(A somewhat different Dutch version is here.)
Mitch, a student from Fairbanks, Alaska, will never run without his phone. A gun –which he naturally owns, like all Alaskans I met– might be more effective. But it would be heavy and cumbersome. In any case, his mobile is crucial. It’s -30 degrees Fahrenheit and as we make our way through the almost tangible cold as the first light appears, Mitch tells me about the runner who once had to run for her life as a huge moose chased her.
Moose are benign and uninterested in humans, I am told. Until they decide you are the enemy. The woman had to climb a tree, call the campus police and wait until the moose was shot. True story, Mitch says, as he points to the dark woods where this incident occurred.
The story, and the ominous cold, are raising my adrenaline level and our pace, I can feel it. That’s not a bad thing if it warms me up.
They say it can be comfortable, even hot in Fairbanks. In August. That information won’t help me now, a January morning during a recent visit for a story. Friends have given me bewildered looks as they ask, ‘Alaska? In January?’ Tough fellow runners have called me nuts for planning to run there.
I describe in my book how runners incessantly talk about the weather. I also note I’m a not a good-weather runner, but rather an any-weather runner. Cold, heat, rain, wind – we run! That’s great, the whole tough-guy thing. But this morning I am, frankly, a little worried. I’ll tell my Mom about this particular adventure after it will be over, I decide.
In Kenai I had run alone a few days earlier. Bad idea. In Wasilla I had gone dog mushing with the terrific Josh Klauder, and lost all sensation below the ankles. (The tips of some toes still lack feeling.) So this run in Fairbanks was going to be interesting.
I have not met Mitchell before. But runners are runners, where ever you go. So I got in touch with the Running Club North (RCN), a hardy group if there ever was one; they advertise two weekly runs, regardless of the weather, which is saying something in Fairbanks. Via Tracey and Ed I talked to Mitch. He kindly invited me to meet him at his home for a 10K loop.
This, by the way, was indicative of about the hospitality and generosity of runners – but also of Alaskans. Rarely have I been welcomed more warmly than in this frozen land of grizzlies and caribou, moose and salmon.
The home Mitch built on a piece of land he bought is small and cozy; a great way to keep down heating expenses. After dressing appropriately and grabbing our cell phones we dive into the dark morning. We chat, as I try to calm my breathing, dismissing concerns about the freezing air in my airways. I warm up, we charge up a hill, looking out for icy patches. I scan the woods for signs of angry wildlife, but Mitch jokes it’s probably too cold for any animal save crazy runners.
I cannot feel my hands since the second mile, but what else is new. We stop for a photo and a visit at the university. Ed of RCN, who connected us, is working there. He says he regrets not running with us as he looks at our frozen heads and red cheeks. Next time we’ll run, we all agree. They invite me to run the Equinox Marathon in Fairbanks in September. I tell them I’d love to come back — when the temperature is above freezing.
Back in Mitch’s home we warm up and say good-bye. If I do come back in summer time, I will see much more wildlife, Mitch assures me. I believe he means this as a recommendation.
I’m bringing my cell phone.