Running with the bulls is a man-icon rite of passage -- that begins at the ironing board. Crisp white pants, white shirt and, the ultimate mancation accoutrement, a silky red sash are your essential items for the life defying, chest thumping half-mile dash that define the annual San Fermin festival in Pamplona, Spain. Running for your life in front of a pack of angry, 1,200-pound bulls is just the type of irresponsible, wild, out of control fun essential for a mancation. On his own mancation, writer and real man Ernest Hemingway ran with the bulls. So can you.
Festival San Fermin & the Encierro
The deeply religious festival of San Fermin, in honor of a 3rd-century Christian convert, and the famed Encierro, the running of the bulls, have been held in Pamplona, Spain, since the 1400s. The latter began as a non-religious fair centered on the arrival of cattle merchants in summer. Hurrying their livestock through the streets to market eventually evolved into a competition -- now, what we know as running of the bulls. Each year, from July 6 to July 14, the festival runners gather in the narrow calles (streets). At 8 a.m., with the sounding of a firecracker, 6 bulls and 6 steers are released. A crazed, life-threatening dash of 903 yards ensues through the streets like a river of testosterone.
I’m packed in with other runners. The smell of alcohol emanating from our sweat is enough to light a fire. The first firecracker sounds, prompting bulls to be released from corrals. Runners press closer, and move forward, coiling in anticipation. Eyes widen. I try to find space. It’s already a blur. A second firecracker pops off. We try to spot the bulls coming. When they round the corner, it’s instant chaos. I’m running with hundreds of others up Cuesta de Santo Domingo, stumbling, pushing, shoving. The crowd’s reaction sends fear through me.
I look back -- the bulls are much bigger than I imagined -- and I run faster. I feel a rip of panic as I stumble on a runner’s feet in front of me. My red neckerchief falls off. I try to run next to a bull. The bulls, so close, surge at us. I jump over another runner’s back. The bulls thunder past. The barnyard aroma lingers, as does the thumping in my head from excessive adrenaline. The next moment, though, I feel relief and chase after the bulls with the crowd. I’m much braver now. We go past Dead Man’s Corner, the narrow Calle Estafeta, to the Plaza de Toros. It’s over in 3 minutes, 47 seconds.
After running, about 1 million people party until 6:30 p.m., when bullfighting commences at a nearby bullring with the same bulls that ran that morning. Around 11 p.m., after the bullfights, partying continues through the night until the next running. In between, around midnight, they celebrate your manliness with a huge fireworks display in Pamplona.
Most Spanish festivals feature parading giants. (In Spanish, it’s called gigantes y cabrezudos, or giants and big heads.) Each morning, after the running of the bulls, 8 giant-sized figures, about 13 feet tall, which were constructed by artist Pamplona Tadeo Amorena in 1860, are paraded through town, accompanied by men wearing 3-foot tall big head masks. They all groove to traditional Spanish music called passacaglia. The giants symbolize kings and queens from Africa, Asia, America and Europe.
Man Sports and Midnight Farewell
After the bulls stomp -- and the big heads and giants strut -- head to the Plaza de los Fueros. There, you’ll find a gathering of traditional Basque men who show the world their time-honored hombre sports, such as stone and hay bale hefting, and jai alai, the kind that’s played as a real sport in the open courts of the city. Place a wager or 2 and let the best man win.
Nine days into this non-stop semi-controlled chaos, at midnight on July 14, grab a candle, the final fire of the festival, and light the night with the somber notes of Pobre de Mi, which means “poor me,” the traditional way to end the life-affirming San Fermin festival.
The Spanish have taken religious festivals, deeply rooted in ancient values, and turned them into no-holds-barred celebrations. It’s not so strange to see a man, both fists in the air, howling because life is so damn fun. You may be ready to convert as well, at least during your own hombre-cation.
Writer Ty Sawyer ran with bulls at the age of 16 when he was backpacking through Europe. He ran so fast his red neckerchief fell off.