We decided rather haphazardly and at the last minute to attend the running of the bulls. While visiting business schools in Europe, Fred and I met someone who was headed to Pamplona for the opening day of the San Fermín festival. Well sure, that would be interesting to see. Once in a lifetime, right? I feel bad for the bulls, though. And it seems like such a stupid, macho thing to do. Running with bulls, trying to touch them, risking death or severe injury.
Our friend Simon was on his way to meet us in Southwestern France. Good surf, nice beaches… maybe we’ll pass on Pamplona this time. Except the surf went flat and we were having trouble finding accommodation at a reasonable price. So okay, it’s off to Pamplona! We met people on the beach in San Sebastian and in the streets of Pamplona who had run. No problem! It’s easy, just play it safe. Well okay, maybe I’ll just start near the end, run way ahead and get into the bull ring before even seeing the bulls. I don’t care if the people in the bull ring stands boo me. I’m just not letting my husband run without me.
I read up on running strategy, what to do, what not to do, how many people on average get gored, how many people have died, what to look out for and where on the course people typically get in trouble. If you fall, stay down and cover your head. Watch not just for the bulls behind you but for the people who fall in front of you. Don’t drink the night before and don’t run drunk. Get some sleep the night before. Wear the outfit, don’t carry anything and respect tradition.
Prior to the Encierro I never once felt truly scared. I was playing it safe, remember? I got eight hours of good sleep the night before. I don’t drink, so running drunk or hungover wasn’t an issue. I’m in pretty good shape, and can run fast when I need to. Being a small, nimble person, I can also scamper, jump, climb, leap, and squeeze under fences no problem. I had on the white shirt and pants, red scarf around my neck, red sash around my waist, and my good Nikes. I felt confident that I was taking the safe, non-macho approach. I had no daredevil pride, nothing to prove. I was ready to flee and scamper and look foolish in the name of safety.
There were all types of people near us where we waited for the start. There was the Englishman who lives in Florida, in Pamplona for his buddy’s 50th birthday, who was chatting with a young German fellow. In front of me were two older guys from Southern Cali, both taking pictures with their iPhones. A group of young guys from Portugal were recording a video for their grandkids on a smartphone. One of the youngsters high-fived me for being one of only two girls he saw in the lineup. He said, “You’re really cool!” and I replied, “Or maybe really stupid!” I still had no idea, no fear.
When the rocket went off and the running began, I was maybe 50 feet from the entrance to the ring. No problem! I will just run in, go left and hop over the wall. I was watching in front, and glancing behind. No bulls yet, and I’m in the entrance hall to the ring. All good. Then before I could see or react to anything, I was pushed onto a pile of bodies blocking the entire entrance to the ring. And in seconds I was face down in the dirt with the whole mess of people on top of me.
At the bottom of the pile of people, when I realized there was no way I could claw my way out, I resigned myself to death and braced myself for the impact of bull hooves crushing my skull. There was a man’s leg underneath me, twisted out at an impossible angle. I heard someone screaming, wailing. My mind interpreted the sound to mean ‘please dear God help me’ but I have no idea what language he spoke or if he even used words at all.
The sound of the crowd (screaming in horror? cheering?) came in waves. At each crescendo, I imagined the bulls fighting their way over the mountain of bodies. I tried to do what was advised, stay down and cover your head. I said out-loud, “I’m going to die.” I thought about my husband, who was behind us, and hoped he didn’t get caught. I thought about Simon, who was ahead of me, and hoped he made it into the ring.
I never thought to pray. All my yogic training went out the window; all the chants I’ve learned for these dire situations, they never crossed my mind. I simply shut down and prepared for the final blow.
There was open space just ahead of me, but I was hopelessly pinned to the ground. I dug at the dirt with my hands. I saw people on top of me getting pulled out of the pile. I began to scream for help reaching my arms out, completely helpless. I have never felt so helpless in my entire life. Then, after what seemed like an eternity, a man began to pull my arms. He was wearing the bright official gear of the medics and other professionals on the scene. It was hopeless, he couldn’t pull me out. Then another man grabbed my arm to help. They pulled me right out of my running shoes. I never even saw their faces as I sobbed “thank you” and ran for the edge of the pen.
When I got to the wall and tried to climb over, there was a man on the other side holding his viewing spot, unwilling to move or help me. My friend Simon spotted me trying to get over the wall, begging for help, and came to my rescue (the second rescue in perhaps 30 seconds). He lifted me up and over the wall. I stumbled to sit in a filthy corner of the walkway.
Then the panic hit that my dear irreplaceable love of my life might not be okay. In the third lucky stroke of the morning, I then saw him walk past unharmed. The three of us all made it out of complete disaster, far better than so many of the people around us. There was a guy, young, sitting next to me sobbing and trying to call someone on his cell. I couldn’t understand what he said, but I reached out and held his hand. People were going by on stretchers.
We had to fight our way out of the stadium. I had dirt, skin and blood scraped down the front of my legs and my right elbow. I felt a stinging lump on my forehead, probably from someone kicking my head. I walked a bit in my socks through the wet streets; sloshing through piss, puke, broken glass and plastic cups. Fred insisted I let him carry me, so for several long blocks I rode piggy back.
I didn’t even see a bull and yet my life flashed before my eyes, and now I’m hurting. Bad.
I read all the accounts of how amazing you feel afterwards. That feeling of having cheated death, to live to fight another day. That’s such crap. I feel horrible. I was completely helpless, and then totally unable to help anyone else. I feel guilty that the guys spent their energy pulling me out, when so many others still needed attention. My heart aches for the senseless suffering of the people and the animals in that Encierro. Above all I feel shame for having participated. Of all the stupid things I’ve done in my life, this is by far the most idiotic.
I’m sharing this with you in the hopes that, if you are someone searching the internet for “tips on running with the bulls” or “how to stay safe in the Pamplona Encierro,” you will read this and think twice about participating. It’s just not worth it.
At the bottom of the pile of bodies, my mind kept trying to comprehend how I ended up there. I never took the warnings seriously, and I listened to too many drunken bravado stories of survival. I was cocky. I thought I could outsmart, outrun, and out scramble the thousands of others in the run. I thought I was playing it safe. I thought the odds were in my favor. Perhaps they were, but I still got trampled.
The wonderful woman at the pharmacy, who is also named Laura, said it is my “nuevo feliz cumpleaños” or “new birthday” today. July 13, 2013, the day I cheated death. The day I was born again. It doesn’t feel that way. I’m sad and embarrassed, my knee is swollen, my body hurts, my skin stings. Never again.
I also didn't know that the bullfighters later kill these bulls in the ring. I'm horrified to have participated in such a barbaric event. I'm a vegetarian because I refuse to let animals be killed for my gastronomic pleasure. What is wrong with me that I didn't think this through?
To the men who pulled me out, I feel the deepest respect and gratitude. To all of the amazing people, putting their own lives at risk to help others, I bow humbly. The firemen, police, and paramedics on the scene… I do not know how they do it. I am humbled and I am so grateful.