Twenty minutes past dawn this morning I was in San Sebastián de los Reyes, a suburb of Madrid. A few blocks away, a firework exploded, and everyone tensed. It signaled that the bulls were out of the corral. I was standing on the rails of a fence on a street to watch the running of the bulls.
Lots of towns in Spain have encierros, runnings of the bulls, as part of their annual fiestas. Pamplona's is most famous, among other reasons, for its precision organization. Some places fall short. In two towns this year, bulls have been able to break through the fences that protect spectators, causing over a dozen injuries and one death.
But San Sebastián is Pamplona Chica, Little Pamplona, almost as good and maybe even better than the famous run. As I waited, I saw some familiar faces from Pamplona, including a man named Julen, who was spectacularly gored in there in 2004 but keeps on running.
I was standing on double-bar steel, and several feet above ground, perfectly safe. Runners have no protection. The young men and a few women in front of me waited for the bulls, attentive as only the fear of sudden death can inspire. Soon, above the shouting, we heard the rumble of hoofs on asphalt. The bulls were about to arrive!
A mass of runners turned the corner, and then the big dark bulls, everyone running as fast as they could, a blur of motion, a din of voices, confusion bordering on panic. I looked down and saw the back of a black bull, pulsing with muscles, as it galloped almost beneath my feet. Everyone was cheering and shouting, adrenaline on maximum.
And faster than it had arrived, the run passed. Maybe 10 seconds in front of us. The entire run, according to reports, took 1 minute 42 seconds to travel 820 meters and reach the bull ring.
But the encierro wasn't over yet. Just as in Pamplona, there was more in store at the bullring. In fact, of the 2,600 runners who took part, most were the valientes or "brave ones" who run far ahead in order to arrive at the ring well before the bulls so they can get in free and watch the hour-long show after the run.
I walked down the street and paid my 3 euros (US$4) to get in, on the way passing one of today's few injuries, a young man whose skinned knees were being professionally treated by Protección Civil emergency medical technicians.
I found a seat on the cold concrete stands of the bullring as the first heifer was let out. This was young cow of fighting-bull breed, small enough to be agile, aggressive by nature, with fine horns, and big enough to injure or even kill. Anyone who dared could take part in recorte -- a sort of game of "chicken" the bull -- or even capea, amateur bullfighting. At least a hundred young men (women and old men don't do this for some reason) waited in the ring, but almost all of them stayed behind the fence at the edge. Only the most skilled and brave faced the animal.
Recorte (cut-off) is an art, avoiding the charging animal at the last minute. The best could leap over it in the style of ancient Crete frescoes, although one of the recorte experts judged wrong once and instead got a head butt in the abdomen from the animal. He doubled over in pain, but laughed.
Another young man approached the animal with a bullfighting cape, which attracted it like nothing else, and made several smooth passes as the crowd cheered "Olé!" Finally he knelt in front of the heifer, at a safe distance, to offer his appreciation to the animal.
Three heifers were let out, each for about 15 minutes, and then over the loudspeaker, came a warning: "Those of you in the ring, be careful, because a bull is going to be released."
For more photos and reports (in Spanish, sorry,) visit the web site of El Encierro, the newspaper of the San Sebastián fiesta: