Running with Running Club North
By: Tim Smith
"Welcome to FBD - Fahrenheit Be Darned - or whatever you what to call it", intoned George, the soft-spoken coach for Running Club North (RCN). "We'll head out past Beethoven Hill, and then out around the farm loop - not the Farmer's Loop . . ." Farmer's Loop is the northern ring road for Fairbanks, the farm loop circles field the university's experimental farm. ". . . and then onto the commuter trail for awhile - near campus it might be plowed." At this time of year, the commuter trails are generally packed by fat bikes, with a few skiers, runners, and dogs. ". . . cross Smith Lake . . . and return by Sheep Creek."
It is 5:45 p.m. and very dark outside in January. There are about a dozen of us heading out the door of the Patty Center, the gymnasium for the University of Alaska at Fairbanks (UAF). I feel like something out of a bad sci-fi movie, you can hear the clatter of our spikes on the tiles, most of the club is wearing "Icebug" running shoes. As we approach the door we are all 'energy' our running vests; neon red, green, blue, yellow, purple, and pink, half of them strobing. It is pretty cold tonight, I think I saw -10 F before leaving the house. My coldest run so far was -17 F, but tonight people are also talking about the wind.
I fall in with Kelsi and Peter. I find that if I work hard I can match their pace - barely. I understood most of the route George had laid out for us, but I'm not clear on the farm loop, or how to get from Smith Lake to Sheep Creek, so I am inspired to stay with these two to find the way.
Our pace never looks impressive on my watch, about a minute per mile behind where I think I should be, but most of the time we are in 2-3 inches of snow and I am sure the effort level is more than sufficient. That "Wind", they all complain about it, is a barely felt breeze by Upper Valley standards. But winter wind really is uncommon in the interior of Alaska.
It is about a mile around the farm loop and we meet a few people walking their dogs. I tell Kelsi that I might not be allowed to permanently move to Alaska unless I was to acquire a dog. "Or a team of dogs", she suggests. Kelsi just led a workshop on skijoring with dogs at the "Alaskan Musher's Hall" a week ago.
I have been impressed with the number of people I see biking on the commuter trail. Not right now, but on other days I've seen commuters with handlebar mitts, and headlamps. Some even with full helmets and face shields. And all of them with 5-inch tires or wider.
After the commuter trail, we are on the "North Campus" trail network. Most of these are groomed for cross-country skiers, but the bigger trails have a small side strip for snowshoes, walkers, and of course runners. Because the days are so short, with three hours of daylight when we arrived at New Year's, a number of the trails also have lights. It is a bit magical to be bounding down a trail through a thick boreal forest of spruce all clad with snow, when around a corner we meet the Nordic club. I'm told the Nordic club usually meets at Birch Hill on the other side of town, but occasionally skis north campus. It seems to me as if some of them are skating uphill about as fast as we are running downhill.
A small trail I don't know branches off to Smith Lake, and so we go and run across the ice. The lake probably has 3-5 feet of ice, with another foot of snow on top of that. There are moose tracks underfoot, and Jupiter and Venus are brilliant in the western frozen sky. Another small trail through a bit of muskeg, or spruce bog, and out to Sheep Creek and back to the Patty Center.
On a night like tonight picking the right number of layers is a bit of an art. Last week I was sweating at the end. Tonight I have three layers on the torso and two on the legs and I think it is about right. Five minutes out my fingers were numb, but by mile two I was warming. And mile three to the end were very comfortable.
Back the Patty Center people are trickling in, where George has hot chocolate for use.
So how is RCN different from UVRC? First, a few words about how Alaska is different from the Upper Valley. Alaska has a population a bit larger than Vermont's (733,000 vs. 656,000), but an area 70 times larger them Vermont or New Hampshire. In fact, Alaska is almost ten times larger than all of New England (and Maine is not small!) The nearest rival running club is in Anchorage, 360 miles away. Fairbanks itself has a population of 30,000, and there are members who come in from North Pole (not the north pole), Fox, Chena, etc. Locals will point out that the "North Star Borough" (the equivalent of a county) has a population of 100,000. But it is the size of New Jersey!
The long and the short of it is that people in Fairbanks compete against people in Fairbanks. Once a year they might go elsewhere, and once a year people come here to run the Equinox Marathon.
But they still fill their calendar with all sorts of events. I ran in the Borealis Fun Run, and there is a full moon run every month. There are a number of snowshoe races and they share their calendar with the Endurance North Club, which means 100-mile run/ski/bike races in the wilderness.
A few weeks ago RCN had their winter sociable - a spaghetti dinner, their first indoor event since COVID. Sitting around a table with eight other runners I feel very at home and like I have "found my people". These are people who talk about the same things I think about. Any one of them could have been a member of UVRC - or even Central Park Track Club (the New York City club I ran with during our last sabbatical). Steph is a wildlife biologist who studies geese on the North Slope - but right now is recovering from a foot injury. Kelsi is a physical therapist who also does skijoring. Peter works for the rec. department. Scott is a Coast Guard retiree who hikes in kilts and runs in shorts if the temperature goes positive. And they all welcomed me, like a long lost brother, with open arms.
This is the second time I have left the Upper Valley for a months, gone someplace, joined a running club, and felt -instantly- that I belonged. Why? I think it is because runners see the world as doers and non-doers. And if you see the thermometer at -17F, but still put on you Icebugs, turn on you running vest, and head out the door, you are part of the tribe. You are one of us.