Stories from Strider Jeff Recker

Jeff and family
04 Nov, 2022


my running buddy

by Jeff Recker

Chuckie came into our lives as a refugee. Abandoned in the desert, he was severely malnourished, his legs shook, barely able to support his own weight. His eyes crossed, and his coat was caked in grime and feces. How he survived in the desert was a mystery to us, but he was so thin, I suppose not even the coyotes were interested. I turned a hose on him to clean him up. He caught my eye, anchoring, and in that instant, I knew he was the gentlest, most trusting dog I’d ever met.

We named him Chuckie, after Charlie Brown, because of his big, block head and pathetic disposition. Clean, we opened the door to our house and let him in. He urinated on the sofa.

If you’ve ever read Marley and Me, you’ll understand the story of the world’s worst dog and how he affectionately wormed his way into the hearts of his owners. Let me tell you, Marley had nothing on Chuckie.

We spent the first year wondering about Chuckie’s life before us. We guessed him to be four or five years old. He was an odd little guy that didn’t know how to be a dog—to let it all hang out and have fun. On the advice of our veterinarian, we signed him up for dog agility class to build his confidence. Instead, Chuckie fell off the ladder. Our life long goal for Chuckie became to show him the ways of doggie-hood. 

One thing we did know about Chuckie: his time in the desert, however long that was, conditioned him with an eating disorder, something he would carry for the rest of his life and nearly end it on several occasions. He ate a leather seat of our Land Cruiser, likely looking for crumbs dropped from careless snacking. Shortly after, he’d gotten into a 40lb bag of dog food after we’d left him in the car while we ate at a restaurant. I opened the door, and there was Chuckie, about 3 feet round, gorged like a tick, and ready to pop.

Chuckie also had a penchant for eating socks. An odd quirk, for sure. At a race, he passed an elastic, red one, on the starting line. But, in Chuckie fashion, it hung from him for a good minute, before a good friend leveraged her foot against his hind quarters, and helped dislodge it, just in time for the Star-Spangled Banner. That was our Chuckie, the dog we loved, the dog that made us laugh.

Chuckie was not tough. Once, while out on a run through the desert, he disappeared into the distance. A few minutes later, he reappeared in a full sprint back to us, his ears flat and his tail tucked. A coyote was in tow. He took cover behind us while we shooed the coyote away. Chuckie couldn’t take on anything, or anybody.

Over the years, our family grew to include two beautiful girls. We feared that Chuckie, with his eating disorder, might snatch food from their fingers, accidently biting them, because that’s exactly what he did to us on occasion. But instinctively, he knew otherwise. He would take food from them with a soft mouth. Chuckie may have not been the brightest dog on the planet but he understood. He simply understood. And the girls knew that too. In their toddler years, they petted him, rode him, and curled against him like spoons. Chuckie—always the gentle soul.

Chuckie lived a full life. He played at the base of the Grand Tetons, shopped at doggie boutiques in Aspen, and once entered a parade dressed as a chicken. He loved water, and would fetch a ball until exhaustion overcame him. He learned how to run. And he loved it. He became robust and strong, and we knew that in time he had finally learned how be a dog and let it fly. So, when his legs began to fail several years ago, we greeted the turn with great sadness. Chuckie was old. How old, we didn’t know, but his face turned gray, his eyes clouded, and his mobility faded quickly. Understanding his end was near, we were grateful to have taken him this far. 

We’ll never know Chuckie’s life before us, but we don’t fantasize that it was anything special. It was quite possibly horrible. We took comfort in knowing that when the time came for Chuckie to leave us, he would do so having experienced love and compassion, hopefully having forgotten his rough start in life. We raised him to enjoy his doggie-hood. We never guessed his life with us would last nine wonderful years. We never guessed he would fill ours with such humor and kindness.

Chuckie wasn’t able to run in his last couple years. With his legs failing, he needed our help getting upstairs and over obstacles. But he enjoyed lying on the front lawn. He’d turn his face toward the sun, and simply bask in it. The sky is exceptionally big here, and the valley expansive, framed by snow-capped mountains. Chuckie would look out over the land and feel a sense of contentment and accomplishment, knowing that he had once been a king. He’d been to the top of those mountains.  

A week before Christmas we were dealt a blow when we noticed he couldn’t get up one evening. We carried him into the veterinarian’s office the next day. But Chuckie had no intention of leaving us just yet. He recovered, and we opened presents with him days later. He’d gently tear at the wrapping paper, removing small bits and pieces at a time, revealing a gift. Watching him was both beautiful and gut-wrenching. It was our last Christmas with him. Chuckie would not be making any more trips back to the veterinarian’s office.

Last night Chuckie passed away. I came home from work and he was lying in the garage unable to get up. His legs were gone, and he lay there in his own waste. I carried him to the yard so that he could relieve himself. I pleaded with him to stand, to please stand, but it was no use. He could not. Tears blinded me, just as his cataracts blinded him. Yet we were face to face, eye to eye, anchoring, communicating. He told me it was okay, that it was time to let him go, to give him back his dignity.

My wife arrived home shortly thereafter and placed a call to our veterinarian.

We’d discussed this inevitable moment with our girls over the past year, so that they could comprehend the moment when it came. Chuckie was going to heaven, and so, they said their good-byes before going to bed. The last thing my seven-year-old daughter told him was, “Don’t die before morning.” 

But he did.  

Our veterinarian came over after the girls had fallen asleep, and promised that Chuckie’s dreams would include chasing rabbits and sitting atop fourteen-thousand-foot peaks again. He was comfortable and sleepy before Mark injected him. Chuckie passed within seconds. It was a peaceful goodbye. We held him, stroked his ears, and petted him gently. We told him he is loved, and will never be forgotten. 

We had a good run, buddy.

A Humerus Setback

By Jeff Recker

There’s an indelible moment of my childhood that I can’t shake. It’s of the Abominable Snowman reaching up to put the star on the Christmas tree at the end of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. I don’t know why that scene has stuck in my head all these years, though I think it’s because I hate doing chores, or that I’ve been asked to do the same for the past thirty Christmases. That streak might come to an end.

I have a running injury. Not your normal, below the waist running injury. No, mine is in the shoulder, and I can’t raise my arm over my head. I’ve considered embellishing on how it happened. Running from a burning building with puppies in hand. Falling from a tree while saving a cat. MMA fighting. But the truth is that I was trail running and tripped over a rock—not even an impressive rock—just one that looked like a knuckle sandwich. It packed a punch so hard that it fractured the head of my humerus bone. That’s the fat part that fits into your shoulder socket; the club that the apes used in 2001: A Space Odyssey to beat each other senseless.

After six weeks on the couch, I’m sure my wife would like to take said bone and do the same to me. The humerus bone can be quite funny in the right context. The problem is that it’s still attached. I’m not dead yet, but I see her scheming often.

When we met thirty years ago, she told me she didn’t do sick. I assume that also includes injuries. And here she is taking care of me again on the heels of a COVID19 infection I had earlier this year. Then, she’d quarantined me in our family room for seven days, where I’d moan in private. She’d knock on the door. I’d open it to find a plate of food set on the floor, with her nowhere in sight. But with this injury I’m invited to the dinner table where I’m able to moan in her presence. Sometimes, she grabs a butter knife a little too fast, prepping.

In many ways, this injury is far worse than my COVID infection. Then, I was mobile and functional. I had two capable arms. Now I’ve only got one, and sadly it’s the non-dominant appendage. I never realized just how useless this appendage is until now. I’ve had a lifetime to train it…and nothing. I’ve failed. It’s like that younger sibling, a new employee, or a vice president. It looks nice in compliment, hanging around quietly, a perfect match, actually. But when asked to do something, it fails every time, embarrassingly so.

One day soon, I hope to brush my teeth again without ramming the toothbrush into my gum wall. I’ll be able to pull a shirt over my head and open a jar of mayonnaise. I’ll be able to wipe write.
            It will happen. I’m certain. The recovery is coming along. The first week, I couldn’t move at all. I lived in a recliner and wailed like a ghost. But I saw some improvement in the second week. My dogs took me out for walks. I barely barked at all. And now I go for walks unleashed.

There’s a beautiful, placid lake not too far from my house. This time of year, it’s framed by yellow and orange-leafed Cottonwoods. I tell my wife I’m going out for some exercise, but mostly I just amble from one bench to another, sit for a long while—a scene right out of On Golden Pond—and consider the placards on the benches where I sit. Marty: loved nature. Sarah: bird watcher. Lives reduced to a few choice words, dedicated to dead people who loved this view as well. I wonder, how can I get my name on this bench? Jeff: funny bone.

I also consider a comeback…or not.

I’ve gone from racing marathons and Ironman to walking my fingers up a wall in physical therapy, thrilled by my progress. On big PT days, I even carbo load. It’s a habit.

Of course, a comeback would also include resuming chores around the house; things that my wife is managing right now. Mowing the lawn, doing the dishes. Folding my own laundry. Soon, shoveling snow. I can’t wait to moan about those things. For now, my moans have been repurposed.

Ultimately, a successful comeback will include adorning the top of our Christmas tree with a star this year. That indelible childhood moment. Somehow, I was seeing the future all along. Just wish I’d seen that rock.

Excerpt from The Humiliation Tour:

Billy Ball runs a Cross-Country Race

By Jeff Recker

There are few things I remember about the start. I lined up and exchanged good-lucks, high-fives, and fist bumps with my teammates as well as competitors I did not know. Then I saw Christmas Day. Yes, that is his real name, and by virtue of his name, and that he was the defending three-time state champion, he had his own fan club, and was celebrated by the state’s sports reporters. He made for great headlines, and articles praised him like the Next Coming. In these articles, sometimes I might get a mention that read something like this: “In a gallant effort, William Ball hung on for second place.” Sometimes, I wasn’t mentioned at all.

And today I figured the headlines had already been written. Most assumed Christmas was unbeatable. He lined up to my far right. He was easy to spot in his black uniform with a red stripe across the chest. He had a black tuft of thick, wavy hair and piercing blue eyes that, in that moment, locked on mine.

I mouthed, “Good luck, Christmas.” Then, he lifted his chin as if he was about to return the wish. But instead, he spat.

The least he could do was say my name.

Then, a race official walked the length of us to ensure everyone stood behind the line, pointing at runners whose toes inched over it. “Get back,” he’d say. When he stopped and pointed at me, I looked down to see if I was in violation, but I’ll be damned if he didn’t wink and tell me, “Good luck, son.” He was one of only a few who knew I’d challenge Christmas.

The pistol fired and two-hundred of the best runners in Arizona shot onto the course. Collectively, we were hot-tempered, spirited like race horses, stampeding for position, agitated and hell-bent on making a name for ourselves. Behind us we left a cloud of dust that choked the spectators, leaving them coughing and spitting.

Coach liked to say we were lucky because running is not a contact sport like football, but I can tell you otherwise. In my peripheral view, a kid in a red uniform tripped and fell, curled and trampled. Coach never ran cross-country.

I stayed out of trouble in those early yards, running in the bubble of my teammates. Soon, I broke free and positioned myself up front with four others, including Christmas Day.

Christmas ran as if the outcome was already decided.

He floated above the ground like a saint, without expression and propelled by omnipotent forces. His long, sinewy legs seemed to reach all the way up to his neck, forgoing any hint of an actual torso, a weighted mass to be transported over distance, that say, a human might possess. His gait, so smooth, so impossibly long. Was he beatable? I ran on his heels, wondering. And I gave no thought to the other three who ran with us. They were already panting like dogs.

Now, unique to running in the desert is having to negotiate cacti. I’ve returned home from runs with scratched, bloodied legs from sideswiping jumping cholla. They’re short in stature, but nasty in disposition. As the five of us took a corner, one runner was squeezed to the inside and brushed up against one; its barbed needles broke away and tenaciously attached to his hip. I never saw him again.

Christmas pushed the pace, and we fell in line. I took up directly behind him. And behind me I heard the heavy footfalls of a kid running too fast for his own good, occasionally clipping my heels. I turned and yelled at him to back off, and considered the threat of going down on this course, falling into a giant saguaro cactus, quite possibly. The course was thick with these green-ribbed giants that sprouted inch-long needles from top to bottom. A solid hit on one of them could actually end in death.

But I knew the course well. I cut and weaved along with ease and precision, and before long it became a two-person race.

Christmas continued in front, while I was content to follow. He didn’t look back. He didn’t need to. He knew I was the only one in the field who could challenge him. But in the days leading up to the race, even he was quoted as saying, “Billy Ball is a fine runner, but I’ve beaten him three years in a row. That’s not going to change.”

Perhaps. But at the moment, I pulled alongside as we entered a sandy riverbed, the farthest point on the course where there were no spectators. It was eerily quiet except for the cactus wrens that called to us from the hollowed-out saguaros. We were running in concert, step for step, breath for breath. And for the first time, Christmas acknowledged my presence, if nothing more than a glance to his left to calculate my effort. I was breathing hard, but he was too.

I took a slight lead, checking Christmas as well as any other threat. But we had already gapped the field by nearly a minute.

Christmas pulled next to me and then surged ahead, and I sensed then that he was done playing around. Somehow, I managed to stay with him.

In the final half mile, the course opened up to a wide field. Here it flattened out. Fans appeared in the distance, though they cheered for Christmas.

And I thought to myself, every story needs an antagonist. Here I was, locked in step with him, playing it. I surged and pulled ahead with a quarter mile to go.

The sun was at our backs, and in front, leading the charge, our shadows melded as one. Our feet touched as we wheezed and grunted in unison. Who would kick first? A hard right turn was fast approaching.

This particular turn skirted a cactus patch that looked like a cornucopia of death. At its edge, a giant saguaro jutted out onto the course. A bed of jumping cholla and prickly pear grew behind it. But it was also the hot corner, meaning it was a popular spot for spectators. Locked in step with Christmas, I instantly knew my plan.

I’d slingshot around the saguaro, forcing Christmas to the outside, causing separation. The finish line was a fifteen-second sprint beyond that. But Christmas had a plan too, because when we approached the turn, he cut into me hard, causing me to compromise my gait, or risk being impaled by the giant saguaro.

We’d swept into that turn at a five-minute-per-mile pace, and the next thing I knew, all hell broke loose. Christmas clipped me from behind. I spun sideways, and my next step purchased nothing but air. Christmas yelled “Fu…” before his voice muffled. I could feel the weight of him passing over my body and I knew we were both going down in the cactus patch.

I know a lot about time. It has consumed my life for years. Einstein theorized that at top speed, time slows down. Athletes, in pinnacle moments, talk about the clarity of their surroundings and how everything plays out in slow motion. And that’s how this moment played out for me.

Everything was blowing up. A tumbleweed of body parts and clothing spun in a vortex that shot me out, on my back, looking straight up at a crystal-blue sky. I hadn’t hit the saguaro cactus, but I had fallen into the bed of prickly pear.

Dozens of needles had broken off and attached to my hip, where my skin abraded and puckered red. I rose gingerly and navigated through the cactus patch, an upheaval of dust, and back onto the course. Peripherally, I saw Christmas, also working to right himself. He was calling me something that was not my name. I loped into a jog, and the jog became a run. The finish line drew close, and I fought to run to it, but I was dizzy and the terra firma moved in waves beneath my wobbly legs. How much time had I lost? I could feel the presence of other runners descending upon me like a swarm of locusts. Soon I’d be swallowed up and passed if I couldn’t sprint. But adrenaline kicked in, and I did sprint.

Behind me, I heard the fading claps and cheers from the bystanders who’d witnessed the fall. They were shouting for me to run faster and win the race.

And then someone yelled, “Fancy Pants!” Whatever that meant.

From the hot corner, they’d seen my approach, leading the race in my green shorts. What they saw as I ran away was my bare-naked ass, my beloved shorts left behind, ripped from me in the fall and stuck to a prickly pear.

In the heat of the moment, I had no idea this had happened. I’d gotten up quickly from the fall, assessed the damage to my hip, and took off in a desperate attempt to reach the finish line.

The waiting crowd was in a frenzy now, shouting as I approached. This was my moment, the one I’d dreamt about for four years. This was my fifteen minutes of fame. I’d finally beaten Christmas Day and was going to win my first state championship. But as I closed in, a very different thought entered my mind: Why could I see my bare hip back there?

As quickly as I knew the answer, the cheers turned to gasps, and I heard someone laugh, and another, and still another. But I did what came naturally in the moment—I threw my arms up in victory. A reporter from a local television station lowered his camera and mouthed the words “Oh, shit…” Then I spotted Mom and Dad. They didn’t look celebratory at all. Next to them stood Rigby, who was wide-eyed, and Charlie, who had her eyes fully covered. Dad pointed at me, although his aim was low. My eyes followed. My rail-thin torso provided unobstructed views of my bottom half, and as I crossed the finish line and looked down, I saw my penis swinging freely left to right, right to left, with each step. Cameras flashed. Left to right, right to left. I stumbled, and reached out for something to break my fall. I grabbed a volunteer, who shrieked and slapped my hand away as I landed hard in a cloud of dust.

I bounced up and held one hand in front of my crotch, and the other in back, and looked for someone to throw me a towel to cover myself. Nobody did.

Forget the state championship. Within seconds I knew what would define me for years to come.

Andy Warhol also said this about fame: If you want to make a person miserable give them everything they desire.

I was now state champion. My reward was humiliation.

My legal name is William Ball. But I prefer Billy. My friends call me Billy Ball, because it rolls off the tongue easily and it’s fun-loving. And Charlie prefers the simplicity of BB. But from this point on, my girlfriend, friends, rivals, teachers, administrators, and complete strangers would know me—or know of me—as Billy Balls.

Or simply, Balls.