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Running in Alaska’s Extreme Seasons Teaches Patience and Self-Acceptance

Learning to adapt training and mindset through Alaskan winters


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This article was originally published in the Summer 2022 print issue of Trail Runner magazine.

 

Ten minutes into my first winter run in Fairbanks, Alaska, a white polka dot the size of a dime appeared on the tip of my nose. “Reverse Rudolph,” my boyfriend called it, as the rest of my face matched the shade of that reindeer’s bright snout. “Frostnip,” the locals called it, which was probably more accurate. Either way, it felt drastic for a girl from sunny Los Angeles. 

It seemed clear to me then, back when I was merely a visitor to the far north, that winter in Fairbanks was not conducive to running—at least not for me. Then I moved there, and that proved to be true.

Amber-blue twilight at 3 pm. Before that, a glow both orange and brown, like sunshine filtered through a bottle of root beer. Blankets of snow as far as the eye can see. Roads that look more like toboggan chutes. The landscape is filled with pint-sized spruce trees, stunted by permafrost and mid-winter air that’s too dry and too cold for snow. On top of that, there are post-holed prints from a peeved moose who had to punch through snowpack at nearly twice Alaska’s average rate for this point in the season. 

Moose in snow
Photo Credit: Getty Images

Here, putting on running shoes in winter means headlamps, white fingers, feet that feel like blocks of wood, and a face that stings like a pale tourist in Maui. (Or, if masked, drips like a toddler with allergies.) There’s the perpetual threat of “Reverse Rudolph” (and its looming offshoot: necrotic schnoz). Not to mention angry animals bigger than a snowmobile on stilts.  As far as I can tell, the best thing about running in Alaska in winter is the fact that the bears—grizzlies, no less—are hibernating. Then again, I would like to be also.

It was difficult, at first, to accept the treadmill at the gym as my sole outlet for running. Especially when my N95 mask made me sound and feel like Darth Vader with asthma. But belabored breathing and less mileage seemed worth the price of retaining my corporeal extremities. What seemed impossible to handle was the process of waiting: Will the snow and cold ever leave?!

 

Amber-blue twilight at 3 pm. Before that, a glow both orange and brown, like sunshine filtered through a bottle of root beer. Blankets of snow as far as the eye can see.

 

The problem with waiting is the fear that crops up in its wake. We’ve all felt it. Will I get injured before race day? Will my legs last another 99 miles? Will my runner make it to the aid station? 

Days shrink. Darkness creeps in. Coldness pervades every aspect of life. The ability to move in the way you’re most accustomed is gone. 

What if I don’t run at all for nearly six months? Am I still a runner?

Then the ice cracks. The snow melts. The sun glows bright yellow and refuses to disappear. Suddenly, the question is nonsensical, like asking: When a bear comes out of hibernation, is it still a bear?

So I stop asking questions and run while I can—at least for another six months, while my nose can still maintain its proper hue.

RELATED: Taking Time Away From Running Is Hard. It’s Also A Huge Opportunity.