Photographers' Blog

More than cojones

July 14, 2014

Pamplona, Spain

By Vincent West

“Have we vanquished an enemy? None but ourselves.”

- George Mallory, mountaineer.

“I think about my mother,” says bullrunner Deirdre Carney.

“I don’t think a lot of men think about that. It might be a woman thing… Women think about the loved ones that will be harmed by them being harmed.”

U.S. runner Deirdre Carney (R) talks to veteran runner Joe Distler following the seventh running of the bulls of the San Fermin festival in Pamplona July 13, 2014. The festival, a heady mix of drinking, dancing, late nights and bullfights, made famous by Ernest Hemingway in his novel "The Sun Also Rises", runs for nine days until July 14. Four runners were hospitalized following the run that lasted two minutes and fifty-two seconds, according to local media. REUTERS/Vincent West (SPAIN - Tags: SOCIETY ANIMALS SPORT ATHLETICS)

Carney is talking about her thoughts before running with the bulls at Pamplona’s famous San Fermin festival, where being harmed is a definite possibility.

An ambulance service personnel tends to an injured female runner after she fell next to Miura fighting bulls at the entrance of the bullring during the final running of the bulls at the San Fermin festival in Pamplona July 14, 2014. A bull gored two men after breaking away from the pack and chasing them through the streets of Pamplona in the closing run of the San Fermin festival on Monday. REUTERS/Eloy Alonso (SPAIN - Tags: SOCIETY ANIMALS)

Several people were hospitalised during the event this year, one after being badly gored in the thigh by the 600 kg (1,323 lb) Victoriano del Rio fighting bull “Brevito”. 

A runner (partially obscured on L), is gored in the right thigh by the 600kg Victoriano del Rio fighting bull "Brevito" during the third running of the bulls at the San Fermin festival in Pamplona July 9, 2014. This runner was identified by the website sanfermin.com as Bill Hillman, co-author with John Hemingway, of the book "How to Survive the Running of the Bulls". The 32-year-old American, from Chicago, was gored in the thigh, a doctor told Spanish state television. REUTERS/Eloy Alonso (SPAIN - Tags: SOCIETY ANIMALS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

Fourteen people have died over the course of the last century at San Fermin and it is commonplace for runners to be hurt by being trampled, gored or crushed.

“I wake up terrified,” says Carney. “You have to control your panic and your fear and then you get down there and do it and the pay-off is quite incredible.”

Bullrunner Deirdre Carney displays an amulet asking for the protection of St Fermin following the fifth running of the bulls of the San Fermin festival in Pamplona July 11, 2014. The festival, a heady mix of drinking, dancing, late nights and bullfights, made famous by Ernest Hemingway in his novel "The Sun Also Rises", runs for nine days until July 14. Two runners were gored in the run that lasted two and a half minutes, according to local media. Picture taken July 11, 2014. REUTERS/Vincent West

“When you run in the encierro you have to think about death and on the other end there is the life of the fiesta. So I think you are encountering the full spectrum of what it means to be on this planet.”

The bull run is based on the tradition of driving six fighting bulls from their pen early in the morning to the bullring for the afternoon’s corridas.

Nowadays, these beasts share the 875-meter (0.54 mile) fenced-in route with experienced runners, whose displays of bravado and skill as they dash just in front of the bulls’ horns earn them the applause of their peers.

A runner is caught between the horns of a Fuente Ymbro fighting bull on Santo Domingo street during the sixth running of the bulls of the San Fermin festival in Pamplona July 12, 2014. Three runners were hospitalized following the run that lasted two minutes and forty-nine seconds, according to local media. REUTERS/Vincent West (SPAIN - Tags: SOCIETY ANIMALS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

These skilled runners must, in turn, deal with the many hundreds of drunk tourists who also come to the event. According to Carney, one of her biggest fears at the bull run is “panicked men.”

The 36-year-old history teacher is the third generation of an American family to fall in love with Pamplona’s San Fermin festival.

It all started with her maternal grandfather Cliff Fish, who was part of a group of friends staying in Paris on their GI bills after World War II, searching for the kicks and freedom that come with living life on the edge.

Following him was Carney’s father, the famous Irish-American runner Matt Carney, whose lifestyle both at the festival and away from it has become a model for foreigners who converge on Pamplona every July.

Deirdre Carney’s mentor Joe Distler, a New Yorker who has run with the bulls since 1967, pulls no punches when he describes what runners are letting themselves in for. “It’s a very dangerous and brutal thing,” he says.

Runners enter the bullring during the second running of the bulls of the San Fermin festival in Pamplona July 8, 2014. Two runners were hospitalized following a run that lasted two minutes and twenty seconds, according to local media. REUTERS/Vincent West (SPAIN - Tags: SOCIETY ANIMALS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

“You can get your stomach cut out. I’ve had two hip replacements as a result of being gored. If a woman wants to run and she knows the consequences – that she could fall down, break her face, cut her eyes, not be beautiful anymore, get gored – and she still wants to do it, of course she should do it.”

In the male-oriented world of bullfighting, where people talk about bravery in terms of having “cojones”, it’s not just physical space in the crammed Pamplona streets that women have to fight for.

Female runners hold hands as they sprint towards the bullring during the fourth running of the bulls of the San Fermin festival in Pamplona July 10, 2014. The festival, a heady mix of drinking, dancing, late nights and bullfights, made famous by Ernest Hemingway in his novel "The Sun Also Rises", runs for nine days until July 14. Two runners were gored in the run that lasted two and a half minutes, according to local media. Picture taken July 10, 2014. REUTERS/Vincent West

For Carney, the act of running alongside men comes with a degree of defiance.

“I don’t like that in our society we use being a woman as an insult,” she says. “Using words like ‘girly’ insults an entire gender and we have proven that throughout history we are not cowards. I don’t want to be excluded from this because I am a female.”

An injured female runner is led away by ambulance services following the seventh running of the bulls of the San Fermin festival in Pamplona July 13, 2014. The festival, a heady mix of drinking, dancing, late nights and bullfights, made famous by Ernest Hemingway in his novel "The Sun Also Rises", runs for nine days until July 14. Four runners were hospitalized following the run that lasted two minutes and fifty-two seconds, according to local media. REUTERS/Vincent West (SPAIN - Tags: SOCIETY ANIMALS)

What’s more, as a teacher, Carney plays down the level of bravery it takes to run with the bulls.

“Try dealing with 130 eight-year-olds for six hours a day. That takes cojones.”

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