Here’s the second article of the San Fermin Bull Run back-to-back feature. Neil Dougall ran “before a bunch of razor-horned, massively-muscled bulls” in Pamplona and experienced “the most excitingly dangerous minutes” of his life.
And yet, as he said, “There’s only one way to know how it feels. And that way, very simply, is – by running with the bulls.”
We dare say this is one of the most vividly told stories of the Sanfermines.
Viva the valiant!
From GUIDEPOST’s Archives
10 July 1959
By Neil Dougall
Photos by George Pohl
To be so close to the animals without any form
of defense and no idea of what they might
suddenly decide to do was frightening
all right. One bull’s eyes focused on
me and I’ll always remember
that ferocious glare.
But it also produced tremendous exhilaration in me
If you’d like to start your day that beats setting-up exercises any time, try running 500 meters before a bunch of razor-horned, massively-muscled bulls. That’s what I did in Pamplona for some of the most excitingly dangerous minutes I’ve ever experienced.
I was one of the crowd of youths and young men who ran beside the fighting bulls in the encierros which are held each morning during the week-long annual Fiesta of San Fermin.
Encierro means <<the enclosing>> of the bulls, and in Pamplona it takes the thrilling form of running the bulls that are to be fought in the ring through the barricaded streets of the town from their corral to the arena-surrounded by human runners!
What makes the encierro possible is the fact that a fighting bull is not usually as dangerous when he is with others as when he is alone. When the animals are clustered in a group the herd instinct takes over, and they usually stay close together and don’t try individual belligerence.
To make the encierro a little safer, the group of bulls is led through the street by huge, shambling oxen who help to keep them packed in a bunch.
THAT doesn’t mean the encierro isn’t dangerous! There is no guarantee that one bull won’t have his ire raised by a runner, and that he won’t break away from the group to chase after the man. It has happened hundreds of times since the encierro was first recorded in 1686.
One great, ever-present risk is that a bull may slip on the cobblestones of the street and fall to get back on his feet separated from the other animals. Then he will be as dangerous as he possibly can be, and will almost surely drive into the crowd around him with all the braver and power that centuries of fighting ancestry have bred into him.
The first morning a friend and I ran with the bulls we misjudged their speed and were so far in front of them when we got to the bullring that this first effort was a farce.
We had heard from a friend living in Pamplona that the bulls ran a mile from the corral to the arena and travelled the distance in a minute and a half. It sure seems pretty speedy, even for bulls, but having no knowledge of bovine millers’ times, we took his word for it.
But soon after we ran into the bullring that morning we learnt that the bulls actually ran 825 meters, and that their time for the distance varied from one and a half minutes to three minutes.
Our informant, a young Pamplonian dressed in the white shirt and long white trousers, red scarf and cummerbund, and light laced shoes that form the traditional uniform of the Basque runners, told us that when bulls galloped the distance in one and a half minutes it was very fast one and three quarter minutes was normal two minutes usually meant that an incident had occurred and three minutes almost certainly meant that there was great danger for the runners.
So our first attempt at running was a flop. But when I ran again later in the week, the encierro proved the thrill it had promised to be.
IN the wan light of 6:30 am on that day I stated off from my hotel through the already busy streets of the usual starting point of the encierro, the square fronting the ancient town hall.
As I walked down to the square amongst white-clad alert young men who were going to run, and children and their parents and grandparents going to secure vantage points for the fun, I could hear the haunting music of the fiesta being played by a band in the distance. Already several bands were on the streets, stirring sleepers from their beds with the call to action.
In ten minutes time I had stooped between the thick wooden plans of a barricade and had entered the town square. It was crowded with men of many nationalities besides Spanish, and dotted with the white uniforms of the Basques who had started the whole affair. I fell into conversation with a very worried-looking Yale student, and to my right heard the lilting talk of some French boys.
There was a nervous tension in the town hall square that almost crackled the air.
All those except the drunks slumped against the stone walls were terribly aware of the presence of six dangerous bulls in the corrals just some 200 yards away.
They had been brought from the large corrals across the river during the dead of night, and after clattering across the bridge and up the rise to the ancient ramparts of the town, they had been confined in another, smaller yard. They were waiting there and I’m sure it was all most of us could think about.
By about ten minutes to seven the active police had taken the drunks off the street, and the square was jam-packed with intending runners. To keep the encierro under some vestige control, the police had us bottled up in the town hall square, with another bunch of less intrepid runners some 10 meters nearer the ring, around the corner in Estafeta Street.
THE crowd in the square was pushing and surging back and forth, and as the time neared seven a big group near the front couldn’t restrain their nervousness any longer, and they pushed through the single line of police and ran to join the others further ahead.
We kept glancing down anxiously at our wrist watches as the hands crept closer to seven. Suddenly they were there – immediately the bell began to strike. And then the hollow boom of the first rocket sounded above the conglomeration of noise. We were off!
Pounding along as fast as the wall of runners in front would allow me, I was aware of nothing but the need to run and stay on my feet, no easy matter amid the jostling, elbowing crowd. And my earse strained for the next rocket that would announce that bulls were on the street and coming right after us.
There it was! Seeming far too close. And immediately the tempo of pattering feet increased, and the people leeched on to the barricades and packed on to the balconies above cried out in excited anticipation.
I knew as we approached the corner that swung into the long narrow runway of Estafeta Street that the swiftly-moving bulls would already be nearing the top of the rise leading from the corrals, already seeing the boys alongside them – maybe death was abroad on the early morning streets by now!
Boys would be jumping high to grip on the grilles of windows to pull themselves up to safety as the bulls overtook them, and soon the animals would be rushing through the town hall square that had been so crowded only seconds before.
There would be some boys still waiting there, content to run close to the animals for a short time with the safety of the barriers near to them. If they did strike trouble they had very good chances of rolling under the lowest rail of a barricade out of reach of danger.
OUR group was hurtling into Estafeta Street now, the most dangerous part of the whole run. The narrow, cobblestoned street is 400 meters long and there’s no place to go but forward.
Although if you really get into trouble you can try swinging out of danger on a window grille or throwing yourself to the ground curled in a ball, with your head cupped protectively in your hands, praying that the bulls won’t stop to investigate! Sometimes single bulls have been left behind the bunch in this long street, and bad accidents have resulted.
By the time we were halfway along Estafeta Street my chest was throbbing in agony from lack of breath, my arms were dragging by my sides, and my legs felt rubbery and not at all under control as they automatically bounced along. And then, quite suddenly, I heard a much louder roar from the balconies above us, and above that roar the warning clang of the bell strung around the scraggy neck of an ox leading the bulls!
That sound spurred us along even faster, forgetful for the moment of our physical discomfort. But fast as we ran, the bulls galloped faster, and soon the sound of the bell was right behind us.
I flung a swift nervous glace back over my shoulder, and almost yelled with shock of seeing how close the bulls were! The crowd of runners right behind me was parting in terrified waves except for a few intrepid boys, and exposing the black mass of the bulls!
Already boys around me were peeling off from the bunch and jumping for grilles, while others flattened themselves against the walls. There was no hope in looking for security in the doorway of a house all doors had been bolted by order of the police.
As the animals got closer to me and I heard the rattle of their hooves on the street, I started to look up for a likely-looking grille. But not far ahead I discerned the wider space and barricades that led to the tunnel into the bullring. It didn’t look too far to go and I decided to see if I could reach there.
I shifted prudently from right in the path of the bulls to the left of them, leaving the front running to be done by Basque boys who were hurtling along only several feet in front of the great horned heads! You have to be born and bred Basque to do that, and even so, there was only a handful of them.
I found as my speed flagged that I was running right beside the bulls. First the high-standing bell oxen sped past me, and then several yards to my right plunged the back, muscled mass of fighting bulls!
To be so close to the animals without any form of defense and no idea of what they might suddenly decide to do was frightening all right. But it also produced tremendous exhilaration in me.
As suddenly as the bulls had caught up with us, the street opened out, and almost completely out of breath I headed for a barricade- and tripped in my exhaustion, to go sprawling full length!
Down I went on the cobblestones, with the first couple of bulls past, but more to come.
I lay there not daring to move, along with another runner who had fallen further down the street, and soon the rest of the bulls were on us. Almost literally!
Pressed close to the cobblestones I saw the forest of black legs pound past. And then came the last bull in the bunch.
His eyes focused on me and I’ll always remember that ferocious glare. He had to pass close by me, and as he did so he swung hishead to look at me again and dropped his left horn as if tempted to use it. It swished past me, thick as a man’s forearm at the base and with a sharp tip, seeming only inches away.
But he galloped on, and I rose shakily to my feet and walked down towards the bullring entrance in the now-crowded street. I didn’t know anyone around me, and nobody commented on what had been a very thrilling moment for me. After all, what had happened was just a very routine incident in the encierro.
Earlier in the week I had asked a Basque boy who ran only a few feet in front of the bulls, hors why he took such chances. There wasn’t any money attached to the event, and little applause for individuals. He couldn’t explain why he took such risks, or maybe he didn’t feel like trying to elucidate, perhaps believing with jazzman Louis Armstrong that <<if you’ve got to ask, you’ll never get to know>>.
There’s only one way to know how it feels. And that way, very simply, is – by running with the bulls.
Our thanks to Shaira Mazo who kindly copied the story from print Guidepost into a Word document and also for photographing the printed pages of the story for us.