My knees won’t stop shaking. Short gulps of air enter my lungs at far too fast a pace.
“I’m not going to faint,” I chant to myself with eyes glued to the second hand as it counts down the last 5 minutes.
In 5 minutes time the rocket will be launched and 8 bulls each weighing up to 625 kg or so will come pounding down the narrow cobbled alleyways chasing the very foolish. Horns deadly sharp and all too eager to gore and hooves slipping and sliding as these huge creatures desperately fight gravity to stay upright, creating an avalanche of chaotic flesh that threatens to overwhelm and destroy everything that gets in its path. At the tender young age of twenty, I’m sure I’m about to have my first heart attack.
Who knows what state Ben is in because in just under 3 minutes he will be running for his life. I’m waiting somewhat anxiously with the other girlfriends at the finish line, trying to keep positive, though our smiles are strained. I’d had 4 months and 16 days to convince my boyfriend not to run but had been unsuccessful. We’d already walked the track that morning in the pre dawn dark, where people were still partying, drinking, peeing against walls and trying to stay out of the way of the cleaning crew as they literally blew away the last few hours of rubbish. Wooden fences marked the track and I saw Ben eyeing them, contemplating how high they actually were and if he could jump them if he had too.
At 6am we staked our seats for one of the biggest, craziest events ever. Now the sun is only just beginning to rise over the walls of the stadium, and I’m wishing furiously that I’d brought a heavy jacket as I can’t stop shuddering. We are right at the edge of the large bull ring with nothing between us other than two, far too short, walls that we’d been assured would “usually” keep the bulls from us and the other blood thirsty spectators.
San Fermin, better known as ‘The Running of the Bulls’ (though I specifically ordered my boyfriend to run FROM them), began on the 6th of July in the somewhat small town of Pamplona and it’s now day 2. The first bull run for the festival is about to commence. I’m worried I’m going to shake myself apart.
Yesterday at the opening ceremony our tour group rocked up to Pamplona from San Sebastian at the not so early hour of 9am dressed in our bright white t-shirts with “RUN” printed on the back and red neck scarves tied around our wrists. Already the drinking had begun with bottles of deep maroon sangria and bubbly pale gold champagne being sold by the gallon.
By 9:30 we’d bought our own and were pushing our way through the crowds of white and red revellers to the Town Hall where those who’d been drinking since dawn (or so I suspected) were trying to start their own mosh pit. Our tour group splintered and my boyfriend and I had found ourselves with our room mates (a New Zealand couple) at the rear of the plaza where it was least crowded, waiting for noon when the festival officially commenced with a bang. Photographers wedged themselves behind statues half way up the side of multi-storey buildings, gear wrapped in plastic yet not immune to the shaken champagne bottles.
By 10am our white shirts were speckled with purple and pale yellow (and orange if you were unlucky enough to meet the youths with the mustard which stank to high heaven!) and quickly we’d looked like hippy throw backs with sangria tie-dye that would take days of me washing them in the shower for them to look less radioactive. Every few minutes everyone, foreigners and locals alike, would break out in a celebratory song of “Ole! Ole! Ole! Ole!” and we’d scream along with them, hair stiff with sangria, adding a protective layer to our skulls as massive blown up balls surfed the crowd. It was exciting, thrilling, breathtaking.
By 11:30 I was scared for my life. The Town Hall Square was the place to be at midday so, despite there being a couple hundred people already squeezed into a mouse hole, another 200 wanted in no matter the cost. It was like being caught in a rip and being pulled by massive waves as you fought to stay upright. My sunglasses in my pocket were crushed and twisted and against my chest I clutch our disposable camera with one hand. Broken bottles crunched under my thankfully well clad feet as I wiped champagne from my eyes and clutched onto Ben and the poor girl whose own boyfriend had long been swept away. I remembered shouting yet I couldn’t hear myself over the roar of voices. Time slowed as I’d struggled to breathe and keep my iron tight grip on my lifeline. At times my feet didn’t even touch the ground. I’d never been so terrified.
Scratch that, now I’ve never been so terrified. The stories of deaths and impalings we’d morbidly been fascinated with before we’d arrived in Spain have become very real and gut wrenchingly horrifying. I’m imaging all the horrible things that could possibly happen to Ben. Crushed at Dead Man’s Corner, gorged, trampled, attacked by another runner or…the first rocket goes off, startling me from my downward spiralling thoughts and my heart stops. The second rocket is launched. The bulls have left the pen. People are cheering. I’m screaming too. We’re on our feet. 4 minutes and 20 seconds later my heart begins to beat again.
Written by Ferne Merrylees