It is a Tuesday night in December and the Metrodome is hopping. But the Vikings are not playing, the Twins season has long been over and the people at the Dome on this night are not in the stands. They are running around the concourse.
"It's warm. So that's everything. You can strip down to your shorts. You don't have to bundle up like you do outside. You don't have to worry about the ice on the streets," Harold Richey of Forest Lake said.
Richey is one of more than 130 runners who turned out on this night when the mercury outside was heading down to ten degrees. But it is not just the refuge from the wintry weather that brings him to the Metrodome, it is also the season's short days.
"When you're working it's always dark. Before work it's dark, after work it's dark, so you're always running outside in the dark during the winter," he said.
For the last 24 years -- nearly every year the Metrodome has been open -- runners and even some walkers have been trekking on the concourse. Rick Recker is with the Minnesota Distance Running Association, which sponsors the program. He says it's an opportunity for runners to keep a training regimen year-round.
"Not everyone has the pleasure of a long lunch to get a work-out in. We thought a person could keep a running work out in the winter by picking some time on the weekend during daylight hours and then two nights a week during the week would be enough to keep their fitness through the winter," he said.
The Dome attracts runners of all kinds, those who do it for fitness or fun, some racers and even a few Olympic hopefuls. Jenna Boren is preparing for the Olympic trials in the marathon event next spring.
We see it as the people's rec room, the rec room for the state of MinnesotaBill Lester, executive director, Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission
"I run here once a week usually to be able to get some faster paced work in because it's hard to do it outside with all the snow and cold. It's probably the best place to go if you can't get on a track. It's also fun, social and a lot of my friends come here," she said.
Although she's a regular now, Boren says she was initially dubious about those who ran in the Metrodome.
"I thought they were crazy at first just to run around in a circle, but I enjoyed it. It's a lot of fun being able to run with people while still getting a good workout in," she said.
On an average night, there are about 100 to 200 runners at the Dome, but there have been as many as 800 on a single night. And Bill Lester wants the public to feel welcome. Lester is the executive director of the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, which owns and operates the Metrodome. He says he tries to get as much use out of the facility as possible, playing host to lovers of in-line skating, volleyball, flag football and, once, even dog-walking.
"We see it as the people's rec room; the rec room for the state of Minnesota," he said.
Some say they use the "rec room" because it's cheaper than a gym -- one dollar and the Dome offers free parking. Also, runners like the long concourse for their speed work. One mile is only two-and-a-half laps. That is a lot longer than an average track.
Still there are some complaints. Running in a circle can be monotonous and the concrete surface can be hard. But Ron Byland, whose Minnesota Red running club has been using the Dome for the past five years, has this response:
"I can't believe that frozen asphalt is that much softer than what it is in here right now," he said.