Alexander Fiske-Harrison: 'How I risked my life in the Pamplona bull run'

Ernest Hemingway made the Pamplona bull run famous. To mark the 50th anniversary of his death, the acclaimed British writer Alexander Fiske-Harrison relives the day he ran with Pamplona’s bulls

Saturday 22 October 2011 23:42

When I arrive in Pamplona it is at the height of what seems to be a Rio Carnival-style street party, although, strikingly, everyone is in the same uniform – white shirt, white trousers, red neckerchief and red sash. These bull-running festivals used to be far commoner, and there are still a fair few in Spain. They even happened in England till the mid-19th century. The most famous one was in Stamford, Lincolnshire, until it was banned in 1839 by the RSPCA.

Of all the bull runs in the world, though, Pamplona is the most famous, and for one reason alone: the writings of Ernest "Papa" Hemingway. This even though it is generally accepted that he never actually ran. By generally accepted I mean by everyone except Hemingway himself. I came across a front-page story in the Toronto Daily Star in 1924, with the wonderfully self-referential headline "Bull Gores Toronto Writer in Annual Pamplona Festival". I asked his grandson, the writer John Hemingway, about it and got the following pithy response: "Well, excuse the pun but I think that there was a lot of bull in my grandfather's dispatches."

First of all I walk out the ground of the run. It is a half-mile of streets with three corners, all of which are now packed with drunken revellers. I ignore them, trying to see how I am going to deal with the next morning, like a climber looking for a route of ascent or a burglar looking for a point of entry.

I get to bed at about 12.30am – the run is at 8am – but I do not fall sleep until three in the morning.

I wake up just before my alarm. I shower and slowly dress in a carefully selected version of the traditional dress for the day: a white cotton shirt and white denim trouser – nothing that inhibits movement, but tight enough not to be caught on a horn unless I am, and thick enough that protection against minor slashes is given. I tie the red bandana around my neck, so it appears like a cravat and mimics the blood of San Fermín – who had his throat cut and in whose honour this festival is held – and tie the red sash around my waist, wrapping it twice so there is no slack to catch. I am aware it is not advisable to wear belts around bulls, as people are often caught by that first, and then the bull goes to work on them. However, I figure the nod to tradition outweighs the risk.

At the entrance to the town hall square section of the run there are hundreds upon hundreds of people milling, moving, edging from foot to foot and emitting a combined stench of urine, alcohol and vomit that is nearly overwhelming. The one thing they do not stink of is fear. Fear itself has no smell, despite what the novelists say.

I decide to get away from them, ducking under the fence and heading away from the course to a small church where I had been told the hardened runners gather – some Spanish, some Americans who have been doing it for as many as 30 years. In this little enclave of calm, I watch the men greet each other briefly with cordial handshakes and short sentences, confident and focused, not indulging in nervous small talk, each parting with the word "Suerte" – "Good luck". Their confidence is contagious.

I run a little and begin slaloming between traffic bollards at a half-sprint. At 7.30am, I'm dripping with sweat and k adrenalin and as ready as I will ever be. Am I nervous? No. Not now. It is beyond the time for that. There had been moments during the sleepless night before when I thought, given that no one knows me here, I could say I had done it without doing it at all. Or I could not do it and no one would judge. But in that odd way the mind has, having committed to a course of action, I will go through unless I can find a justifiable way out. And for this one I can't. It's Pamplona after all. I walk down the hill and take my place and wait.

As the time approaches, the streets thicken with people, then seem to clear. I later discover that this is an artificial density, as the final section of the run had been closed until 10 minutes to eight. I find myself alone in a section of street that has a crowd on steps behind the barrier watching like an audience. I find it very odd to be walking on what feels like a stage at a time like this. With five minutes to go, that feeling fades. That is when the false breaks begin: all of a sudden a group of people will get the jitters and run up the hill, convincing other people that the bulls have been released early. I have no idea whether they leave the course or decide to stay further up, but they don't return.

The minutes pass slowly. Incredibly slowly. I can safely say that no period of time in my life has ever passed that slowly. This is firing-squad stuff.

Then come the joggers, people laughing off their fear and embarrassment, but having made the very clear decision that they want to be further away from whatever is about to happen.

And then the bulls turn the corner at the bottom of the hill and the thin blue line of police holding the people and the bulls apart breaks off to the sides and the mass of people shatters and flees like a medieval rabble under a heavy cavalry charge.

This really is a sight that very few people in the modern era will see: a populace put to flight through its own streets, as though a siege has been broken, a city wall breached. As the bulls cleared their path up the hill and I attempted to hold my ground, people were running past screaming, grabbing at me, diving against the wall, which was now thick with people trying to make sure they were not the front line. As the bulls got closer – it seemed like 10 feet away – a space cleared in front of them and I turned and started to run.

When I was in the athletics team at school, I had it drilled into me that you can think you are sprinting flat-out, but then you look inside yourself and find an extra reserve of speed. This was not one of those times.

However, the bulls were much, much faster. By the top of the hill – maybe 15 yards away – the front ones were passing me, the relatively harmless but massive steers between the bulls and me, but then I spotted one fighting bull chewing his way through the people to my rear, his horn visible behind the falling man behind me.

As he neared me, and the mass of people in the square began to push me and themselves towards his horns, I decided enough was enough and pushed myself back into the crowd on the side, arms out to hold back the falling people around me. The fighting bulls, the Miuras, had passed, but I was not finished.

I jumped back into the middle of the street and went back to sprinting in an attempt to follow them, and into one of the most dangerous parts of the course, the corner of Calle Estafeta. As I reached it I was confronted with the sight of a fallen grey and white Miura, a suelto, a "loose one". He was getting back on to his feet, facing in the opposite direction to the now-vanished herd, facing me.

Fresh, massively strong, and with no idea where he was or what to do, he was swinging his great horns back and forth looking for a target. I slammed on the brakes on the cobbled street, thanking God for the grip on my Nike trainers, and went into speedy reverse. Soon there were people between the bull and me and I knew I was safe. Then he moved in the right direction and a gate was closed behind him to keep the crowd on my part of the course safe. As I walked over to the railings to catch my breath, a man was pulled out by paramedics from behind the barrier, blood pumping from his neck. A little later someone pointed out a large bloodstain on my shirt and I can only assume it sprayed out from him.

I walked back to the hotel and called my parents and girlfriend to say I was alive, before heading to a bar where the American runners all met up to confirm the number left standing. It had been a bloody day: two in intensive care, two other serious gorings, a dozen minor injuries from human or bovine feet. As I introduced myself to the men I had seen so calmly warming up before, I discovered that not one of them had been injured, despite having seen them leap in closer to the bulls than anyone else. This may in part be explained by how long they have been running for.

We drank from 8.30am until I fell on to my bed at 4pm.

I took the next day off, letting my torn muscles heal, but decided to run again the day after that, the final day of the feria, the festival. This time I took up a position in a doorway halfway along the Calle Estafeta. Since most people either like to run on the corners, the beginning, or at the end where they can enter the bullring, I found myself in a relatively clear spot (doubtless helped by few people having the strength to run on the last day). The bulls were of the Núñez del Cuvillo breed and this time I got it right, getting into the street and starting jogging about 20 yards ahead of them.

Then, when they cut out the intervening people and reached me, I put on a burst of speed to match that of a bull running at my shoulder, and I did, I achieved templar. In bullfighting, the term means to match the speed of the bull's charge with the cape; some say it even means to moderate the charge by doing so. In bull-running, it means to match not only your speed but the rhythm of your run to an animal's.

It was a strangely moving experience running side by side with a bull, close enough to touch, although that was frowned upon. He was pure-brown in colour and apparently totally ignorant of my existence at his flank, his whole being determined only to keep with his herd and get clear of this mass of humanity. The kinship I felt with him was purely physical, locomotory, but it was still more than superficial.

Later that evening I watched the one and only bullfight I will ever see in Pamplona. The party atmosphere from the streets was magnified in the ring. Not one, but six bands were in operation, each one from a different fan club celebrating. The fans themselves danced and shouted and swore and drank, half the time with their backs to the sand. The matadors valiantly tried to get their attention by fighting, but the bulls were so distracted by the noise – and being run through the streets that morning – that they were almost impossible to make charge. It was an ugly, barbaric thing.

And then the bull I had run beside came in, and although he was fought well, he refused to die, despite the sword being within him. As the crowd cheered and booed, swayed and screamed, he walked over to the planks and began a long, slow march around the ring, holding on to life as though with some internal clenched fist, refusing to give up, refusing to die. I had run next to this great animal, had matched myself to him as best I could, and in doing so felt some form of connection to the powers that propelled him. Now I watched them all turned inwards in an attempt to defy the tiny, rigid ribbon of steel within his chest, and having been blinded by no beauty, tricked by no displays of courage or prowess by the matadors, I just saw an animal trying to stay on its feet against the insuperable reality of death. I left the plaza de toros with tears in my eyes.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison's new book, 'Into the Arena: the World of the Spanish Bullfight', is published by Profile, priced £15, out now. The 320th annual running of the bulls begins in Pamplona on 6 July

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