Every year for several days in July, a half-dozen toro brava cattle course through the streets of Pamplona, Spain, in hot pursuit of a pack of people who aim to outrun the animals—or at least the other people.
Chicagoan Bill Hillmann has been among those runners almost every year for the past 10 years. (The Sun Also Rises, the Ernest Hemingway book that helped popularize among Americans Pamplona’s San Fermin festival, during which the running of the bulls takes place, was the first novel he ever read cover to cover.)
The ritual was born centuries ago out of a need to transport bulls from the city’s corral to the bullfighting ring. Townspeople would herd the animals down Pamplona’s winding streets. Though the functional element has faded away over time, the tradition continues—and injuries are par for the course. So far this year, at least 13 people have been hurt, including two Americans gored by bulls’ horns. Last year not even Hillmann was spared: A lone suelto, or bull, cornered him and shoved its horn deep into his leg.
Ironically, Hillmann had at that point co-written a guide called How to Survive the Bulls. But, he told me recently, all of his training, preparation, and experience doesn’t matter: If you run enough, you’ll get gored eventually. This month he is out with a new book, Mozos, which traces his evolution from a self-described alcoholic amateur in 2005 to a serious mozo, or runner.
Hillmann returned to Pamplona for this year’s festival, which started its nine-day run this week. I spoke with him about his experiences earlier this year and again a few days ago. A lightly edited transcript of our conversations follows.
Khazan: You’ve amassed 85 runs in all. How have you managed to do so many?
Hillmann: Every year [in mid-July] is Fiesta San Fermin, which is known around the world as the running of the bulls, but there [are] also [many] runs throughout all of Spain. Almost every single small town in Spain has some form of running of the bulls.
The oldest one is in a town called Cuellar—I’ve been going there for the past three years in a row. I’ve been going all over doing as many runs as I can.
Khazan: How many do you usually do in a year?
Hillmann: Well, this year kind of messed me up. I was going to get like 50 this year, but when I got gored it messed me up. I still went to around 30 or 40 runs this year individually, that I witnessed and was there to see. On a good year, if things are going good I can get to Spain twice in the summer. I usually get over 20 individual runs, [because] there’s eight in Pamplona, and then there’s five in Cuellar, and there’s five in San Sebastian de los Reyes, and then there’s all these smaller runs that are sort of tied into those. The most I’ve ever run in a single day is eight.
Khazan: If you had to describe the appeal of this event to someone who’s not familiar with it, how would you describe it?
Hillmann: It’s evolved [for me]. In the beginning it was just pure adventure, wanting to have that rush and experience it. My first year I ran three days, and someone talked me into watching from a balcony. When I was watching from the balcony, below me, one of the most horrible, bloody mornings unfolded, like directly below my balcony that I was watching from. As I was watching a bull, it began to gore a man right under my balcony. It gored him pretty relentlessly, gored him about five times, in the vitals, the face. It was just killing this man. Everyone in the street was suddenly trying to stop the goring, trying to distract the bull, get him away from the guy, but no one could get him away until this one runner showed up named Miguel Angel Perez, who’s a legend.
I didn’t know anything about him at the time, but he just miraculously materialized—he grabbed hold of the bull's tail, and when he did that the bull stopped killing this guy. It just sort of started looking back trying to get Miguel. The man crawled away, and the bull followed the man across the street, who was bleeding. And the bull was still trying to get him, but Miguel just held onto the tail and kept the bull from getting him. Miguel led the bull away up the street and out of sight.
When I saw that, I realized, my God, there’s way more to this than some stupid adrenaline rush. There’s like a code of ethics, a camaraderie, there’s a sense of brotherhood, there’s a sense of putting yourself at risk to save someone else. There's a method to interacting with the animals, a very sophisticated method of handling the animal and trying to help control and guide the animal up the street. That moment really changed me, and I became deeply obsessed with the run and learning about it. I wanted to become a runner like Miguel. I wanted to follow him in that tradition and set on that path. Ten years later, Miguel is a friend of mine. He came to visit me in the hospital [after I was gored]. I’ve done things like that where I’ve helped grab hold of the tail to stop a bull from goring someone. I’ve led bulls, lone bulls, up the street and helped guide them away from people so no one got hurt. I’ve become deeply immersed in the culture. These Spanish runners, they know me, they’re like my brothers.
Another runner, sort of the iconic runner from Pamplona, [is] Juan Pedro Lecuona. I’ve been running with him for a long time. A few years ago, in 2012, we were running shoulder to shoulder—in front of a bull, we were leading the bull up the street together. I started to trip and Juan reached over and caught my arm, and saved me from falling. He hooked my arm, and we ran together like that for a long ways. After I got gored, he started coming to the hospital every day. We started to develop a great friendship.
Khazan: Do you do any training?
Hillmann: I run a lot. Because my leg ... muscle was damaged pretty severely, I’ve kind of had to take it slow this year. I’ve been running a lot lately, and I’m going to slowly build up to sprinting. I have sprinted—I did it just so I knew I could do it—I sprinted five or six times, I can run full speed and I’m okay, my leg holds up fine. I’m lifting weights, doing squats to build up my leg muscles.
Khazan: What was the recovery process from the goring like?
Hillmann: I had a surgery. They gave me an epidural, numbed my whole leg. They were pulling out shards of horn and showing it to me. The doctor stuck his entire finger inside the hole, and that pain was like, I felt like I was being electrocuted from inside my body.
As soon as I figured out I was going to survive, I was so happy, because I thought I was going to die.
I was in [the hospital] for like 11 days, and toward the end I could walk reasonably—I could shuffle. I was on a cane until mid-September [of 2014].
Khazan: Do you know what led to you getting gored? Did you make some critical mistake?
Hillmann: That’s the thing, a lot of people thought it was ironic that I got gored, a lot of people had said, “Did you follow your [own] advice?”
If you run in a dangerous way, if you run in a brave way, you'll be gored eventually. So I always knew I’d get gored, when I set out on that path. That day, when I was running, it was the best run I had that year, it was a beautiful run. I was actually running with Miguel Angel Perez and another runner, David Rodriguez. Those two runners, they’re about the best that there is, they’re two of the great runners. They've both been gored. This is just part of the run.
If you’re a first-time runner, if you’re inexperienced, you need to exit the street instantly [if you’re threatened by a bull] because your life is in serious danger. That was the problem, there were guys who were just standing there—they were afraid, they were panicking, they didn’t know what was going on. And they were just standing in the way. People started getting in my way and pushing on me and grabbing me, and I got tangled up in them and I fell.
If anyone didn't take my advice, it was the guys who were in the street. They should never have been there.
Khazan: How is it this year? What is the energy like?
Hillmann: This year has been fantastic! The weather is great and hot. Last year it was cold and rainy. The energy is off the charts. I thought I would be way more stressed by running. I'm not, I'm taking it nice and easy.
Khazan: Are you having any residual effects from your injuries? (Either mental or physical?) If so, how are you overcoming those?
Hillmann: There's been almost no lasting physical effects of my goring other than slight stiffness. Mentally is a whole other situation. I was tormented by visions and nightmares headed into Fiesta. Leaving home I cried when I said goodbye to my family because I don't know if I'm ever going to see them again. The darkness lifted, though, once I got to Spain. Now I'm feeling good and happy.
I am, however, not running well. My first two runs were bad. I believe I have some deep subconscious fear from the goring that is gripping me in the moment of truth on the street. I am reluctant to take it to the limit like I used to. I am going to dig deep into myself spiritually and try to dig up the courage I used to have on the street. We'll see if I can find it.
Khazan: We've heard about a few Americans who have been gored so far. What are some of the most common [mistakes] that result in being gored? Do you know anything about those guys or what happened in their situations?
Hillmann: My friend Mike Webster was gored under the arm. He did nothing wrong. He bumped into another runner and fell. The bull dipped his horn and gored him under the arm. Sometimes there's nothing you can do. The most important rule in bull-running is if you fall down, stay down. The inexperienced runners who get up after falling get gored badly or get others hurt. If you stay down the bulls are likely to step over you and not trample you.
Khazan: What do you think other people can learn from your experiences?
Hillmann: I walk the course with people who have never run before who want to run. What I always tell them is, this is an incredibly important decision you’re about to make: if you’re going to run or if you’re not going to run.
But if you're on your death bed, and you're like “I don’t care if I ran with the bulls”—if it’s something that’s not that important to you, if it’s just for fun, or the a rush, or something you want to try—it’s not like trying sushi. This experience is stepping down on a course where people have died. You cannot take it lightly, you cannot be drunk. You cannot go in there without a plan. You cannot go in there without being prepared to die.
My advice to most people is: Don’t run. Watch from a balcony, watch from a barricade, and you don’t have to risk your life. For the people who say, “Well, I’m running anyway,” then I would give them the best advice I can muster. My advice to the average American who's interested in this is, “Don’t do it.” It's too dangerous.