Gored in the thigh by a bull on the third day of the festival of San Fermin in Pamplona, Spain in July 2014, former Brookfield resident Bill Hillman wasn’t sure how he’d react if he ever ran with the bulls again.
A veteran mozo, known as a courageous runner who had participated in scores of encierros during the past decade in Pamplona and elsewhere in Spain, Hillman was certain he’d step out onto the cobblestones of Pamplona again.
But he wasn’t confident. In fact, he was petrified.
As he said goodbye to his parents and his wife at the airport in Chicago on his way to this year’s festival, which ran from July 7 to 14, he broke down in tears.
“It was bad, very hard,” said the 33-year-old Hillman, who ended up running all eight days in Pamplona without being injured. “I had these nightmares thinking I might die, I had had them before, but they were never so real. They were dark omens, and I thought to myself, ‘Why am I doing this? Why am I actively seeking this out?'”
Hillman was seriously injured in 2014 after he got tangled up with some inexperienced runners and fell to the ground. A bull named Brevito gored him through the thigh and threw him in the air.
He spent the next 11 days in the hospital and was walking with a cane until early September. Slowly, he gained the ability to run. In November while walking his dog, he ran for the first time and he started doing training runs in earnest in January.
But the nightmares and what Hillman described as flashes of images of him suffering critical injuries haunted him. Running for Hillman, however, is a compulsion. He approaches the mozos culture with a kind of mystical reverence.
In fact, he wrote a book about it — Mozos: A Decade of Running with the Bulls of Spain — which was released the first day of the 2015 San Fermin encierro.
“I had really set out on a quest to show the tradition as it is,” Hillman said. “I hoped to present the culture the way it is: a beautiful, profound culture and the incredible brave, profound artists, the noble people [who run].”
The release of the book and his return to Pamplona as an active participant set off a media blitz. Hillman was interviewed by The Atlantic and appeared in TV and radio interviews both at home in the U.S. and in Europe.
“I was so distracted,” Hillman said. “It was non-stop every day.”
For the first six days of the festival, said Hillman, he didn’t run well. While some of the darkness lifted from his psyche, he couldn’t throw himself into the runs the way he had in the past.
“As soon as I felt the pressure of the crowd, I’d sort of get afraid and cut away to the barricade,’ Hillman said. “I fell a few times on the first few runs. It was a helpless feeling. My actions came from my subconscious, saying, ‘Escape, be safe,’ and that was frustrating.”
At home, Hillman’s parents stayed up until the early morning hours each day of the festival to watch the runs live on cable TV. Occasionally, they’d be able to pick out their son and heaved a sigh of relief when his name wasn’t mentioned among those injured during the run.
“At least we could go to bed knowing there wasn’t a problem,” said Hillman’s mom, Linda, who still lives in Brookfield. “It scares the hell out of us.”
Hillman’s wife, meanwhile, skipped Pamplona after going through last year’s experience. She wanted to be as far away from the encierro as possible — she went to India.
After that sixth day, Hillman reached a crossroads. He was either going to run like the veteran mozo he was or he was going to walk away. Hillman also had a heart-to-heart talk with fellow elite runner Dennis Clancey, who directed the 2015 documentary film about the San Fermin festival, Chasing Red, in which Hillman featured.
“He told me that just that fact that you’re here is a victory,” Hillman said. “It was really important for me.”
On the seventh day of the festival, Hillman took his place on the street wearing the blue striped jersey he’d worn in 2011 during one of his best runs, the one pictured on the cover of his book, Mozos.
He ran in the very center of the street and when he felt the pressure of the crowd melt around him, he knew a bull was right behind him.
“It felt like the old days,” said Hillman who led the bull for about 15 yards before it swung wide right as it drew up beside him. “He passed me and I let him go.”
The final run of the festival the next day was “chaotic.” Said to be the fastest run in the history of the event, runners — including Hillman — toppled over like bowling pins. Two of Hillman’s friends, one of whom he helped lift over the barricades to medics, were seriously hurt.
But even the less-than-stellar last day couldn’t dim the joy Hillman felt with his run the previous day.
“I felt like I completed a quest. There was a lot of joy and gratitude. I felt really in touch with why I do it.”