(Photo by Chris Hunter)
Katie Arnold is going home to run. Her destination is Virginia. Her race is the Ultra Race of Champions (UROC). On her mind, will be her late father.
After all, it was during a visit to her dad’s farm in Virginia that sparked Arnold’s lifelong running journey. Her dad persuaded Katie, then age 7, and her sister to do a 10K.
“I was a super active kid but I had never run more than just around the block,” says Arnold, adding that she returned to run the race annually during her childhood. “I didn’t run the rest of the year so this was just a personal happiness for me. I was a creative person and always wanted to be a writer. So when I would run and be alone I would think up stories.”
Her running and writing passions have stayed with Arnold for those carefree childhood runs. Her new book — “Running Home: A Memoir” — is about emerging from despair.
“It’s about finding your way out of a dark place by running,” she says. “Running trails, through wilderness became a source of healing for me. But it’s not just a book about running for runners. It can be about whatever thing you have inside of you that is burning bright to come out. For a lot of people it may be running. But it could be music, art or dancing. It’s finding that thing and going for it.”
“Running Home,” published by Random House, is out March 12.
Almost exactly two months later UROC will be held. Registration is ongoing for the race. For the May 11 event, race director Francesca Conte is offering a special deal — a 15 percent buddy discount. To receive the code, runners can apply with a friend. Email Conte directly with the name of the friend you are bringing.
For me, UROC will be my first 100K. For Arnold, the race also has special meaning.
“I started racing in Virginia when I was 7 so I love the idea of coming home to race,” says Arnold, who won the Leadville 100-mile last August during her first attempt at the distance. “The course sounds like the kind that I love — a lot of climbing, which is a strength. It also occurs when my book launches, so it brings me full circle as a runner.”
Dealing with death
Even though her parents had divorced and Arnold was raised in New Jersey, she had a close relationship with her father. Understandably his death from cancer hit Arnold hard.
“After my dad died, I was in intense grief and had a new baby,” she says. “Running was the only thing that helped me through that time. That acute anxiety made it feel like I died, too. Running in the mountains alone was the only thing that worked. I would come home (after a run) and take the kids to a park, and prove to myself that I am alive.”
Often in the years after her father’s death, Arnold could feel a “presence” accompany her on her runs. “It happened a lot in the years after he died,” she recalls. “It wasn’t specific words, just more like ‘keep going, you are doing the right thing.’ Now that doesn’t happen as much. I’ve become that voice for myself.”
That voice proved critical years later when Arnold suffered a devastating injury and challenging recovery.
A grim warning
In June 2016, Arnold and her husband, Steve Barrett, took their two daughters whitewater rafting on the middle fork of the Salmon River in Idaho. The raft slipped and she fell out of the boat. She didn’t know it at the time but she had dislocated her knee and broke her tibial plateau.
“When I got off the raft six days later, I couldn’t put weight on it,” Arnold remembers. “I had to be carried from the raft. I guess it’s the ultra mindset, I just gutted it out. Staying on the river didn’t make it worse, it just cost me time.”
Back in Santa Fe, her orthopedist delivered shocking advice: Arnold should never run again.
“That was the biggest cinematic moment in all of this,” she says. “It was pretty intense. But I was determined to do otherwise.”
Arnold was on crutches for 14 weeks, then rehabilitation and then strength training. About six months after the accident, she returned to the trails. “I felt so happy to be on the trails again.”
Not only did the injury halt her running, it gave her writer’s block.
During rehab, she would hook up her bike to the trainer and cruise in the back yard for 45 to 60 minutes. “To get the endorphins flowing and to help my spirits, which was really important.”
Back to racing
Her perseverance and ultra mindset returned her to trail and ultra running, starting with a marathon in New Mexico in September 2017. The following month she did the rim-to-rim-to-rim at the Grand Canyon.
After a 50K in April, Arnold raced — and won — the Jemez Mountain Trail 50-miler. Then came another victory in the 100K Angel Fire Endurance race, her longest distance to date.
At Jemez, an angel served as her crew.
“I did not have any crew with me,” she recalls. “So I started talking to myself like my dad or a crew would.”
She would tell herself things like, “I love you. You’re strong.” And that carried her through.
“That was a big shift in my running where I could take care of myself,” she explains. “I knew that taught me to run very long distances without coaching. To experience how I would do that was pretty cool.
“Running for me is a way to get into nature. I rarely wear a watch. It’s less of an escape (from reality) than it is running toward my true self.”
When training for a big race, Arnold does a lot of writing. “Running and writing make up my true self.”
She plans to get more familiar with the UROC course as the race date gets closer. “I don’t focus on those details until I take my training almost to the end. And then I will start to come out and figure out the external stuff.”
Her “haphazardly organized” approach worked for her at Leadville in 2018. She did the training camp but didn’t realize they would run the whole course until getting to Leadville. “To run the course and to know it, gave me a ton of confidence. That gave me a good lesson going forward.”
Looking back, Arnold “felt super strong and had a ton of confidence” after doing the training camp and winning the 100K in New Mexico.
It’s one of the many times she has achieved the flow state during a big race.
“My ‘why’ is to move beyond myself in a race and move beyond my expectations and my ego and that voice and doubt in my head and to run free of all that,” she says. “The longer distances are much more conducive to getting into that flow state. I’m not a religions person but it’s more that spirituality of running, which is when you are running in a long distance race and all those distractions of everyday life — the to-do list — all fall away. You enter the flow state where you are more concentrated than everyone around you. There’s a feeling of oneness and smallness that offers a different perspective that you are just one little dot in a much bigger microcosm. That’s why I run to find that place and run myself into it when I can.”
Why she runs
Arnold takes the long view, expressing a desire to run for as long as she is healthy and is having fun. “If it’s not, then it feels more like work.”
She is committed to cross-training, which includes skiing, foam rolling and eating properly. She does not eat dairy or gluten. “I run stronger and cleaner without gluten and recover faster when I am not eating gluten.”
As she revs up her training for UROC, she seeks to find a balance.
“Running for me is a creative process to I struggle a little with the competitive part,” she says. “I am naturally competitive on race day but I realize that it’s a fraction of what drives me to run. There is a constant toggle for me when I am trying to compete and also running for deeper reasons that we talked about. It’s a constant process for me, toggling between those two things.”
Arnold also looks to strike a balance with her love of running and writing, which started back in the hills of Virginia
“That’s where the magic happens in running and writing in life — when you can let go of what you want to happen and be open to what is happening, whether it is good or bad,” she says. “It will teach you and you will learn from it. That’s how I approach my races. I am diligent about the work but when I get to the race the idea is to let go and be in the flow state and be receiving. That helps my balance so I can be competitive that way without losing the reason I run.”
Name: Katie Arnold
Hometown: Santa Fe, N.M.
Number of years running: 40
How many miles a week do you typically run: I don’t keep track, on purpose, but run by feel. Anywhere between 30-80, depending on where I am in my training cycle
Point of pride: Running in the mountains; climbing is my strength and I love being up high above tree line on remote trails, where I feel most free and alive. Also I run from within — so try not to get hung up on training plans or what other runners are doing, but stay internal and true to my own process. Running is a creative act for me, one way that I write.
Favorite race distance: I love all distances, but probably 50 miles and up. My first 100, Leadville, was my favorite race; somehow the miles just clicked past and I was in a flow state the entire time. So I’m biased to 100 miles after that, I think.
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: I am superstitious and always have a hamburger (no cheese, usually no bun) and a big helping of salad and sweet potato (fries) the day or night before a race. I need all the calories and protein I can get; my body runs well on protein and fat. Before Leadville I ate two.
Favorite piece of gear: My Houdini wind jacket, super light and stuffable, HOKA challengers, and Salomon ADv Skin race vest.
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: I listen to a lot of music when I run, and all kinds. But in the months leading up to Leadville I downloaded Carrie Underwood’s The Champion and somehow that stuck and became my mantra. I guess it worked.
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: Smile and flow. Smiling is proven to help reduce perceived effort and pain; and I believe that when we let go of ego and expectations and flow with time and the mountains, running requires less effort and is more enjoyable. Also I talk to myself when I run, and so say positive things like I’m proud of you, You got this, etc. It feels good to step up for yourself.
Where can other runners connect or follow you:
• Katie Arnold on Facebook
• Instagram, @katiearnold
• Twitter, @raisingrippers.
• My book, “Running Home, A Memoir” will be published by Random House in March; and available March 12 in hardcover and audio book via https://www.amazon.com/Running-Home-Memoir-Katie-Arnold/dp/0425284654