Jeff Baclet and his racing partner Rocky are easy to spot on the course.
Regular competitors in Lake Tahoe races, Baclet is the one with the long hair and disheveled, two-tone gray beard blowing wildly in the wind, a smile lighting up his face.
Rocky is more distinguishable yet, with four short legs in rapid motion, bounding happily along at Baclet’s side when not tucked neatly into a backpack over his owner’s shoulder, his oversized ears perked over a game face that means business.
“I’ve done about 80 races with him. He absolutely lives for it,” Baclet said of his dog, adding that carrying the extra 13 pounds on his back in a mountain bike race is worth the effort. “I think the main benefit I get is I realize how much he’s enjoying it, and that just kind of adds to the spirit of the race. I’m not a qualifier. I’m like a plow horse. My objective is to finish the race. But I know that he’s having the time of his life.”
Baclet and Rocky have raced together for about three years, taking part mostly in trail runs but also mountain bike races and triathlons put on by Big Blue Adventure.
They’ve completed at least six marathons together, three or four 50K trail runs and even a 50-miler, said Baclet, a 44-year-old missionary from Reno and co-owner of Moondog Computers.
Rocky uses his own four feet for the trail runs and rides in the backpack for mountain bike races. In triathlons, he waits anxiously in the transition area until his owner emerges from the water and fixes him into his riding perch.
Baclet said it’s a toss-up which he enjoys more — running or riding.
“Sometimes when I put him in the backpack he tries to stretch out his legs so he can get his two front legs out of the backpack and wiggle a little bit more. But he’s never tried to escape from the backpack. He gets himself hunkered down in there and is like, ‘Let’s go.’”
Rocky wasn’t always so fortunate.
As a pup, he and his former owner frequented a Reno homeless shelter that Baclet runs, coming and going until Rocky one day wound up in the pound. Rocky’s then-owner convinced Baclet to swing by the pound while on their way out of town for a mission, and after negotiating Rocky’s $50 price tag down to $25, Baclet left with a dog.
“I told his owner, Jeff, ‘I’m gonna keep the little guy. I just don’t feel right with you taking him. I don’t think it’s going to go in the right direction with you taking him.’ And I really believe that God just gave me a dog.”
Baclet learned that Rocky, who is incapable of barking and grooms himself like a cat, is a cross of a rare breed of dog called an African basenji. He also is part English rat terrier. Baclet said people often mistake him for a Jack Russell terrier.
“He’s an amazing dog,” Baclet said. “He doesn’t bark.”
Baclet decided one day to bring his young, energetic dog on a competitive 50K run. He brought his backpack in case Rocky ran out of gas before the finish. He didn’t need it, as Rocky powered through like a champ.
“There’s only been one time that he tried to quit on me, at an aid station at mile 43,” Baclet said, referring to the Silver State 50-Miler on Peavine Mountain. “He was completely laid out and I said, ‘Rocky, come on,’ and his little eyebrow kind of raised. And sure enough, he got a second wind and we finished out the 50-miler.”
Baclet began bringing Rocky along on mountain bike races, securing him in the backpack for his own safety.
Once, while competing in the Tahoe Trail 50K Leadville Qualifier at Northstar, Baclet crashed on a downhill. Fellow competitors raced to the scene, concerned about Rocky’s well-being. Baclet, meanwhile, received little sympathy.
“Everybody was like, ‘Is your dog OK?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, he kind of just bounced off of me, but my hip is a little damaged.’ And they went, ‘Oh, glad to hear your dog is OK. See you at the bottom.’”
In any given race, whether mountain biking or running, Baclet said Rocky elicits comments from probably 95 percent of the racers they come across. Spectators chant his name like Rocky Balboa in the classic boxing movies, and photo requests are common.
And while Rocky is content with trotting at Baclet’s side during trail runs, he never allows his owner to beat him to the finish line.
“I’ve never beat him in a race. There was only one time that I had a chance, and it was when we were running toward the finish line at Squaw Valley and he was distracted by a Labrador on the side,” Baclet said. “I went into a full-on sprint to see if I could beat him. And everyone started yelling, ‘Rocky!” and he realized I was sprinting and he took off in a sprint and he beat me by about 2 feet.”
Baclet said he’s been approached by two running companies, Eclipse Running and Reno Running Company, with requests to sponsor Rocky.
The two are taking a break while on a 12-day mission in Mexico. Upon their return, they plan to pick up where they left off in Big Blue Adventure’s Tahoe Trail Running Series, as well as compete in the Donner Lake Sprint Triathlon.
Rocky will be ready.
“Almost every night he’ll scratch my leg a little bit and stare right at me, like he’s asking, “Dad, are we going running tonight?’ And it’s hard for me to turn him down, so usually he inspires me to get out and train.”