Running With the Bulls in Pamplona - Yes, I Did It!

In my romantic-comedy caper, Carpe DiEmily, there is a chapter about the main character's adventures in Pamplona. Since the old adage is to "write what you know," I did just that, and recreated some scenes in the book that actually happened in real life. One of those was running with the bulls in Pamplona. Yep, crazy ol' me actually tried this insane endeavor when I was twenty, before I had common sense and knew I could actually . . . well, you know, die.


The morning of the run, I laced up my white tennis shoes with red laces, adjusted the red scarves around my neck and waist, and did a few leg stretches because that's what I saw people doing around me. Then my sister and I (did I mention she had just turned eighteen at the time?) meandered over to the narrow cobblestone street where the bull run was to take place. On the way, we ran into some local "penas": members of fraternity-type groups that come out in droves to party during the fiesta. We had met them the night before and had beaten them in an impromptu game of "quarters," thereby gaining their utmost admiration and respect. They were delighted to see us. They asked if they could watch the bull run with us. We told them no because we weren't going to watch. We were running. Their mouths dropped open. They were young Spaniard males, and yet they weren't running. They weren't that stupid. Running was for the foolhardy, the idiotic, the drunken tourists who created media fodder when they were unceremoniously gored through the loins every few years. Running was also for the die-hard macho-men, the Spaniards with something to prove, the adventurists who lived for a thrill, and the traditionalists who came out every year to celebrate. Not many (sane) women ran with the bulls, the penas told us, and certainly not young females. “Are you sure you want to do this?" they asked us in broken English. "You might get pushed around. Spanish men don't like girls running." They eyed us. "You should have dressed like men." Now there was a thought. My sister and I considered it for all of a second. “And, no.” After all, we'd worked too hard blow drying our hair that morning to ruin it for something as ridiculous as, well, safety. "We'll be fine," we chirped. Our pena friends tried to stop us: "Why don't you just stay here with us and share a bota bag of sweet, red wine?" they asked with imploring eyes. As tempting as it sounded, my sister and I politely declined. We were determined to run. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity! When would we have this chance again? Besides, bragging rights to our friends back home was worth everything. We told the penas we'd catch up with them later for a rematch of quarters, and then we were on our way.


We lined up on the narrow street with all the bajillion other high-strung runners, everyone poised for the moment the rocket would launch high into the sky, signaling that the bulls were out of the pen. That moment, standing with the motionless, taut crowd, not knowing what was going to happen next and yet also knowing there was no turning back now, was one of the scariest moments of my life. The next scariest was when that rocket when whizzing through the air and the crowd surged forward, yelling, screaming, and jostling. We raced forward as if our lives depended on it . . . because, well, they actually did. On the other hand, I'd like to say we actually ran (because that's what you do in Pamplona, right?), but what really happened is that we were swept down that street by that panicked pack of runners like minnows carried on a tidal wave. We couldn't have left that crowd of surging, swarming, frenzied human bodies if we'd tried. The best we could do was stay afloat and somehow make it to the bull ring, where we, the bull runners, were presumably leading the beasts. The only way to get to safety was to survive this crush of panicked people and make it to the end, so that was my sole mission. To lose one's footing and go down would mean being trampled by the runners. The bulls were the last of our worries at that moment.


In Carpe DiEmily, I describe the scene of running through the tunnel and bursting into the bright, sunny stadium. I literally thought, "I made it. I lived!" That's how frightening that experience was. When people have asked me since if it was scary running with the bulls, I reply, "No. But running with the people was."


Later that evening, we ran into our pena friends. They grabbed each of us and tossed us high into the air for celebration. I wasn't expecting it, and almost defecated in my pants at being hurtled through the air by a group of strangers, drunk teens no less, with the cobblestones swirling below me. This was the second time in the day that I thought I was going to die before I reached my twenty-first birthday and would be able to finally have a legal drink (and after Pamplona, I was going to need one!). Funny, though, the thoughts that actually go through a young person’s mind in slow-motion when she thinks she's going to shatter her noggin like a melon on the foreign streets of Pamplona and never see the world again. The first thought that went through my slow-moving, panicked brain was, "It can't end like this. I haven't had a chance to get back to the States and brag to my friends about running with the bulls!" The second was, "Are my undies showing?" You see, I was wearing a short skirt when those penas tossed my sky-high into the air. I certainly had my priorities in order.

Here is the actual photo of that moment. What you can't see in the photo is my mouth wide-open screaming. Or is it grinning? It’s hard to tell in Pamplona.