Excerpted from the book Mozos: A Decade Running with the Bulls of Spain
I woke at dawn when an officer kicked my foot and walked away laughing. Laborers finished standing and securing the barricades fifty yards away. I wandered to Telefónica, the section of the bull run course near the bull ring. Beautiful young Spanish women swept past by the hundreds. I stood in the center of the street as they passed. I met eyes with them, told them bonita.
Some stopped and smiled. Others giggled. One took me by the hand and tried to lead me away, but I stayed. I waited, and readied for the run. I had no idea I was standing in the wrong place. As 6:00AM approached, the crowds along the barricades thickened, and photographers took their posts in peek holes in the boarded-up shops. I moved up Estafeta Street. Hundreds of hopeful runners scattered over the narrow passageway.
Suddenly, a police line the width of the street formed. It moved toward me. They herded everyone up the street. At the first intersection on Estafeta the barricade swung open. I couldn’t believe it. Why are they pushing us off the course? I thought. I did everything right! I’m here an hour early, sober! Some of the would-be runners up front resisted. A tall officer with gray stubble on his cheeks cracked a runner over the head with his nightstick. The police line heaved, and shoved every single one of us out onto the side street.
We all panicked. I ran down other side streets, asking urgently, “Where do we have to go to run?!” People pointed different directions. I sprinted down one long street, found no entry at the barricades, and ran back. I cut down another alley that wrapped around a tall building, praying that I would find a way in. Exhausted, I sat down in a doorway and quit. Maybe running with the bulls just isn’t in my destiny, I thought. My heart ached heavily, and I wanted to go home. Someone or something swooped up to me and whispered urgently, “Listen…just listen.” As my breathing slowed, I heard a tremendous, tense chatter, and a voice on a loudspeaker that switched languages every few seconds.
Curious, I followed the noise around a corner. I found a long barricade with many people around it, all perched on the top row with others strung along it straining to see over. I pushed forward. A few people ducked under and onto the course—police stopped another runner and pushed him out. The nearest officer turned his back, and I slipped through the barricades deftly, like stepping through the ropes into a boxing ring. As I passed through the second barricade, I smashed into a dense mob of bodies. Tons of body-to-body pressure squeezed me, pressing on my organs. It ebbed and swayed—at its worst, I struggled to breath. Everyone chattered tensely. The only direction you could see was up. The ornamental façade of an ancient building with a large clock on it rose above the heads of the runners. I realized it was the town hall.
The clock read twenty minutes till eight. The recorded PA voice switched to English. It warned of great bodily harm; if you fall down, stay down. The crowd murmured. The murmurs twisted and lifted into a cheering roar that bellowed up, then fell into laughter. Some people staggered drunk; others gave obnoxious advice to an American married couple near me. I argued with the advisers, but what the hell did I know? It was the blind leading the blind. At 10 minutes to eight, the police line holding us back broke, and the thick mob unraveled and sifted up the street.
I walked a half block and came to a sharp banking turn. A five-tiered wall of cameramen loomed behind the barricades. Photographers from publications the world over vie for position here, arriving as early as 5:00 a.m. This was La Curva, the curve, Dead Man’s Corner. I remembered seeing the ESPN series on the run in the early 2000s. They’d called it “Hamburger Wall” and described it as the place where the herd crashes every morning. The series described it as one of the most dangerous places to run. I figured I’d start right there.
I held my ground bravely at the curve—right in front of the barricades the photographers jockeyed behind. Suddenly a stick-rocket screamed into the sky, and burst high above the red-tiled roofs of the city. Wild panic surged up the street. Suddenly I wasn’t so brave anymore. I crossed onto the inside of the curve where a bunch of runners stood—a stupid mistake. I’d soon learn why. The American couple materialized and asked me, “Is this a good place to run?” I shrugged.
A second boom rumbled in the sky. Then a wild cheer erupted from the balconies, and barricades swung up behind it. A steady stream of runners rounded the curve and flowed past me. Some laughed; others yelled, terrified. A low, deep rumble grew in the distance. The speed and density of runners pouring around the bend escalated. Only terror-struck faces flew past now, accompanied by a high-pitched scream. The leaden rumble twisted into a sharp, hard crackle. The cobblestones and buildings resonated. A large black streak surged through the curve. The crackle exploded. Time froze. The lead bull bucked a runner with its forehead. The man floated on a cushion of air above the bull’s snout with his arms flung out. His lips stretched in a wide-mouthed terror-grin. Bulls, steers, and men crashed into the mural of San Fermín next to the photographers’ barricade with a thunderous, wooden boom.
I gawked rigidly. Most of the herd rose and rumbled past. One bull stayed and dug his horns into the fallen people. The immense, sculpted muscularity of his neck and back contorted under his black fur. A white flash swirled in my peripheral vision. A hard-panging bell flooded my eardrums. I turned. A giant steer barreled directly at me, an arm’s length away. I dove backward and pressed my hands into its shoulder. The fur stretched taut as a drum. Somehow, my legs missed his hooves. The young American couple jogged obliviously ahead of me, hand in hand. The steer plowed through them. Its hooves gobbled them up. Their arms and legs splayed wildly under the hooves. They screamed.
My forward momentum carried me over them. At the last second I leaped and pulled my knees way up to my chest. My feet barely cleared the couple. I stopped and hovered over them, asking “You OK?” They both writhed on the ground. I reached down to help them when the last bull at the curve bellowed wrathfully and raised his massive black head. His powerful white horns swung up tall. I remembered hearing that a separated bull is deadly dangerous. He broke into a gallop, and I turned and ran as fast as I possibly fucking could. Luckily, the final bull rocketed past me on the other side of the street. The thick stampede of people spread to allow him through. Other individuals forced their way in front of him, and sprinted ahead for several strides before peeling to the side. I kept sprinting forward, at first in terror, but as the crowd slackened I remembered that they released vaca (wild cows) into the ring after the run.
I sprinted for the arena at the end of the course. As I got to the opening of tunnel into the arena, several police officers pushed the immense red double doors closed. A crowd fought to get through the narrowing opening. I pressed into it as well. The police pulled out their batons and cracked a few of the revelers in front. I gave up. Another stick-rocket burst above the arena, and a joyous cheer washed over the entire city. I cheered and grasped at others nearby. “Did you see that? Did you see that?” They shrugged me off, laughing. I realized that this was bigger than any individual experience, that all of us had shared it together. Then the joy twisted to shrieks again. A wild ramble of shouts and panging bells approached. I had nowhere to go, so I climbed up on the barricades just in time. Four steers swept just under my feet – they’d opened the arena doors to let them in. I hopped down. The police struggled to shut the heavy doors. Two other runners pushed at the opening. I sprinted and drove my shoulder into the others’ backs, and we avalanched into a darkened tunnel. The police shut the doors, and we ran down the passage giggling.
I jogged down the dark tunnel, and stepped onto the white sand of the arena for the first time. The brilliant morning light struck me like a warm wave. The entire arena, full to the rafters, gave the hundreds of runners a standing ovation. The cheers fell into Spanish songs. Complete strangers embraced on the sand. Others raised their arms like victorious gladiators. I walked around, dumbfounded with euphoria among the wild pandemonium.
You may purchase Mozos: A Decade of Running with the Bulls of Spain here.
Bill Hillmann is the author of the award winning, internationally acclaimed novel The Old Neighborhood. His memoir Mozos: A Decade Running With the Bulls of Spain has received global attention and is being translated to Spanish by the biggest publisher in Spain and Latin America. Hillmann’s writing has appeared in the Toronto Star, Washington Post and Chicago Tribune. He’s told stories for NPR’s Snap Judgement and The Story. He is the creator of The Windy City Story Slam.