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Runners Bid Adieu To The Metrodome

A 31-year running tradition came to an end in Minneapolis this week.

The closing of the Metrodome marked the end of an era for Twin Cities runners.

Running around in circles is generally deemed to be a counterproductive activity when pursued for an extended period, but for 31 winters, that’s what hundreds of Minnesotans have been doing twice a week in one of the most venerable recreational running facilities in the country. That streak came to a halt on Dec. 26, and if the Grinch didn’t steal Christmas, at least for denizens of the Twin Cities, it was the athletic equivalent of a big lump of coal in their stockings when the biweekly running sessions at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome ended.

For more than three decades the man who started and oversaw the runs has been Rick Recker, a longtime runner, race organizer and course measurer. Recker was there at the beginning and last week was at the Dome for the last session, which concluded with a ceremonial “Last Lap” before the doors were shut to runners for good.

Photos: The Last Laps In The Metrodome

When the Dome opened in 1982 Mark Kaplan, a city councilman from Minneapolis, pushed for the stadium to be used for more than Twins and Vikings games and concerts and shows. “He let the Minnesota Distance Running Association know that there should be a people’s running program inside during the winter,” Recker recalls. “I was on the board of directors and lived a block from the stadium, so I volunteered to organize it.”

Recker calculated that if they charged people $1 to run around the concourse of the Dome it would cover insurance and the few other incidental costs of running the program. Amazingly, that fee remained the same from the first day to the last.

The Twin Cities was a natural place for an indoor running program to thrive, both because it’s one of the coldest metropolitan areas in the U.S. during the winter and because it boasts one of the most robust running communities in the country. Between December and February, the average daily high temperature in Minneapolis typically hovers between 24 and 29 degrees. In the early years close to 800 runners would sometimes show up to cover the 604-meter circumference of the concourse. “But then cold weather gear got better, and more health clubs sprung up in the area, so we got down to around 200,” Recker says.

From early November through mid-March Recker would sit at a desk every Tuesday and Thursday from 5 to 8 p.m., collect the runners’ dollar and generally enjoy socializing with a crew of regulars. In fact, the social aspect of running in the Dome was almost as important as the athletic, engendered by the division of the concourse into an inner and outer “lane” based on pace and going in opposite directions. “By changing directions, you got to see almost everyone who was there that night,” Recker says.

One lap around the stadium ranged from 0.75 on the inner lane to 0.79 miles on the outer lane, but the running group figured out formulas to run precise distances. For example, a 5-mile run equalled seven inner loops and six outer loops and a 10K run could be made by running six inner loops and 10 outer loops.

“The best part was seeing all the other people,” says Gloria Jansen, a nationally-ranked masters runner who was a Dome regular until her retirement from work three years ago. “I used to go there right from the office downtown, get in my run and miss all the rush hour traffic,” she recalls.

Over the years the halls of the Dome saw runners of all abilities, from casual joggers to Olympians like Janis Klecker, Bob Kempainen and Carrie Tollefson and her Team USA Minnesota training partners. “At the height of our careers we used to go to Phoenix to train in the winter, but when we ran in the Dome we really felt like superstars, with people going the opposite direction cheering us on as we did 1200-meter repeats,”  says Tollefson, a 2004 U.S. Olympian in the 1500-meter run.

Like many others, Tollefson noted that the reinforced concrete was unforgiving on the legs, especially running speed work, but was surer footing than snow- and ice-covered roads and sidewalks. But the worst aspect of running in the Dome was when the Twin Cities would get heavy snow.

“Normally the temperature inside was kept at about 65 degrees, pretty ideal for running, especially in the winter,” Recker says. “But when there was a lot of snow they’d crank the heat up to 80 so it would melt the snow off the roof. That could be a little uncomfortable, even with plenty of water fountains around the concourse.”

With the final Vikings game last Sunday all activities in the Dome came to a close, and while the NFL team will move to a temporary home at the University of Minnesota stadium in St. Paul, hundreds of Twin Cities runners will be turned out in the cold and dark until 2016, when the Vikings’ new domed stadium opens. Recker plans to be there, hosting another indoor running program, but he and all the other veterans realize it will take a while to build up the same history that 31 years and millions of miles created at the Metrodome.