On Wednesday, Bill Hillmann was gored while running with the bulls in Pamplona. A journalist, novelist, and former boxer, Bill and I have known each other since our time at Columbia College Chicago, where even then he was recognized for his frontline reportage, some of which has since appeared around these parts. Doped up on morphine in a Spanish hospital and his voice weak from the drugs, he's still got enough breath to tell you all about it.
You said on Facebook that you'd had some difficulty getting to Spain.
I've been having a rough go. I lost my passport, my computer, my medication. And this morning I was having some real bad omens. I just shook it off.
There's this old saying, the father of all the American runners in the '50s—his name's Matt Carney—he would always tell his protégés, "Center of the street, kid," which meant run the center of the street and you'll have a good run. I was running down one of the side streets, just looking at the paint marks in the center, thinking, yeah, that's what I'm going to do. But when I was running over those paint stripes, I saw blood, this trail of blood. That was a pretty bad omen for me.
Do you remember what happened before you were gored?
After the herd had passed, I saw a bull that had separated from the pack, and it was running around causing havoc. I love running with those kind of bulls. They call them sueltos—basically "loose bull." So I approached that bull, and sure enough he picked me and started following me. I was thinking, my god, this is going to be epic.
As I was moving up the street with him, another guy behind me was panicking. I tripped on him, and another guy behind me pushed me in the back. I fell, and when I fell, the bull swung his horns into my thigh and sort of lifted me and tossed me, and the horn went all the way through one side and poked out the other. In that motion, I kind of floated up and then fell off the horns.
A paramedic grabbed me and pulled me up the barricade as the bull was trying to gore me some more. On the other side [of the barricade], I looked down and there was a racquetball-size hole in my thigh, and it was wide open, bleeding everywhere. There was blood running down my leg, going into my shoe. I was worried because I knew it could have gotten my femoral artery, and if that happened, I would probably die.
Michael Hemingway, who's Ernest Hemingway's great-grandson, he was photographing in the area. He came up, and I said, 'Mikey, stay with me. I'm worried.' He said yeah and held my hand. And I asked him if he could ask the medics if my femoral artery was severed. They looked and said no, the artery was fine. It was just in the meat, the muscle. And I was like, oh, fuck, thank god. I'm going to live.
I'm sure you'd read about what it was like to be gored by a bull. How did the reality compare?
Well, my friend Steve Ibarra, he'd been gored in a suburb of Madrid about 10 years ago, and Steve told me, 'Take the medicine when they offer it." I should have asked for it, because I hadn't felt any pain whatsoever up until they started sticking their fingers in my hole, my thigh, and I started yelling involuntarily.
The people I've talked to who have been gored, they never really talked too much about pain. And I never really thought about it [when I was gored]. The horn is so sharp, so precise, and so powerful that it just slices right through your meat, like it's nothing. It just slides right through you. That surprised me, that sensation. It was surprisingly painless.
Did you expect this?
I was telling people for the last couple of years, 'Hey, I'm going to get gored eventually.' It's just part of this. The question was where would I get gored, where in my body and where in Spain. In Pamplona, emergency medical care is the best in the world, but if I was gored in a little town I might be in a car for 45 minutes going to a hospital that might not be that good anyway.
That was the thing I'd tell people: If you hear I got gored in Pamplona and I was alive, then I was going to make it. But if I got gored in a little town, be prepared that I might not.
Did you think there was any romance in getting gored before this?
The romance, I hear you: It's part of being a runner, yeah. But I didn't want to be gored. I didn't want this. But it happened, and I accept it, and I accepted it every time I've ever gone on some course, that it's probably going to happen. It's part of that fear that I have to overcome every time.
Will you run with the bulls again?
I'm hoping to run at the end of the summer if I can recover quick enough. I'm going to some of these smaller towns and finish up my research—I'm working on a memoir on the runs, so I'm going to all these little towns, getting interviews and more experiences with the bulls and get a deeper understanding of the culture.
It sounds like you got a pretty deep understanding of the culture today, all the way through your fucking leg.
Yeah, that's very true. But there's more to it than getting gored. These little towns are special. But yeah, you're right, this is probably the end [chapter] of the memoir.
What's your prognosis?
Four days in the hospital and then two weeks on crutches. They've got me already stretching, trying to keep the leg working so I can walk pretty quick.
Have you told the doctors that you plan on returning to run with the bulls by the end of summer?
No. I don't plan on it, either. They're already being real scolding.
[Photos: AP Images]