The runners and the bulls charged past me like a shouting, pounding storm and left behind only a wind as they moved on down the street. It lasted only a few amazing seconds.
I had gotten on the subway before dawn, surrounded by sleepy people on their way to work, to go to San Sebastian de los Reyes, a suburb of Madrid. It's known as Sanse in taurine circles, also Little Pamplona, because the city's week-long fiesta includes the second-best running of the bulls in Spain every morning at 8 a.m. It offers all of Pamplona's tight organization but not its massive crowds, so runners stand a good chance to actually get close to a bull, and observers won't get hurt by bulls that escape through flimsy fences, which happens in some towns.
After an hour-long trip, I left the subway to summer-warm pre-dawn twilight. The station is right next to the bullring, which is the final end of the run. I knew where I wanted to go, since I had come last year, and started walking along the fenced-in street. The sidewalks were crowded. I passed an unsteady young man in a blue tinsel wig, holding a bottle of beer. He was talking and laughing with friends, all of them possibly still awake after the big rock concert the night before. They were typical.
Some bars were open, doing a pretty good business for 7:30 a.m. I picked up a newspaper about the run at a newsstand and found my spot toward the upper end of Real Street near where the route turns a corner. Bulls don't corner well, so it can be an exciting spot.
The sidewalk was sticky, and the chest-high steel bar of the fence had drink rings on it. But street cleaners had scrubbed the pavement on the other side of the fence and sanitation workers were out with brooms and buckets to get any last shard of broken drinking glass or bit of trash. Runners were gathering in the street, and police officers walked past regularly, appraising each one's age, apparent sobriety, and footwear.
But the young men in the street had come ready to run. They greeted friends and became more nervous as 8 a.m. approached. The crowd on the sidewalk grew. On either side of me, groups of young friends staked out spots, and a three-generation family stood on the fence across the street.
Then, right on time, a firework sounded and everyone jumped. It announced that the corral had opened and the bulls were lose. Runners did their last stretches or crossed themselves. Soon we heard shouts, cheers, pounding feet and hooves, and the clank of the bells on the steers that guide the bulls. The bulls were coming! We stared up the street, waiting.
Runners began to dash around the corner, trying to run flat-out and look backwards at the same time. Bulls can easily outrun humans, so the first rule of safety is watch what's behind you. More and more runners followed, impossibly more, cheered by the waving crowd, shouting in exuberance and fear, running and watching all around, and suddenly there on the far side of the street were the steers, tall and belled, and next to them the lower, wide dark flanks of the bulls, their horned heads held down for serious sprinting, six bulls, six steers, running in a tight herd in a sea of shouting young men, no one quite sure of where each bull was and if you're running you need to know and don't stop run keep going as fast as you can look back don't stop and
they were gone, down the street, pulling along a wind that blew across in my face as I watched them recede. But was that really all the bulls? The herd sometimes splits up. Nothing else came around the corner. The street seemed as empty as a vacuum.
The young man on the fence next to me turned to ask a question. By his accent and look, he was Caribbean, new to Spain. "Will they run past again or something?" No, that was everything.
And wasn't it enough?
I climbed down and began walking toward the bullring. Inside, the crowds would be watching recorte, the art of dodging a charging bull, and in truth, most of the people who "run" with the bulls actually run so far ahead they never get near the horns because they just want to get in the bullring to watch the show for free.
Police and emergency medical technicians had gathered at a corner, but apparently just to assure each other nothing serious had happened. The smell of fresh morning bread and churros came out of bakeries. Workers were dismantling the sections of fences that blocked streets, and steel and wooden beams thumped into truck beds. A cheer erupted in the bullring next to the entrance to the subway, but it was time for me to ride back across town beneath the Madrid traffic jams and begin the workday.
I decided not to take photos as the bulls went past so I could focus on them rather than on my camera, but you can see lots of photos (better than I could do), videos, and read (in Spanish) all about the running of the bulls in San Sebastian de los Reyes at:
The video of today's run, less than 2 minutes long, is at:
I appear at 0:52 standing on the rails on the right-hand side of the screen in a white shirt, though you won't really be able to pick me out of the crowd.