On the day after Christmas, you’ll find Rick Recker where he is every Tuesday and Thursday night from November through March. That would be the Metrodome, where Recker greets hundreds of grateful runners coming in from the cold to de-stress and run in their shorts — always for a buck.
You might also find champagne or cake. There certainly will be stories and hugs exchanged.
After 31 years, one of the most popular winter running options in Minnesota, thanks to Recker, is ending with the Dome’s upcoming demolition.
Recker will join runners for a ceremonial “last lap” on Dec. 26 at 7:55 p.m.
“I’m going to be sad,” said Recker, former president of the Minnesota Distance Running Association (MDRA). “I’ll miss all those positive people coming in the door and doing something good for themselves.”
Those positive people likely will still enjoy 70-degree temps inside the new stadium when it opens in 2016, said Michele Kelm-Helgen, chairwoman of the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority. “We will absolutely continue it,” she said of the running program, and of in-line skating, too.
But for a buck? Stay tuned.
Regardless, Recker knows it’ll be hard to recreate the goodwill that’s grown organically on the Dome’s second level for more than three decades.
In its heyday, the dome welcomed up to 800 runners a night who flocked inside from 5 to 8 p.m. twice weekly. It’s down to about 200 a night now. They’d kick off snow boots, pay their dollar and take off around the well-lit, non-slippery, concrete floor. Two-and-a-half laps to a mile.
High school, college and Team USA competitors came. Walkers came. First-time runners came and got better. Friendships formed, as did healthy habits.
“It was such a nice thing to have,” said Carrie Tollefson, 36, a middle-distance runner and member of the 2004 U.S. Summer Olympics team. While she did most of her training in warmer climates, Tollefson said she loved the camaraderie of the Metrodome, where “people would cheer for us and we’d cheer for them.”
She credits Recker for that. “Our running community wouldn’t be the same without Rick,” she said. “It takes someone like Rick to keep that community tight and vibrant.”
Recker, 69, ran track at Minneapolis Roosevelt High School and on an intramural championship team at the University of Minnesota. He earned a business degree but kept gravitating away from computer programming to road races, where he’d volunteer every chance he got.
That was back in the day when runners were looked at “like we were running in our underwear,” he said. “People would swear at us, throw stuff at us. We were oddballs.”
Recker, who lived then in rural Independence, would dive even deeper into the woods to run, to stay clear of his neighbors.
His volunteer work at races eventually led to paid positions. In the 1970s, he was invited onto the MDRA board, later becoming its leader.
After the Dome was built in 1982, then-Minneapolis City Council Member Mark Kaplan said the public stadium should offer opportunities for public activities. Recker, who was certifying racecourses at the time, lived in an apartment just a block away.
“I can do it,” he said, of overseeing the fledgling running program. “No matter the weather, I can be there.”
He’s been there since, working with volunteers, greeting familiar faces and dealing with small emergencies. The other night, he assisted a runner facing a minor health scare, “but everything was OK.” Once, a runner got locked inside briefly when he didn’t hear that the place was closing.
Security has always been top-notch, Recker emphasized. “Cameras and security people are everywhere,” he said. “It was pitch black one night on the field and they knew I was there.”
Early on, Recker ran with the pack. Then he decided he liked socializing better, so he runs during the day on his own, arriving at the Dome around 4:30 p.m. to get everything ready. Then he spends three hours doing what he loves — “absorbing all the energy being thrown my way.”
The Dome rarely closed to runners, with the exception of Thanksgiving and other major holidays that landed on a Tuesday or a Thursday.
Recker remembers having to cancel one night in the 1980s. The Rolling Stones were in town.
“We’re flexible,” he said.
Mike Warden, of Eden Prairie, became a volunteer that first year and has worked closely with Recker since. “Rick is Minnesota running,” said Warden, 61, who has noticed one obvious change since the early days: “We all got older.”
Warden often had to talk himself into showing up. “All I wanted to do after work was go home,” Warden said. “Traffic was terrible, the weather was terrible. But once I got down [to the Dome], you’d connect with people you’d met over the years. That’s what I’ll miss.”
Recker, the father of three and grandfather of six, will be 71 when the new stadium opens. Expect to see him there, in his running shoes.
“I created something 31 years ago that’s lasted this long,” he said. “I can do it again.”
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