran runners’ sashes and bandanas were washed-out red, and they had patches sewn on them and shiny pins of bulls and runners clustered over them like Boy Scout bandanas. Most of the people in the street had new and clean red bandanas and sashes.
Morning sunlight was touching the tops of five-story stone buildings that rise up like walls along the narrow streets in this ancient city built on a plateau in the Pyrenees. At each floor above the first are balconies. These were overloaded with people also dressed in white and red, though the people on them had blood and wine, not fear, in their eyes. The clear mountain air just before 8 a.m. felt as humid as New Orleans in summer within the nervous crowd of runners.
Outside, the packed street music was building and falling as marching bands moved down the canyon streets closer, then away twisting with the curving byways back into the city founded by Romans.
I couldn’t see how the bulls could make it up the street. I’ve had less trouble squeezing onto Tokyo subways than this tiny street in Spain. I stood feeling as if I was in a mosh pit at heavy metal concert—a concert where someone was about to release bulls.
Each minute loudspeakers hung up and down the street were doing a countdown to the planned stampede. They were giving advice in Spanish, English, and French: “If you are knocked down. Stay down. Don’t stand up in front of a bull….”
Right then, as if they knew we needed comic relief, a young man and woman climbed a drainpipe. Everyone in the street looked up and jeered. The couple shimmied up the pipe to an empty balcony two floors up. The man went first over the black iron rail and then turned to help the woman. She struggled and almost fell. He caught her arm and dragged her up too forcefully. Her dress caught on the balcony’s rail and everyone in the street got a long look at her bright blue panties. She was caught there with her legs spread and toes pointing at the sky and her dress falling over his chest. The man with his arms grabbing her wrists was almost flat on his back on the balcony. The crowd of mostly young men below began to cheer. She finally tumbled onto the balcony and everyone laughed like it was the funniest thing they’d ever seen.
I kept hoping Macho, my guide to surviving the encierro (the running of the bulls), would show.
That recurring announcement broadcast in many languages kept blaring like a conscience: “If you’re knocked down, stay down until the bulls pass….”
Minutes before 8 a.m. medical workers hurried into spots alongside policemen positioned between the double set of barriers on both sides of the street. Runners next to me saw the medical teams and caved in upon their manhood. This is real. It is happening. There is no escape.
The crowd began to shudder in waves like flinches.
One such tremor broke an American next to me. Minutes before we’d been shouting introductions to one another and he’d been relatively in control of himself. Since then he’d become delirious with fear. He shouted some awful thing and tried to crawl under the heavy wooden fence and away.
A Spanish cop kicked him in the head, sending him back out alongside me. Blood dribbled from a small cut on his forehead.
Many other runners were losing their nerve. Some were running early. The Spanish call those who run before the bulls arrive “valientes,” which ironically translates to “brave ones.”
I anxiously stretched and looked back to where the bulls would come and breathed deep. I glanced left and saw that the American who’d tried to go under the fence looked like someone right out of a Goya’s Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War) paintings.
His eyes were too big. His mouth was roving around his suddenly fluid face. He had gone mad. He had to get out. He dropped onto the ground and rolled under the fence.
The cop waiting on the other side clubbed him with his three-foot long baton and kicked him back into the street. Then the officer bellowed something in the heart-pounding scene I’ll never forget: “You wanted to be a man and run with the bulls; now you must be a man and run with the bulls.”
The Spanish officer’s face was granite. He had the stiff, proud bearing of a drill sergeant. He wasn’t to be trifled with. But the American didn’t want to die.
The American went under the fence a third time. The cop swung his club with calculated viciousness. The officer then picked up the American who wouldn’t be a man and tossed him into a brick wall behind the fence. The American fell limp on the stone street. The cop batted the club in his left palm and looked at the street full of runners as if to ask, “Anyone else?”
8:00 a.m. exploded with a Boom! A rocket announced that the bullpen had been thrown open. No one in the street heard the second rocket telling us all the bulls were out and running up the hill in the first part of the course. We had seconds. A moving roar echoed closer. Spectators on the balconies saw the bulls first. Six black Spanish fighting bulls and six steers running to guide them to the bullfighting arena were almost on us.
The bulls were stampeding. There is no other word for how the six black fighting bulls and the steers leading them run the uphill portion and then the first two turns of the course. People’s faces were melting as the roar went up from the people in white and red overloading the balconies on the yellow buildings with the upper floors bathed in early sun.
I ran while glancing over my right shoulder at the mad faces behind me and back again to the parting sea of runners ahead. Someone went down in front of me in a white screaming blur. I leapt over him. Someone knocked me right, near the outside of a bend in the street just beyond the town hall. I knew that spot is death, as the bulls run the street like a current—most of the water hits the far bank in a bend and this happens to bulls running on slick stone even more than it does a stream’s current.
I pushed back left. Wild eyes and screams were telling me the bulls were close. I didn’t need them to tell me this. The bull’s hooves were pounding, slamming into the hard street right behind me. They were deafening.
I spotted a hole and dodged left between white blurs of people and then the black bulls with the forward-facing horns were by me and pounding away toward the arena where they would die that afternoon.
After the bulls run the course “sweepers” (a group of steers) are sent down the course to pick up any suelto (lone) bulls that might have become separated on the run. The bulls have a herding instinct and so will join the steers—animals that have run the course many times—and thereby push on to the pens on the opposite side of the bullfighting arena. This is important, as a lone bull is dangerous. The gorings that make newscasts are mostly from suelto bulls that fell or were turned around and so found themselves alone. When they’re alone they see all people as threats that must be destroyed. They’ll often pick one person and start goring them until experienced runners get the bull’s attention and persuade him to follow them down the street.
Now, some of the guidebooks tell you to count the fighting bulls when they pass you on the street so you can be certain the six fighting bulls are gone and there isn’t a suelto making its way through the crowd toward you. I always wonder if the authors of these guidebooks ever ran and so tried to count running bulls in a crowded street as your heart is in your churning feet.
This time the bulls had all passed and, as always happens in this moment of relief and joy, the street began to smile. People were checking themselves. A few were limping. The air was cool and mountain clear again. Medical workers were helping a man with a bloody leg.
A young man from Canada had blood on his face. He was laughing. I ask what happened. He said excitedly, “Oh, someone pushed me over from behind and I went sliding along on my face.”
There was black bull hair on the back of his white shirt. I pointed this out to him and he pulled a few off and got this saucer-eyed expression and really started to laugh so hard he had to bend over and put his hands on his knees.
I put my right hand on his shoulder and while laughing with him told him I’m buying the drinks. We were instantly friends. We went through the barriers and up a side street that was still wet from being hosed clean yet still smelling like a wet basement after a teenage all-night kegger. There were empty beer bottles and plastic cups in the gutters. There were a few blurry-eyed people sitting drunk in the detritus.
We stepped into Pamplona’s central square. The sun was hot already and people everywhere were streaming in smiling life with their white clothes sweaty and smudged and their red sashes swinging as they walked.
Bars with wide flapping awnings run around the Plaza del Castillo. Many of the tables were already crowded.
When Hemingway first came to Pamplona in 1923, before popularizing this festival in The Sun Also Rises, only the Basques and the Spanish came. Now half the crowd comes from all over Europe and from points across the world.
Photo shops along the plaza would soon have photos of the run. They put prints up on boards and people spend hours looking for themselves in the encierro and will buy prints when they find their tragic expressions.
My new friend was taken away by a crowd of arm-in-arm men and women from his pena. He shouted he’d be at the Windsor all day and that he expected that drink.
I spotted Juan Macho and his crowd of veteran runners at the Bar Txoko up in a corner of the main plaza. Juan is a jolly little Cuban from Miami who becomes fierce when he tightens his eyes. He has the physique of Anthony Hopkins and a bearing that shifts from sage to matador in a blink of his brown-gray eyes. He has a gray goatee and most of his silver-streaked hair and a walk that says he’s a self-made man who has burned out his angst and now is at peace with himself. He is in his late sixties now and each year he takes a few wards to Pamplona to show them the depths of the festival. He keeps running each year to stay in touch with his mortality and his manliness. Now he typically runs the “suicide run,” the beginning of the course where a few runners sprint directly at the bulls before dodging to the side of the street.
Juan was standing in the bright morning sun drinking an amaretto and brandy from a plastic cup with many others. He looked at me and nodded solemnly as he said loudly, “Now you’ve glimpsed your mortality.” As he said this he handed me some churro, rounded sticks of fried dough covered in sugar. This pastry is made each morning in a Basque bakery where men churn flour in an ancient cauldron according to a medieval recipe.
I asked, “Where were you? You said you’d run with me.”
“Yes,” he replied with devilish calm, “it’s better to run alone your first time, as we face our mortality alone.”
A dozen veteran bull runners laughed at me and then with me. A tremendous man named Tony, a construction worker from Queens who had this wonderfully profane New York working man manner of speaking, bellowed, “Just before the bulls were on you I saw your f—–’ face twisted up like the f—–’ Reaper just found your ass. Wish I had a f—–’ photo.”
The veteran runners were laughing with me and Juan leaned close and said, “Remember, you’re just beginning.”
As I looked at Juan and the diverse group that makes up his pena I realized that most people only run with the bulls once. It’s a thrill. They check it off their bucket list and go on about their lives not much changed at all. Though a profound experience, that’s not a rite of passage. It’s only a validation of being alive and that you have some balls. One morning before one of my runs this darling little American college girl with curly blonde hair clomped by me in the crowded street minutes before the bulls would come. She was wearing rubber boots many sizes too large for her little feet. Someone pointed at her boots and shouted, “You can’t run in those.” She yelled back with this little-girl spite crinkling her cute nose, “I didn’t know I was going to do this so I don’t have anything else to wear.” She was probably backpacking Europe on the wings of her parent’s credit card. She found herself in Pamplona and when everyone at the bars said they were going to run she followed along on the slippery slope of peer pressure. Her heels or who knows what just wouldn’t do so someone gave her the boots. She probably made it through the run unscathed by clinging to the side of the street with so many others, but to call what she did a rite of passage is to mock the whole thing. She likely learned nothing. She didn’t respect the ritual and wasn’t trying to understand. She was only following peer pressure into something dangerous. Now she has an adorable tale for cocktail parties.
But these men, and a few women, keep coming back for something more. They want to be in sync with the running bulls in the moving crowd. They are driven to come back again and again for the fleeting connection of wild moments on the edge. They keep coming back because something is alive in the San Fermin festival that is difficult to find anywhere else after the trials of youth have passed.
A favorite saying of this diverse crowd is: “Those not living on the edge are taking up too much room.”
There was this happy spark lighting all their eyes that has something to do with the want for a party, but also for the search for a tangible meaning—for what Hemingway called the “authentic life.” None of them say this. When I ask why they keep coming back they tell me to see their amigos. Honest enough, but true friends are always made by shared experience—friendships become stale and end when the something in common (school, a job, a hobby, or running on the horns) ends. That something in common is why they’re really in Pamplona. That something has everything to do with life, as Somerset Maugham put it, on the razor’s edge.
This is why some keep running again and again. It’s a connection to life by touching the shivering edge of death. It’s a shared connection. It’s infectious. I can’t believe I am not there this year.
The patron saint of foreign runners, Matt Carney (he died in 1987), explained this best to the famed author James Michener.
Michener asked Carney if running is “something mystical?”
Carney said, “Christ, you miss the whole flaming point. It’s fun! It’s joy! I run the bulls for joy, which is the chief ingredient of generosity. In this way I prove that I have the capacity to give myself whole hog to some activity.”
“Do you run to prove your bravery?” pushed Michener.
Carney said, “To stand in the street before the run begins … to visualize the bulls coming at you … to sense what might happen … yes, that takes courage. But when those rockets go off and the black shapes come tumbling at you … hell, you’ve already made your commitment and all it takes now is a sense of joy … to be a part of the stampede.”
(Frank Miniter is a New York Times’ best-selling author and journalist. This article is adapted from This Will Make a Man of You—One Man’s Search for Hemingway and Manhood in a Changing World. His latest is Kill Big Brother, a novel that shows how we can keep our freedom in this digital age.)