Travel Stories

Pamplona! (Part 4): Corrida de Toros (Running the Bulls)

Pamplona

A San Fermín pedimos, por ser nuestro patrón, nos guíe en el encierro, dándonos su bendición,

Translation: To San Fermin we ask to be our patron saint and to guide us in the running of the bulls, giving to us his blessing.  And before the day was out, we needed every blessing we could get!

The Sun Also Rises in Pamplona (I had to work that in).  But 6:00 am came extremely early on the 7th.   I was suddenly awakened by Klaus kicking me in the back and saying RAUS-get up!    I remember thinking, where was I?   As I rolled over and pushed myself off the cold tile floor that was my bed for the night, I thought maybe three days and nights of imbibing, with only about six hours of sleep for the entire trip, was a little more than even this sailor could take.  But fear not–we were going to do this even if it killed us!

With Catherine, our new German friends, and us ragged Americans stumbling out of the hotel into the morning sun, I wondered if I was still drunk or just hungover.  As we shuffled our way down to the stockade, where the bulls were contained, and surely awaiting their chance to gore or trample a tourist or two.  As we walked toward the pens, we noticed the merchants hosing down their curtilage and setting up their bars and stalls for the upcoming onrush of revelers.  Revelers that would definitely be in need of an elixir, or two, when the run was completed.  Either to celebrate or to deaden the pain.

With the sun slowly climbing over the peaks of the Pyrenees, the buildings, and houses casting long shadows down the streets and alleyways of this ancient town, I couldn’t help thinking how exceptional (and a little romantic) it was to be here and to participate in one of the oldest traditions in Spain.  As we worked our way down the path toward the pens, our plan was to get as close to the gates as possible, then when they released the bulls, we would turn on a dime and run back up the path towards the arena-a 902-yard sprint (yes, I worked the distance out).  The run would last only two-to-three minutes, and we would then charge into the arena like world conquerors, where 30,000 screaming fanatics would acknowledge our triumphant arrival… at least that was the plan.

Having forgone a decent meal, or any healthy eating, and partying like rock stars for the last three days, I wasn’t feeling on top of my game, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to let Tony know. So, with a brave face and a queasy stomach, I started walking down the alley to the corral where the bulls were located…and to my impending doom.  As I was still under the influence I needed support, so to steady my gait I followed, er… hung on to Klaus, who had run before and seemed to know what he was doing.

As we continued our walk, I noticed that the barricades that enclosed the running route were getting increasingly populated by tourists and sightseers.  People who wanted to get up close and personal to see us idiots race from the bulls.   And then I heard a faint chant…

San Fermin, San Fermin, San Fermin…

“Klaus,” I said, “what’s going on?”

“Nothing. Follow me Kamper,” was all he would say.

                                                               San Fermin, San Fermin, San Fermin…

I could feel the energy start to build, with the increasing crowds and the chanting growing louder and louder as we got closer and closer to the pens…

San Fermin, San Fermin, San Fermin…!

“Klaus, what’s happening?”

“Follow me Kamper.”

San Fermin, San Fermin, San Fermin…!

By this time, we were coming to the front of the stockade where the snorting bulls were housed. In my stupor, I noticed that the barricades on both sides were packed three deep with people giddy with the anticipation of the commotion that was mere seconds away.

San Fermin San Fermin, San Fermin!!

Then I heard the explosions of fireworks, which were launched to start the race.  Immediately,  the crowd yelled in unison an ear-splitting…

Olé!!!

As the crowd shrieked, I screamed at Klaus,

“What the Fuck is going on?!!”

His comment was priceless…

He turned to me, his eyes as wide as saucers, and uttered his unforgettable response.

“RUN!!!!”

And he was gone!  Running past me like a bat out of hell and leaving his charge standing there stupefied. As I sat there dumbfounded, not able to comprehend what had just happened, I remember looking towards the stockade where the bulls were penned just seconds before. But now the gates had swung wide open, and six bulls were charging out of the gate.  Panic struck:  Coming at me wasn’t any type of cow I had seen in Oregon (and trust me, as a Dairy-heir, I know cows).   As Manfred started charging, I couldn’t help but fixate on this bull’s left foreleg.  A foreleg that rippled with muscles.  Muscles that supported an animal that was bred for nothing but bullfighting!  I felt like a character in a poor Bugs Bunny cartoon (or for you Van Helen groupies – Waldo in “Hot for Teacher”).  As my blood started pooling at my feet, feet that felt like concrete, eyes widen in fear, and ears drooping as the specter of one pissed-off bull overshadowed me.   Then the epiphany hit me…

Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all!

Quickly, I regained some sense of situational awareness, turned, and started running as six of Andalucía’s finest fighting bulls started pursuing me (Andalucía is where fighting bulls are bred and raised, and where they never see humans on foot).

Little known fact: Sperry topsiders are not the best running shoes to wear when sprinting in a panic.

Charging up Santo Domingo Avenue, I passed the Town Hall square like a man possessed.  Rounding Calle de Mercaderes (Dead Man’s Corner), I was intent on dodging other runners and passed a few to ensure that there was at least one body between me and those horns.  As I turned up the Calle de la Estafeta, the longest leg of the course, I was in a dead sprint.  The longest three hundred meters of my life.  This is where the street straightens out, allowing the bulls to gain incredible speed for an animal of their size. It is virtually impossible to outrun the horned beasts on the Estafeta, so you better have your shit together – or a lot of backup plans.

Luckily, we were instructed by our German veterans that the bulls overtake runners who don’t clear the way.  So, if we got into a bind, always veer to the left, as bulls are right-handed.  And if you fall, don’t get up.  The bulls will try to avoid you at all costs, but if you tumble and stand back up, you are nothing but a big juicy target in white. So never, ever, stand back up, just cover your head and wait until all the bulls have passed.

Racing past the telephone exchange building, I saw Mecca, Plaza del Toros (the arena).  However, unbeknownst to me, this is statistically the most dangerous portion of the race as the crowd is forced into a narrow bottleneck called the Callejon (the alley) into the stadium.   And they were right!  The path narrowed.  From approximately the width of a normal city street, down to a passageway to about three people wide running, shoulder-to-shoulder into the bullfighting ring.   It’s also dimly lit, but the sun shining brightly through what looked like a tiny keyhole, the opening that announced the entrance to the arena in front of us – we were so close…

There and then it hit me:  Three days of drinking, little food or sleep, my body was beginning to rebel, and was screaming STOP!

It is fascinating how the physiological and the psychological aspects of a human body can come crashing together to create such conflict and turmoil in oneself when “death is on the line!” (Nod to Princess Bride).   As the rank, perspiring, drunk crowd of bull runners crammed together to squeeze through the alley into the arena, I started getting the spins.  I needed to stop!  I had to expel the toxins that were coursing through my body.  But the crowd was pushing me forward (as well as the fear of being gored by two tons of Big Mac).  So, what to do?

Like I had a vote.

Nature was having none of it. I was beginning to feel that uncomfortable sensation; the sweating, swollen glands and the knowledge that shit is going to happen… SOON!  Yes, the forceful expulsion of any, and all, contents in my stomach.

Now, the basic physiological functions of the human body took charge.  For the medically astute, my stomach was contracting in quick spasmodic respiratory movements with a closed glottis. Unfamiliar with the glottis? It’s the space between vocal cords located in the larynx.

As my glottis closes, the larynx opened the upper esophageal sphincter (gotta love that word).  As my diaphragm contracted and created the negative pressure that opened my esophagus, my abdominal muscles contracted and pressure within the gastric system intensified. This cleared the passage for my stomach’s contents (cervezas and jamón) to be launched through the opened esophagus and out the mouth: like a projectile shot from a cannon.

Yes, I started puking like I was a sailor on liberty call, which I kind of was.  But I could not stop.  Running while retching is a unique experience.  One I really don’t recommend.  I was running as fast as the crowd would let me, with my head down and puking between my legs.  It was splattering against the cobblestones and splashing up all around.  As I continued vomiting and stumbling toward the entrance of the arena in the hope of salvation, I struggle to maintain my balance (while passing “cheer” all around).  Finally,  I broke out into the arena among the roar of the crowd, and immediately split left to create as much space between me and the bulls that were piling into the arena.

I had made it!  I ran the bulls and survived… sort of.  As I stumbled toward the amphitheater’s walls, dry heaving, in an embarrassing example of how not to run with the bulls, I prayed that I could make it to the wall, stop and recover.  And at least appear somewhat human.   As I threw my arms on the arena wall, I bent over, still retching, trying to expel the last of the poisons in my stomach.   At this point, Tony caught up to me and slapped me on the back. Apparently, he was right behind me all along, and was even carrying some of my DNA on his trousers.  In fact, Tony had vomit splattered all the way up to his knees, I was retching that hard.

“Kamper, we did it!”  Tony yelled, as he slapped my back again, unaware of the horrid events of the last minute.  As I turned to look at him as green as Kermit the Frog, all he could do was bust out laughing (great friend, huh?).   As he’s splitting his side laughing at my misfortunes, I couldn’t even form the words to tell him to “fuck off”.    However, just then, looking past Tony’s ugly mug, laughing at my pain, I noticed something a little more dangerous than my failure to keep contents in my stomach.  Past Tony, I saw one bull turn around in the middle of the ring and charge us.

NO! This cannot be happening, I thought to myself.

But it was!

As Tony was hysterically laughing, I looked up, raised my hand, and pointed past him, and mutter something unintelligible.  This caught Tony’s attention as he turned to look where, or what, I was pointing at.   Seeing danger fast approaching, Tony sprang to action (well, as springy as a 200 lb. Italian can be), grabbed me by the shirt and pulled me into burladero, the wooden shield near the wall in a bullring for picadors or matadors to take shelter behind if pursued by a pissed-off bull.

WHAM!!!!

Hello sobriety!

When that bull hit the burladero at about 15 mph there was a hell of a reaction.  And we had a front-row seat!   Just the sound of the noise and the proximity to the bull (about one foot), made me awake and aware, and suddenly I had the power to launch myself over the arena wall and ran up the arena steps where I didn’t stop until the fourth row.

About the Author: James Feldkamp is a retired US Naval Officer, having served as US Naval Flight Officer, Counter-Measures Officer, and Navigator for the Navy’s carrier-based attack aircraft, the EA-6B. In 1991, Jim Feldkamp served and flew off the USS Midway during Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Later affiliated with the U.S. Naval Reserves, Jim served as Special Agent for the FBI in Norfolk, Virginia, where he became founding member of the organization’s Joint Counter Terrorism Task Force. Jim resigned from the FBI in 2004 to run for Oregon’s District 4 Congressional seat. He ran as the Republican nominee for the District 4 seat during the 2004 and 2006 election cycles. Currently, Jim serves as a Subject Matter Expert at Georgetown University, where he is developing a course centered on “Terrorism and Unconventional Threats.” He formerly taught undergraduate courses in domestic and international terrorism as adjunct professor at George Washington University, and George Mason University.

Related posts

Pamplona! (Part 3): Ángel de Pamplona (Angel of Pamplona)

James Feldkamp

Pamplona! (Part 1)

James Feldkamp

Tour Guides And Travel Writers Find Fulfillment Despite The Pandemic

Traveller Hunt

Leave a Comment