How I survived the San Fermin bull run

    9 July 2019

    My first ever run was in 1982. Things have changed somewhat since then, anti-slip paint on the cobbles on the curves, and the removal of the kerb on either side. This is how I remember that first run.

    The course is 825 metres long, or just over half a mile, and the bulls can cover it in two minutes 20 seconds on a good run. For the human runners, life isn’t so easy. The streets that the course follows are about 30 feet wide for the most part and there were about 1,800 people in the run that morning, so it gets very crowded (it is more like 4000 these days).

    By now I could almost taste the adrenaline. As I looked down the street towards the bullring, it took a few seconds to take in the sight. Every balcony had at least five people standing on it and they were all in their fiesta costumes. It looked like a rocky canyon covered in red and white flowers. Was I really going to do this? I looked at the safety fence. There were so many people crushed against it that there was no way out.

    A rocket burst in the air above us and my heart missed a beat. Everything around me seemed to be going fast while I appeared to be moving very slowly in the centre of this chaos. The first rocket means they have released the bulls. As we all took our first steps, we waited for the second rocket to tell us that all the bulls had left the pen. After about 30 yards we heard it. Good! That meant the bulls were running together – the last thing you want is a long gap. If a bull becomes separated from the others, that’s when the run is at its most dangerous.

    My plan was to jog at the start and see what was happening, but the adrenaline had other ideas. My legs were off. Luckily there were others around me now and we kept a steady pace. As the bulls are shorter than the runners, you can’t see them if you look back down the street and so you have to take your cue from the people watching on the balconies.

    About 50 seconds into the run I reached the crossroads of Calles Javier and Estafeta. Calle Javier is not much more than an alleyway. I was breathing heavily now, and it felt like I was in a large tumble dryer with loads of strangers. Sometimes I would feel a hand on my back and sometimes I’d have to hurdle a fallen runner. It was like a big game of British bulldog, and still the bulls had not caught up with us.

    After Travesía Espoz y Mina, the road becomes slightly wider. I looked back and could see from the spectators on the balconies that the bulls were about 50 yards behind me. I didn’t think I could run any faster but I did, and as I reached the Telefónica building the first bull appeared by my right hip. One second they were nowhere to be seen; the next the crowd parted and there they were. They were beautiful. All six were as black as night. I lasted about 30 yards before my legs gave out and I dived onto the road and rolled towards the fence. I saw more bulls go by in a blur, away down the slope into the Plaza de Toros. People helped me up and I started to run towards the stadium, chasing after them. I ran down the slope between the safety fences and into the tunnel under the stands. After the bright morning sunlight it was suddenly very dark in the tunnel, and then I was out in the ring – the third largest in the world and full of colour. A rocket went off and 25,000 people cheered. I’d survived.

    Andy Smart’s Travel Memoir A Hitch in Time is published on the 25th July 2019 for £12.99