Claustrophobia—it was suddenly all I could think about. The walls of the buildings were enclosing me. My 5’1 stature felt like it could reach up and touch the bottom of the balconies without stretching. The makeshift fences littered with people were on top of me. I couldn’t make a move without bumping into a drunk. I took a deep breath to remind myself that I was only walking the route—I wasn’t crazy enough to actually run with the bulls.
My path and the encierro started in front of the bull’s corral along Santa Domingo. It was hard to fathom how this tradition started seven centuries ago to speed up the process of getting the cattle to markets. As the practice continued, it slowly turned into a competition among the butchers, leading to the festival that it is today. I wondered if they knew then what they had started or even that 700 years later they would eventually let women join in?
The 825 meters seemed forever to walk. Worst yet, being the typical American, I had absolutely no idea when those meters would come to an end. I wasn’t waiting for the light at the end of the tunnel, just the entrance to an arena. Despite being hosed down earlier, you could still feel the crunch of glass and the smell of human waste as you weaved through the narrow streets.
The route was beginning to fill up. It was still two hours before the rockets would sound, but I could begin to see the nervous looks in the men’s faces. I had yet to see another girl as I continued along. Women have only been allowed to run for about 15 years. There were still the aficionados, those annual runners who held the tradition in the highest regards, which felt that women should remain spectators. I remembered how on the first day of the run, since there were too many runners to safely run, the first people the police pulled from the route were the women, followed by the fall-down drunks and then those without proper running shoes or obstructing clothing.
The claustrophobia subsided when you stepped into expansive Plaza Consistorial. The railings were being put up to map out the route. Only a day earlier I sat on one of those 3″ wide slats, catching on tape a guy who ignored the rule that if you fall, cover your head with your hands and don’t get up until the police tell you to. Instead, he stood just in time for a bull to catch him square in the back. He didn’t get up again. I kept the video rolling as they took him off on a stretcher. As I continued walking, I could still see his blood stain on the stone. I took another deep breath.
I began to wonder what possessed people to knowingly put their life in danger? In such a tight squeeze, between the six 1000 pound bulls and the runners, I’d put my money on the bulls every time. Fifteen people have died in the past 80 years along this path. How many of those ran for the pure sport of it and did they value any of the tradition behind the run? I came to Pamplona to experience a history and ritual unlike any I would find in the States. From the chupinazo signaling the beginning of the festival to the prayer to Saint Fermin chanted by the runners before the start of every run, I had begun to appreciate the event for the history it still held.
As I walked, I came to dead man’s corner. The 90-degree turn was too sharp for the bulls to navigate, so they crashed into the left side of the wall. This gave people the false sense of security that if you stayed along the right side of the route, you’d be safe. I continued down the homestretch as the arena came into sight. Now the route bottlenecked—it opened up, only to slim down as you entered the arena. As I got to the end I took in my surroundings—the fences were crammed with people and the police were trying to keep things in check. Hemingway’s bar was in view, a fitting reminder to how this act of stupidity was popularized.
I returned to the Plaza Consotorial an hour and a half before the 8 am start. As I stood there, an overhead camera tracked my every move. I was the only girl in the vicinity—a sideshow act of sorts. I stood there with no intention to run, but I began to hash out the “what-ifs.” Was it enough just to say I was in Pamplona and only watched? Was I ready to pass on the chance to be a part of a centuries-old festival and would I regret going home without a death-defying story? Did I walk this route subconsciously knowing that I wanted to run?
As I stood there with questions running through my mind, a local approached and asked if I planned on running. “You know they spit on women, don’t you” he continued. I stared at him for what seemed like an eternity. Then I took a deep breath and said, “Yes, I’m running.”