Running the bulls in Pamplona

On 7 July 2013 I went into the streets for the encierro, ‘running of the bulls’ in Pamplona. Here is what it felt like:

The bulls that day (Photo courtesy of

The bulls that day (Photo courtesy of

This year marked my third attendance at the fiesta of San Fermín, a celebration held each July in the capital of Navarre.

I say attendance because, until now, it felt as if I was present but not fully partaking.

Pamplona in July is an assault to the senses. As you arrive, an explosion of colours, noises and smells (not all of them good) rise up from the streets and slap you in the face. This heady mix took me in from the start.

Then, I was taken in by the people. From all walks of life, young and old…here you will find men and women in their eighties, walking alongside small children. All are dressed in the requisite red and white, the uniform of fiesta.

And everywhere you turn, a sense of joy and unity is almost tangible. Many drinks are consumed, but I have yet to witness a physical fight between humans.

The bulls may be the answer. Every morning at 8am, the rockets sound and the great beasts are let loose down the run that winds its way through the town and ends at the bullring.

Those men and women brave enough to be penned into this ‘pena de muerte’ are applauded and gawked at by onlookers from the balconies and television screens.

Xander running between two bulls in 2011 (Photo courtesy of Photo Auma)

Xander between two bulls in 2011 (Photo courtesy of Photo Auma)

In my first few years, I stood on those balconies and looked down in awe. It might look as if they are all mad. I saw much more. For whatever reason you may have for running, there is a grand reward waiting for most who come out unscathed…life, a different perspective, a greater appreciation for the air you suck in. I say this, yet every person on that run has a different reason for being there. Some are daredevils, some are perhaps just mad (or still drunk), have something to prove and others may harbour darker secrets. I was transfixed.

Me and the greatest American bull-runner, Joe Distler (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

Me and the great American bull-runner, Joe Distler (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

Throughout the days, I met people from all walks of life. There was much exaggeration and back-slapping at the breakfasts, lunches, drinks, dinners. I was wrapped up in every second, yet felt I hadn’t earned my place there. Not content to simply smile and nod at their descriptions, I had an itch to take part. This itch became unbearable by this July in 2013. I had my mind set. I chose to enter the encierro and no amount of fear could hold me back.

The streets had an eerie feel to them as I stepped out of the hotel on Sunday morning. It would be enough to just get into the streets immediately, but there is a wait for up to forty minutes before the bulls come. I have never felt more claustrophobic. Bodies closed in on me from all sides; I felt I would be crushed to death before I got to see a bull go by. Then, release came. The police gave the ok and we made our way to our chosen places, to wait.

For a second, I thought it was all a big mistake. As I stood in anticipation, my senses heightened as they had rarely done before. My breath quickened and the full reality of what this was hit me. The rocket sounded and my heart wanted to jump out of me. I counted the beats in my ears. Then, I saw them… They charged by at a great speed and were gone.

Larry Belcher (Photo: Antalya Nall-Cain)

Larry Belcher (Photo: Antalya Nall-Cain)

I walked up the street to Bar Txoco with Xander* and Larry Belcher, an extraordinarily experienced runner, former rodeo rider, and one of the biggest characters I’ve met. He was smiling from ear to ear and asked me how it was, if it was worth it. My hands would not stop shaking, was all I could say. My steps were light and I knew that nature had spared me. Nature is a great force and I believe we shouldn’t mess with it much. However, I could see why there are many who are called by it. It is a defiance of death and celebration of being alive.

Would I do it again? Not likely, but perhaps. I can now say that I have fully taken part in the great fiesta. The bulls, the people and the place shook me to my very roots and gave me more than they took.

As I left Navarre, I was not sure it had happened at all.

It’s like that every year.

Copyright Antalya Nall-Cain 16 July 2013

*My boyfriend Alexander Fiske-Harrison, author of Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight – his blog is here – and with whom I was staying in Pamplona along with his father Clive.

Clive Fiske Harrison, the Australian journalist, Matthew Clayfield, and me, Pamplona 2013 (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

Clive, Matthew Clayfield, a writer from Australia, and me in Pamplona, 2013 (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)


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