The running, writing journey of Katie Arnold
Katie Arnold is a wife, mother, daughter, sister, author and ultra runner. In her book, “Running Home,” she explores her life from her upbringing on the East Coast to adulthood in New Mexico.
Life, just like an ultra marathon, has its share of ups and downs. Arnold paces readers on a journey of discovery. She discovers her love of running. She discovers secrets after her dad passes away. She weaves them all together in a thoughtful, impassioned story that leaves readers thinking about how moments in their lives have shaped who they are.
For Arnold, she has grown from the 7-year-old girl who ran her first race (a 10K) at the urging of her dad to an ultra running champion who returned to Virginia for the Ultra Race of Champions (UROC) in 2019.
After reading “Running Home,” I interviewed Arnold, who further explained some parts of the book, what she learned and more. Here is our interview. (The book is available at Amazon and local bookstores.)
Question: You have a quote before the book starts, “Be who you really are and go the whole way.” What does that mean to you and tell me about when you adopted that phrase.
Answer: The quote is from the ancient Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu. When I first read it, it almost knocked me over because it captured the essence of everything I was trying to tell and show in my book, how I try to live and hope to inspire others to live as well. I read it online one morning and by that afternoon I’d started writing the book proposal, and it was just pouring out. I’d been writing the book for months, even years in my notebooks, without realizing it, but the quote was the catalyst for me to begin. It echoes my deep feeling that you have to do what’s inside of you, what you love and want or are afraid of but want anyway — the important thing is that it’s coming from within, not from what others are doing, or what you think you should do, or by comparison or imitation. I believe if you follow what’s inside you, what’s “true,” then you are capable of anything. This is your super power. And you will be able to go the whole way, to achieve far more than you ever thought possible. It doesn’t have to be running, of course. That’s what’s inside me, but maybe for you it’s dancing or cooking or swimming. You could substitute running for something else in my book, and the message would be the same: Be authentic and stay the course, keep going. This pretty much sums up my philosophy in life and writing and running. But it’s much bigger than running, of course. It applies to everything.
On page 21, you write about your dad’s quizzes and bets. Tell me more about those and how did they instill in you the motivation to accomplish big things?
Answer: That’s an astute question. I hadn’t thought of that feeling of floating into the unknown after my father died, but I think you’re right. I did feel that way. Who would I be without my father in the world? I’d already lost him once before and had adjusted eventually to that loss, but this time was for good, and I felt untethered. Dad had always kept tabs on me from afar. He was the first person I called after I got home from an adventure or assignment with Outside magazine or after a race, and in many ways he understood me as a writer better than anyone. He was an adventurer, too. I suppose that my acute anxiety after his death was a response to this feeling of rootlessness and loss, of no longer being seen or known. Of course I had others in my life who were there for me — my husband especially — but my father had been my kindred spirit, and once he was gone, I felt that in a way, I too had disappeared. It was a surreal time. I certainly took on many of his pains after he died — a sympathetic grief. I now know this is not all that unusual, but at the time it was terribly disconcerting. I was sure I was dying, too.
Question: Early in the book, end of chapter 2, you write, “Who will I be when he is gone?” So, who is Katie Arnold?
Answer: Who am I? Wow, that’s a big question. I’m a writer and a runner and a mother and a reader. I’m a wife, dreamer, athlete, lover of mountains and rivers and wild places. I’m a friend, competitor, fledgling student of Zen, journalist, seeker, adventurer, daughter, sister. I’m all those things at once, and sometimes when I run, when I am running strong and free, I am none of those things. I disappear into the mountains and the run. I become the running itself. That’s when I know my running has transcended running and becoming something bigger — a way to know myself and the world, and to lose myself in the best way and become the world. I don’t know if that makes sense, but the way I understand it now, running for me has always part of my creative process — a way that I write — and for a time after my father died it was the cure for my grief and anxiety. But now I see that it’s becoming something even bigger — a spiritual practice — and it’s just the beginning. It’s exciting to be able to say that, after all my years of running, since childhood, that I’m just beginning.
Question: You write with great detail about your dad’s final days. Tell me about how that affected you. Was it therapeutic to focus your energy on remembering, writing and reliving that time?
Answer: I didn’t set out to write this book or my account of my father’s death because I thought it would be therapeutic. I wrote it because the story wanted to be told. The story has always had an energy of its own and I felt it moving through me and out of me, and thought of myself more like a steward, just shepherding it along into the world. When you’re in grief, you can’t see your way out. It’s like being in a thick fog on a trail, you just have to keep putting one in foot in front of the other and trust that eventually you’ll find your way out. I kept notebooks all during my father’s illness, writing it all down so I wouldn’t forget, not because I thought I would write a book someday, but because that’s what my father had taught me: to pay attention, capture the details, keep your eyes open. That’s how he’d lived as a photographer. When I finally did begin writing about his death in the book, enough time had passed that it wasn’t as painful as experiencing it for the first time, of course, but I was surprised by how much I’d remembered and written down in my notebooks, the level of detail, and that my feelings were still the same: I could feel my curiosity and courage when I saw my father’s body the night he died. I had expected to be afraid, but I wasn’t, and rewriting that scene transported me back to that night, when I sat with his body and breastfed my infant daughter on the bed beside him, and read him the letter I’d written to him on the plane. Writing that part of the book, I felt what I’d felt that night: That my father’s spirit was still close at hand. That he wasn’t entirely gone from the house, or from me. I’m feeling it now, even as I write this. That’s the power of writing, I believe: not to be therapeutic but transformative, even transcendent.
Question: Before writing this book, you have written and edited hundreds of stories (I’m assuming), but obviously this one was different, special. What did you learn about yourself from the time you started the book through completion?
Answer: I learned most of all to trust the process and not try to control it or impose my will on the book, but to let it unfold as it wants to. This is true for running, too. When we think we are the boss of the story or the race, that we can impose what we want on it, that we are in charge, we close ourselves down to other possibilities, and, this may sound weird or hokey, but we kill the magic. There’s a quote from the Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron that says, “The most important thing is to be open to not knowing” — I might be paraphrasing, but you get the idea. Not knowing is not a very comfortable thing, especially in our culture when we are expected to have everything dialed: your race calendar for the year, your five-year plan, the outline of your book. I think if we map everything out in advance and expect it to go that way, or worse, try to ensure that it goes that way, we miss fruitful detours and signs pointing us in the right direction. When I let the story show me where it wanted to go rather than trying to force into my structure, I almost always found what I needed: Things from my father’s past would pop up, or I would get a package in the mail containing letters I’d long forgotten I’d written — it was very serendipitous, a kind of flow, and this only came when I let go of the desired outcome and was present to the process. I apply the same approach to my running. It’s OK to not know where you’re going sometimes, it’s good even. If you can listen to your intuition rather than your ego, you will almost always end up where you’re meant to be, in many cases, capable of more than you ever thought possible. Of course there came a time when I had to edit and shape the book, but even then I did it without gripping too hard to my vision of the book, or my pride. I tried simply to be in service of the book.
Question: Compare the process of writing a book to the process of training/running an ultra. What are some of the similarities?
Answer: Writing a book and training for an ultra are pretty similar. First of all, it’s best to dedicate yourself to the process, not the outcome. You have to make steady effort every day, or most days: write and run, run and write. You’re not waiting for things to happen, but nor are you obsessively trying to control the outcome. You’re doing what’s in front of you each day. Maybe it’s running 10 miles or writing the end of a chapter. Both require stamina and commitment. In some ways, that’s why I started ultra running. Once the initial triage of my father’s death and my anxiety lifted, I thought that if I could teach myself how to run for five or six hours at a time, then surely I could learn to sit for three or four each day at my desk and write my novel. Because that’s what I thought I would write, and wanted to write: a novel. I still do. But as I ran, the story that emerged wasn’t my novel but this memoir. That’s what I mean by the magic. If I’d held tight to my plan to write a novel, I probably never would have written this memoir. You have to stay open and nimble, pay attention, and be open to all possibilities. And yes, I still do plan to write my novel!
Question: Talk about how your dad’s disdain for quitting taught you lessons that you use today as an ultra runner.
Answer: Dad did not like quitting and made this clear to my sister and me throughout our childhood. Which is ironic, once you read the book. But he believed in sticking things out, even when they were uncomfortable. This came from his childhood and his career as a National Geographic photographer. As a child, his younger brother suffered a birth trauma and was mentally handicapped his whole life. My father essentially helped raise him, was a father figure to him from a very young age. There was no “out” for this. He had to stay the course, even when it was painful, heartbreaking or frustrating for him.
Question: Now that you have had time for the reality of your dad’s transgressions sink in, do you have regrets about what you found?
Answer: No, I don’t have any regrets about what I found. I discovered these things about my father so gradually and over so many years that there wasn’t ever a great shock, well, maybe the first time, but after that it was a process of discovery. I never sat down all at once and went through his incredible archives. Someone else with a different, more logical and linear brain, might have but I did it slowly, organically, haphazardly, without a plan, and this turned out to be just right for me. I had time to digest what I found, and I had enough time and distance from my father and his death to accept what I found, and to put it in perspective. There’s a line in the book where I write (paraphrasing) “what he gave us was far greater than what he took away” and I believe this absolutely. I came to have a great compassion and forgiveness for my father and his mistakes, his humanness. We all have regrets and mistakes and secrets. I respect him enormously for owning up to them, for showing them to us. As strange as this seems, it was a gift. He shows us how to be human: flawed and real but tender, too. I guess it takes us back to that opening quote: “Be yourself and go the whole way.” Dad was always himself, to the very last. Despite his mistakes, I admire him greatly. In some ways I know him better now than I did when he was alive. This once would have made me sad, but now it’s a kind of comfort. I still have a relationship with him, nine years after he died, only it looks and feels different. You just never know where the story will lead you. I hope I can be as open and real as he was. It may sound strange given the context, but, really, it’s such a generous way to be in the world.
Question: Did the process of writing the book bring you closure? Did returning to Virginia to run UROC bring you closure?
Answer: Closure implies an ending, and I don’t really think there are endings, just beginnings. Each time I think I’ve found “closure,” I realize it’s just another step along the path, not the true ending. Going back to my father’s farm each time after he died was a kind of closure, as was writing the book. But there’s no fixed point, no one ending. Finishing the book didn’t mark the end of his story, or our story together, because the story continues rippling outward. Whoever reads the book is part of the story, and how they take it into the world is part of it, too. Returning to UROC wasn’t closure, but more a celebration of my journey from being a young girl who learned she was capable of running long distances to a woman who could run 62 miles, in the place where it had all begun. As a writer, I’m a sucker for the symmetry and narrative arc, but I knew going into UROC that it wasn’t the end, and I didn’t expect it to be. I try to free myself from expectations about running and writing before I start. Which is a good thing, because I was so focused on finishing that grueling race in the soggy rain and fog and rocks as sharp as sharks’ teeth that I didn’t have any extra energy to look for meaning in the day!
Right now I’m on a plane leaving Virginia after saying goodbye to Huntly Stage. My stepmom has sold the farm, and this was the last time I’ll be there. We scattered the last of Dad’s ashes under an oak tree in the field yesterday. I sat there and talked a bit to him, feeling melancholy, feeling the sense of an ending, but then I remembered that like his death, even this isn’t an ending, but the start of something else. I can’t wait to see what it is.