For more than 25 years, a crowd has gathered around 11 a.m. on a Saturday at The Starboard in Dewey Beach. They’re not waiting to belly up to the bar. At the signal, the revelers sprint to the beach ahead of two people in a bull costume.
This is the annual Running of the Bull, one of the summer season’s most eagerly anticipated “races.” (It’s more of a brisk walk.)
Ridiculous? Absolutely. Entertaining? You bet. “It’s just the silliest event ever,” agrees Steve “Monty” Montgomery, owner of The Starboard. “We get so into the event itself, and the sea of red and white, and the race, and who will be the Matador, that sometimes people forget that the whole thing raises money for the Rehoboth Beach Volunteer Fire Company.” With more than two decades of history preceding it, this year, on Saturday, June 24, this year’s matador “Papa Celeste” (Harry Leontitsis, pictured on the cover), who retired from Mama Celeste’s Pizza, now Starboard Sauced, will don the cape and tassled hat for the “more drunk” version of Pamplona’s long held tradition in the heart of Dewey Beach.
It started with a trip to Spain.
In 1994, Michael McDonnell and friend Mike Howard traveled to Pamplona, home of the San Fermin Festival and Running of the Bulls. Each year, people careen through the town streets ahead of real animals. McDonnell and Howard joined the red-and-white garbed group. “I was 25 and brave and foolish,” recalls McDonnell. Fortunately, the friends survived.
Fast forward to 1997. McDonnell, Howard and housemate Andrew Brady were at The Starboard, drinking beer and chatting with Chip Hearn, then the owner of the Dewey Beach establishment. The men decided to throw a Spanish-themed party, complete with two people in a bull costume.
The first event was small.
On a hot summer day, about 35 people — mostly from neighboring beach houses — drank beer at The Starboard and then took off down the beach chased by two people in a bull costume. It was the era of flash mobs, and the sight caused sunbathers to raise their eyebrows over their paperback novels or forsake their sandcastles.
It was also the dawn of the Internet chat room, and the event quickly generated a buzz. In 1998, about 80 people joined the jog. By the third year, McDonnell wondered how long he could manage it. Happily, Montgomery, a longtime bartender, and his partners had purchased the establishment and wanted to run the annual event.
“We took it to the next level and said, ‘Let’s do a parking lot event,’” Montgomery recalls. “We brought in scaffolding, and it doubled every year after that. Now it’s more than a thousand people.”
The Starboard began selling T-shirts and bandanas for charity and accepted contributions. This year, the suggested $10 donation benefits the Rehoboth Volunteer Fire Department. Most people are generous; total dollars raised are about $15,000 a year, Montgomery says.
McDonnell, now a corporate attorney, remains involved. “When my wife and I started dating in 2004, she understood pretty quickly that it was the one event on the calendar that I wasn’t going to miss,” he says.
Who is the bull?
McDonnell initially rented a costume from a Kensington, Maryland, shop, and his friends wore it. Even his sister took a turn in the tail. McDonnell, however, has never stepped into the costume. “I would like to think that’s an indication that I’m pretty smart.”
Spotting a need, the organizers invested in a costume and stored it at The Starboard. It lasted about 10 years. The current bull was made by a European company specializing in mascots for sports teams. It’s equipped with fans to keep the wearers cool.
Because the costume is so expensive, Starboard employees now don the head and the tail. “It’s usually some strapping barbacks who can handle the weight and heat,” McDonnell says. Montgomery says the staff considers it an honor to play the role.
No matter how high-tech the costume, visibility is poor, McDonnell says. One time a participant dove in front of the bull, expecting it to jump over him. Instead, the bull fell over him and struggled to stand.
Initially, the bull chased the people. Today, competitive runners dash ahead while others straggle behind. “Now it’s a crowd, and somewhere in the middle is the bull,” McDonnell notes.
Does it end with the run?
The crowd gathers back at The Starboard for the bullfight with color commentary. Past guest matadors have included ESPN’s Stanford Steve, actor Ryan Phillippe and Sam Calagione, founder of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, Brewery, who offers a tip for a matador: ketchup looks like blood.
Is Dewey Beach OK with the crowds?
The town is fine with the event — now. McDonnell remembers a meter reader on a bicycle radioing for help during the second race. “I said, ‘Look, man, if you wait 15 minutes, we’ll be back in The Starboard.”
The perfectly legit event now draws crowds to local businesses, some of whom have thanked McDonnell for creating it. One hotel puts up a sign: “Welcome Bull Runners.”
It takes a village to pull off the run. “The town of Dewey Beach, the police and DelDOT do a good job making sure everything is coordinated, and everyone is safe,” Montgomery says.
Should I wear red and white?
Of course. Red is the signature bandana color. McDonnell remembers the hungover crew who entered The Starboard before the run began. After he explained the event, one man bought a red T-shirt at a nearby souvenir shop, ripped it into bandana-size pieces and distributed them to his friends. “I guess we should do this,” he told them.