Pamplona: Running With the Bulls--Part I

<strong>Photo by Pedro Armestre </strong>  Running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain
"Did you have a hard time finding white pants?" asked Ron, a Delta 767 captain. It was the day after July Fourth. We had just flown in from Los Angeles and cleared customs in Madrid. Ron and I sat, legs touching, in the backseat of a rented micro-van, driving to Pamplona with three of his flying buddies. We were five grown men squeezed into a car designed for the starting outfield of a Little League team. The Spanish countryside was sweltering, golden and spare. The central coast of California, I thought, pre-developers.

"White pants?"

"For the run. It's tradition," he said before eagerly launching into an impromptu briefing on the uniform. During the Festival of San Fermin--when the encierro, or running of the bulls, is just one of many folkloric activities--Pamplona becomes a city apart from the rest of the world, complete with its own rituals and garb. Everyone wears white pants and shirt, a red sash and a red kerchief. Everyone but the police. They wear blue, and scowl as if Franco was still in power -- but we didn't know that yet.

"I guess I can buy them when we get there."

"I brought an extra pair, just in case. You can borrow them if you want."

I didn't want to embarrass Ron in front of his friends by pointing out the vast disparities in our girths. It's not that he was heavy, or even stout. In fact, Ron was a perfectly fit, well-proportioned guy. But I had been a runner all my life. In my mind's eye, I was still the same skinny kid with the long blond hair who ran NCAA cross-country. I imagined that his pants would be so baggy on me that it would be like wearing a circus clown's. A clear mental image of trying to outrace a bull in Ron's pants appeared. The pants kept dropping to my ankles as the bull prepared to commit one of those signature Pamplona moments--the one that begins with rectal penetration by a bull's sharpened horn and ends with the runner getting hurled into the air like a rag doll. "That's OK," I said, cheeks taut. "I'll see if I can find a pair."

We stopped at a roadside caf? to sip calimochos, a syrupy but invigorating blend of red wine and ice-cold coke. By mid-afternoon we made Pamplona. The city was in the foothills of the Pyrenees, perched on a hilltop overlooking the serpentine Ebro River. The French border was just an hour east.

Pamplona's history was complex. Over the centuries the Romans, the Visigoths, Charlemagne, the Moors and Napoleon took turns occupying the strategic city. More germane to our visit was an execution occurring on September 25, 303. A Pamplona-born Christian proselytizer named Fermin was beheaded in Amiens, France as part of Diocletian's Great Persecution. The Catholic Church beatified Fermin and designated the anniversary of his death as his feast day. When Fermin's remains were returned to Pamplona in 1196 the city began an annual festival to mark that event. At the time neither Fermin nor his feast day had anything to do with bulls or running (though one local legend insists that Fermin was killed by having bulls drag his body through the streets of Toulouse. That grisly martyrdom actually belonged to Fermin's baptizer, Bishop Saturninus, in 257).

The feast day took on bovine overtones in 1591, when Pamplona changed the festival to July 7 to coincide with local cattle being brought to market. The run began as a way of herding a handful of bulls the 825 meters from the cattle market through the old city to the bullfighting ring for that evening's contests. It became famous in 1926, when Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises depicted a lost weekend at the Sanfermines. Thus, a regional religious holiday became an international rite of passage.

Hemingway titled the Spanish issue of his book Fiesta. That described the Pamplona in which we arrived far more appropriately than his English title, taken from Ecclesiastes. The city was listing, an unwieldy vessel being swamped by the biggest public drunk this side of a week-long Jimmy Buffett concert. The cobbled streets thronged with revelers: backpackers of a dozen nationalities; Eurotrash with their spike-collared pit bulls; and, hordes of pale-legged British, German and American tourists drawn by curiosity. Those with money perched on wicker chairs at marble-topped caf? tables, drinking cold ale and calimochos under the hot July sun. Budget travelers sprawled on the ground or milled about the town square, passing around gallon jugs of red wine. Street guitarists turned their miniature amplifiers up to 11. Coeds perched on their boyfriends' shoulders. Aging men with white beards preened in the bustling cafes. They sat facing the crowd so as to be seen. Their flitting eyes betrayed a deep longing as some passers-by exclaimed how that old guy over there looks just like Hemingway.

There were two constants, though, bringing us thousands together. The first was the question. "Are you running?" was repeated in every conversation, in every language. It buzzed through the air like a good rumor, reminding us all why we'd traveled so far. It certainly wasn't for the opportunity to wear the Pamplona uniform.

Which brings me to the second constant: Everyone was wearing the uniform.

"We look out of place," I said to Ron. The sun was burning the back of my neck. "Why don't you go change while I do some shopping."

"No need to shop. You can borrow those extra pants of mine," he reminded me as a squadron of Italian women sashayed past, all saucy and hip, looking like supermodels on furlough. They made the uniform look salacious. Those particular Italian women, I decided, could have made a coat of armor look salacious.

"I'd hate to ruin your pants," I demurred.

We stuck together. I bought a simple white T-shirt in a small store off the plaza. It was poorly made, inexpensive, and disposable--exactly what I wanted. I procured the red sash and neckerchief from street vendors. All this took 10 minutes. But I could not find white pants. Not that I was picky: denim, polyester, cotton or spandex; bellbottoms, pleated or matador. They would have all suited me fine. I wanted white pants with a 32-inch waist and a proportional inseam. Nothing more. Surely, in a city of nearly 200,000, such garments existed.

The shopping continued. Photographs of leviathan bulls were plastered on store windows. Bred purely for the ring, they were lean but massive. Their necks were as big around as telephone poles; coils of muscle whose function reminded me of a lion's forearm I saw once on the Tanzanian savannah--a weapon, not a body part. The bulls' horns drew to a natural, lethal point. The theme of several window collages, in fact, was runners being gored. Death is a very real possibility at the encierro. Fourteen runners have died since 1924 and hundreds more injured. One haunting photograph showed a skinny little man impaled on the horns of a brown and white-speckled bull. The man was helpless, his flaccid torso draped about the bull's neck like a mink stole, about to be shrugged to the heavens. I began to get nervous.

By sundown the shops were all closing. I still hadn't found white pants. "Maybe I can run in jeans," I said. It was time to go to the bullfights. I had never been. After that the pilots had dinner reservations. After that, though it was still unsaid, would come a very late night of drinking. We would run with the bulls at dawn, well before the stores re-opened. I had officially run out of time to purchase white pants.

"Really.... I don't mind if you borrow them. You can even ruin them for all I care. They're extra."

We'd had a few beers. It was time to be honest. "I don't think they're gonna fit, Ron. And I didn't bring a belt."

"They should fit just fine. They're a 36."

Poor Ron. He was such a bad judge of fitness. "I'm a 32, Ron." Even that sounded large.

There is a wonderful tact to Ron Allen. A grace and diplomacy I do not possess. He merely gave me a curious look--raising an eyebrow, so to speak, without actually raising it--and let the comment slip. "Come on," he said as the other pilots found us. They were all wearing the uniform. In our jeans and colored T-shirts, Ron and I looked as out of place as two guys wearing black tie and tails to a NASCAR race. "Let's go to the bullfight."

Our seats were on the upper tier of the circular Plaza de Toros coliseum. The crowd was littered with tourists. Most of the audience, however, was Spanish. Their knowledge and passion about bullfighting was powerful. They did not see it as sport, for it was clearly not. Instead, they viewed bullfighting as a means of artistic impression--an extreme and mildly absurd form, but a form nonetheless. Equal parts raucous and refined, wedged tightly onto the narrow bench seats but reveling in the warm summer night and pre-performance expectation, they could just as easily have been a crowd on the lawn at the Hollywood Bowl, waiting for Los Angeles Philharmonic to play Beethoven.

The ritual of the bullfight, like a symphony, began with an overture. The bull was released into the arena and greeted by that staccato burst of applause that envelops a conductor when he appears from the wings to stand before his orchestra. The bull appeared surprised and disoriented. The animal made great circles around the dirt floor, giant neck rippling and hooves pounding, acclimating himself. Each bull, it is said, seeks a place of sanctuary in the arena. This is the place he will return to again and again during a bullfight to regain his strength.

Meanwhile, the matador introduced himself by marching onto the arena's hard-packed dirt floor. He was accompanied by his assistants, the bandilleros, wearing capes of pink and gold. The bull and matador sized one another up from a distance. Then the matador and bandilleros departed, leaving the bull alone to wonder, no doubt, what the hell was going on.

He didn't have long to wonder. The first act began immediately. A lone picador galloped into the arena on horseback. His job was to anger and weaken the bull by thrusting short lances into those mighty neck muscles. This caused the animal's head to lower, leading to a more focused charge. Several times over the course of that evening's bullfights the picadors and their blinkered steeds were nearly gored. Only the telepathy between horse and rider allowed them to prance away in the nick of time.

The second act belonged to the bandilleros. The three of them returned after the picador had gone about his business. They attempted to further weaken the bull by thrusting colorful barbed sticks into his neck. Brave but not artistic, the bandilleros flitted about the bull like gnats, prancing in close to inflict their pain, make him angry, make him tired. I admired their courage but was rooting for the bull. The great animal, so noble and fierce, was better than them.

By the time the matador entered the arena for the suerte de matar (death act) the bull was in a state of bewildered rage, prepared to trample anything in its path. The matador and his flimsy red cape--such a symbolic and powerful scrap of fabric--were alone with the animal. The matador's goal was to plunge a sword straight down between the bull's shoulders into its heart. At this point the bull's goal was not so much staying alive as killing the matador.

The audience had come to see neither bull nor matador destroyed. Unlike a soccer match or horse race, they were less interested in the outcome than the artistry necessary to achieve it--the journey as opposed to the destination. It was certainly different than the billfish tournament I covered off Kona one year. The sight of a majestic silver-blue swordfish ("the lions of the ocean") being gaffed in the name of sport lacked any sense of the aesthetic or significant risk to the fishermen.

The Spaniards cheered equally for man and bull, though I noticed through the subsequent bullfights over the course of the evening that cowardly matadors were barely tolerated. Even the most refined women could be seen whispering to one another scornfully, rolling their eyes about the man in the arena's waning or absolutely nonexistent talent. They might as well have been gossiping about his sexual prowess--or lack thereof.

The best bulls and best matadors, on the other hand, were showered with glory. Applause and cheers ricocheted around the ancient arena like reflected beams of sunshine.

But good or bad, cowardly or brave, no one took their eyes off a matador. He was doing something beyond the spectator's ken, risking their wrath and his own life in an attempt to do something bold, uncomfortable and ultimately glorious. In a world so often defined by mediocrity he was pushing himself in a way the crowd subconsciously longed to emulate.

That's why we watched. I was struck by the thought that my own life, despite attempts to suffuse it with some semblance of personal excellence, repeatedly strayed down that path of mediocrity; of settling for good enough instead of striving for the very best. Each matador's actions were a stark riveting contrast. I couldn't look away.

Click here for Part II of Pamplona: Running With the Bulls
Martin Dugard is an Active Expert and the New York Times bestselling author of Chasing Lance (Little, Brown, 2005). Contact him at

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