To a man of spirit, cowardice and disaster coming together are far more bitter than death striking him unperceived at a time when he is full of courage and animated by the general hope.
--Pericles, Funeral Oration to the Athenian People during the Peloponnesian War
It’s six a.m. in Pamplona, the sky is turning from navy to pale blue with the approaching dawn, and the streets are already packed. In reality, many of the people who line the cobbled lanes of the old town have not been to bed yet. They’ve spent all night in the bars, clubs, and culinary societies of this ancient Roman city celebrating one of the patron saints of the region of Navarra, San Fermín.
Every year, roughly a million people flock to Iruña, as Pamplona is called in the native Basque language, for the festival of San Fermín, or Sanfermines. They join the native Navarros in an epic bacchanal that has taken place annually since 1591. The party kicked off yesterday at noon with the echoing explosion of a rocket and will continue, almost uninterrupted, for eight days and nights.
As the crowd gathers, I find myself standing beside Juan Jose Iturmende, a 65-year-old Navarro, born and bred in Pamplona but currently living in France. He returns every year to enjoy the festival. The men gathering at the start of the run, on the hill of Santo Domingo, are mostly younger than him, the majority between 20 to 40 years old. They each carry a copy of the local paper, the Diaro de Navarra, as a matter of tradition and as a last resort, explains Iturmende. “They fold it like an accordion and toss it behind them to distract the bull if they think they might get gored. It probably doesn’t do much good, but it’s a mental thing.”
Iturmende used to run, he says, but now he is too old, has one bad Achilles tendon, and no longer has the mindset to be able to do it. “Once you stop,” he says, with a certain wistfulness “it’s difficult to go back.”
He points out the older runners as they go by and greets them with hearty waves. They are men in their 50s and 60s, fitter and trimmer than most of the young Americans, Australians, and Englishmen that pack the streets. They stand tall and saunter toward the starting line, noticably relaxed beside the skittish youngsters. Many of them run every morning of the festival and have done so every year since they were teenagers.
“Why do they keep running?” I ask.
“I don’t know. Either you have it in here,” he says, pointing to his heart, “Or you don’t. Eighty percent of the guys on the street are irrelevant. They don’t feel it, they don’t live it. Most of them don’t even run in front of the bulls, they just stand to the side and watch the bulls pass.”
The men gather below the small statue of San Fermín set into a recess of the stone wall that borders one side of the street. At five till eight, they raise their papers in the air and sing:
A San Fermín pedimos por ser nuestro Patrón nos guíe en en encierro dándonos su bendición.Which means, we ask San Fermín, because he’s our patron saint to guide us in the encierro giving us his blessing.
Iturmende sings with them and as parts of the group break off to take up positions further down the street, he shouts encouragement. “Come on boys! Don’t get nervous now!”
The men sing their song two more times, then the clock strikes eight, another rocket explodes in the sky and Pamplona is quiet, except for the sound of approaching hooves. The bulls appear at the bottom of the 20 percent sprints down the street until a bull’s horn tickles the back of their red neckererchief and they are forced to dive to the side in order to avoid certain goring.
The bulls pass us in a matter of seconds, rush through the Plaza Consistorial, and hang a hard right at the Curve of Estafeta where the street is covered with an anti-slip chemical to keep bulls and runners from sliding out, as they often did before 2005. From there, it’s an all out sprint up Estafeta Street, an easy left on the Telephone Curve and down into the bull ring. Among the hundreds of people in the street, maybe 30 actually put themselves in front of the bulls.
And when they do, everyone from children peering through the bottoms of the wooden fences to the people drinking mimosas in balconies high over head seem to catch their breaths. Split seconds freeze in time as the impossibly sharp horns, unrestrained by such things as referees and penalties look sure to snag their quarry. In these moments, when death and happiness go hand in hand,* each runner realizes a certain larger than life glory that, in our age of professional athleticism, is otherwise unobtainable to the common man or woman. Then they dive to the cobble stones, or recede back into the crowd and become indistinguishable from their fellow runners. It is all over in 2 minutes and 23 seconds, pretty fast as these things go.
When I turn to Iturmende there are tears rolling down his cheeks. “I want to be out there,” he says his voice cracking. “I want to be out there running, but I can’t, I can’t...”
Either you have it in you or you don’t. And if you did at one time, if you really had it, but now have lost it, well, that’s a hard thing to let go.
*ibid, Thucydides, Pericles’ Funeral Oration