Running with the Devil

Bill Hillmann (MFA ’13) ran with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, more than 87 times—and then he got gored.

In July 2014, Bill Hillmann (MFA ’13) joined the throngs of people streaming down the streets of Pamplona, Spain, for the San Fermin festival: the famous running of the bulls. Since 2005, Hillmann has run with the bulls more than 87 times. (He’s actually lost count.) But on this particular day, he left the run in an ambulance after being gored by a suelto, a bull broken loose from the herd. 

Hillmann’s path to that Pamplona day spans years, from the alleyway brawls of his Chicago youth to writing workshops at Columbia College Chicago. On the way, he started storytelling competition The Windy City Story Slam and wrote the novel The Old Neighborhood, voted Best Debut of 2014 by the Chicago Sun-Times. Today, Hillmann is home in Chicago, prepping to don the white shirt and red kerchief of a traditional bull runner again this summer. 

Below is an excerpt from Hillmann’s upcoming bull-running memoir, Mozos: A Decade Running with the Bulls of Spain, to be released in summer 2015 by Curbside Splendor Publishing.
—Megan Kirby

The monstrous bull trotted toward me and I crouched, reaching my rolled newspaper into his line of sight. He noticed my paper and came to it as I stood tall and took a deep breath. He was magnificently enormous. Instantly, he linked with me and we moved up the street as one. [Famous bullrunner] Miguel Angel Perez ran beside me, both of us at a 45-degree angle to the beast, master and student, mirrors of each other in the animal’s vision. [The bull] Bravito calmed for the moment. I reached my free hand behind me to let those nearby know I was backing up. Then 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 in terror just ahead. I was just like him my first run, frightened and dangerous.

They trapped me in a kind of triangle with no room to escape when the bull charged. I tripped over one Brit’s feet and tried to sprint past him. I felt the bull close in on me and tried to gather my momentum to make a cut when the other Brit in blue slammed his hand into my stomach and propelled me toward the animal. I fell flat on my back in front of the charging bull—astonished at how the glory unraveled so quickly. Two of the Brits crisscrossed the animal. One of them knee-dropped into my chest. The collision made my right knee jerk upward. Bravito’s right foreleg collapsed under his own weight as he dropped his head and swung his horn toward me. The point of his horn slid into my thigh. He lifted me into the air, slow and graceful.

“The point of his horn slid into my thigh. He lifted me into the air, slow and graceful.”

No pain, just the slow majestic lunge upward and toward the barricades. My body twisted with him and my leg swung through the barricades, narrowly missing the middle plank. Then I slipped off the horn and fell to the coarse zigzag bricks of Telefonica. On my back, I scuttled toward the barricades as Bravito gored my leg again with a short jab. He seethed, then plucked his horn out. The paramedics grabbed me by my arms and dragged me to safety. And for a moment I was alone. I looked down at the baseball-sized round, fleshy wound—half expecting it to not be there. What have you done to yourself? It looked like someone scooped a handful of flesh out.

I peered into the deep, mangled flesh—like a concave bloody eye—and a voice inside me calmly said: Accept it. You knew this day would come.