5:30 a.m.: Oneika’s alarm bellows, dragging me from the pits of darkness. Allowing my foggy mind to waken, I lay inert for a moment, processing the reason for such an early wake-up call. Today, we run with the bulls.
6:00 a.m.: The girls and I start to dress. We slide on our white pants, lace up our runners and tie red sashes round our waists. I tie my red bandanna firmly against my throat, for the day before a Japanese tourist was dragged when his bandanna was snagged by a horn. I turn to the girls and say, “Tie up everything tight. No loose shoelaces, sashes or bandannas.” Why do I always feel the need to play mother hen? Pretend to be brave? When deep down, I’m not positive of anything.
6:10 a.m.: We continue a conversation that we’ve been having for days now. Where to run. How. What’s best. We’ve received so many recommendations. The top of Estafeta. Fifty meters down Estefata. No, Telefonica, near the bullring. Yet, we all agreed that the last place we want to end up is the bullring. There’s a waft of fear about human pile-ups. Stupid people on the route. Nicole B. jokes about fearing other runners more than the bulls. A consensus is reached that we’ll go fifty meters down Estafeta, stick to the right hand side and try not to leap towards a bull. Secretly, I want to touch one. Part of me is emboldened after watching a bull run from a balcony the day before. I saw female corredors, more than I anticipated. It was reassuring.
6:15 a.m.: Nicole B. vocalizes her nervousness. How her stomach is doing flips. Do it or not do it? She states this is what she’s always like before doing something. I wonder, doing something this crazy, you mean? I tell her if she truly doesn’t want to run, don’t. It’s an individual decision. I feel the pressure. Mainly because I created this idea and backing out even in the face of a goring or injury isn’t an option. To prove my point, I am willing to go all the way. Oneika reconfirms our plans. She’s been such an interesting force during this trip. As we watched the full length of a bull run on television the day before, Oneika squealed with unchecked enthusiasm. It’s dramatic tension cycling through in three minutes, so who wouldn’t be enraptured? This morning she seems more sober – logical. Stick to the right, yes? She asks. Let’s not get near the bulls. I realize, she’s simultaneously adventurous, but intelligent about it. How I long to be like her. Instead of grossly impulsive.
6:30 a.m.: In San Fermin colors, we leave our flat to meet with Jarmo Jarvi, an honorary member and fellow runner. Calle Santo Domingo, the starting point for all corredors is near our flat. We head down a ramp, close to where they house the bulls before the run and stand near the old city wall where a statue of Saint Fermin has been placed in a cubbyhole sealed off by glass. This is where corredors sing to the divine, pray for a successful run. Daylight is beginning to trickle in, which signals time crawling towards our fate. Mornings in Pamplona are chilly, even in the summer, due to the closeness to the Pyrenees, yet I feel a furnace in my belly. The icy breeze bounces off my skin. Am I losing or gaining courage?
The song: We ask San Fermin, being our patron saint, to guide us in the bull run and give us his blessing. When they finish they shout “Viva San Fermin!”, or “Gora San Fermin”.
6:45 a.m.: Serious runners are starting to gather. The nerves among the group are beginning to swell. Oneika and Nicole B. break out into hip hop or pop songs to slice the tension. I join in. Nicole S. is a constant easygoing presence. She doesn’t display fear or cold feet. She might even be the most gung-ho out of the four of us. She laughs at our silliness. What also makes us antsy is we are due to meet a reporter and cameraman from Cuatro TV. People are noticing us, yet how can we be invisible? Having traveled to male dominated countries like India or Turkey has left me desensitized. Being a minority is nothing new, but here, particularly, we stand out. The percentage of female corredors is dismally low, probably 15% to 20% of women participate, and never Spanish women, but foreigners. I examine the faces of some male corredors. Older gentleman peer into space, their faces granite and impenetrable. The younger ones are springy, some reeking of stale beer or sangria. They don’t have the thousand yard stare that forms once you’ve done your first run. Come to think of it, neither do I.
7:00 a.m.: Beatriz, the reporter from Cuatro finds us. Her cameraman speaks with Oneika in Spanish, tells us he’s run before and asks where we plan to start. Oneika turns to us and says starting on Estafeta is unwise. It’s narrow and there are no barricade openings for us to slip through. We glance at each other nervously. The cameraman, a stalky man with a ginger beard offers to show us what might be safe. At Telefonica there’s a curve and after that a straight run towards Plaza del Toros (bullring). Instead of an interview, we follow him down Mercaderes, turning onto Estafeta and inching closer to Telefonica. We weave through partiers, runners and watchers – those who will focus their cameras and eyes on me, just as I did the previous day. I glance up at the balconies and wonder if they pity me – are maybe in awe.
7:10 a.m.: The cameraman engages with policia before we can even make it to Telefonica, words are exchanged and so is an understanding. We can’t linger here much longer or we’ll be shuffled off as spectators. An unease rumbles throughout the group. Do we run somewhere we haven’t even seen yet? Or stick to Estafeta, where any one of us could become a bull’s target, without escape? Quickly we make our way back to Santo Domingo, to the beginning.
7:15 a.m.: The last few minutes of the unknown brings us to the front of the line. I’m pleased with this happy accident. This means we can get to our designated spot faster, once we figure out where that is. I can tell Nicole B. is not comfortable that we’ve changed strategy in mid-stream. The plan is blown. But ‘wider’ and ‘barricades’ is an attractive option. We finally agree: Telefonica, after the corner and stay to the left, because due to propulsion, the bulls will likely swerve right. Avoid being bull hamburger at all costs.
7:20 a.m.: We wait in the bosom of the crowd, runners all. We are the only women at the front. Male pheromones surround us at every turn. A line of police officers hold us back. They are so close I can trace the line of their stubble. Feel their breath on my face. Their neon yellow vests deliver a commanding presence. The reality is hitting me now. I imagine how I’m going to run. Elbows out, nimble on my feet. Veterans say this is the worst part of encierro. Waiting forty minutes before the first rocket sounds off. Holding rolled up newspapers with headlines of injuries from the previous day can break a man. Or a woman. Beatriz does an interview with us in the throng and the testosterone pays even more attention to us. Word spreads through Pamplona and we’ll become known as the four chicas – the female runners challenging the bulls.
7:25 a.m.: With the interview done, there are no more distractions. Only time winding down to tense seconds. I rally for more pop songs, so we sing and dance. We talk to a Canadian man from Vancouver, it’s his first run. His eyes are blue and clear, but later they won’t be. A small Colombian man engages us, but shakes his head, saying he doubt’s he’ll run. How he stands there and doesn’t leave is beyond me. Two men push towards us, one is muscular and tall. The look on his face is pure fright – he and his friend bow out of the run. We sneak glances at each other, knowing this isn’t comforting to witness. A woman holding a thin, red purse snakes around, leaving the wall of people. We whisper among us. Is she bailing? Was she running? If so, why is she carrying a red purse of all things! Either way, she speaks to a police officer for a few seconds and disappears. I’m left to wonder who she was. My limbs are rigid, head on fire, and then an audible quake shakes me. The chant of the corredor. Handclaps and rising voices, “Correeedorr..Corrreedorrr!!” I join in and feel looser, like this community of runners is carrying me. We are all in this fate together, what happens next, we accept. The girls and I chant with them in sisterhood.
7:45 a.m.: The police line breaks, allowing us through. A mass of bodies moves and we move with them. Walking turns to panic. I’m worried we won’t make it to the spot we want in time. That the bulls will be there before I am. Trotting turns into a light jog as we weave down Estafeta towards the corner of Telefonica. Confusing signals as Oneika shouts to us, where we should be now, right or left? Jarmo shouts back, right. Stay right and then once we get to Telefonica, swing left.
7:50 a.m.: We arrive, a bit breathless, but make it. With a few minutes to go, I’m now fully awake to this. I feel the pulse of the crowd, hear the screams of people trying to psych themselves up. Behind us are at least five young women clutching a doorway. I turn to one and yelp, “Girl power!” We high-five each other. It wasn’t until after the run that Nicole B. told me two of them said they didn’t want to do it. Police comb the crowds, removing anyone they deem unsuitable to run. They pull out two girls wearing flip-flops. We snicker at the prospect of trying to outrun a bull in those. With the cobwebs cleared, the rockets are ever closer. We still goof around, stretch and blend in with the crowd – a mess of live wires, sparking randomly. A collective jangle of hopes, fears and truths. Horror upon horrors – it’s on and I can’t escape now. The one thing that lulls me is the lessened crowd. Yesterday’s bull run was nothing but bodies. Did we pick a better day to do this?
8:00 a.m.: The mass of runners stirs. A rocket has gone off. People start jumping up and down, trying to see down the street. We mimic them, doing the same. Some start to rush forward. One of the girls shouts, “What do we do? What do we do? Start running?!” I tell them to hold steady. I haven’t heard the second rocket, but now everyone breaks into a sprint and it seems like we have no choice, but I yell, “Wait! Wait until we see horns!”
8:01 a.m.: And we see horns. I scream, “Run, run!!” And we do. Adrenaline rips through my entire body, like a fast acting IV drip. I glance to the right and all I can make out are hides of animals, blending and merging into brown and tan, horns swerving in lightening motion. It’s as though five animals have become one beast – charging down the center of the street. I keep expecting the slippery cobbles to conspire against me, but I stay upright by some miracle. My tongue touches a metallic taste on the inside of my cheek, urgent and hot. Men and women zoom past me, elbowing me, pushing my shoulders from behind. I steel my elbows against them, to prevent a shove from sending me to the cobbles. Shouts are popping my eardrums. I swivel my head around and see him. A tan bull, well over 500 lbs. slamming beside me, shaking the earth. Another runner is between me and him. If I angle to the right just a bit I could touch his smooth, furry skin. Six months of planning and executing led to this moment – and I’m amazed that in all this chaos I can freeze it in my mind. Capture it. It’s gone and so is he. He bolts forward with his brothers and all that’s left are people.
8:02 a.m.: Now all I can focus on are flashes of other runners. White and red sensory overload. I try to concentrate on where to go next. I see Jarmo and Nicole S. in front of me, know that Nicole B. is behind me, but I keep running, like a rabid monster is chasing me. I look down and see a couple sprawled on the cobbles, but instead of tumbling with them, I run over them. This is where my nerve fails, at the corner of my eye I spot open barricades where I can dive, momentarily contemplating it. Too many people, too much risk of injury, but I don’t. Adrenaline is my drug now and I cling to it’s source like a strung out junkie. I need it; it needs me.
8:03 a.m.: My body moves lithely, more elegant than I ever imagined. I shout at Jarmo to keep going. My muscles are catching and releasing until I see the tunnel for Plaza del Toros and realize I’m heading for the bullring, which is where everyone doesn’t want to go. I speed in, knowing that I should steer left, because usually the bulls veer right. At the entrance, where I need to turn is a human pile-up. I screech to a halt and for once, am unsure what to do. I know from counting that there’s another bull left behind, I can almost feel his breath on my back. If I don’t move, things could turn bad. Before I can react, the pile of people disentangle themselves and clear the path. My legs fire up and I shoot into the bullring, gasping for air, every nerve ending sizzling. Before I know what’s happening, a Spanish man grabs me and plants a sloppy, wet kiss on my eye. He exhales all the air from his lungs and laughs wildly. He’s ecstatic. To be alive. And that’s when I notice for the first time that I’m also intact. I made it.
8:03:37 a.m.: Finally I notice the atmosphere in the ring. The stands are overflowing with bystanders roaring. Some runners have hopped up on the barriers,where a lip protrudes out and you can avoid humans or bulls. Others have gone into the stands to sit and watch. Flashbulbs are flying as media or photographers capture the pandemonium. The ring itself is a blood red color. Fitting or not, I wonder. I find Jarmo and Nicole S., but not Nicole B. or Oneika. Jarmo and I embrace. We’re both sweaty, out of breath and talking excitedly. We clutch each other and recount the last two minutes, shell shocked, like two soldiers who emerged from the trenches and spun the dial to survival, instead of death. Nicole B. flies in finally, but just as she hugs us, a flock of people surge into the ring. It was the last bull, Fugado, who got separated from his brothers back on Estafeta.
8:05 a.m.: Injuries. Jarmo’s lip is slightly bleeding. Oneika is later found in the stands. She dived through the barricades after an elbow landed in her eye, at the same time averting a human pile-up and a bull. At that second, I encircle who is there – all of them – in joy and relief. We have no escape from the ring now, they seal off the exits for the next stage.
8:07 a.m.: I’m tingly. Playful. Reborn as a child. When the world was undiscovered to me. For the next thirty minutes, they release the cows to the leftover corredors in the ring. Without rationalizing, I leap in, dancing with the cows like a boxer, sometimes inching closer to reach out and feel a hide, other times jumping backwards to avoid danger. Runners with cojones do leaps over the cows, touch a back end and are met with fury. A girl from America is picked up by one and carried a few meters, until she’s dropped like a sack. The intense visuals and the crowd booming ‘ole’ fuels me more. At one point a cow is running directly behind me, I manage to duck away before getting swiped. It is then I recognize a kind of brotherhood. How the runners congratulate each other with a handshake, a slap on the back. A male runner turns to me, winks and says, “Nice dive.” I catch breath against the barricades and a black woman calls to me. “Hey, I’ve been watching you. Getting into it. You are brave! And awesome!” She anoints me with a high-five. It seems, I’m not only accepted into the brotherhood, but with the sisters as well.
Conclusion: July 9th was an interesting day to run, for the most dangerous breed, Cebada Gago ran with us that morning. Fugado, the bull who got separated from the herd wreaked havoc, goring two Britons and an American. We met that blue-eyed Canadian man again after the run who witnessed a man getting pummeled. He had to leap onto a barricade to avoid the same treatment. He proclaimed that was his first and last run. For a thorough report on Cebada Gago and a video of that day’s bull run, read and watch on SanFermin.com.
Much of the controversy involved with women running is misplaced chivalry. In past years, if a woman fell, a man might have tried to assist her, which is dangerous for other runners. I never found that at all. Every person was responsible for themselves.
I think the question is, would I run again? In all honesty – yes. It was a unique experience, one that I can’t duplicate. Yet, for some loco reason, I’m game to try.