Bulls Before Breakfast: The Pamplona Bull Run

by Peter N. Milligan

I run with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, in the summertime with my adoptive brother Ari at the famous San Fermín fiesta. After I come home, I deliver eight or nine pairs of white pants for cleaning and repair to Spot Cleaners in Cherry Hill, NJ. After two weeks at the celebrated fiesta, these once immaculate pants are muddied, torn, burnt, carelessly stained by libation spillers, and more often than not, bloodied; human, animal, and “unknown other.” Except for the pairs that are seized by United State Customs (and presumably cremated and buried in Nevada for public health and safety), Mr. Kun is able to return them to me spotlessly cleaned and seamlessly mended. Men’s white pants are hard to come by and must be kept in good repair.

The author, Peter Milligan alone bottom right, with perfectly ironed white pants, with the entire herd in tow.

The author, Peter Milligan alone bottom right, with perfectly ironed white pants, with the entire herd in tow.

Every July, you will find us in Pamplona; wearing those white pants like everyone else, grinning and laughing, telling exaggerated stories, eating unreasonable breakfasts, and running in front of thousands of pounds of los toros bravos—by nature vicious angry animals with razor sharp horns, and you (along with our family and most of our friends) will question if we’ve gone quite doolally in the hot Spanish sun. We haven’t. Many of our intelligent, even rational, countrymen have gone before us. From Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises in 1926, the Pamplona bull run, has captured the imagination of adventurers worldwide, especially those from the United States. I mean it—Americans have been taking that ride up the AP-15 from Madrid by the millions ever since. Hemingway, and for that matter many other famous Americans such as Orson Welles, had little to no impact as actual bull runners. They were more or less observers. James A. Michener got down in the streets at least once.

A cow jumps over revelers lying down on the bull ring at the end of the fifth run of the famed San Fermin festival, in Pamplona northern Spain on Thursday, July 11, 2013. One person has been hospitalized after several thousand people tested their speed and bravery by dashing with six fighting bulls through the streets of the northern Spanish city of Pamplona. Today.com.

A cow jumps over revelers lying down on the bull ring at the end of the fifth run of the famed San Fermin festival, in Pamplona northern Spain on Thursday, July 11, 2013. One person has been hospitalized after several thousand people tested their speed and bravery by dashing with six fighting bulls through the streets of the northern Spanish city of Pamplona. Today.com.

For years after tourists started pouring into Pamplona, still few if any Americans ran with the bulls. That changed eventually. At first glance, it would seem that the Rushmore of Americans in Pamplona would be Hemingway, Welles, Michener, Barnaby Conrad, and John Fulton. You can read about Conrad, who was very generous to me with his time in discussing Pamplona before his death in 2013, here. You can read about Fulton, Spain’s first American matador, here. As great as that mountain would be, there are those that know better. For actual runners, it begins and ends with Matt Carney, the Gold Standard for American bull runners. Carney, an Irishman from California, went to Paris to finish the Great American Novel. He was “discovered,” and became pretty wealthy as a high-fashion male model—Ari and I patiently await our similar break. My mother says it’s just a matter of time now. Carney came to the Pamplona bull run in the 1940’s, and carved himself into the first great foreign born bull runner in recorded history. He ran fearlessly with a legendary smile on his face, and remains the mystical bell cow for all American runners since. He inspired and taught runners for decades, and many of those have in turn guided Ari and me. We hope to credibly pass on this gift. Yet, his style of running with the bulls is not Matt Carney’s most important contribution to the famous Pamplona fiesta.

“After the encierro, we walked over to the Plaza del Castillo and within five minutes I found myself sitting at the same table at the Bar Txoko with the legendary Matt Carney. Carney was as handsome as Michener had described and he was in fine spirits. I was excited to meet Carney after all I had read about him in Iberia….[w]hen Fulton introduced me to him, Carney flashed his famous Irish grin and something about him made me feel I belonged, that I was no newcomer, no outsider, at his table. Over the years, I would subsequently observe Matt welcome other people to the fiesta in much the same way. Carney had a big heart and his idea of San Fermín was a fiesta of sharing, not of exclusion.”
– Gerry Dawes, fiesta legend, writing in his essay “A Morning’s Pleasure”

Pamplona Bull Run - Bulls Before Breakfast - San Fermin

The Pamplona crowds are of epic proportions. Well-over 17,000 people took part at the 2014 San Fermin Festival. Image is in the public domain via TheNews.com

That encapsulates the magic of this beloved fiesta, and in fact, everything that can be good in this world. Like Carney, Ari and I welcome anyone with any modicum of interest in “whatever it is you two do over there,” as mother would say, at our table in Pamplona anytime. This is the spirit of Hemingway, and Carney, and everyone else that came before us in the written, and unwritten, fiesta lexicon. You are not going to believe how much fun we have there. But, for all our silliness and folly, running with the bulls is humorless and grim, yet at the same time, joyous and blissful. There is no articulable intrinsic value to what we do there. Bull runners are restless, drawn to the horns by a craving they cannot explain nor hardly understand. They also pay hefty bills at the cleaners.


PETER N. MILLIGAN is a lawyer and a writer who lives in the suburbs outside of Philadelphia. Bulls Before Breakfast is his debut novel, and a memoir of two brothers running with the bulls and exploring every corner of the city, the countryside, the mountains, the beaches, and the famed restaurants of the Basque hinterland. The book focuses on local knowledge, and the hidden mysteries of this closed, private culture and community. Milligan has slowly pried open this trove of secrets over the past twelve years, all while refining the art of getting between the horns of a massive, perfect Spanish killing machine, el toro bravo, and running for his life.

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