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Staring down the suelto: Bill Hillmann gored at Spanish bull run

Bill Hillmann gored in Spanish bull run

Published: Wednesday, July 16, 2014 2:16 p.m. CST • Updated: Friday, July 25, 2014 4:35 a.m. CST
Caption
(Photo provided by Bill Hillmann)
Bill Hillmann surrounded by friends in his hospital bed in Spain after being gored in the leg twice during the famous running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain.
Caption
(Photo provided by Bill Hillmann)
Bill Hillmann captured in the traditional clothing worn by bull runners in Spain.

It was a fine day for a bull run July 9, and Bill Hillmann was feeling it.

He had already run with the herd through the narrow, walled lined streets at the famous San Fermin festival in Pamplona, Spain, when he saw the suelto – a lone bull behind the pack.

It is the duty of the runner to lead the running bulls, made famous by daredevil expats like Ernest Hemingway, along to the streets to the stadium. Hillmann, known as possibly the best American bull runner, saw his bull and they locked eyes.

What happened next, happened fast, he said. He was leading the bull along the street followed by a group of three British men, who, according to Hillmann, displayed little experience with the run.

"You need to remain calm," Hillmann said from his bed in a Pamplona hospital room. "They didn't do that."

As Hillmann led the bull, he was pushed, tripped and fell to the ground and the 1,500-pound bull charged. He was trapped.

"I didn't know I was gored because, there was no pain at all," Hillmann recalled. "A paramedic pulled me out and I looked down and saw this racquetball-sized hole in my thigh. It really didn't start to hurt until the doctors at the hospital starting putting their fingers in it ... but then they gave me morphine."

The bull horn had torn through flesh and easily as a knife, not once, but twice, leaving a puncture wound like a spear on this right thigh, and lifting him into the air.

"You know, the whole thing is really a wonderful teaching point," He said of the experience.

The news coverage of Hillmann's goring has largely been focused on its irony: The man who helped write "Fiesta: How to Survive the Bulls of Pamplona" had been gored.

But according to Hillmann, if you run long enough, you get the horns sooner of later.

"And I survived," Hillmann laughed. "The book's not called how to not get gored; it's how to survive. But it's funny, I see the irony."

Hillmann, an author, journalist, adventurer and former Chicago Golden Glove boxing champion, has been running with the herds across Spain since first participating in a run in 2005. Hillmann grew up in Chicago's rough and changing Edgewater neighborhood, before his family moved to La Grange and later Brookfield. He graduated from Elmhurst College, where he found a love for writing and later got his Master's Degree through Columbia College's fiction program.

"He's always been crazy," his mom, Linda, who still lives in Brookfield said of her son.

The family got a call early in the morning the next day from a television reporter asking for comment. They were concerned, but not surprised (he had warned them it was a possibility), and they knew there was no way to keep him from running.

"He's alwasys done what he's wanted to do," she said.

The now 32-year-old author burst onto the literary scene with the publication of his first novel, "The Old Neighborhood," which tells the story of a kid growing up in the violent and gang-plagued Edgewater neighborhood as it begins to gentrify. Hillmann also became known in Chicago's literary scene with a popular reading series he began called the Windy City Story Slam.

In his description of the bull runs he has participated in, Hillmann sounds nearly religious. For him, they are transcending experiences, as beautiful as opera, but with a danger that demands respect.

Part of the reason he helped create the guide to the bull run was to educate people on the dangers, and hopefully help save someone from death. The first thing to understand: No matter how good of a runner you are, you can be killed.

"[Bulls] are a beautiful animal – the muscular structure – it looks like something out of a primordial dream," Hillmann said. "It demands respect. The second time I ... watched the run ... on a balcony, a runner was gored – in the chest, face – just below me on the street. It wouldn't leave him alone, and I was in awe of its persistence."

A friend who was an experienced runner was able to get the bull to stop by grabbing its tail and run it up the street. Hillmann was struck by the by both the power and grace of the runner, and watching his friend save the man's life only made him want to learn more about the culture surrounding it."

Currently, Hillmann is working on a memoir about his experiences with bull running across Spain, and at least now, he said, he's got a final chapter.

But being gored has not dissuaded Hillmann to stop running – it's part of his life.

"I don't know how many more opportunities I'll have to run," Hillmann said. "I'm not going to do anything crazy, but if I can run, I'm hoping to run [later this year]."

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Hillmann has set up an Indie GoGo fund-raising account to help cover the expenses of his "The Old Neighborhood" book tour and to finish his forthcoming memoir about running with bulls in Spain. To donate, go to http://shawurl.com/1a9i.

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