The International Writers Magazine: Hacktreks in Spain
The Sun Barely Rises
It was half past five when I woke to a gentle prod at my shoulder. There was a moment of confusion before I heard “up you get mate”. I reluctantly got out of my sleeping bag, and squinted with heavy eyes through the dim, chilled air.
The area of pop-up bars and the stage that we had been sleeping next to was quiet and littered with bottles and cans and unwanted food. The cobbles had been stained by sangria or wine, and the town’s cleaners were already hosing the red blotches away with their industrial water guns.
Alan was taking a piss against a tree when I looked back. This was his sixth time doing the run. He had mentioned a couple of years before that the adrenaline level he achieved here was unique: “I’ve had thirty-six amateur boxing scraps, and the feeling of those doesn’t come close to what I get from the run”. I saw the back of his white shirt and trousers broken up by the red sash across his waist, and the red cravat hanging at his neck. I reached inside my sleeping bag and found my own ‘reds’. They were kept there for security reasons. I couldn’t sleep with a knot gnawing at my hip and with material irritating my neck, and so they had to be kept in the sleeping bag with me. The night before, Alan had left two cigarettes by his head and they had gone by the morning. I’d woken twice that night to find dark figures lurking over us. When they saw my eyes open they scattered, but I wasn’t a good enough guard to save the ‘Camels’.
We walked quickly and silently out of the park and through the abandoned market. Alan offered his bottle of water that I drank from with appreciation, hoping that the liquid would calm the bubbling behind my abdomen. It didn’t. Our journey was fifteen minutes from the park to the town hall, and the desolate first half was over as we entered a busy street of bars.
||The locals were wearing the same as us, only with fresh red stains compared to our dried marks. They were drinking on the pavement with their wine sacks held at arm’s length, a Basque tradition that Hemingway wrote about, (throughout my stay in Pamplona I saw bars and hotels, side streets and statues and these peculiar cultural traditions, all of which Hemingway had described in his 1920s novel Fiesta. Remarkably, very little had changed in over eighty years).
The locals were singing the English songs that pumped out of the bars in their thick, Basque accents, and on a few occasions one of the more intoxicated individuals would stop us in our path, and knowing immediately that we weren’t Spanish, would ask us, “You running today? You crazy!” It seemed as though these were the only two phrases that any of the people we met knew, but it made me laugh and each time it was slurred, I briefly forgot the feeling of nausea that had been haunting me. Alan had told me how the Basques largely refrained from running, leaving it disproportionately to the English and Australians, with some Americans and Canadians sprinkled here and there too.
It became light quickly, or maybe my eyes had just adjusted. Either way, the crowd of people in front of us was increasing in mass and when Alan ducked under a huge wooden beam, took a few steps and stopped, I knew that we had arrived. We had a lot of room to begin with, and around us were men in small groups talking quietly in Basque, and then there were loud, irritating Australian crowds cackling and joking and trying to unnerve one another.
|I think Alan must have realised that I wasn’t in the soundest psychological state, and so he talked me through the run again. The bulls would run up Santo Domingo after they left their pen. It was a narrow street, wide enough to fit just eight men standing shoulder to shoulder. I asked why we didn’t start there and let the bulls pass us early, and get it over and done with. There were two reasons why, he said. A friend of ours, Graham, had run for a couple of years before tempting Alan to do the same.
Alan told me how Graham had started on Santo Domingo during his first run, and had seen one man suffer at the horns of the bulls. He was gored through the back of his thigh and tossed over the head of the first bull, before falling from a height back down onto the cobbled street.It is common knowledge amongst the experienced runners that when you fall during the run, which is an inevitable experience for anybody who takes part regularly, you lay flat on your front with your hands on your head and wait until the six bulls and the six steers have passed you. When this has happened, another runner will tap your shoulder to indicate that you are safe to get up. This man obviously was not an experienced runner. Rather than assuming the recommended position, he not surprisingly panicked, perhaps at the sight of the blood oozing from his leg, or maybe it was the sound of eleven other half-tonne beasts charging behind him. He attempted to stand, only to have the second bull pierce one of its horns through his lower back. Again, the unfortunate man was tossed up and over the animal, and crashed back down onto the cobbles. How this man even had the strength to get up a second time is incredible enough, but he did, and was dully punished. He avoided the horns this time, but was hit by the shoulder of the third Jandilla bull and was tossed up and down for a final time, where he lay unconscious. He survived, Alan told me, but was “probably pissing into a bag for the rest of his life”.
Alan then reminded me of the second reason; we had to get into the bullring, and to do that, we had to be within a few seconds of the bulls as they entered, as the doors are shut moments after. I didn’t need a second reason, but I registered it nevertheless.
We were penned in, facing the town hall, on the corner of two streets: Santo Domingo and Mercaderes. After veering left, this is where the bulls would run through next. The square in front of the town hall is the widest area of the course, perhaps twice the breadth as Santo Domingo. A hard left followed for the bulls, before chasing hundreds of more men down Mercaderes. At the end of this short street is ‘Dead Man’s Corner’, so called because the twelve animals, charging at a pace that can reportedly cover one hundred metres in less than seven seconds, crash into the boarding at such a force that to stand there is akin to suicide. The bulls would then take a ninety degrees turn to the right and begin their ascent up Estafeta, the street that Alan and I would be starting in. This is the longest part of the course, and at the end of the street, the bulls would lean left through Telefonica before finally entering the bull ring.
We passed the time by sipping our water and listening into the few conversations that we could understand. We heard how an Australian had pissed himself to get some laughs from his friends, but we couldn’t see him because of the density of the crowd now.
It had turned seven, and the people around us had gradually got closer as the time had ticked agonizingly away on the town hall clock. Alan reminded me that this was why we arrived so early. He doubted whether the police would allow anybody else into the pen now.
Half past seven had just struck when the mass of bodies began to swarm on top of me. I looked at Alan and he told me that the police were walking through. He had warned me about this, and I knew how I should act: sober and awake. In fact, I was sober and awake and so there was little ‘acting’ needed. But not everybody was the same as your sensible narrator. As the police marched through the packed pen in single file, staring into the faces of the hopeful participants, they would occasionally have their eyes stolen by a man who looked too old, or too young, or too fat, or possibly hung-over, or perhaps still drunk. They would be tapped on the shoulder and they would invariably leave, although there was a plea of defence by some people, (usually the Australians), that was answered by a firm clasp on the shoulder and an even firmer tug out of the pen. The ‘Guardia Civil’ are more of a military force than a police service, and their concern was not with the unsuitable runners putting themselves at risk, but with the risk that they posed to others. It is not uncommon to see more injuries at Pamplona from runners being tripped by other people, rather than from the bulls.
In the fifteen minutes that passed after the police had left the pen, there were a few moments worth mentioning. There was a legal disclaimer played through speakers that seemed like a wholly out of place, modern day formality in a festival that has its roots set in the fourteenth century. I saw a young woman, who was the only woman I had seen, or would see for the entirety of the run, and there were the prayers to ‘San Fermin’, asking for a safe run, as if each person chanting at the little statue, sitting in an alcove on Santo Domingo, had no choice in whether or not they participated.
Alan had said that the police would let us out of our pen with five minutes to spare, allowing us to find our place on Estafeta, and allowing the many people who choose to make their way into the bull ring just after the bulls are released, to do so.
They let us out at around two minutes to eight, which caused panic. As Alan and I moved with the swarm of people down Mercaderes, some of the men who were behind us had understood that they may not be able to get to the bull ring by the time that the bulls where released. Thus, they may be trapped in the run whilst it takes place. These men began to run which caused a human stampede. Adult men were running and shrieking, falling and being stamped on. I stuck myself to a wall on Mercaderes and saw a man’s face look up from the cobbles with thin claret juices marinating the street from his fringe. The crowd didn’t look like slowing down, and rather than stay anywhere near ‘Dead Man’s Corner’, I joined the sea of red and white and met Alan where we had planned the day before, on Estafeta, outside a camera shop. He showed me a drain pipe that I had to scale if a bull locked onto me.
The firework sounded which signaled that the bulls were released. Seven or eight seconds later and there was another which meant that they were all out of their pen. From that point I remember flashes of what happened. It was like a series of photographs, which is fitting, as they began outside a Kodak shop.
A man grapples me against the wall in fear and I shriek at him to “get the fuck off me”, and so he drops to the ground on my right.
I watch as people run across my eyesight and then there is a brown blur, a green shirt and a scream in my ear from Alan: “they’re gone, go!”
||I stay two metres from the last bull for a few seconds. Then it applies the breaks, and I stop, and hundreds behind me stop too, waiting for it to turn around and charge back at us like we’d all seen happen on YouTube. It looks to the left and I see now the muscles in the neck and shoulders, and understand how they lift men with such ease. It looks forward and continues its run, using its pace to pull away from me. My heart clambers back up from the depths of my ribcage; from where it had dropped moments earlier.
I run low and hard, expecting to be hit by somebody’s shoulders or caught by somebody’s legs but it doesn’t happen.
A man is lying on his front and I touch his shoulder.
We round Telefonica and arrive in the bullring to look up at fifteen thousand locals, screaming at us in adulation.
My mind focused and the photographs in my head stopped. I realised for the first time that my mouth had been raided for its moisture, and it would take several ‘kalimotxos’ to regain it.
Alan invited me to come next year. I politely declined.
Kalimotxo – A Basque drink. Made with one part red wine to one part cola, and served over ice.
Camels – Cigarettes that are notably cheaper in Spain than in England.
© Emon Keshavarz May 2012