Running in Alaska’s subzero cold is hard. But the reward might just be worth the frigid fatigue.

Jill Ajo and Alli Harvey finish up a frigid run

I tried to cancel. I’ll own it. I sent the text on Monday morning as I looked at the upcoming single digit forecast:

“IDK about running tomorrow…”

Jill, my trusty 7 a.m. Tuesday running partner and friend, texted back: “I’ll just plan on wearing lots of clothes,” and suggested starting with a shorter run than our normal route. She wrote, we’ll turn around if we get too cold.

Dang it. I was on the hook.

Tuesday morning rolled around and I flicked on the light behind my kitchen sink, which illuminates the outdoor thermometer. It said -11 F, which means in actuality it’s even colder since the thermometer is close to the warm house.

I’d laid out all of my clothing for the run the night before to reduce the effort when the time came to get dressed. At 6:40 a.m., I was rapid-fire texting with my sister who lives back east, and told her I needed to go because it would take me forever to tug on all of the layers of clothing. I wasn’t wrong.

Sock liners, followed by the first skin-tight layer of long underwear bottoms, followed by thick winter running socks, followed by two layers of Smartwool and polar fleece pants. Then a long thermal layer on top, followed by one more, followed by a breathable insulated jacket. A balaclava and thick, winter buff later, I was finally ready for my headlamp — because, just to add insult to frigid cold injury, of course it would be pitch black outside as well.

Oh, Alaska. Beautiful, but brutal.

Jill “picked me up” at the foot of my driveway as always. But, not as always, we got off to a grumpy start.

“How are you?” I asked her, half laughing from behind my balaclava, which muffled my words.

“Fine,” she deadpanned, unconvincingly.

We talked for the first full mile about how over the cold and dark we both were. I told her that during a recent meditation, the guide had asked me to notice what images came up for me. I noticed an image pop to mind from a trip earlier this year to the desert in the springtime, and subsequently NOTICED that this image made me cry.

Telling, isn’t it?

We both wondered aloud about how many Alaska winters we have left in us. The light from our headlamps bobbed just ahead, casting twin, compact halos of light on the snow-scraped street. Far down the road, street lamps lit snowy trees in deep yellow against the pitch black everything. We ran past a couple kids waiting for the school bus, and somehow that seemed crueler than what we were putting ourselves through.

We talked about how there was a PTSD effect after feeling trapped in Alaska for the first full COVID-19 winter. This winter, I was having a hard time appreciating my surroundings after having felt so locked into them for so long with no escape.

Also, my toes were cold. I didn’t say anything, but I indulged myself in some self-talk to the effect of “this is horrible, why am I doing this.”

Then, as will happen with running, every step forward somehow added up to what felt like significant ground covered. We were no longer quite at the beginning of the run anymore; maybe closer to the first third. I had the thought: Would we do this? Would we complete the usual route, at negative God-knows-what temperature?

We got to mile 1 1/2, a logical turnaround point that would add up to 3 miles if we didn’t want to do our usual 5-mile loop.

I did a self check. My toes had warmed up. I felt cold on the usual spots that just happen to coincide with my supposedly insulating fat — my butt, upper thighs and stomach — but nothing alarming. I knew I’d be red when I got home, but also knew I could keep going.

“How do you feel?” I asked Jill.

“Good!” she said, this time more convincingly. “A little cold on my butt, but I could keep going. You?”

We kept running.

Jill Ajo's car registered 19 below zero at the end of the run

Listen, it’s not like we turned some magical corner in the run. It didn’t get less hard. It actually got harder, because wearing all of those layers and trudging along wears on me. By mile 4 or so, I felt a little more winded than usual. It didn’t help that we continued to try to gab at our normal cadence even through miles of balaclava, and the perspiration ice crystals forming on our faces.

But that’s also what drew me along. As we closed in on the loop, getting nearer to the end of the run, I had a flickering sense of gratitude combined with something like a muted triumph. We’d gotten ourselves out the door, even on an absurdly cold (for Palmer — don’t at me, Fairbanks) morning.

Was it fun? No? Yes? Sort of? It wasn’t our most carefree run; the time didn’t fly by. But I’ll remember it. And it fueled me for the rest of the day. I carried around that feeling that I’d gotten away with something, with a partner in crime who wouldn’t let me back down from something that ultimately made us both feel good.

Alli Harvey

Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.