RollerBulls are taping their fingers, flexing their wrists and dusting off their bats as they gear up for a mile-long skate at the San Fermin Nueva Orleans, the campy local version of Spain’s Running of the Bulls.
“It is a badge of honor to be hit several times by the RollerBulls,” Michael Butterworth, aka El Vasco (the Basque), veteran runner of El Encierro. “Of course, you taunt them by saying something like, ‘You hit like a girl!’ Then you find out that they actually hit like Willie Mays.”
Celebrations get underway Thursday, July 10, with the sold-out Marques de Caceres, a wine dinner at the Hotel Mazarin. Festivities will continue throughout the weekend, building up to main event, El Encierro, at 8 a.m. Saturday at the Sugar Mill.
More than 400 skaters from New Orleans’ all-female, flat-track derby team, the Big Easy Rollergirls, and skaters from other roller derby leagues from across the country and internationally, are expected. More than 14,000 runners took part in 2012.
“The traditional preparation is to go to an event called El Txupinazo at the Sugar Mill, which is a party the night before,” Butterworth said. “A true aficionado would stay up all night drinking, then report for the running which starts at a very early hour.”
Weary bodies dressed all in white with a red sash and scarfs are greeted by a rowdy bunch of RollerBulls with their bats poised, ready for the start of El Encierro.
“You get to the Sugar Mill and you see these beautiful young ladies who have a masochistic streak,” Butterworth said. Outfitted in horned helmets and elbow and knee pads, the “bulls” wield plastic baseball bats that pack a sting.
“We strategically place bulls throughout the route, and every minute or so they will release another handful of bulls. It’s to ensure everyone gets their right amount of hits in,” said RollerBull Sherri Montz, aka Beatrix Skiddo.
Montz alone will pop 20 to 30 runners a minute as she skates along the route with her official Fat Bat — a hollow plastic toy bat she keeps just for the occasion.
“By the time I’m done, I usually have blisters on my thumb and index finger,” Montz said.
For an additional fee, runners can get an extra dose of the RollerBulls.
Some of the runners are gluttons for punishment.
“In case you haven’t been battered enough, the RollerBulls form a gauntlet for a donation to the Louisiana Animal Rescue. You can go through the gauntlet, and they will really wallop on you,” Butterworth said.
Montz has been swinging her bat at runners since the very first El Encierro took place in the French Quarter in 2007. She’s seen it evolve from a quick run through the Quarter where the aim was to drink all day, to the four days of festivities that it is today.
“During the opening ceremony, when runners and bulls are gathered around, you say a prayer to San Fermin. As soon as that horn blows, everyone starts running and you don’t know who you are going to see and who you are going to run into,” Montz said.
Runners can preregister online at nolabulls.com/events/. Proceeds go toward funding the event, Animal Rescue New Orleans and the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Louisiana.
It’s mid-July, so seasoned El Encierro revelers emphasize the importance of drinking plenty of non-alcoholic fluids.
“Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate,” Montz said. “It’s a lot of fun, but take care of yourself from the beginning. Be prepared for a long day of heat, good friends and a lot of fun things going on.”
Another piece of advice is to always watch your back, because you never know when you are going to get popped from behind.
“I like to get the ones who aren’t paying attention because of the surprise element, but then there is a natural competitive instinct in me that wants to catch the ones that try to run away,” Montz said.