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Running with the Bulls


Welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT from PRX and NPR - the "High And Mighty" episode. My name is Glynn Washington. And today SNAP is standing up to some powerful forces. Next up, Bill Hillman rocks his tail live in Chicago. Get ready for a choose your own adventure story like none other.


BILL HILLMAN: I had a violent childhood. I got in a lot of street fights. I was in gangs. That all made it really hard to learn and I had a lot of trouble learning how to read and, you know, I struggled. I didn't read an entire novel until I got into junior college and this teacher started getting me to read Ernest Hemingway's work. And I finally - I decided the hell with it. I'm going to read a whole book, so I strolled the halls of the library. I found "The Sun Also Rises" - Ernest Hemingway's debut novel - picked it up off the shelf, sat down and just started reading. And this is a book about these ex-pat Americans in the '20s who traveled to the running of the bulls in Pamplona and they had this crazy adventure. And as I'm reading it, it felt like he was talking directly to me and I read that book in six hours. And when I closed the book I decided I was going to go to Spain and I was going to run with the bulls.

Three years after I read that book I was standing on Estafada Street, the same place Ernest Hemingway had watched from 80 years before. I started to hear this, like, chaotic sort of rumble in the distance. And so I started walking towards it and sure enough it's town hall. It's where you're supposed to wait for the running of the bulls. And when a police officer turned their back I snuck in through the barricades and I got on the course.

And I decided I was going to run The Curve - also known as Hamburger Wall or Dead Man's corner. This is, like, the most dangerous place on the course. It's a really stupid idea. So the rocket goes off, which means the bulls are in the street, and I hear this rumble just moving towards me and everybody's panicking. People are flying past, screaming, scared and the rumble just starts growing and growing until the ground starts shaking and the buildings are shaking. And suddenly this rocket - this black sort of rocket - just shoot into view. And the lead bull had bucked a runner and he is floating over the bull's head and he's screaming. And the herd and him - they all just crash and fall into the corner.

And out of my periphery I see a motion and I'm like what is that? I turn and there's a gigantic steer that hugged the inside of the corner and is coming straight for me. It is, like, five feet from me. And at the last second I dive backward and kind of push off its side and the people who are running next to me - it just tramples them. And they both scream out and I stop and I, like, try to help them. And then I look up and there's one bull left at The Curve and it turns and looks at me. And this lone bull just starts coming for me. And I take off running. I never ran faster in my entire life.

Now, that first run had such an impact on me I knew that my life had forever changed. I came back every year for 10 years. And over those years I started to learn about the run, about the tradition and I learned about this thing called running on the horns, which is the run in front of a bull. And what happens is the bull picks up on your cadence and if it likes it, it follows you and it links with you. And it'll follow you anywhere you go.

When you run on the horns it is such an intense rush. It's like being connected to the most - the fiercest, most majestic beast on earth. And it's like catching a perfect wave. It's like summiting Everest. It is absolute glory. And over the years I started to be able to do that little by little and I started to get the respect of the Spanish runners and started to - people started taking a notice that I could run.

At the same time I kept seeing all these foreigners, all these tourists, that were coming and they were basically just messing up the run. They didn't know what they're doing. They were just like me when I first came. They had no idea what was going on and they were getting people hurt.

So I thought, you know, I need to start writing about this. I need to write so I can inform and maybe help sort of clean up the street. And I did. I wrote one for Outside magazine and later some people decided to publish it as a book, as a survival guide, sort of the do's and don'ts of bull running. It was just amazing. It was, like, everything - my whole life was sort of, like, coming to a pinnacle. Like, I finally became an author. I was going to Spain to run for the 10th time. I was just feeling great and on July 9 I was running in Pamplona.

And there's one thing in my guide - if you get near a lone bull, if you're a first-time runner, you need to just run away. But it's sort of a paradox because for guys like me who run for many years, it's, like, the ultimate is to run on the horns of a lone bull. It's, like, the most intense, the most exhilarating thing you can do in the run. So I was running that day on the ninth and sure enough a lone bull appears and I approach him and everything is great. You know, he acknowledges me right away. There's two really legendary runners running with me, leading this bull up the street. Everything is going great, running, running and I look back and there they are. All of the tourists and they're panicking and they're freaking out and they're right on me and I have nowhere to go.

And the thing about panic - if you're too close to the panic, you're just as screwed as the people who are panicking. I tripped up and I ended up falling right in front of the bull and this 1,200-pound black Spanish fighting bull with dagger-like horns swooped in, his horn pierced my mid-thigh, he lifted me into the air. I fell off, fell back down to the stones. I was on my back and I knew not to get up 'cause you're not supposed to get up if you fall so I stayed on my back, but my knee was a little up and he gored me again. And when he gored me under the leg he just kind of let out this, like, seethe. He was like...


HILLMAN: And the medics pulled me under the barricades. I looked down and it looked like my leg was swollen like a balloon on my thigh and in the center of that balloon there was a baseball sized hole. And it was like somebody has scooped a whole handful of flesh out of it. The little hole that was under my leg was just streaking, gushing blood out of my leg and it was going straight down my leg and filling my shoe and I knew about the femoral artery and if it severs you got two minutes before you die. And I'm thinking it's got to be the artery. I'm panicking and I'm thinking is this how I die? Right here, 30 yards from the frickin' Ernest Hemingway statue and I'm thinking about Ernest Hemingway and I'm like you got me into this, man.


HILLMAN: And suddenly out of nowhere Michael Hemingway, who's Ernest Hemingway's great grandson, just miraculously appears. And he - we know each other and he's like - he's not like what you would of, like, as, like, a Hemingway - like a big, burly Hemingway. He's kind of, like, this skinny, little twerpy guy with a high-pitched voice. And he's like my, God, Bill, you've been gored.


HILLMAN: And I'm like yeah, Michael, I know, man. Ask the medics if it's the artery, you know? And that kid, man, he's only 18 years old. He was really there for me. He kneeled down beside me, took my hand man. He was there for me. And he's like, Bill, the horn, it brushed the artery, but it didn't sever it. He's smiling at me. He's like I'm here. You're going to be OK.


WASHINGTON: Thanks so much, Bill Hillman, for sharing with the SNAP. Now, you better believe that Bill hasn't stopped running. We'll have a link to his survival guide and everything else he's written on our website along with info about where to catch the Seven Deadly Sins storytelling event. Check it out. That piece was produced by Ana Adlerstein.


WASHINGTON: Now, when SNAP JUDGMENT returns, we unveil the results from a secret excavation that is not right next to where they found the "Dead Sea Scrolls" - a book of mysteries that is part of no one's Bible - in just moment, when SNAP JUDGMENT, the "High And Mighty" episode, continues. Stay tuned. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.