The annual encierro in Pamplona, Spain, has seen more than a dozen deaths and thousands of injuries — bulls unleashed from corrals wend their way through the cobblestone streets of the village toward a bullfighting arena. A txupinazo (or bottle rocket) signals the start of the half-mile run, and in the bulls' path are thousands of runners clad in white with red scarves and sashes. It's a centuries-old practice, originating from Pamplona's residents helping herd the bulls, and it later attracted hundreds then thousands of visitors soaked in sangria and wine over an eight-day festival honoring St. Fermin.
West Bank-raised Mickey Hanning made Running with the Bulls one of his top three goals (along with skydiving and marathon running) — and he liked it so much he led a group of friends to recreate the event in New Orleans five years ago.
"On Mardi Gras (in 2006), a buddy was dressed up in white clothes with the sash and bandanna. 'Why don't we just do something silly like that here?'" Hanning remembers asking himself. "I just assumed it would be people I knew, family and friends — just kind of have our own little fun thing, maybe top it at 100 people."
That 2007 event attracted more than 200 people, and in 2010, more than 8,000 runners crowded the French Quarter and CBD. Members of the Big Easy Rollergirls assume the role of bulls, brandishing toy baseball bats and wearing horned helmets. In its first year, only 14 rollergirls hit the streets. This year, more than 400 roller derby women from 27 teams from across the U.S. and Canada will chase runners along a 1-mile gauntlet from the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, through the French Quarter and back into the CBD, ending at Ernst Cafe on South Peters Street.
In as little as five years and with virtually no advertising, the organizers, a group of six friends, have inadvertently launched a summertime goof into an annual festival that has captured the imagination of thousands and attracts national and international crowds to an event that starts at 7 a.m. on a Saturday.
"People in New Orleans are looking for something fun in the summer — any reason to get dressed up," Hanning says. "In the middle of the year we'll start talking about (plans), and someone eventually will say, 'This is so stupid. This is crazy that these people come to this city and do this, this early in the morning.' It's truly bizarre."
The first Running of the Bulls in New Orleans in 2007 was missingone key ingredient.
"We were at a loss [as to] what or who to use for bulls," co-organizer Dylan O'Donnell says. "We had some strange ideas. Mickey's wife (Beth) was going to chase us with a papier-mache thing on her head. She's not a very intimidating person. (The Big Easy Rollergirls) were happy to oblige chasing us in the streets and beating us."
Without a txupinazo to signal the beginning of the run, the crew has used air horns (blown by O'Donnell's dad) — or has simply yelled, "Run!"
Spectators and runners dress in traditional white outfits, with a red scarf around the neck and red sash tied around the waist. Other costumes range from matadors, Frida Kahlo impersonators, flamenco dresses, gigantes y cabezudos (giant papier-mache heads used in San Fermin parades), to the not-so-Spanish Mexican wrestlers (luchadores) and sombreros.
Before El Encierro, the costaleros carry the statue of St. Fermin in a morning procession, followed by a drum procession (el tambores) and trumpatistos, performing a Spanish fanfare on trumpet. Following the run, roller girls compete in two contests: Best Dressed Bull and Horniest — to determine who wore the best pair of horns.
Hanning stresses that the event requires a lot of time — and a good bit of money. The group pays for the events though donations, ticket sales and merchandise; Hanning and his wife Beth screenprint and stitch the event's merchandise, including T-shirts and the signature red scarves. The sales not only help fund the events but also raise money for charities the group supports. This year, sales and donations (including those for a by-donation mechanical bull ride) support Animal Rescue New Orleans and the Louisiana Multiple Sclerosis Society.
Also joining the festivities this year are 30 members of Atlanta's Cocktail Tour, who will take part in the procession and carry the ashes of Donald Robert Hanemann, one of the Atlanta groups' members who died recently. One of Hanemann's wishes was to run with the bulls in New Orleans.
"We run on Stella Artois, absinthe, Gatorade, water, coffee, verylittle sleep, sangria — we squeeze in food here and there," O'Donnell says. "It's exhausting, but the adrenaline we get through the weekend keeps us going."
The main event, El Encierro, lasts only 15 to 20 minutes — but the festival stretches across four days. On Thursday, July 7, the group hosts a Marques de Caceres wine dinner at Rambla. On Friday, July 8, El Txupinazo features food from Vega Tapas Cafe, with an open bar, music by Ven Pa' Ca and flamenco dancing. Following that, 12 Bar opens its doors for a 12-hour fiesta that lasts until 8 a.m., when El Encierro begins.
Following the run, food vendors, live music and a mechanical bull fill the streets, followed by La Fiesta de Pantalones ("The Pants Party") at 12 Bar.
In his 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway introduced the Running of the Bulls to the world outside Pamplona. Concluding the four-day San Fermin in Nueva Orleans festival is El Pobre de Mi (or "Poor Me"), which in Pamplona is the "last hurrah and get-together — sing, drink and lament the fest is over," Hanning says. In New Orleans, the event — co-hosted by NOLA Fugees at Ernst Cafe on Sunday, July 10 — includes an Ernest Hemingway lookalike contest (and catwalk-style Hemingway fashion show) and Hemingway skit contest — though the skits are assigned after participants get there. "It could be from a book, a story from his life, you have no clue what you're getting into," Hanning says. "Costuming is part of life here. It's fun to see some of the creative things people come up with."
The group (dubbed el pastores, named after the guys running behind the bulls with long sticks to keep them in line) and the festival received Pamplona's blessing following the first year's event, which was featured in Diario de Navarra newspaper. ("Over there, they think it's funny," Hanning says.) Organizers of Pamplona's San Fermin event met the New Orleans crew on Ash Wednesday in 2009, and for the following year's event, the San Fermin organizers sent the event's mascot costume — "a big blue bull with big blue something elses," as O'Donnell describes it — named "Mr. Testes."
The City of New Orleans, too, has embraced the festival. City Council Vice President Arnie Fielkow, donning a mustache, attended last year's run. For the first time, the Joan of Arc statue on Decatur Street waved the Spanish, not French, flag, in honor of both the event and the city's Spanish legacy.
"It's like a Holy Trinity here: Getting up early, drinking and costuming," O'Donnell says. "Those three elements in New Orleans, people will react in hordes."