Who I Became at the Running of the Bulls

In Pamplona, Ella Alexander found an adrenaline rush, an interesting story, and a side of herself she didn’t recognize.

Ella Alexander | Longreads | July 2017 | 16 minutes (3,919 words)

 

I wanted danger. My identity as a liberated woman, or at least an adventurous girl, was inextricably linked to placing myself in the way of unnecessary bodily harm and, though I’d never have admitted to it, my blue U.S. passport seemed like a strong enough shield to stop anything truly bad from happening. So, although I was a demographic outlier — a 19-year-old American girl travelling alone —
my presence in Pamplona made sense, at least in my mind. The running of the bulls presented itself to me as the ideal prepackaged brush with death, with the bonus of a possible existential realization. Knowledge of life and death, the value of every breath, etcetera.

Pamplona was just one in a series of strange places I’d found myself after neglecting to map out my trip any more definitively than a plane ticket from Jerusalem, where I had family, to Rome and another one home from Berlin two months later. I had been making strategically bad decisions all summer, using money my grandfather set aside for education to bankroll a solo-backpacking trip through Europe. Before I left, all my friends were gearing up for art gallery internships or ice cream shop jobs, and a flutter of joy ran through me every time somebody heard my summer plans and asked, “Isn’t that dangerous?” or, “Haven’t you seen Taken?”

I’d reply, “I can’t spend my life worrying about things like that,” or sometimes, “If I die then you’ll have a great story for parties. You can say, ‘I knew this girl who got murdered in Europe.’”

After I ran with the bulls, I spent an afternoon getting drunk at a campsite in the hills, then stumbled back to the tent I was sharing with seven male strangers for a dazed nap. Curled on my side, eyes open, a wave of elation ran through me. When it subsided, I wondered if the man I’d seen hours before, clutching his bleeding stomach in a doorway, was still alive. An Italian I met in Seville told me that only two people had died in the running of the bulls since the 1970s, but when I repeated this statistic waiting for the bus back to the campsite after the running, an Irishman laughed and said, “That’s the big joke! They only count the death if it’s instant. Otherwise when a guy gets gored, these locals rush in and drag him out to a side street. Then if he bleeds out, he didn’t die in the running of the bulls, he just died in Spain.” Later, I learned that neither of these confident speakers had any idea what they were talking about, but in that moment, the statement landed with a thud. My heart was still racing and I had no solid takeaway from the experience except: How is this legal?

The running of the bulls is a tradition central to the Fiesta de San Fermín, a festival held every year in the Spanish region of Navarre from July 6th through the 14th. Though a version of the festival is held in various cities and towns throughout the region, the largest and most famous occurs in the capital city of Pamplona. There is a running every morning, with tourists dominating the first few days, and locals outnumbering them during the last. Participants dress in a standard uniform, creating the visual effect of a strict cult or a casual army: white shirt, white pants, red sash tied around the hips and red handkerchief at the throat. They gather together in a partitioned-off street and wait, jittery, for the third blow of a horn, signaling the release of six irate two-thousand-pound animals, which they then corral into the bullfighting arena at the end of the street. Hordes of locals and tourists peer down from windows and balconies for a three second glimpse of the bulls raging by, cheering and hoping guiltily to see something that will make them go silent.

There was only one reason anyone came to Pamplona that week. We swarmed, a million plus interlopers into a city of two hundred thousand, for the rush.

I lay in the empty tent after the running, unable to sleep.

“Hey, remember me? From last night?”

I rolled over and saw my Australian tent-mate, tall and tan with gym arms and white straight teeth. He and his two smaller, paler friends had wandered into the tent the night before while I was trying to sleep. “It’s a girl!” one of them said, as if we were at the world’s least sanitary baby shower.

“Hey baby, you cold?” he’d asked the night before, talking more to his friends than to me. “How ‘bout I keep you company in there? Help you stay warm?”

“No, I’m okay actually,” I’d said.

“Oh shit, she’s awake,” said the friend. After that, they’d sheepishly climbed into their own sleeping bags.

***

The origins of the festival are unclear. San Fermín himself, the patron saint of Navarre, may or may not have been dragged through the streets by bulls until he died a martyr in the fourth century. Most sources say the Romans just chopped his head off. The festival’s basis might be Catholic, pagan, purely practical — the cows had to be transported through town for sale at the market — or a mixture of all of these factors, blurred together by time. It gained popularity among foreigners with the 1926 publication of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, a novel about drunk and unpleasant expats growing drunker and more unpleasant at the festival.

Nobody I spoke to knew or cared about any of this. While I met some Catholics, they were the relaxed sort, in it because once you’re baptized, you can only ever be a Catholic or a lapsed Catholic, and wholeheartedly lapsing is more effort than it’s worth. That is, none of them had come to venerate any saints. Hemingway was no more popular an inspiration than Fermín. Before the running, I nervously confessed to a nearby American that I’d never read any Hemingway, but he only caught the last word of my sentence, and gave me directions to the Hemingway Pub a few blocks away. There was only one reason anyone came to Pamplona that week. We swarmed, a million plus interlopers into a city of two hundred thousand, for the rush.

***

“Yeah, I remember you.” I told Gym Arms.

“I was being cheeky with you last night.”

Unable to think up an appropriately blasé response, I just laughed.

“Are you mad at me?” he plied.

“No, I’m not mad! I can take a joke.”

I sat up and he filled the void at the bottom of my mattress pad. My head spun.

“How come you left?”

“I’m tired. That was — I mean, that was just crazy.”

“Adrenaline, nothing like it.” He put his arm around my waist, pulling me down until we were lying side by side. Breathing in through my nose, I could smell both of our bodies.

At this point, I had to make a choice. The Australian’s personality left something to be desired, and I felt exhausted and unclean, but I was drunk on sangria and endorphins, and he had pretty green eyes and an accent and besides, wouldn’t it make a good story? Before I could come to a decision, his mouth was on mine. I kissed back then pulled away.

I chose my campsite based solely on price, even opting out of the girls-only tent to save ten euros, fully aware that choosing ‘mixed gender’ accommodations usually meant a sleepover with a loud and almost naked basketball team or bachelor party.

“What if the other guys walk in?”

“That’s the fun part, isn’t it then?”

“I just, like, I don’t know, you know?”

“Have you ever done this before?” He grinned, relaxing into the mystery-stained mattress pad like a lethargic zoo lion.

I first heard about the running of the bulls from an Italian architecture student on a candlelit patio in Seville. For the sake of journalistic integrity I’ll add that it wasn’t a date and we were sitting at a table outside a tourist trap serving tapas with a sunburned German and an Emirati skydiving instructor in training. Still, the scene he set — noise so loud the ear mistook it for silence, thousands of people all dressed the same, all feeling the same indescribable thrill — gripped me.

The German chimed in, “That’s crazy. I’d never risk my life over something so stupid.”

The Italian shook his head. “But that’s the whole point, man. It’s the rush. It’s triumph in the face of death.”

“I understand. Skydiving is similar, the impulse,” said the Emirati.

As they discussed, I bought a train ticket to Pamplona on my phone.

During festival week, the relatively small city of Pamplona is flooded with five times as many tourists as it has year-round inhabitants. The wealthy and well-prepared book hotel rooms. The rest of us camp in the surrounding hills. Though later in my travels I was to sleep in a bush outside a French tenement and wake up covered in slugs, I felt at this point that it would be more practical to pay for a structured experience than brave the night alone with my jacket bunched up into a makeshift pillow.

I chose my campsite based solely on price, even opting out of the girls-only tent to save ten euros, fully aware that choosing ‘mixed gender’ accommodations usually meant a sleepover with a loud and almost naked basketball team or bachelor party. Any woman who’s gone backpacking is familiar with the girls-only room rape prevention tax. The cost adds up, so I decided to take my chances with the guys this time. The travel company promised a tent, a sleeping bag, and a bus ride to and from the running, plus unlimited beer and sangria for a small additional fee that, unlike the rape prevention tax, I did pay.

The morning I ran with the bulls, I woke up with the sunrise. I stepped around the sleeping men in the tent to brush my teeth and change into my white and red outfit in a three-stall port-a-potty. Deodorant was a Band-Aid on a bullet wound — when I finally found a shower two days later in San Sebastian, what I’d mistaken for a tan turned out to be an insistent film of dirt — but still I slathered it on. I’d run out of clean underwear so I turned the previous day’s pair inside out and sprayed floral perfume on my neck, my wrists, and the backs of my knees. There was nothing more to be done.

The campsite was eerie in the early morning, littered with crushed beer cans and trampled red sashes, silent except for the wind hitting the tents. I walked down to the parking lot. The bus driver leaned against his bus, smoking a cigarette. “You’re twenty minutes early.”

“Really? Damn.” I already knew this, but had nowhere better to stand than by the bus. I drew crescents in the dirt with my Dr. Martens and wove my earbuds into a braid then unwove them on repeat.

“Nervous?” the driver asked, laughing.

“A bit.”

“Boyfriend drag you into this?”

“No, I’m just stupid.”

***

The Fiesta de San Fermín is, by design and in effect, male-dominated. Its central symbol, the bull, has been associated with strength and virility since the days of ancient myth — Gilgamesh slays the Bull of Heaven sent down by a scorned goddess to punish him; Zeus takes the form of a bull to trick and abduct the beautiful Europa. Risk-taking behavior, such as placing oneself in an enclosed area with an angry bull, is associated with testosterone, a chemical that adult men produce seven to eight times more of than women do. Hemingway, whose writing brought crowds of Americans to the festival, was notoriously hyper-masculine, both in lifestyle and prose. Women were not allowed to run with the bulls until 1974.


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This androcentricity is not inherently harmful, but at the Fiesta de San Fermín, misogyny and violence are its ever-present companions. Fueled by beer, adrenaline, and the particular license one feels to behave badly in a crowd, the festival has an assault problem. It has a rape problem. There are no reliable statistics regarding rates of verbal harassment and groping, as such occurrences have long been considered a harmless inevitability of the festival and are rarely reported.

With the dismissal of these lesser incidents comes the normalization of more brutal cases of sexual violence. On the first morning of the festival in 2008, 20-year-old Nagore Laffage was killed by a man with whom she refused to have sex. In 2015, five men filmed themselves gang raping a 19-year-old British girl in a Pamplona bar bathroom, drawing international ridicule towards the festival. In the video, they can be heard laughing.

Dumb luck clung to me like a wet T-shirt that summer, and the darker side of the festival manifested itself to me in relatively tame ways. As I stood in the arena after the run, two men in the stands took photos of me. Instead of feigning innocence when I noticed them, they motioned for me to smile. I complied. This was flattering, I reasoned, in a don’t-be-so-uptight-they-do-things-differently-in-Europe way. Maybe they just liked my energy. Later, a New Zealander asked me if I’d worn such sheer pants on purpose, because he could see the neon lace underneath. They had not just liked my energy.

Other incidents were equally unremarkable. A boy from Boston was a little too handsy retying my sash into a slipknot. A man looked me up and down twice then asked, “Really? You?” Some standard fare groping in the crowd. Wolf whistles. Sexist jokes. Nothing genuinely frightening occurred, and I prided myself on my ability to repress feelings of violation and disgust. To relax.

I did not feel attacked so much as complicit. I was Gillian Flynn’s infamous “Cool Girl.” Congratulate me for running, “even though it must have been really scary,” and I’ll smile and thank you. Grab another beer from the cooler, shove it in my hand, and I’ll act like you did me a favor. Point out two girls, ask me who’s hotter, and I’ll shrug and weasel out with, “I don’t know; they’re both gorgeous!” I’ll play exhibit A as you shame your frightened friend, “You gotta run tomorrow bro. Look, even she did it.” I’ll pretend not to notice your hand on my knee. I’ll smile for the photographs you never asked to take.

There was the additional complication that I hadn’t eaten meat in a decade and couldn’t justify the cruelty of the festival to myself. Sure, it was tradition, but it wasn’t my tradition. The best excuse I could conjure up to salvage my identity as an animal lover and generally empathetic person in the wake of my participation in an event that centered around taunting and terrifying animals, was that almost every act was a morally ambiguous one; existing in grey areas was part of the human condition.

Anytime somebody brings up ‘the human condition’ with that particularly nauseating flavor of fatalism, you know her reasoning is a rationalization.

Fueled by beer, adrenaline, and the particular license one feels to behave badly in a crowd, the festival has an assault problem. It has a rape problem.

At least, I told myself, I didn’t go to the bullfight. The bullfight was a nightly event where we could watch matadors kill the animals we’d been close enough to touch in the morning. In my journal, I wrote, “Not sure why they call it a bullfight. It’s not a real fight if the man always wins.” (Notably, the day I wrote this, 29 year-old Victor Barrio was killed in an arena in Teruel, marking the first time a human had died in a professional bullfight in Spain since 1985.) The bullfights were acknowledged around the camp to be a disturbing sight, although some Texans explained that it was okay because, “this way, the bull dies with honor.” I almost started an argument with them about the nature of animal consciousness but I stopped myself and they taught me how to shotgun a beer.

***

Gym Arms brushed a shampoo-starved strand of hair from my forehead and laughed at me. I was sick of getting laughed at.

“How old are you?” he asked.

“Nineteen.”

“Oh.”

“What?” I hadn’t expected this to be an issue.

“I’m 24.”

“Well, that’s not weird,” I said. “That’s five years.”

“I just don’t want to be your first. I don’t want to be that guy.”

“I’ve had sex before.”

“I mean your first travel hook-up. We’ll never see each other again and if you’ve never done this before, I don’t want to be the first. I don’t want to be that guy.”

“You’re not the first,” I lied. “I’ve done this before.”

“How many times?”

“Like, once.”

“Well, you’re 19 and I don’t want to be the second.”

“Okay.”

“I don’t want to be that guy.”

“Okay.”

“I wouldn’t feel right.”

He put his hand on my shoulder and began to move it in slow circles. Then I understood. He wanted me to absolve him. To pretend that he was doing something other than following a drunk 19-year-old back to an empty tent. I would have gone through with it if he hadn’t asked this of me, and I wouldn’t have considered it a grave mistake, or considered it much at all. But his angling angered me. It wasn’t a question of consent. He wasn’t trying to ask, “Is this okay?” Instead, he wanted to know, “Am I okay?” I couldn’t assure him that he wasn’t that guy. He was that guy. Something in my spinning, guilty, endorphin-flooded brain refused to let him out of the ambiguity of the situation, couldn’t bear the thought of him leaving Pamplona with an easy smile, having had nothing more complicated than a fun time with nice people. Nobody escapes the grey areas. That’s the human condition.

“I’m going to sleep actually,” I said.

“What?” he asked. “Why?”

“I’m drunk.”

“You’re not that drunk. I saw you. You didn’t drink that much.”

“I can’t drink that much. Anyways, I’m tired.” I turned away from him.

“I’m more drunk than you, actually,” he said. “Drunk enough to make bad decisions.”

“I’m going to sleep.”

I inched away and Gym Arms tightened his grip on my shoulder.

“Don’t,” I said.

He released his hand and tried one last, “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong. I’m just super exhausted.”

His mouth disfigured itself with disappointment. I closed my eyes.

“Good night then.” With that, he left me alone with my mixed feelings.

***

In the morning, I stood crowded along the partitioned-off street with thousands of identically dressed strangers, waiting for the horn to blow. The blended scent of urine, beer, and fried food rose up from the ground, but it was remarkably free of trash, freshly swept to avoid any tripping during the run. All the shop doors were shut. The sea of white and red fabric left me dizzy but the only other visual left to focus on was the array of faces around me, whose failed attempts at hiding fear behind teeth-bearing smiles lent them a resemblance to a Halloween pop-up shop filled with rubber masks, or a taxidermy museum. When I made the mistake of looking up, the bloodthirsty balcony spectators looked even more cartoonishly sinister.

At least, I told myself, I didn’t go to the bullfight. The bullfight was a nightly event where we could watch matadors kill the animals we’d been close enough to touch in the morning.

“Scared?” asked a man I’d met on the camp bus.

“It’s a little overwhelming.” He couldn’t hear me in the crowd, and he motioned for me to speak louder.

“YES.”

“You look scared.”

Though the crowd was nervous, the event itself was alarmingly relaxed. The official rules of the running of the bulls, listed on its website, forbid drunkenness, the participation of minors, and, “wearing clothes or footwear deemed unsuitable for the race.” When I arrived, men about to run were holding beers, even bottles of whiskey. Boys who looked 16 or younger were milling about, and a man from a neighboring town told me he had run every year since he was 15. I was wearing my old Dr. Martens, rubber soles worn down so as to slide across the cobblestones, and suffered no penalty more severe than light teasing. A collective energy of giddiness arose as we laughed and mingled.

The first horn sounded and a man pushed through the crowd to get out. The police wouldn’t let him cross the barriers. After the horn, we weren’t allowed out. This was a rule they did enforce.

The second horn blew. Tension was now palpable. Feet tapped, heads swiveled in a desperate search for reassurance, laughter turned nervous. The third horn took an eternity. I bit my fingernails into stumps and pictured my acquaintances from college, standing around at dorm parties, saying quietly, gleefully, “I knew this girl who died in the running of the bulls.”

The third horn. A second of pure silence. And we ran. A deafening rumble came up from behind and the crowd parted like the Red Sea. The street shook with the power of the bulls. As they passed, I was struck by the immensity of them, each one weighing over a ton, built of muscle piled upon muscle. I had never been so close to anything so physically powerful. Exactly as the Italian had promised, the rush flowed through me, left me weightless to fly above my conscious mind. I felt the bulls and the people as a single drumbeat of energy, and I remembered I that was an animal and I remembered that I was alive. I did not think about grey areas.

Like most of the events that can properly be called events, isolated and singular, the running of the bulls has achieved the status of personal mythology for me: a neatly contained experience that relates to my everyday life only so far as it can be used to perform my identity. I ran with the bulls not least so I could say that I had run with the bulls. The artifacts that remain are paltry when disconnected from the narrative I’ve built around them: a frenzied journal entry riddled with spelling errors, a foam beer cozy with a man getting gored by a bull printed across it — a gift from the drunk Scottish man at the campsite check-in desk — a pair of too-sheer white pants crumpled in the back of a drawer in my parents’ house, and a red sash I’m saving in case the skinny scarves of the early 2000s ever come back into style.

I was alone in a foreign country. Untethered. There were no witnesses from my life to stop me from shaping this experience into the one I wanted: an adventure, the discovery that I was tougher and braver than I thought I was, the feeling of pure ecstasy usually reserved for religious fanatics and drug addicts.

But that story wouldn’t be true, or at least it wouldn’t be the whole truth. I did find the feeling I was looking for, and I did discover I was tougher and braver than I thought I was, but I also discovered a flexibility of dignity, a willingness to comply with those looking to treat me as other and lesser.

Last summer, I would have vehemently denied that I was travelling for any other reason than to gather interesting stories. I hated (and still hate) the idea of ‘finding yourself’ abroad. What does that even mean? The phrase conjures up an image of privileged millennials prancing around developing nations, taking selfies with orphans and whining about spotty cell reception then coming home to spout platitudes about living simply for the next six months until they forget about the entire affair. But when plucked so abruptly from my everyday life and plopped down in a sea of strangers speaking strange languages, I inevitably started to think about what exactly I was trying to do, how I fit into the world, and who I was. And I didn’t like everything I found.

* * *

Ella Alexander is a student and writer living in New York.