I Got Gored Running with Bulls. It Didn’t Stop Me.
After a surgery, a night of IV antibiotics and morphine, I checked myself out of the hospital and ran with the bulls again the next day.
A Spanish Fighting Bull named Sentido gored me in the street during the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona in 2017. After a surgery, a night of IV antibiotics and morphine, I checked myself out of the hospital and ran with the bulls again the next day. Most normal people would ask, why on earth would you do that?!
All I can really say is I love this culture, these bulls and the people of Spain, especially the Spanish runners who have become like family to me. Leading these animals up the street, when they connect with you and follow you, it’s like catching a perfect wave, summiting a dangerous cliff, it becomes this triumphant, spiritual, transcendence. You are one with this beautiful, powerful and majestic animal in a harmonious experience, in a conversation that began more than two million years ago.
On top of all that it wasn’t my first rodeo. A bull had already gored me in Pamplona in 2014 and I returned to run the following year. I’ve been running with the bulls since 2005 and have become one of the most experienced foreign bull runners in history, having run more than 300 bull runs in over 40 different towns all across Spain. Yes, that’s another thing you probably didn’t know. The culture of bull running is extremely vast, nuanced, and popular amongst the peoples of Spain. There are thousands of bull runs all across Spain every year. The Spanish runners who are the real core of the community, run hundreds of bull-runs every year. I set out to run 101 bull runs in one summer in 2016 and chronicled that experience in my new memoir The Pueblos My Quest to Run 101 Bull Runs in Spain. The Pueblos also explores what happened in 2017.
On July 8, 2017, I ran with the bulls in Pamplona. It was like any other morning, nothing unusual. Several hundred of us soon to be bull runners finish singing the prayer to San Fermin and limber up on the wet cobblestones. As the bulls approach, I run up Santo Domingo street when a bull closes on me much faster than I expected. His horn jabs into my butt cheek, I look back but it’s too late. He digs his horn in and thrusts upward. I fly into the air as his muscular grey body undulates past beneath me. I twist and reach my hand out to break my fall. My shoulder collapses and my head and hip bang the cobblestones. Damn! I stand angrily. Again?!
My Navarese friends Xabi Mintegui and Cristian Yoldi come to my aid as the medics work on me. Xabi holds my hand while the doctors inspect the wound while Cristian rushes to find my cellphone in a nearby bookshop so I can call my family and tell them it’s a minor wound, nothing like the first one. The first one stuck me in a hospital bed for 10 days. Later my dear friend the historic Pamplona runner Juan Pedro Lecuona arrives at the hospital and escorts me through surgery.
After I’m moved to my room, an AP reporter comes to my hospital bed and asks “This is the second time you’ve been gored are you going to stop running?”
“No way!” I reply. “I’m going to run again tomorrow!”
The story goes viral globally and the Today show calls me and asks to do a segment on my return to the run. The next morning, I wake drowsy in the hospital bed on IV antibiotics and morphine. By that afternoon I check myself out of the hospital.
The following morning, I wake in my friend’s apartment in tremendous pain. My hips are on fire. I can’t sit up in bed. How the hell are you going to run if you can’t even get out of bed!? Why are you doing this? I take a deep breath, this tradition changed my life, helped me get sober, helped me get through mental illness, these runners Xabi, Aitor, Cristian, Juan Pedro, they’re like brothers to me. This tradition is one of the most beautiful things in my life. If I can get back on these streets this morning and run again maybe people all over the world will see that there is more to this culture than they know, and that it should be protected and respected, so the children of Spain and who knows maybe even my future children can inherit it.
I walk out of my apartment, the Today show crew stands there waiting in the stone corridor. Well ok, all eyes on you again. We do some last second interviews. Then I’m on the course waiting.
Crackling hooves and a hard banging bell around one of the steer’s necks race toward me. I turn and sprint, hugging the edge of the glob of runners crammed in front of the barricades. I pause as the first of the Fuente Ymbro soars past, his hooves reaching out in front of him majestically. His mighty horns stand tall, stretching up toward the sky. His black muscular side gleams in the morning light shooting through Mercaderes. The street opens as the bulls and steers sail past. I gather myself, break into sprint, and run alongside them. Their eyes dart around in their sockets, looking at me curiously as I run beside them. Then I dive to the fence and they’re gone.
This spike of pain scolds my hips as I limp around, groaning. I hop as the pain intensifies. Is this gonna stop?! I can hardly breathe. Panic constricts my lungs as I fold over at the waist and scream before it subsides. Everything goes smoothly with the segment. Today calls what I did “Incredible.” I rest and struggle with a fever from the infection and horrible pain.
That evening I have to make a short walk to the bull ring to deliver money to my friend Juan Pedro Lecuona for some work he’d done for someone else. I start walking down Estafeta street, the main street of Fiesta. Thousands of people crowd the street, the balconies climb up both sides of the street to a thin sliver of blue sky looming above. Everyone in the street seems to be looking at me as I walk painfully up the way. Do I know them? I’ve never seen them before. Then they start raising their glasses towards me, saying, Bill Hillmann… Bill Hillmann… Then they begin to stop me and ask me how I am. They wish me well. They hug me and want to take photos with me. They thank me. This goes on for an hour as I try to make my way to the bull ring and back. Some of them I know, some are very famous important people in the culture but I cannot walk more than 10 steps before they stop me again. I have never felt so much love from perfect strangers, so much concern and adulation so much affirmation that what I am struggling through is appreciated and understood.
As I near my apartment I start to pass out from the fever, pain and exhaustion, a great runner from Madrid named Pablo Bolo and his friends rush up and catch me as I begin to fall and put my arms around their shoulders and help me to my door. I thank them and assure them I will get up the stairs myself. But the real reason is I don’t want them to see the tears I am holding in with all my might. I step into the doorway finally alone. I sit on the steps and tears flow down my face. I love you, I love you all, the people of Pamplona, of Spain, the bulls, this culture, this tradition, the run. You saved my life. I will give everything for you all because you have given me the purest and deepest human sensations and because of you I truly know what it is to be alive. Gracias…
The Pueblos: My Quest to Run 101 Bull Runs in the Small Towns of Spain by Bill Hillmann is published by Tortoise Books.