Experienced bull-runner gored by bull: isn’t it ironic? I don’t think…

En castellano aquí.

An Op-Ed I wrote a fortnight ago, but Bill beat me to the punch – unsurprising from a much better boxer than I would ever have been – and got his in The Washington Post instead…

Alexander Fiske-Harrison & Bill Hillmann with their awards for writing bull Cuéllar, August 2013 (Photo: Jim Hollander; Awards sculpted by Dyango Velasco)

Alexander Fiske-Harrison & Bill Hillmann with their awards for writing bull from Cuéllar from the book Fiesta (Photo: Jim Hollander; Awards sculpted by Dyango Velasco)



This weekend I paid my last visit to my friend Bill Hillmann in the Hospital of the Virgin of the Camino in Pamplona. There we celebrated Bill finally being given the all clear to return home to his native Chicago, ten long days after his wife Enid and I chased his ambulance from that morning’s running of the bulls. That story appeared in almost every news network in the world.

(The first to break it were The Times and The New York Times.)

Part of the reason for this notoriety was the superficial irony of his injury: Bill and I, along with Joe Distler a veteran bull-runner from New York, Jim Hollander the EPA photographer from Jerusalem and John Hemingway, Ernest’s grandson from Montreal, had written an electronic guide book titled Fiesta: How To Survive The Bulls Of Pamplona (website here) – available at Amazon US here, UK here, Australia here, Canada here, Spain here, France here, Mexico here (all other regions available too.)


As ‘man bites dog’ stories go, “bull-survival guide author gets injured by bull” is a shoe-in, and it seems churlish to point out that he did indeed survive. However, to claim, as many in the world’s press have done, that his advice is not worth taking as a result is a step too far.

For a decade Bill has run the annual eight days of encierros – bull-runs – of Pamplona’s feria of San Fermín unscathed, as he has in other less famous towns like San Sebastián de los Reyes, Alcalá de Henares and Cuéllar, which has the oldest encierro in Spain, dating back to at least 1215 A.D.

Would the same reporters have said that driving advice from three-time Formula 1 champion Ayrton Senna was rendered invalid by his fatal crash in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix? Are Karl Wallenda’s views on high-wire walking to be dismissed since he fell to his death in Puerto Rico in 1978? No, dangerous activities will always be dangerous, the only thing experience, and its passing on as advice, can ever do is mitigate the risks, not eradicate them.

I myself, with a mere two dozen runs in Pamplona under my belt, was running with that same 600kg bull, called Brevito, from the ranch of Victoriano del Río, seconds before it caught up with Bill and I made my decision to exit the run by diving through a fence. The only consequence was cuts, bruises and a two day limp.

Bill made a different choice and the bull caught him.

That it caught him in the anarchy of a couple of thousand people and half a dozen fighting bulls in a half-mile of street is neither surprising, nor, to my eyes, journalistically interesting. Why Bill didn’t also exit the street, however, is.

Encierros grew up out of the need to transport bulls from the fields outside a city or town to the main square where they were fought and killed in the brutal and artless antecedents to today’s corrida de toros. This was a knightly joust of a bull where it was finished off by a servant, called the matador, or ‘killer’, himself progenitor to the highly-paid professionals who dominate that spectacle today.

Along the route, young men from the town would leap into the street to run alongside or behind the animals, and this gradually developed, as such things involving young men do, into running in front of the bulls’ horns.

It was discovered that this actually resulted in the bulls being led more efficiently through the town, and as the number of participants increased, teams of runners began to form a moving corral which took the bulls from the fields to the corrals of the newly built plaza de toros amphitheatres.

The word encierro meant to ‘corral’ or enclose, and now it took on an extended meaning, the humans became a moving fence transporting the herd to a fixed one.

By the time Ernest Hemingway arrived in Pamplona the early twenties, it was well on its way to evolving into this situation, one of brave young men who had lived and run all their lives escorting the bulls through the streets of a town. Not that Ernest understood that: ‘Papa’ – unlike his grandson and our co-author John – never ran.

What’s more his writing about the city, first for the Toronto Star, and then in his modernist classic novel, The Sun Also Rises, brought vast numbers of people, who equally did not, and still do not, understand what the whole thing is about.

According to the Mayor of Pamplona in his foreword to our guide, as many as 3,500 enter the street to run with the bulls, and, according to this year’s exit polls, two thirds were first-timers, over half were foreigners and a quarter from the United States.

Now, one of the central themes of this fiesta in honour of the regional patron saint Fermín is abandonment, and Bacchus is worshipped far more than bulls by the one million visitors who attend each July. Inebriation off the course is de rigueur, but within the encierro it is extremely dangerous to oneself and other runners and also illegal.

The young antipodean man with the gruesome injuries in the hospital room next door to Bill’s discovered this to his cost, something further underlined by the hospital’s inability to operate on him as he was too drunk to be anaesthetised.

For regular runners who lead using their bodies as lures from in front, just as the professional pastores – ‘herdsmen’ – try to steer the stampede from behind with ash-wood canes, it is a self-imposed task to try and minimise these sorts of casualties within the encierro.

They are the reason that only 15 runners have died since records began in 1923.

It was this mission of mercy which Bill was embarked upon when the Brevito caught him, and punched its horn straight through his right thigh, missing his femoral artery by no more than half an inch, followed by a second, less severe, puncture wound.

Bill was attempting to lead the bull away from the milling crowd of tourists and into the bull-ring when it caught him, nothing more and nothing less.

Before it ever reached our section of the run, the bull had become a suelto, ‘a loose one’, detached from its herd brothers who gave it the confidence to run past the crowds. As a result it had defaulted to the defensive aggression of a bull in the ring with only one impulse: hit everything that moves until it stops moving.

Experienced runners move in teams to deal with just this eventuality, taking it in turns to draw the loose bull, their full focus on its movements, while others make sure their path remains clear. Their coordinating cries of “yours”, “mine”, “got it”, “go” cut through the cries of panic and prevent them from becoming screams of terror.


In Cuéllar, Bill and I, with its lack of first-timers, try to run together like this, as you can see in the photo – he is to the left of the bull in white cap and blue and black jersey with the newspaper in his hand as a lure. I am just beyond him in navy blue with white collar, also with newspaper, keeping his path into the ring clear. In Pamplona, though, we run different tramos, ‘stretches’.

I saw Brevito coming back in the wrong direction up the street too late, and I found myself with no options. However, before it reached me, it collided with a Spanish man and buried its horn in his chest. It was pulled off this, its first victim, by Miguel Ángel Castander tugging at its tail – more, it should be said, by its ancestral fear of wolf-attack from the rear than by brute strength.

However experienced a foreign runner may become – and Joe Distler ran every Pamplona encierro from 1967 to 2012 – locals like Miguel are in a different league. He started running at the age of 12 with young bulls in encierros chicos, runs every year throughout Spain, is a pastor in his native San Sebastián de los Reyes, and even became a professional recortador. (It has to be said, by the way, that Miguel refers to Joe in one of his few words of English as “Daddy”, since it was pictures of Joe running that were his inspiration when growing up!)

Joe Distler centre stage in 1980 from the book Fiesta (Photo: Jim Hollander)

Joe Distler centre stage in 1980 from the book Fiesta (Photo: Jim Hollander)

Recortadores are the men who leap over bulls in bloodless spectacle popular in northern Spain and are the true inheritors of the Cretan bull-dancers that can be seen in the Minoan frescoes from 3,500 BC.

After the bull had been turned by Miguel and the Pamplona pastor Fran Irate, a group of local runners of a similar level of expertise – thousands of encierros each – took the bull towards the ring, and Bill was a part of that group.

Whatever opinions I’ve heard about what happened next – Bill should have been further from the fence, his use of five-finger running shoes made him more inclined to slip when pushed – the single most vital piece of advice Bill gave in his chapter in our book he followed and it saved his life: if you go down, stay down and stay still. As I said earlier, the suelto attacks everything that moves. If you stop moving, the men around you can draw it on to them.

Which is why Bill is alive, out of hospital, and remains a vital contributor to our book, respected by all including the team of Spanish and Basque runners whose advice I collated and translated in the book. Marketing aside, none of us call ourselves experts – certainly not me, even though I also trained as a bullfighter in southern Spain as research for another book – and the idea of ‘great runners’ is anathema to the traditions of the encierro.

This is not a sport, although it does require athleticism – Bill was Chicago Golden Gloves heavyweight champion in 2002 – and is viewed by its devotees as an anonymous and democratic event in contrast to the gold and glory of the corrida. (Indeed, many runners dislike the corrida for this reason among others.)

Which it was why it was not for glory that we put together our electronic guide book with the seal of approval from Pamplona’s City Hall, but to improve the safety of those who have no idea what they are getting themselves into, and whom Bill was injured trying to protect (along with passages on the history from contributors like Beatrice Welles, Orson’s daughter.) And, as I say in my introduction to the book, the best advice of all is not to run at all…

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

En castellano aquí.

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  1. shanskk@aol.com says:

    Good article

    Sent from my iPhone


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