Perspective on The Running of the Bulls

In Bull Runner's Blog

The Hillmann Column

By Bill Hillmann

This is my inaugural column for RunningoftheBulls.com. This column will be the most in-depth look into the culture of bull running in Spain in the English language. It will appear here monthly throughout the year and daily during the fiesta of San Fermin in Pamplona. Over the past 15 years, I’ve run with the bulls over 300 times all across Spain. I’ve written two books on the culture, Mozos and the forthcoming The Pueblos and I’ve been a subject of a few documentaries both in Spain and the USA,  my journalism and commentary on the culture has appeared in the biggest outlets on the planet. All that said, my greatest asset is that I am a student of the culture, I have the very best teachers and my curiosity about this cultural art is completely unquenchable. My project here is to inform interested Americans and more broadly English speakers around the globe about the truth of this cultural art in order to battle the false and negative narrative many English language outlets have been pushing in recent years. In short I want to spread my joy for this fascinating culture.

Most Americans believe that the running of the bulls is a one day, one time a year event in Pamplona. It’s not. Actually the Spanish call the running of the bulls, the Encierro, (the enclosure). The Festival of San Fermin in Pamplona, Spain actually holds 8 consecutive days of morning Encierros from July 6th to the 14th. But that isn’t the only misconception most Americans have about this culture. Another major misconception is that Pamplona is the only place they run with the bulls in Spain. In fact there are hundreds of towns in Spain where they hold bull-running events throughout the year. Some of them are also very famous televised events.

There are two major bull running festivals at the end of the summer which have drawn me and many experienced bull runners over the past few decades. The Encierro which has arguably gotten more attention recently with being picked up for a National Spain broadcast on Antena 3, is Fiesta Del Cristo De Los Remedios in San Sebastian De Los Reyes a suburb of Madrid known to bull-runners as “Sanse”. Sanse has produced three of the greatest runners of the past few decades Miguel Angel Castander, David Rodriguez and in recent years Pablo Bolo. This Fiesta is predominantly attended by locals and tourists from within Spain but there is a long tradition of American bull runners who attend annually. The most prominent of these Americans is Steve Ibarra who was seriously gored in Sanse nearly twenty years ago and has since become a beloved member of a local Peña (communal party society). Ibarra welcomed me to Sanse in 2012 where I survived a serious Monton (a pile up of runners in the tunnel into the arena) which left over fifty runners hospitalized. It took me several years but I eventually had some success running in Sanse. It is a very difficult place to run because the runners are all excellent and competing for the best run and the run tends to be especially fast and dangerous. Over the past few years my Basque American friend Ander Echanove has sought me out as a guru as a runner. I could tell he would eventually come into his own. This summer in Sanse, he finally broke through with some amazing runs, running shoulder to shoulder with the great Aitor Aristregui from Huarte just outside Pamplona. For me it was fantastic to watch. I was in Sanse for a few hours before their fiesta started and got to wish Ander luck before heading home. He’s made me very proud and has truly come into his own as a runner.

Bill Hillmann (in white) running in Cuellar – Courtesy Paula Andion

Before I arrived in Sanse, I attended the other great run of the end of the summer, the fiesta of Señora Del Rosario in Cuellar, in Northwestern Spain. Cuellar has a claim to being the oldest bull run in Spain. In 1215 AD the Archbishop in Cuellar penned a petition for the Pope to ban all priests from participating in the Encierro which they considered a pagan tradition. The Pope did ban priests from participating. These documents are the oldest known evidence of a bull-run. But there is more to Cuellar than just being the oldest known bull-run. Cuellar is completely different from Pamplona or Sanse. At 7am they release the bulls from a pen 5 Kilometers outside of town into a group of horsemen. Thousands attend this event which has no fencing. Sometimes the bulls peel out into the crowd which line the meadow and gore people. There is something terribly wild and thrilling about Cuellar. A bull threatened to peel off into the trucks where I watched with some friends sending us all into a panic.    

Later we went to a bridge and watch the hundreds of horsemen working the bulls toward town. The animals splintered along the path and the horsemen deftly guided them back into a solid herd.

We headed to town and prepared I prepared to run. I wanted to run the Embudo (the funnel) an epic downhill run where the fields funnel into the streets at the edge of town. I watched at the edge of the field as the horsemen appeared and crested the long sloping hill. Then the horns appeared in the middle of a great dust cloud. The horsemen broke into gallop and the animals avalanched down the hill in a golden haze of dust and thunder. As they approached I waited for the other runner to dash away and was the last runner awaiting the animals. Luckily two bulls sprang into the lead and I led them into the street before peeling off and diving under the fence. Sadly a bull gored an old man to death a few days later along a wall near the Embudo. The people in Cuellar are so passionate about the bulls that they risk their lives just to catch a brief glimpse of the animals who their ancestors worshiped. 

One of the reasons I went to Cuellar was that I was doing some Journalist Fixer work for a Canal Plus Toros episode of Toros En La Piel, I was able to bring a few main subjects into the project, Alexander Fiske-Harrison and Don Bias a historic photographer of Cuellar’s Encierro and father of my good friend Diego de Diego Repiso. It was a great honor to help the Cuellaranos tell the story of their town. It is one of my favorite places on earth.

Bill Hillmann Running with the bulls in Falces

Bill Hillmann is an author, journalist and bull runner. He’s run with the bulls over three hundred times in Pueblos all across Spain and survived two gorings. He is the author of Mozos: A Decade Running With the Bulls of Spain. His writing has appeared on NPR, VICE, Daily Mail, Washington Post and others. He’s give commentary on the run for TIME, BBC World Service, and the TODAY show.   

More of Bill Hillmann’s expertise is available in our How to Run With the Bulls section. Sign up for the Runners Club to get online lessons from Bill and other bull running experts.