How Did the Running of the Bull Get its Start in Dewey Beach?

Bull History 3Each year, on the Saturday that falls between July 7th and 13th, the streets of Dewey Beach are flooded with throngs of costumed, over-excited bull runners. It’s a sight to be seen, as it’s not every day that a Spanish-style bull run hits Southern Delaware (or the United States for that matter). Costumes, camaraderie, slight inebriation, and downright craziness ensues, with all ages getting swept up in the momentum and the welcome onslaught of summer fun. That’s right folks, it’s none other than The Starboard’s Running of the Bull! But how did the Running of the Bull get its start? And did the visionary originators ever imagine that 20 years later, their idea to stage a Pamplona-style, Hemingway-esque event would still be thriving (and growing)? For the lowdown on the history of the Running of the Bull, it’s best to head straight to the source – the mastermind behind the birth of The Starboard’s Running of the Bull.

It’s only fitting that The Starboard’s epic throw down began as a harebrained idea amongst friends. Michael McDonnell Bull History 5was a part of the original crew, and 20 years later, hasn’t missed a single run. “Mike Howard and I had been to Spain for the Running of the Bulls (or the encierro, as it’s called in Pamplona) in the summer of 1994,” explained McDonnell. “In the spring of 1997, at the opening weekend of the Starboard, we were discussing with beach housemate Andrew Brady the idea of having a red wine and paella party that upcoming July, to celebrate the Festival of San Fermin. One stupid idea (and beer) led to another, and by the end of the night it was decided that the party wouldn’t be complete without a Bull Running.  Since the likelihood of getting a real bull to the beach seemed slim, they opted to rent a bull costume from Gene’s Costumes in Kensington, MD.”

Bull History 2The first run brought roughly 35 friends and housemates to The Starboard for the inaugural event, which admittedly yielded more confusion than excitement from onlookers. “The Starboard was not at all crowded during the day back then, and people were mostly puzzled by what we were doing more than anything.  When we went down on the beach, it seemed like we’d lost a bet, or chose “dare”.  No one got it,” said McDonnell. Fortunately for the Running of the Bull, Dewey Beach and The Starboard both notoriously attract the type of people that love any excuse to dress up…and party. By the second year, the event tripled in size, and hasn’t slowed down since. “Because of the public nature of the event, and Dewey being Dewey, word spread quickly and by the second year about ninety people ran,” said McDonnell. “And then, it just grew…”

So did McDonnell ever envision the event turning into a recurring one? “Not at first. Not until right after the first one was Bull Historyover and no one had gone to jail.” The stars certainly aligned for the beloved event, with positive growth each year that ushered the Running of the Bull from year one to year 20. Of course, there have been many changes over the years, including the addition of the Kids Bull Run and the charitable elements of the event. “The first significant leap in scope was when Monty took over management of the Starboard and reached out to me,” said McDonnell, acknowledging The Starboard’s current owner and fearless leader, Steve “Monty” Montgomery.  “At that point it was getting too big for a guy like me to run as an informal event, and when the Starboard stepped in to get permits, t-shirts, do the charity element…that really took it to the next level.  Also, getting the permit to use the parking lot definitely- counterintuitively- helped with the crowd.  The Starboard has really helped the event grow at the pace it was snowballing toward anyway, without me going to jail.”

Bull History 720 years later, McDonnell has not only seen the event evolve, but has watched his own life change alongside it as well. Nonetheless, he never misses a Running of the Bull. Of course these days, his wife Kaitie Conway (who gets full credit for the addition of the Kids Run) and kids join in the fun each year. “I love seeing people who have never been before, looking around in a state of shock and puzzlement over it.  I love seeing older people bring their kids.  And I love not ending up in jail,” quipped McDonnell. The 20th anniversary will be a special one for McDonnell, whose favorite Running of the Bull to date was the 2003 addition, which marks the weekend he met his wife. “For the 20th, personally, I’m really pushing lots of my older beach house mates, original runners, to come back, so I am looking forward to the reunion, of sorts,” said McDonnell, adding that this year’s event would also mark the debut of the first Hemingway lookalike contest, along with an increase in the Spanish motif. “So if anyone out there is a flamenco dancer willing to perform at The Starboard, get in touch with me!” said McDonnell.  

What began as a half-baked idea to bring a bit of Pamplona’s Festival of San Fermin to Dewey Beach has evolved over the past twenty years into a wildly popular event for not only The Starboard, but for Dewey Beach and it’s residents and visitors. Thousands flock to Dewey Beach and The Starboard each July to witness the event, which has given rise to countless memories, a few embarrassing photos, and the beginning of many lasting friendships (and more than a few summer romances). Whether you’ve run alongside the costumed bull with the masses, watched with interest from afar, or are a complete Running of the Bull virgin, the 20th year is poised to be an event of epic proportions for all ages to enjoy. What will happen this year? You’ll just have to join us to find out…