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Back in November 2016, we shared a piece entitled Bullfighting: Having Roots in Ancient Rome. That was a bit more graphic than what we will be discussing, but there is still a clear and present danger involved.
The Running of the Bulls is known in Spanish as Encierro, from the verb Encerrar (to corral, to enclose). It is a practice that involves running in front of a small group of cattle (typically 6) of the Toro Bravo breed that have been let loose on a course of a sectioned-off subset of a town’s streets.
The most famous Running of the Bulls is the 8-day festival of Sanfermines in honor of Saint Fermin in Pamplona, although they are also traditionally held in other places such as towns and villages across Spain, Portugal, in some cities in Mexico, and southern France during the summer.
The origin of this event comes from the need to transport the bulls from the fields outside the city, where they were bred, to the bullring, where they would be killed in the evening. During this ‘run’, youngsters would jump among them to show off their bravado.
In Pamplona and other places, the six bulls in the event are still those that will feature in the afternoon bullfight of the same day.
Spanish tradition says the true origin of the run began in northeastern Spain during the early 14th Century. While transporting cattle in order to sell them at the market, men would try to speed the process by hurrying their cattle using tactics of fear and excitement.
After years of this practice, the transportation and hurrying began to turn into a competition, as young adults would attempt to race in front of the bulls and make it safely to their pens without being overtaken. When the popularity of this practice increased and was noticed more and more by the expanding population of Spanish cities, a tradition was created and stands to this day.
The Pamplona Encierro is the most popular in Spain and has been broadcast live by RTVE, the public Spanish national television channel, for over 30 years. Held every year from July 6–14, it is the highest profile event of the San Fermin festival.
The first bull running is on 7 July, followed by one on each of the following mornings of the festival, beginning every day at 8 am. Among the rules to take part in the event are that participants must be at least 18 years old, run in the same direction as the bulls, not incite the bulls, and not be under the influence of alcohol.
In Pamplona a set of wooden fences is erected to direct the bulls along the route and to block off side streets. A double wooden fence is used in those houses where there is enough space for it, while in other parts the buildings of the street act as barriers.
The gaps in the barricades are wide enough for a human to slip through, but narrow enough to block a bull. The fence is composed of around 3,000 separate pieces and while some parts are left for the duration of the fiesta others are mounted and dismounted every morning.
Spectators can only stand behind the subsequent fence. The space between the 2 fences is reserved for security and medical personnel and also to participants who need cover during the event.
The Encierro begins with runners singing a benediction. It is sung 3 times, each time being sung both in Spanish and Basque.
The benediction is a prayer given at a statue of Saint Fermin, patron of the festival and the city, to ask the Saint’s protection. Translated into English it is as follows: “We ask Saint Fermin, as our Patron, to guide us through the Encierro and give us his blessing”.
The singers finish by shouting “Viva San Fermín!, Gora San Fermin!” (Long live Saint Fermin!). Most runners dress in the traditional clothing of the festival which consists of a white shirt and trousers with a red waistband (faja) and neckerchief (pañuelo). Also some of them hold the day’s newspaper rolled to draw the bulls’ attention from them if necessary.
Another common dress practice, seen as a risk by some but as a daring depiction of courage by others is dressing in a conspicuous manner. Many runners that want to be perceived as daring wear colors other than white.
The most daring color alternative is blue for it is thought by some to draw the bulls’ attention. Others include large logos on their shirt to capture the attention of the bulls, anything to make yourself stand out in a photo.
The 3rd and 4th rockets signal that all of the herd has entered the bullring and its corral, respectively, marking the end of the event. The average duration between the initial rocket and the end of the running is 2 minutes, 30 seconds.
The Encierro is usually composed of the 6 bulls to be fought in the afternoon, 6 steers that run in herd with the bulls, and 3 more steers that follow the herd to encourage any reluctant bulls to continue along the route. The function of the steers, who run the route daily, is to guide the bulls to the bullring at an average speed of 15 mph.
The length of the run is 957 yards. It goes through 4 streets of the old part of the city (Santo Domingo, Ayuntamiento, Mercaderes and Estafeta) via the Town Hall Square and the short section just before entering into the bullring through its callejón (tunnel). The fastest part of the route is up Santo Domingo and across the Town Hall Square, but the bulls often became separated at the entrance to Estafeta Street as they slowed down.
Runners are not permitted in the opening 55 yards of the Encierro, which is an uphill grade where the bulls are much faster.
One or more would slip going into the turn at Estafeta, resulting in the installation of anti-slip surfacing. Now most of the bulls negotiate the turn onto Estafeta ahead of the steers, thus making for a quicker run.
Every year, between 50-100 people are injured during the run, but not all of the injuries require taking the patients to the hospital. In 2013 50, people were taken by ambulance to Pamplona’s hospital, with this number nearly doubling that of 2012.
Goring is much less common but potentially life threatening. In 2013 for example, 6 participants were gored along the festival, in 2012 only 4 runners were injured by the horns of the bulls with exactly the same number of gored people in 2011, 9 in 2010 and 10 in 2009; with one of the later killed.
As most of the runners are male, only 5 women have been gored since 1974. Previously to that date running was prohibited for women.
Another major risk is runners falling and piling up at the entrance of the bullring, which acts as a funnel as it is much narrower than the previous street. In such cases injuries come both from asphyxia and contusions to those in the pile and from goring if the bulls crush into the pile.
This kind of blocking of the entrance has occurred at least ten times in the history of the run, the last occurring in 2013 and the first dating back to 1878. A runner died of suffocation in one such pile up in 1977.
Overall, since record-keeping began in 1910, only 15 people of the several thousand runners have been killed in the bull running of Pamplona, most of them due to being gored. To minimize the impact of injuries every day 200 people collaborate in the medical attention making it possible to have a gored person stabilized and taken to a hospital in less than 10 minutes.
The Encierro of Pamplona has been depicted many times in literature, television or advertising, but became known worldwide partly because of the descriptions of Ernest Hemingway in books The Sun Also Rises and Death in the Afternoon. The cinema pioneer Louis Lumière filmed the run in 1899.
The event is the basis for a chapter in James Michener‘s 1971 novel The Drifters. The run is depicted in the 1991 Billy Crystal film City Slickers where the character “Mitch” (Crystal) is gored (non-fatally) from behind by a bull during a vacation with the other main characters.
Running with the Bulls, a 2012 documentary of the festival filmed by Construct Creatives and presented by Jason Farrel, depicts the pros and cons of the controversial tradition. Since 2014 the Esquire Channel has broadcast the running of the bulls as a show in the US, with both live commentary and then a recorded ’round up’ later in the day by NBCSN commentators the Men in Blazers, including interviews with noted participants.
In 2014, the eBook guide Fiesta: How To Survive The Bulls Of Pamplona caused headlines around the world when one of the contributors was gored by a bull soon after its publication. Maybe one should take the advice given here with a grain of salt.
Many opponents argue that bulls are mentally injured by the harassment and voicing of both participants and spectators. Despite all this, the festivities seem to have wide popular support in their villages.
We hope you enjoyed today’s adventure, and maybe you’ve been inspired to participate in the future. No matter what we’d like to have any stories you may have on the event and to check us out again for a new journey.
Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!
Alonso, Gorka. “Los encierros se saldan con 50 heridos trasladados y 6 corneados” (in Spanish). Noticias de Navarra. 15 July 2013.
Coviello, Will. “Running of the Bulls 2012”. Gambit Weekly.
Editorial Staff. “Pamplona, bull running, bull gorings, Esquire TV and poetry from New York”. The Pamplona Post. 10 July 2015.
Marszalek, Keith I. “Big Easy Rollergirls to reinact [sic] famed bull run”. NOLA.com. 24 June 2007.
Vadillo, Jose Luis. “Así son los corredores de elite en San Fermín”. El Mundo. 6 July 2015.
“Bull gores man to death in Spain”. BBC. 10 July 2009.
“Encierro bullrun San Fermin festival Sanfermines tourist information on Navarre”. Government of Navarre.
“Running of the Bulls”. Esquire TV.
“Running Of The Bulls 2015: A Democratic Sport”. Esquire TV.
“San Fermín in Nueva Orleans, The Running of the Roller Girls”. Laughingsquid.com. 20 July 2008.
“San Fermín So Far – 2014”. The Pamplona Post. 12 July 2014.
“The last person killed at Pamplona”. BBC. 14 July 2005.