RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The bulls are running in Pamplona. Every morning for eight days in a row, daredevils from Spain and around the world sprint in front a pack of bulls. That annual tradition persists, despite a growing distaste for bull fighting in Spain. Jerome Socolovsky was there for the start of the bull run.
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JEROME SOCOLOVSKY: The streets of Pamplona are strewn with broken bottles and slick from spilled sangria. The sun has yet to rise, and this northern Spanish city reverberates with the sound of many tongues, including American-accented English.
Mr. BRIAN MELIZON (High School Teacher): I stopped drinking about 4:00 so I could get about a two hour power nap.
SOCOLOVSKY Brian Melizon is a high school teacher from New York.
Mr. MELIZON: And this way I'm ready to go. I feel good. I'm sober, I got all my wits, and that's the way I want to have it before I do this run.
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SOCOLOVSKY: Around 2,000 runners are crammed into the narrow alleyways that pass for streets in the medieval heart of Pamplona. The runners are dressed in white and wear red bandanas to symbolize the martyrdom of the city's patron saint, Fermin.
Melizon says he often talks about the meaning of the festival with his students back home.
Mr. MELIZON: It's part of the culture. It's part of the religion. And it's not about the killing of the bull, it's about the whole experience. It's religious. So you know, it is what it is. We're here to expand our horizons and ourselves as men.
SOCOLOVSKY: Nearly everyone is male. And many of them do see it as a kind of macho rite of passage. No one knows when the running of the bulls began. But it's been internationally famous since Ernest Hemingway wrote about it in his book "The Sun Also Rises."
Animal rights groups say the run torments the bulls, who meet their death later in the day in the bullring. In the last decade, they've held protests and appear to be winning some sympathy in Spain. Polls show most Spaniards have no interest in bullfighting. And in Catalonia, nearly 200,000 people have signed a petition asking the regional parliament to ban the ritual.
Here in Pamplona, some of the Americans admit they are a bit queasy about bullfighting.
Jay Quintano is also a New Yorker whose grandparents were from Spain.
Mr. JAY QUINTANO: I'd rather see this, the running of the bulls, but afterwards I'd rather them not kill them.
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SOCOLOVSKY: A bottle rocket marks the opening of the pen, and the beginning of the encierro — the 925-yard dash to the bull ring. The encierro can get bloody if a bull strays from the group. Fourteen people have been killed here in the last century, and many runners are gored.
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SOCOLOVSKY: This run was relatively clean.
Afterward, Louis Goldstein and his friends Jim Heaney and Howard Shank feel the heavy release of having survived without a scratch.
Mr. LOUIS GOLDSTEIN: A lot of buildup for a 10 to 12 second event. So you kind of get real geared up, get the adrenalin flowing, and then boom, you start moving, and all of a sudden the bulls are just on you and by you.
SOCOLOVSKY: Would you guys do it again?
Mr. JIM HEANEY: Absolutely, maybe tomorrow.
SOCOLOVSKY: Yeah, is that so? You'll be here?
Mr. HOWARD SHANK: No way.
Mr. GOLDSTEIN: Two of the three of us will.
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SOCOLOVSKY: Cynics would say that the eight days of round-the-clock insanity and the free-flowing sangria are mostly for the tourists. But plenty of Spaniards say the festival is a vital part of their traditions.
Pamplona resident Ramon Moreno has been running with the bulls since he was 13 years old.
Mr. RAMON MORENO: (Foreign language spoken)
SOCOLOVSKY: Yes, it's crazy, he says. But if you've been fed this with your mother's milk, then this is what you do.
For NPR News, I'm Jerome Socolovsky in Pamplona, Spain.
MONTAGNE: And if you want to get a look at the running of the bulls, we have a photo gallery for you at npr.org.