5:30 a.m.: Oneika’s alarm bellows, dragging me from the darkness. Allowing my foggy mind to waken, I lay inert for a moment to process the reason for such an early wake up call. Today, we run with the bulls.
6:00 a.m.: The girls and I start to dress. The four of us slide on our white pants, lace up our runners, and tie red sashes around our waists. I tie my red bandana firmly against my throat. The day before a Japanese tourist was dragged by a bull when his bandana was snagged by its horn. I turn to the girls and say, “Tie up everything tight. No loose shoelaces, sashes, or bandanas.” Why do I feel the need to pretend to be brave and play mother hen? Deep down, I’m not positive of anything.
6:10 a.m.: The girls and I continue the conversation we’ve been having for days: where is it best to run? We’ve received many recommendations. The top of Estafeta. Fifty meters down Estefata. Telefonica, near the bullring. We agree that the last place we want to end up is the bullring. There’s a waft of fear about human pileups. Nicole B. jokes that she fears other runners more than the bulls. A consensus is reached. We’ll go fifty meters down Estafeta, stick to the right-hand side, and try not to leap toward a bull. Secretly, I want to touch one.
6:14 a.m.: Nicole B. vocalizes her nervousness. She says she’s always like this. I tell her that if she doesn’t want to run, she shouldn’t. It’s an individual decision. I feel the pressure though. This was my idea and backing out isn’t an option.
6:21 a.m.: Oneika reconfirms our plans. She’s been an interesting force during this trip. As we watched the bulls run on television the day before, Oneika squealed with unchecked enthusiasm. This morning she seems more sober. “Stick to the right, yes?” she asks. “Let’s not get near the bulls.” I realize she’s adventurous, but intelligent about it. I long to be like her instead of just grossly impulsive.
6:30 a.m.: In San Fermin colors, we leave our flat to meet with a fellow runner, Jarmo Jarvi. We head down a ramp close to where the bulls are housed before the run and stand near the old city wall. A statue of San Fermin has been placed in a cubbyhole and sealed off by glass. This is where corredors sing to the divine and pray for a successful run. Daylight is beginning to trickle in. Mornings in Pamplona are chilly, yet I feel a furnace in my belly. Am I losing or gaining courage?
6:45 a.m.: Serious runners are starting to gather. The nerves among our group are beginning to swell. Oneika and Nicole B. break into hip-hop and pop songs to slice the tension. I join in. Nicole S. doesn’t display signs of cold feet. She laughs at our silliness.
7:00 a.m.: We meet a reporter and cameraman from Cuatro TV. Beatriz, the reporter, spots us easily. The proportion of female corredors is dismally low. The cameraman tells us he’s run before and asks where we plan to start. He says starting on Estafeta is unwise. It’s narrow and there are no barricade openings for us to slip through. We glance at each other nervously. He offers to show us what might be safer. At Telefonica, he says, there’s a curve. After that, it’s a straight run towards Plaza del Toros, the bullring. He leads us down Mercaderes, turns onto Estafeta, and inches closer to Telefonica. We weave through partiers, runners, and watchers. I glance up at the balconies and wonder if they pity me – or if they watch in awe.
7:12 a.m.: The cameraman engages with la policía before we make it to Telefonica. Words are exchanged, and so is an understanding. He says we can’t linger here, or we’ll be shuffled off as spectators. An unease rumbles throughout the group. Do we stick to Estafeta, where any of us could become a target without escape? We begin to make our way back to the beginning of the run. I can tell Nicole B. isn’t comfortable with changing strategy midstream.
7:19 a.m.: We wait in the bosom of the crowd of runners. Male pheromones surround us. The reality is hitting me now, so I imagine how I’m going to run. Elbows out, nimble on my feet. Veterans say this is the worst part of el encierro. Beatriz reappears and interviews us in the throng of testosterone. Word spreads through Pamplona, and we become known as the four chicas – the female runners who are challenging the bulls.
7:25 a.m.: In the crowd, I talk to a small Colombian man who says he doubts he will run. Why he hasn’t left the street yet is beyond me. A tall, muscular man pushes toward me. The look on his face is pure fright. He bows out of the run. My limbs are rigid, and my head is on fire. An audible quake shakes me. It is the chant of the corredor. I join in and begin to feel looser. We are all in this fate together. Whatever happens next, we accept.
7:45 a.m.: The mass of bodies begins to move, and we move with them. I’m worried we won’t make it to the spot we want in time. Our trotting turns into a light jog as we weave down Estafeta toward the corner of Telefonica.
7:51 a.m.: A bit breathless, we make it. I’m now fully awake to this. I feel the pulse of the crowd. I hear the screams of people trying to psych themselves up. Behind me are five young women clutching a doorway. I turn to one and yelp, “Girl power!” We all high five each other.
7:53 a.m.: Police comb the crowds, removing anyone they deem unsuitable to run. With the cobwebs cleared, we are left with a collective jangle of hopes and fears. It’s almost on and I can’t escape now.
8:00 a.m.: A rocket goes off and the mass of runners stirs. People start jumping up and down, trying to see down the street. One of the girls shouts, “What do we do? Start running?” I tell her to hold steady. I haven’t heard the second rocket. People start to rush forward, but I yell, “Wait until you see horns!”
8:01 a.m.: We see horns. I scream, “Run!” And we do. Adrenaline rips through me. All I can make out are hides of animals, blending together in shades of brown and tan. Horns swerve in lightening motion. I expect the slippery cobblestones to conspire against me, but by some miracle, I stay upright. Men and women zoom past me, elbowing me and pushing my shoulders from behind. I steel myself against them. Shouts are popping my eardrums. I swivel my head and see a tan bull shaking the earth beside me. If I angle to the right just a bit I can touch his smooth, furry skin. I’m amazed that in all the chaos I can freeze this moment in my mind. Then it’s gone and so is he.
8:02 a.m.: All I can focus on are flashes of other runners. White and red sensory overload. I see Jarmo and Nicole S. in front of me. I know Nicole B. is behind me, but I keep running. A couple is sprawled on the cobblestones ahead, but instead of tumbling with them, I jump over them. This is where my nerve fails. I spot an open barricade through which I can dive, but I don’t. I cling to my adrenaline like a strung out junkie.
8:03 a.m.: My body moves more lithely than I’d imagined. I shout at Jarmo to keep going. I see the tunnel for Plaza del Toros and realize I’m headed for the bullring, which is precisely where I don’t want to go. There is a human pileup at the entrance. I screech to a halt, unsure what to do. There are more bulls coming, and if I don’t move, things could turn bad. Before I can react, the pile of people disentangle themselves and clear the path. I shoot past them into the bullring, gasping for air. A Spanish man grabs me and plants a sloppy kiss on my eye. He exhales all the air from his lungs and laughs wildly. He’s ecstatic to be alive. I notice for the first time that I’m also intact. I made it.
8:04 a.m.: I notice the atmosphere in the ring. The stands are overflowing. The bystanders are roaring. Some runners have hopped up onto the barriers,where they can avoid humans and bulls. Others are sitting in the stands. Flashbulbs are bursting as photographers capture the pandemonium. I find Jarmo and Nicole S. Jarmo and I embrace. His lip is slightly bleeding. We’re both sweaty, out of breath, and talking excitedly. Nicole B. flies in finally. As she hugs us, a flock of people surge into the ring. The last bull has arrived.
8:06 a.m.: We find Oneika in the stands. She had dived through a barricade after an elbow landed in her eye.
8:07 a.m.: I’m tingly, and playful like a child. When they release the cows into the ring, I leap in and start dancing. Runners with cojones do leaps over the cows. The runners congratulate each other with a handshake or a slap on the back. A woman calls to me, “I’ve been watching you. You are brave!” She anoints me with a high five.
Conclusion: So, we did it. And survived. Would I run again? For some loco reason, I’m game to try.
Jeannie Mark officially quit her life in 2010 to pursue her dream of world exploration. You can find more about her run with the bulls on her blog, Nomadic Chick, and the website Girls Running With Bulls.
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