Pamplona, Spain — The words rang out in the early morning streets:
A San Fermín pedimos,
por ser nuestro patrón,
nos guíe en el encierro
dándonos su bendición.
It was an anthem of prayer for quick feet and safe passage before the arrival of six full-grown charging bulls along a half-mile stretch of cobblestones here in a part of Pamplona that dates back to medieval times. Thrice the runners sang the homily of the city's patron saint that translates as, "We ask of San Fermin, for he is our patron, to guide us in the bull run, giving us his blessing." Each iteration ended in a triumphant "Viva San Fermin! Gora San Fermin!" in both the Spanish and Basque languages.
I remember none of this.
My fellow runners, some 2,000 in all, scattered the length of the roughly 850-meter course, enacted the ritual near the statue of the saint that rested in a niche in the city wall near the starting line on Santo Domingo Street. A prelude to the daily main event of the San Fermin festival, the running of the bulls. Farther up the street, the course's first sloping leg, I resided in my head, readying for a race either life-fulfilling or incredibly stupid, or equal parts of both.
I stood cloaked in white pants, white shirt and a red scarf. My own routine occupied most of my attention. Be sure to stretch. Wipe the dust from the soles of your shoes. What time is it? Could I jump over that fence or better to try to slide?
My run plan plays on repeat in my mind, as spectators in the multitude of balconies above me join in eager anticipation of what will shortly come. My travel companions and I had scouted the course the night before, a valiant attempt to assuage nerves and stitch together some semblance of safety for an arguably reckless activity that regularly sees runners gored by a bull's horn and where 16 people have died since 1910. This morning, the pavement is damp and sticky: damp from the street cleaners who just hours earlier hosed away the remnants of the previous night's celebrations; sticky from the adhesive sprayed on the cobblestone to offer runners a glimmer of an advantage.
I go over the blueprint again and again. Stay close to the side, away from the middle of the road. Run past the town hall and into the plaza but stay to the left — the bulls' momentum will lead them to the right as they head into the next street. If need be, use the fence here to vacate the course, allowing adrenaline to decide the earlier leap-or-slide debate.
My focus breaks when I hear the bang of the first rocket exploding in the sky.
The time is 8 a.m.
The bull corral has opened.
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