At 8:03 a.m. on July 9, three minutes into the third daily running of the bulls at the San Fermin festival in Pamplona, Spain, I stood near the tunnel into the arena, panting and frustrated. It was my 10th year running with the bulls, and I wasn’t having good luck. Four days earlier, I lost my backpack, which held my computer and passport; since then, things had been off.
It was raining off and on that morning. The cobblestones were extra slick. First-time runners were everywhere, and the crowd was roaring. I saw the long willow canes of the pastores, the official herdsmen of the run, poking out above tourists’ heads.
Suddenly, a suelto, a lone bull, appeared ahead of me. When a bull has separated from the pack, he loses his herding instinct and sees all runners as predators. That’s exactly what this one did — throwing his horns at the dozens of scattering runners. Two legends, Miguel Angel Perez and David Rodriguez, ran masterfully in front of the suelto, using their bodies to guide him toward the corrals.
With the arena at my back, I stalked toward them, stepping past three British runners in matching blue shirts. The monstrous bull trotted toward me and I crouched, reaching my rolled newspaper — which, like a matador’s cape, attracts a bull’s attention — into his line of sight.
The bull surged toward Perez. I drew the animal’s eyes with my paper, and together we lured him up the street; for a moment he was calmed. I reached my free hand behind me to let those nearby know that I was backing up. Suddenly one of the blue-shirted Brits screamed and pushed my hand, refusing to move out of my way. One of his friends gripped the barricades separating the runners from the crowd, screaming at my side. When I had my first run a decade ago, just like them I was frightened and dangerous.
I had no room to escape when the bull charged toward me. I tripped over one Brit’s feet, and another slammed his hand into my back, propelling me toward the bull’s horns. Two of the Brits crisscrossed the animal while getting out of the way, while the third sputtered backward. The bull, named Bravito, meaning “fierce one,” pierced his horn through my right thigh and lifted me into the air.
I grabbed my crotch and thought: Thank God it’s not my balls. I want to have kids.
At first, there was no pain.
As I fell to the ground and scuttled toward the barricades on my back, Bravito gored my leg again. When paramedics pulled me to safety, I saw a racquetball-size hole in my mid-thigh. Blood ran down my leg and flooded my shoe.
Legendary runners such as Joe Distler had schooled me on how dangerous a thigh wound is; if the femoral artery is severed, you can bleed to death in seconds.
Michael Hemingway, Ernest Hemingway’s great-grandson, was taking photographs nearby and rushed to my side. He took my hand and asked the medics if the artery had been pierced, translating their answer. “No. It’s just the meat, the flesh,” he said.
“Go find my wife and tell her I’m sorry,” I told him.
Being gored is part of the bull-running tradition. Even the great runners have been gored: Matt Carney, David Rodriguez, Julen Madina, Juan Pedro Lecuona. And all ran again.
There have been 15 fatalities in the past century, but there are usually about 10 gorings a year.
The sense of danger — and the excitement of narrowly escaping it — are part of what got me into bull running. Danger has always been a part of my life.
I grew up as a very angry, violent young man in a rough neighborhood on Chicago’s Far North Side. My father was a gang leader in his youth and a street fighter. My eldest brother followed in his footsteps — becoming a gang member, getting addicted to heroin and then doing seven years in prison for armed robbery. A stray bullet from a drive-by shooting struck my sister, Katy, when she was 17, lacerating her liver and lung. She was resuscitated before surgeons saved her.
I knew I had to get out of Chicago before I got killed or stuck in prison. At age 15, I discovered boxing, which helped me refocus my life and get into college. But change took time: At 19, I served three months for battery as a result of a street fight.
When I read Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” my freshman year in college, I decided to travel to Spain to run with the bulls. At the time, I was also dealing cocaine and suffering from undiagnosed bipolar disorder. I sought out violent situations on a regular basis, and that is partly what led me to Pamplona. “Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result,” Winston Churchill wrote in 1898. That is the joy of running with the bulls and surviving unscathed.
The run started as an adventure and became a way to get sober and redirect my life. I immersed myself in the Spanish bull-running culture, and found grace and camaraderie within it.
The first time I ran, in 2005, police kicked me off the course because I was doing everything wrong. I snuck back onto the path and ran La Curva, one of the more dangerous stretches, nearly getting trampled by a steer. Later in that day’s run, I got to sprint alongside the pack but not close to it. This was more intense than any drug high. I felt more powerful than I had during any boxing match.
Still, I didn’t think about coming back to San Fermin until I saw Miguel Angel Perez save Xabier Salillas’s life on July 11, 2005. A bull named Vaporoso had gored Salillas in the face, chest, stomach and leg. Perez grabbed the bull’s tail, halting the attack, and then led him up the street and out of sight. That is what the run is all about — risking your life to come to another’s aid.
I thought: I need to know this man. I need to understand this tradition.
In 2010, after running for several years, I ran a suelto with Perez for 100 yards. He has taught me that it’s a runner’s duty to move the bull up the street and keep everyone safe.
With time, I became more skilled at running with the bulls. So much so that the great runners, television and newspapers began to notice. Spaniards invited me to smaller bull runs, and I went. (The oldest run of all, in Cuéllar, about two hours north of Madrid, is my favorite.) In recent years, though, I realized that the tradition I loved so much in Pamplona was struggling. Thousands of foreign runners were traveling to Pamplona, uninformed — just like I had been my first time. They were doing things that get people hurt: running drunk, not staying down when they fell, pausing to take photos or pushing people.
So I started giving tours to first-time runners during the festival and writing articles on how to run with the bulls. Alexander Fiske-Harrison and I came up with an idea for a guidebook for English-speakers, “Fiesta: How to Survive the Bulls of Pamplona,” which he contributed to, edited and published last month. John Hemingway, Ernest’s grandson, and Joe Distler, one of the greatest bull runners of all time, contributed chapters. European Pressphoto Agency war photographer Jim Hollander supplied pictures. Our goal was to give back to the fiesta we love so much by teaching newcomers how to run safer.
One example is to be careful about where you choose to run. An Australian runner was standing in La Curva this year when a Miura bull walked to where he and many others were watching. It sliced open his thigh, from knee to hip, and then followed him as he ran the wrong way up the street and gored him again. No first-time runner should be near La Curva; it’s simply too dangerous.
When doctors stuck their fingers in my leg while repairing it at the hospital in Pamplona, it felt like someone had put a live electrical wire four inches into my thigh. I was screaming in pain. Finally they gave me morphine, then an epidural, and surgically removed pieces of the horn and clothing from my leg. The wound is partially open, with rubber drains in it to allow it to heal from within.
I’ve been in the hospital for more than a week. I feel good, and my doctors say the wound is under control. It will be stitched up when I’m ready to go home to Chicago, which should be soon.
My wife is considering divorcing me, though she has taken great and tender care of me in the aftermath. Before anyone told her the news, she knew I’d been gored; she said she just felt it in her gut. When she saw me after the accident, I was laughing. She told me I was stupid and smacked my right foot, sending a shot of pain to my wound. I run because it is part of who I am, and she knew that when we met nine years ago.
Some of my friends want to find those three Brits who got in my way. I don’t. The run has taught me that there’s no sense in revenge. But I would like to meet them, show them what happened to me and teach them how to react next time.
I will keep running for another chance to lead a Spanish fighting bull up the street. When that happens, I become one with the fiercest, most majestic animal on Earth. And in those moments, I am at peace.
Read Bill Hillmann’s “Rules to run by.”