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An Adventure in Pamplona

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It was well before dawn when we stepped outside the Gran Hotel La Perla into the warm, dry air of Pamplona. The square was littered with bleary-eyed tourists and locals dressed in white shirts and pants, sporting red scarves and waistbands.

I wore the same costume, and as my friends and I set out in search of a cup of coffee and a sweet roll, we could hear the music from a half-dozen rowdy bars fronting the square, each packed with singing, dancing revelers who'd been at it all night.

On this morning, of all mornings, I wanted a clear head, but I'd had almost no sleep due to the roar of the crowds and a maddening procession of marching bands below my hotel window that had finally ended at 4 a.m.

Now, at 6 a.m., the clock was ticking down to three minutes of insanity that we had anticipated for months. We passed one place after another selling beer and wine and sangria and eventually stumbled across a tiny convenience store where I settled for an energy drink and a Snickers bar.

The cashier asked me if I was running this morning, and I told her I was. "Buena suerte," she said as I left.

We made our way to the 18th-century city hall, a hulking silhouette against the soft light of dawn. A crowd was assembling there, of young and old, of men and women, of families with children. It was an animated mix of those who would watch and those who would run.

Scaffolds were erected to support TV cameras and reporters, and large, heavy barricades were moved into place to close off the surrounding streets and create a narrow lane across the front of city hall. The barricades would hold both the bulls and the runners to the course.

Spectators climbed atop the barricades and packed in behind them. Those in the front would be able to peek through the beams for a close-up view of the action.

At 7 a.m., police surrounded the crowd and told the last of the spectators to make a quick exit. Those who remained were told to fall back within lines painted on the street, packing us tighter and tighter, until there was not enough room to turn around. There was no escape now.

The Old Quarter of Pamplona consists of uneven cobblestone streets lined on each side by four- and five-story buildings with balconies. On this morning, every balcony was packed with spectators dressed in red and white, cameras in hand. Beautiful, dark-haired women outnumbered the men on those balconies and peered down at us, perhaps searching for a familiar face.

Down on the street, the minutes dragged by, and the festive mood in the knot of participants dissipated a bit, especially for the claustrophobic. We were awash with apprehension and adrenaline.

At 7:50 a.m. the police retreated and the crush abruptly ended. We had 10 minutes to disperse along the course before the bulls were released.

Some went to meet the bulls at the beginning of the run, an uphill stretch right outside the pens with treacherous raised sidewalks -- trip hazards -- on each side of the one-lane street. In videos of runs earlier in the week, I'd seen several people fall and get trampled in that stretch, and a veteran American runner had been gored.

Some stayed near the city hall, where the route made a relatively relaxed left-hand turn, and others stopped to wait for the bulls -- for reasons I'll never know -- at the sharp right-hand turn called Dead Man's Corner. Anyone caught on the left side of the street at that corner would almost certainly be encountering a bull in a most unpleasant way.

We put Dead Man's Corner behind us and waited for the bulls on the famous straightaway, Estafeta.

The last American to die on this street was knocked down or tripped and raised up just as a bull reached him, a horn piercing his heart. The conventional wisdom was to stay down until all the bulls passed if you fell, but I wasn't sure I would be able to do that.

Whatever happens, I thought, don't do anything dumber than being here in the first place.

When I first learned that a 1,600-pound fighting bull runs a four-minute mile, I was shocked. I knew from that moment that I would not be running with the bulls so much as running from the bulls.

But in fact it is like that for everyone, and only the most accomplished runners can manage to navigate the crowd and stay in front of the bulls for a few yards before diving out of harm's way. Even that requires luck as two-thirds of the runners on any given day are unpredictable rookies, like me.

Precisely at 8:00, a rocket was fired to signal that the door to the bull pen had been opened, and a roar went up from the runners and spectators. Seconds later, another rocket told us that six fighting bulls and eight to 10 equally large steers were loose on the street.

In a crowd of up to 2,000 runners, it is impossible to see the bulls coming. First I heard them coming -- hooves striking the cobblestones -- and then I felt them coming, as the ground shook beneath me.

When they were barely 10 yards away, the crowd parted to give me my first glimpse at the bulls and my first indication of whether they were bearing directly down on me or were, at most, a few feet to one side. I knew I would have only a second or two to react if I needed to.

What happened next will always be a blur. We were on the right side of the narrow street, and the first two bulls we saw were coming up the middle and the left side. Panicked runners surged toward us from the direction of the bulls, and the runners around us were nearly frozen by the spectacle. We were essentially stuck in place, and if a bull had appeared on the right side of the street, there would have been nowhere to go.

But the stars were aligned in our favor that morning, and all those pairs of sharp horns whizzed by to our left, in less than a minute. Others were not so lucky. Two runners were gored, and many who fell were trampled by bulls or people or both.

Another rocket blast told us the bulls had entered the arena at the end of the run, and the final rocket told us the doors had been closed behind them. A celebration broke out on the street and on the balconies above, even as the paramedics rushed out to tend to the injured.

I'd trained for months on the track and in the gym to get ready for my "run," but as it turned out, I might as well have practiced by pushing my way through a crowded subway car. For most of us down on the street that day, and especially the rookies, luck had been much more important than skill.

Sincerely,

Alan Fox
Chairman & CEO
Vacations To Go

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