Cold Weather & Winter Running in Interior Alaska

Just look at those signs, surrounded by ice fog. Make you want to stay indoors? Right? Most people, probably yes. But there are a few hardy souls who are intrigued by the prospect of answering the call, 'how low can you go ....', and out they go, running in the coldest weather.

Year around running is not only possible in Fairbanks, it is practiced by a large number of our local runners. Our 12-month calendar of running events attests to this. There may be smaller participation in some of our winter events, but runners always show up at our races. While some continue to run throughout the winter, others take advantage of our excellent snow conditions and crosstrain by switching to cross country skiing during the winter months (or to snowshoeing or to ski jouring). But with more Fairbanks runners competing in winter marathons and shorter races throughout the Lower 48 (and Hawaii), they have found that in order to stay in peak running condition, they have to adapt their running to our local weather conditions.

Fairbanks is located at 64°49' North latitude (about 125 miles south of the Arctic Circle, where the sun does not rise above the horizon on the shortest day of the year). Our shortest day, near December 21 - the Winter Solstice, has 3 hours and 42 minutes from sunrise to sunset. Our winters are marked by periods of greatly reduced sunlight and by the presence of persistent high pressure weather systems over the Arctic Polar Region. When conditions permit, these Arctic highs move south and attempt to establish themselves over Interior Alaska and over Northern Canada. They are generally accompanied by clear skies, calm winds and cold air. Once these high pressure systems are in place, in combination with our reduced daylight, our air temperatures tend to fall lower and lower.

All outdoor winter activity in Interior Alaska centers around these reduced daylight conditions and our weather. Our coldest average temperatures occur about three weeks after Winter Solstice, reaching -11°F in mid-January before starting to rise. By the date in January when our lowest temperatures are reached, our sunlight has already increased to over 5 hours.

During our coldest weather, temperature inversions usually (but not always) exist in our area. The coldest temperatures are usually found in the lowest areas, with warmer air aloft. There are an abundance of ridges and hills surrounding Fairbanks running from east to west, to the north of the city. When temperatures plummet in the city, warmer air can usually be found on the ridges and hills. In our darkest six to eight weeks, the sun offers little or no warmth as it sits very close to the horizon even at midday (around 1 PM); our temperatures tend to reflect this as our daily high and low temperatures during prolonged, mid-winter cold spells are usually close together. But when the city and surrounding low areas are blanketed with ice fog, its a psychological lift to run in the hills where you can at least see (but not feel) the sun.

Running Club North formerly observed a -25°F cancellation temperature for most events (a few events were held regardless of the temperature), for a number of years; that gave an indication of what many runners considered to be a temperature below which the plusses of running were outweighed by the minuses of the ambient conditions. However, now race cutoff temperatures are left to the discretion of the Race Director. And at most any temperature, local runners can be found out on our local roads and trails.

The most important thing to consider before running in our extreme temperature conditions, is dressing properly. As temperatures fall, two other things also become important: selecting both a location and length of run that is appropriate for the conditions. Wind is usually not a consideration, as our coldest temperatures are generally accompanied by and result from calm air. As temperatures rise, wind is more common and it can produce wind chill equivalent temperatures that are as low or lower than our coldest ambient temperatures.

The two principal enemies of winter outdoor runners are frostbite and hypothermia. A third enemy is almost as important as the first two: icy running surfaces. The risk of the first two can be minimized by dressing properly (layering is the key) and by timing the length of your runs to meet weather conditions; also by planning the location of your runs to provide an escape if you encounter unexpected conditions, like a pocket of extremely cold air along a trail, or breezy conditions in open areas. The risk of the third can be mostly eliminated by wearing 'studded' running shoes (either by using commercially available pull-on grippers or by screwing hex-head sheet metal screws into the bottom of your shoes - short ones, of course!).

This is just the start of our cold weather running section. Our Great Stories, cold weather running stories written by our local runners, which share experiences and information about running in our extreme weather conditions, are a great source of cold weather running information. Our runners explain how they dress for the cold temperatures and how they otherwise cope with our extreme conditions; they also relate some of their cold weather experiences (such as what temperature causes their nose hairs to freeze). As time progresses, we'll also provide additional links to our other cold weather pages, and to the cold weather resources of other organizations. If you're interested, you can check our current weather conditions or our current weather forecast. If you're not sure that we're really telling the truth about how cold it gets in the Interior, check our temperature records! And you can also read, in the words of Tim Mowry, Outdoors Editor for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, about Fairbanksans unique relationships with their thermometers. Tim says that despite our protests about cold temperatures, we really thrive on the bragging rights that come with surviving our extreme temperatures. Finally, if you have any specific questions about cold weather running, please e-mail us and we'll see that your questions are answered.

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