Writer Tetsuhiko Endo is reporting from Pamplona, Spain, where the running of the bulls continues until Wednesday.
Anyone can run with the bulls during the festival of San Fermín in Pamplona, Spain. Show up at 7:00 a.m. with a pair of running shoes and you can put yourself in front of a couple of tons of bovine fury. But there is running, and then there is running. The former is practiced by hoards of young men who come from all over the world to enjoy this unparalleled street party. They watch the bulls approach, move out of the way, then brag to their friends later. There is risk involved, but it is similar to standing close to a passing train.
There is, however, a group of men mostly composed of native pamplonans who, over the years, have gained fame as knowledgeable and fearless runners elevating the tradition of bull running from street spectacle to craft. They run every day of the festival, every year. In an event that is increasingly packed with neophytes, they help maintain order in the most chaotic of situations. Locally, they are known as los Divinos, “the Divine.”
Jesús Izcue is one of los Divinos. He has run from the bulls every year for the last 20 and has does not plan on stopping any time soon. I tracked him down, through friends, on the Calle Mayor of the old town of Pamplona, where he was taking part in the parade of the giants–massive wood and papermache effigies representing a king and a queen from almost every continent that men place on their shoulders and parade through the streets.
Adventure: How did the run go this morning?
JI: I wasn’t able to run due to a hamstring injury. I injured myself running a month ago and have been recuperating ever since.
Adventure: Running from bulls?
JI: No, just running normally.
How do you learn to run from bulls?
JI: The only way to learn is to come here and get into it. Watch the encierros, talk to the people, and just keep doing it year after year. Even on a day like today when I couldn’t run, I’m down on the street watching, just like a lot of guys who might be too old to do it.
Adventure: What keeps you motivated year after year?”
JI: Running with the bulls gives you a feeling like none other. Here is an animal that can crush you at any moment and you are running with it. Also, over the years I’ve made a lot of friends through running, both guys from around here and people from abroad like Americans and French. Running every year is a way of sharing something with this community of people and maintaining our friendship.
Adventure: Does the fact that it’s an old tradition play into it?
JI: Absolutely. Running is an ancient tradition in Pamplona–that and the parade of the giants are the two most moving parts of the festival–and I think we have an obligation to keep these old traditions alive so that future generations can enjoy them.
[At this point, he stops me so that he can take his turn controlling the effigy. He ducks under its skirts, hefts the contraption onto his shoulders and dances for about two minutes while young and old applaud. When he returns, he hasn’t broken a sweat.]
Adventure: I thought you were injured…
JI: I am, but this is nothing compared to running with bulls. I’ve only been was hurt once in an encierro, a few years ago. A guy had fallen in front of me and when I went to jump over him, he got up and tripped me (by accident). The bulls were right behind me and one stepped on my thigh, fracturing my femur. It took about two months for me to heal.
Adventure: How do you prepare for the run during the year?
JI: Aside from staying in shape, I run in encierros in other towns, like San Sebastian de los Reyes. Also my friends and I go down to Andalucía once a year to visit the ganaderías [bull farms] and see what bulls will be coming up to run in Pamplona.
Adventure: What’s so interesting about seeing the bulls?
JI: I’m attracted to the aesthetic of the bull. It’s a really impressive creature. Seeing it on the farm, in its natural habitat is incomparable.
Adventure: How would you describe your relationship with bulls to people who criticize is as animal abuse?
JI: In the street, we treat the bull with complete respect–you aren’t even allowed to touch it. When we see people touching the bulls we slap their hands away. We don’t kill the bull, we respect it.
Adventure: But the bulls will eventually die in the ring.
JI: Yes, bullfighting is different: It’s an art. But that is what these animals are bred for. If there were no bull fights, we wouldn’t even need bulls. They are born and raised to die in the ring.
Adventure: How is the encierro in Pamplona unique?
JI: There are many more people than in the other encierros, and it's very hard to see the bulls. There are probably too many people, but recently both spaniards and foreigners have been coming more prepared. They run in other, less dangerous places with cows instead of bulls, in order to learn how to do it correctly.
Adventure: What keeps this tradition alive?
JI: We, Pamplonans, do. It means a lot to us and like any tradition, we have to take care of it in order for it to survive.