Runners dodging horns during the morning bull run at San Fermines (via AZ1K6238 on Flickr)
Running with the bulls in Pamplona during San Fermines is one of the most thrilling experiences you’ll ever have in your life. The practice has a loyal following of participants who come back to Pamplona to do the run year after year, ranging from touristy thrill-seekers to serious runners who train all year for the event. There’s a lot to know about participating in an event this high-profile and dangerous, and you would be surprised how much information that you need to know is actually absent from the extensive online coverage of this world-renowned spectacle.
The first thing you need to be aware of is that the entire route is only a half-mile long, or just under one kilometer. (See the article entitled The Running of the Bulls Route Map for more on the route itself.) While the bulls will be running the whole length of the route, you won’t be. However, you do need to be in decent enough shape to be able to at least run about a quarter mile at a decent pace in order to keep up with the crowd. The only thing worst than getting trampled by a pack of charging bulls is getting trampled by a pack of panicked humans.
Since the run takes place every day during San Fermines, many first-time runners opt to watch the run at least once or twice before they actually participate in it themselves. But for anyone on the fence about doing it, this strategy can also psych you out a little and cause you to talk yourself out of doing it. My first time doing the run, I only watched videos of it on YouTube and did not watch a live run from the sidelines until after I had done it myself, and I think that was the right decision for me. The two friends I was with were saying they were only about 60% sure they were going to do the run with me on the very morning we participated, and I feel sure they would have backed out had they watched it live on the days before we actually did it and had time to psyche themselves out.
The schedule that most revelers keep at San Fermines involves staying out all night partying and drinking and then stumbling to the run route after sunrise to get a good spot to watch the day’s run. Since spectators have to stake out a spot early and then wait for at least another hour or more, the drinking usually continues right on up until the start of the show. But on the day you’re planning to do the run, it’s advisable to have a good night’s sleep under your belt so you’re healthy and alert for participation in this serious and potentially dangerous event. You should also wait until after the run to get sloshed, although there is something to be said for having one or two drinks before the run to calm your nerves, which you’ll surely have lots of as the countdown to the rockets progresses.
However, you absolutely should not and cannot do the run if you’re actually drunk. This can create a dangerous situation not only for yourself, but for the thousands of others around you within the run route. You’ll have the rest of the day to get hammered and have fun, so just sacrifice a few hours in the morning when you’re running to make sure that you keep yourself and your fellow runners safe.
On the morning you’re going to do your first run, you should aim to get to the route by about 7am or 7:15am at the latest. If you wait as late as 7:30am or so, you run the risk of being shut out of the route by police. While the route begins at the Corrales de Santo Domingo down by the river, this is not where you will want to station yourself for your first run. This is, however, where a lot of experienced participants will start their runs and it’s also where a traditional song and prayer to San Fermin are performed prior to the start of each day’s run. But first-time runners should opt to see this ritual from the sidelines one day if you’re interested in it.
If you’re not one of the San Fermines professionals and you start your run experience at the beginning, you risk not making it to the end of the route or even to the much better parts of the run further along. The beginning is also a dangerous section of the route too because Calle Santo Domingo is quite narrow there and the bulls will surely all be running together when they first come charging out of the gate and up Calle Santo Domingo.
As the route along Calle Santo Domingo approaches Pamplona’s City Hall, or the Ayuntamiento, it makes a moderate turn to the left onto Calle Mercaderes. The Plaza where this turn occurs is the ideal spot to enter into the actual route for those seeking to participate in the run. Arriving here no later than 7:30am but preferably by 7:15am is what you really want to aim for, and here’s why.
First, if you arrive too late you run the risk of the entrance to the route being closed off by police if too many people have already joined and there’s simply no more room to accommodate more runners. Police now conduct an organized pat-down operation in the lead-up to the event for those inside of the barricades and intending to run in order to prevent anyone from participating with self-filming contraband like GoPros, iPhone body straps, or selfie sticks. These can cause serious risk of bodily injury or even death not only for those trying to do this, but also for others that may get tripped up too.
Second, police and city organizers will begin to clear everyone of out the route further down as the 8am start time approaches. They do this now because they only want people inside the route who have been patted-down for contraband and observed for signs of intoxication, and it’s easier to do this in one or two spots earlier in the route then open the temporary gates further down the route to allow properly screened participants to filter down. While exact procedures and pat-down spots may change on occasion, entering and waiting for your quick screening at Plaza Consistorial by the town hall is generally the safest bet in order to make sure you get to run.
When you’re about 15 or 20 minutes out from the start time, the city will begin playing an official safety and rules review video on giant monitors along the route. If you’ve never done the run before, it’s helpful to watch this short video and pay attention to the bilingual audio that goes along with it. Not only will it answer some questions or address some curiosities you may have remaining, but seeing it will calm your nerves a little as the minutes tick down.
When the police begin re-opening the gates to the sections further down the route, I’d highly suggest quickly moving further along down the route to give yourself a little more time after the bulls come out of the bullpen and to make your mad dash to the bullring a little shorter and more doable. My recommendation for a place to start is a little ways after Dead Man’s Curve, somewhere along Calle de la Estafeta. This is the longest stretch of the route and it empties right out into the Plaza de Toros. It’s also one of the liveliest stretches of the route because the entire street is lined with multi-story apartment buildings with balconies over which tens of thousands of spectators will be hanging and cheering.
Unless this changes in future years, you’re permitted to have phones with you inside the route and to even take pictures and videos before the run starts. But you’ll need to respect the rules and put them away in your pocket when the run is a few minutes from starting. There will be lots of police stationed all along the route and they will be looking for signs of intoxication as well as contraband (including post-rocket phone use) the entire time. They have a hard job keeping order and keeping 20,000 nervous and excited runners safe amid a pack of charging wild bulls, so it’s best to be respectful and not make their jobs any harder than it already is.
With that said, do take full advantage of being where you are in the moment and enjoy the experience to the fullest. Take photos and videos with your phone in advance of the final countdown to the first rockets and the start of the run. Talk to the people around you and find out where they’re from. About half of the runners will likely be first-time runners from outside of Spain and they’ll be just as excited and pumped up as you are. Feeding off of their energy too is exhilarating and you’ll create memories with those around you that you’ll remember for the rest of your life even before the run itself starts.
The run will begin at the beginning of the route when you hear the first rocket go off which will be precisely at 8am. That will signify that the first bull is out of the bullpen gate and in the streets of Pamplona. Very soon thereafter you’ll hear the second rocket fired, signifying that the last bull is out of the bullpen gate and all of the bulls are now charging towards you on the streets of Pamplona.
If you’re in the area of the town hall, the bulls will approach pretty quickly, since they won’t have that far to run down Calle Santo Domingo to get to where you are. If you’re here, you’ll likely want to start moving forward pretty quickly, since the hoards of runners behind you will already be doing the same and the crowd can bottleneck and panic pretty quickly if early chunks of runners fail to move and make way for those coming up behind them from the beginning of the route.
If you want to see the action around La Curva, starting around City Hall is probably the best bet. If you station yourself at La Curva (Dead Man’s Curve), you’ll be expected to start running down Calle de la Estafeta as soon as the crowds from the City Hall area approach and you’ll be away from La Curva by the time the bulls get there. But be warned, La Curva is one of the most dangerous points along the route, so think carefully if you want to add the extra risk of being in this area when the bulls arrive.
When the bulls make it to La Curva, they sometimes fall down and/or become disoriented and turned around in this area. This can make them more aggressive than normal to perceived threats around them, especially if you find yourself suddenly between a bull and his way out. Remember, if you fall during the run, the safest thing to do is curl up on the ground and cover your head until the bulls and the crowds have passed over you, then someone will come tell you it’s ok to stand back up.
Once the bulls stumble around La Curva, they have a straight shot ahead down Calle de la Estafeta and they usually use this stretch to pick up speed and try to get away form the crazy humans swarming around them. However, little do they know that there are thousands more crazy humans ahead on Calle de la Estafeta who have been anxiously waiting for for their moment to run with and from these charging beasts.
If you’ve been waiting along Calle de la Estafeta, you’ll likely need to start running before you actually see the bulls coming in order to make way for the crowds of people behind you who will already be running towards you. Don’t worry, though, the bulls will be there soon enough. The natural temptation here is to lightly job and continuously look back as you’re waiting for the bulls to approach, but you will just want to be hyper-vigilant and extra cautious that you don’t trip or trip over someone else who has fallen in front of you as you do this.
The safest thing you can do is to run along the edges of the route near the walls. Those who want to tempt fate will station themselves in the center of the street knowing that they’ll be squarely in front of the bulls when they plow through crowds. But even being on the sides is no guarantee of not getting up close and personal with a bull. Even if they’re running close together in a pack, they’ll still have to be spread out a little in street and it’s just up to chance how close one will get to you during the run.
One of the “trophy experiences” you’ll see people trying to do during the run is reach out and touch a bull while it’s running past them. For those who run year after year, doing this is a sign of fearlessness and a way to produce even more adrenaline during the height of the already adrenaline-filled experience. If it’s your first run, I wouldn’t recommend trying to do this though. Just being inside of the route and running down it as the bulls run by you while trying to stay out of their way is thrilling enough and a legit-enough experience for your first time running with the bulls.
As you make your way toward the end of the route while running and dodging flying objects, downed bodies, and bull horns, you’ll want to listen carefully for the third and fourth rockets to be fired. This becomes particularly important as you approach the entrance to the Plaza de Toros, as the tunnel through which you and everyone else – including bulls! – will have to filter is narrow and has a tendency to cause a final dangerous bottleneck.
You likely will not beat the first bull to this point, so you should hear the third rocket fired before you get there. But if you don’t hear the fourth and final rocket fired before you get to the bullring entrance tunnel, you’ll need to once again become very hyper-aware of your surroundings because that means there are still more bulls behind you. The last thing you want to do is get trapped inside of the tunnel between a wall of bottlenecked people in front of you and one or more charging pissed-off bulls behind you.
If you do find yourself going through the tunnel with a bull, as I did last year, try your best to squeeze to the side and hug the wall while still moving forward. The quicker you get to the end of the tunnel the quicker you can spread out right or left into the vast open arena. But just be aware that others around you may start to panic of they think they can’t get out of the way of the bull quickly enough and who knows what will happen. This situation is definitely escapable (hey, I’m still alive!), but you just need to be aware of these possibilities and have our wits about you for one final moment until you make it safely into the arena to celebrate and enjoy the next round of festivities.
Once you’re in the arena, you’ve made it! You’ve done it. You’ve run with the bulls in Pamplona during San Fermines and you survived. Congrats!! Now you can celebrate, breathe, calm down a little, and enjoy the next half-hour or hour of festivities inside the arena with the thousands of local spectators in the stands above and around you who have come to watch the second part of the morning’s festivities. This part can be just as fun and entertaining as the first part, so if you missed my previous article in which I talked about this post-run circus at length at the end, you can check it out here and find out what’s in store for you after you catch your breath.
But beware, even here after the run there are still bulls to watch out for so keep your eyes open and enjoy! This will all be part of one of the most fun and memorable experiences of your life. Trust me! And I’ll see you in Pamplona next year.