San Silvestre Vallecana. No es una carrera. Es una experiencia.

Madrid knows how to throw a party. A running party that is 10 kilometers long.

A party that is full of life. And its name is the San Silvestre Vallecana.

Go to Madrid for New Year’s Eve, eat your dozen uvas at the stroke of midnight, but honestly, go there just to run the San Silvestre Vallecana.

The electricity, emotions, atmosphere, and energy in this race were incredible. The start line was just outside Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabéu Stadium, and the electricity in the air was unbelievable, with a festival atmosphere, a bunch of people all excited to be there with their friends, taking selfies, taking it all in, just itching for the race to start, waving to the cameras, and let’s not forget the large plastic balls being crowd-surfed with glee. This is the San Silvestre Vallecana. I got choked up at the starting line, in the middle of the crowds. These are my people. We were all runners. We would all rather be here together, running, on New Year’s Eve than partying anywhere else.

After I crossed the starting line, there was a bit of a hilly climb, which was awful, but after that, I literally glided down 4 glorious miles of wide downhill streets with a bunch of absolutely amazing runners. I was literally sandwiched in with thousands of people and running in concert with them, at a crazy downhill pace, and loving every minute of it. This is absolutely crazy. This is absolutely awesome.

A little “Venga!” goes a long way

It was exhilarating to run down the streets of Madrid with las luces de Navidad, festooned over the streets, and with all of the sidewalks crammed with people shouting, “Campeones! Venga! Venga!” Every time I thought I was winded, I heard the crowds and the the runners all yelling Venga! Venga! to each other, and that gave me the extra surge that I needed. The bands and the music stops were another thing altogether. There were concert stages set up every 2 miles, with the ones at the Puerta de Alcalá and at the Estación de Atocha being magnets of raucous energy, light, and sound. You could feel the music ripple from the stages through the crowd of runners, giving them the surge of energy and emotion that they badly needed. Simultaneously, the entire crowd of runners threw its hands in the air, not breaking their strides, and kept waving their hands to the music, dancing and running at the same time. Don’t ask me how it’s done. I did it, too.

A mile into the race, it started getting dark because the race had started around 6pm in the evening. The sun sets fairly early in Madrid during the winter, and the dark made the Christmas lights along the streets even more striking. The streets were lined with people and kids holding out their hands for high-fives from passing runners.

The costumes rose to the occasion. I spotted a Spiderman, an Ironman, two prisoners in their striped suits, a bunch of matadors, a bunch of Santa Clauses, a fortune-teller with a crystal ball and a table sticking out in front of her, a bunch of running flamenco dancers, and people in bathing-suits.

And, yes, everyone was running full tilt downhill, at crazy, crazy speed. I had no idea what I had signed up for. But, hey, if a fortune-teller carrying a table with a crystal ball can run, so can I. I’m going to PR today just because of having to keep up with all of these people.

Did someone say smoke tunnels?

After Estación de Atocha started the grueling hill climb that really took it out of me. You could feel all the runners slowing down, but you could also feel them draw more out of themselves and out of each other. I slowed down to a walk, but I heard a friendly slap on my back as a fellow runner grinned and cheered me on with “Animo! Venga!” How on earth am I supposed to walk, in the face of this cheery man who wants me to run? I break out into a shuffle-run to keep up and repay his enthusiasm.

This crowd just won’t let me slow down. How am I supposed to slow down with the infectious din of “Campeones! Venga! Venga!” in my ears?

Then came the smoke tunnels. Really. Smoke tunnels. In plural. And DJs. All of the runners got to run through a tunnel formed by giant LED panels with the music blaring, laser lights strobing, and smoke guns shooting out smoke at us. And we were barely 4 miles into the race. Oh, and another smoke tunnel at 5 miles in. The smoke and the confetti really gave us that kick that we needed, and at the right time, too.

Everyone felt that the finish line was somewhere in sight, and I could feel the emotions of runners trying to dredge up everything they’ve got, as we all tried to run uphill. The crowd willed us to and would not let us give up.

Before the looming uphill-run slump that was coming, the familiar football-fan chants of “Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole” welled up, louder and louder, from within the crowd of runners. All of the runners and the crowd picked up the chant and started singing loudly to will us all forward. I found myself involuntarily muttering “Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole” under my breath and surging up the hill. My legs are burning. These hills are brutal. I’m so never running this again. (Seconds pass) I’m so running this again.

We cross the finish line to more smoke tunnels. More cries of “Campeones!” More music bands. More confetti. And fireworks. And tears. I am choking up again.

This was literally the most exhilarating, fun, emotional, exhausting, yelling, singing, dancing, electric group of runners I’ve ever run a race with.

All along, none of the runners was checking their watches. Nobody was looking at their pace, at any point. There were no pacers in the race, either. None. No need. You see, you just start the race, and you just run crazy full-tilt, yelling, singing, and screaming for joy, just like you are being chased by angry bulls, and you don’t stop yelling and singing, until you get to the finish line. Pacers? What pacers?

I was emotionally and physically drained at the finish-line. This race took it out of me. These runners took it out of me. The crowds took it out of me. I gave a quality and intensity of effort that I’ve never done before, that I didn’t think I had in me, and that I didn’t think I was even capable of. I did it because the crowd of runners and the crowd of people willed me to, and dragged me along with their infectious spirit, their love of each other, their love of life, their love of this city, and their love of running.

I didn’t PR on my own. The crowd made me.

Madrid, you sure know how to throw a party that is disguised as a race, or a race that is disguised as a party. I’m coming back to run this again next year. Madrid me mata.

San Silvestre Vallecana, Madrid

Know before you go

  • There are no water stops along the race. If you expect to need hydration through the 10k race, carry your own.
  • There are no bibs. Your bib number is on your race t-shirt, usually on one of the sleeves of the race t-shirt.
  • You will be running in the dark, but the streets are well-lit, and you won’t need any extra lights.
  • It’s cold in the winter evenings, but you will be boiling throughout the race even in your race t-shirt alone, simply because of the running effort and the crowds of runners around you. You will need a jacket and/or gloves after the race is over, so drop off a bag (you can ask for this when you register, and you will be given a giant clear bag to put extra stuff into) to pick up at the finish line. You will feel like a popsicle after the race, so make sure you have warm clothes to walk to the Metro in the Madrid winter’s night temperatures.
  • Wear the race t-shirt for the race. Everyone does. It’s awesome to see 40,000 runners surging in the same color of t-shirt through the streets of Madrid, and to see throngs of runners take to the streets afterwards.
  • Take the Metro. It’s not close, but it’s close enough. You won’t find taxis after the race, so don’t bother trying. I did, and it was the most useless 30 minutes of my life. Go to the nearest Metro stop and then use a one-way ticket to get to your destination in Madrid. If you’re thinking of going to Puerta del Sol to eat your uvas with the rest of Madrid at the stroke of midnight, take the Metro to the Sol station. Carry cash with you if you don’t have a Metro card already. The machines that dispense Metro Cards will take cash and credit-cards. Don’t walk around looking for a taxi after the race. You’re wasting your time.