Two weeks after the winter solstice, 61 degrees north of the equator. The sun arcs low across the horizon of Eielson Air Force Base, breaking day at 10:39am, then collapsing into night at 3:10pm. The temperature is -24F and an essay on friends lost to war glares from my laptop screen. For hours, I have threshed it lean while inhabiting the gray spaces between now and then; between Alaska and Afghanistan. Winter blue and white through the window glass, but in my room, it’s been nothing but the color of sand.
A run sounds good.
Trading the fire-retardant cammies of two years ago for the merino wool layers of today, I swap combat boots for trail shoes studded with sheet metal screws. Ceramic body armor for a synthetic, breathable jacket that will break the wind. Thin, blood and sweat-stained leather gloves for lightweight mountaineering mitts. Helmet for hat. Ballistic glasses for polarized lenses. Sunblock for an insulating lotion designed for polar explorers.
Outside, the first inhalation comes sharp and dry, a shock to wet and warm pulmonary flesh. Exhale: a ghost rises white into the fading orange of an Arctic sun. The chill radiates across my back and arms — good. It’s best to start cold. An occasional car passes, exhaust pipes trailing contrails of mist along the ground. Eyes peer from within the bundled forms behind frosted windshields; curiosity mixed with alarm. There is a tang of adventure, of having gotten away with the ill-advised, to this run that could be easily done on a treadmill, in the comfort of the base’s climate-controlled gym. But it’s a hamster wheel — illusory motion. Here, the world turns beneath me at a speed of my choosing.
The first two miles I wiggle toes mid-stride and clench fingers every minute against the initial numbness. The body’s natural reaction to the shock of a 132.6° temperature gradient from skin to air, going numb is not the problem. Staying numb — that’s a problem. Frostbite is insidious not because it steals flesh immediately, but because it erodes tissue, cell by cell. One by one, they freeze and rupture until whole digits and appendages are discovered white and lifeless. Stay ahead of it, I tell myself, a warning against the reverie of motion.
My feet fall upon the cold snow 165 times a minute, releasing a pleasant crunch that suggests clean traction. It is one of many echoes of my running life across time. The swish of feet through dry leaves; the thump of firm earth; the slap of pavement. The slip of a dusty and neglected treadmill’s belt in the corner of a beige tent that ripples with an air conditioner’s blast. The soundless explosion of six inches of moon dust that dampen the foot’s strike against ground. And the elongated sound of gravel pebbles that roll underfoot and into an oppressive Afghan night.
Finger check. Good. Toe wiggle. Check.
The compacted snow accepts my studded shoes, returns energy in stride, leading me at a clip onto a deserted stretch of road. I breathe clouds of frost into the miles ahead; the breath, now wasted, disappears into the miles behind as the rapture of effort takes me. The LCD display of my watch has gone sluggish with the cold. Numbers of distance and pace, all lost to a mute landscape of hard white and leafless tree. Only the conifers bear witness, standing tall, near the perimeter of the base. Their green boughs are the promise of everlasting overwatch.
In the end, I am become nothing more than a metabolic engine. There is no thought beyond the next stride, the next swing of arm crooking oblique. Somewhere within, carbon dioxide and oxygen trade places. Heat releases, meets sweat. Sweat meets wool, the warmth of my skin pressing it forward until synthetic fibers burble steam into the frigid air left in my wake.
The run ends where it began, an ice-covered parking lot ringed with outlets that power automotive oil pan heaters. Mount Hayes, eastern bastion of the Alaska Range, looms pink and mute on the horizon. A still moment, all quiet but the rasp of breath and my booming pulse, until cold’s sharp edge stiffens my clothing and I retreat indoors.
I trade wet layers for dry and open my laptop. As the icicles melt from my mustache, I click through a weather website until the temperature appears. With the wind chill: 42 degrees below zero.
Matthew Komatsu is a currently serving veteran, MFA (Creative Nonfiction) candidate at the University of Alaska, and 2:44 marathoner.
The essay above does not represent official policy or position.