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Katie Arnold and the ‘Zen and the Art of Running Free’

Katie Arnold's new book is the ‘Zen and the Art of Running Free’

By Henry Howard


Katie Arnold is a writer, athlete, ultra runner, parent and journalist. Her new book, “Brief Flashings in the Phenomenal World,” with a subtitle of “Zen and the Art of Running Free,” will be released April 16. Pre-orders are available now on Amazon. Use code RUNFREE for 25% off pre-orders.

We sat down virtually to chat about her new book before its release, her motivation for writing, her current running mindset and what is next for her. This Q&A has been edited for clarity and brevity.


Question: This is your second book (review of "Running Home"). Tell me what inspired you to tackle this one, "Zen and the Art of Running Free," and this topic specifically.

Answer: What inspired me was this pretty traumatic wilderness accident in 2016 on a river up in Idaho, the middle fork of the Salmon, which is a really famous whitewater rafting trip. It's one of the most renowned trips in the lower 48, I'd say second maybe only to the Grand Canyon. My husband and I were going up there to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary, and we've had a long history together on rivers. So we do a lot of river travel and trips and paddling in white water. It's always been so important to us as a way to get into the back country and really deep in.

Preorder ‘Zen and the Art of Running Free’

It’s a six-day river trip — the river's 100 miles long with 100 major rapids. I like that number 100 because then it sort of echoes the 100-mile running distance. So within the first 20 minutes, we came upon this rock and just had a total fluke accident. As we flipped our raft, I resisted falling out as one might, like you're bracing yourself because you don't want to fall.

And when I fell into the river and the raft went over, within seconds I knew that something had gone terribly wrong and I couldn't walk. I basically had to dog paddle to shore and realized that my leg was really badly injured. And so we had to make a decision, do we stay on the river? It's really remote even though we are only two miles downstream of the launch. We've got all our gear, we're with the group. And so we decided to stay on the river. I was definitely in shock, didn't know how badly I was injured. So then after that, it was six days in this wilderness River Canyon with a really badly injured leg and high consequence, couldn't fall out again, had to stay in the raft. And so that ushered in this period of brokenness both in my body and because when I got home I learned that I had shattered my leg, but also in spirit, when you are not able to run.

And my surgeon was like, "Number one, you're going to be non-weight bearing for three months minimum. And number two, if I were you, I would never run again." And so to hear that as any runner, as any athlete or embodied person, but especially I think as ultra runners and long distance runners, you hear that and suddenly your world is upended. If I can't do this thing that brings me so much joy and is actually part of my personal expression as a creative person, and it's the way I tell stories, who will I be? This book tells the story of that journey from being just pummeled down to in the words of my surgeon, "Back to zero. You're at starting point." And so it follows the trajectory of healing, mental and physical and emotional healing that had to happen in the wake of that accident, both within myself and in my marriage with my husband because it definitely caused a fracture between us as well.

Question: Refresh my memory, didn't you win the Leadville 100 after that accident?

Answer: Yes, this is the story of being broken by this accident and then having this realization that if I was going to heal my body, my mind would have to do it. This process of retraining my mind and applying these really simple but ancient teachings to sort how I lived and moved in the world. And by applying these Zen principles, I was able to heal my body and my mind and I went on to win Leadville. Beginner's mind is a big idea. And then it's coming into something fresh without preconceived ideas of what you know and what you're good at and what works, and being really fresh and open-minded. And nothing says beginner's mind quite like an accident where you can't even run, let alone walk anymore. My doctor was right, he took me down to zero. But it turns out that zero is a very beautiful place if you can get your mind on board with it.

Question: I love that. Obviously you've been spending a lot of time writing the book over the past however many months. What does running look like for you at this point?

Katie Arnold won the Leadville 100 after being told by a doctor to not run.

Answer: After Leadville, I'm still running a lot. I haven't competed. I haven't raced since late 2022 because I had surgery to remove the plate that was put in my leg after this wilderness accident. So yeah, talk about full circles and that it had started to really, really bother me and restrict me. Competing at a high level for over a decade is amazing and we're human and you go through these ebbs and flows of what you want and what moves you and motivates you. I guess back to zero moment of who am I? Do I want to compete? Does running have to be competitive for me?

I came to the sport not as a competitive athlete, just as a lifelong passionate runner. Running was a way of storytelling for me and really deep part of my creative process. So racing has never been front and center, the only thing, but certainly for the last decade it dominated. And even when I was racing all that time, I was aware that I had to be careful to keep it becoming only about competition because I knew that that would threaten my more private relationship with running, which is a creative process. So I guess in this past year I've just been asking myself that question again, do I need to race in order to run? Does running bring me joy? It does. But I'm 52, so I'm in full-on perimenopause, which is getting a ton of attention right now.

And I don't actually talk about it that much because lots of voices in it, but it's legit. If you want to wake up and feel like your joints are 80 years old, just be a 52-year-old woman who lives in her body and is really active. But I have learned from wiser, beautiful ultra women who are five or so years older than me that you go through the hell and then you come out the other side and you can run those distances again. Right now I'm real good with 10 miles, and that feels good to me because as ultra runners, we get this really warped sense of distance. And I actually wrote about this on my Substack earlier in the year where I was doing this thing of running every single day, which I don't know, I've never done that.

Question: What has your streak taught you about running?

Answer: I've never had a "streak." Running every day was never something I thought I needed to do or wanted to do. But as I was recovering from this latest surgery, I thought since my body doesn't want to run far, the only way for my body to run right now is to run short, four, five, six miles. But when we have our warped ultra runner mindset, sometimes five miles doesn't even seem to count. Which is like a pretty warped statement. I needed to go back to my roots. And by roots, I mean when I was 12 and running around my neighborhood in New Jersey with my Sony Walkman. With those headphones, I would run three miles and be super proud and pumped. That was legit.

So I wanted to retrain myself to appreciate and value shorter distances. And I knew the only way I would do that is if I was running every day. Because for me, at least right now in my body, I can't run every day if I'm running 10 miles, I wake up, I feel ancient. And so that was pretty fun to experiment with that. All of a sudden the streak felt really right until all of a sudden it felt confining or contrived and then I stopped. Now I'm back to running the way I've always run, which is five days a week, varying distances, lots of up mountains and down and mostly all trails and it feels really right. And I just think I know my body's going to tell me when it wants to go longer.

Next challenge: the Leadville 100 mountain bike race.

Question: You are signed up for the Leadville 100 mountain bike race this summer. Is that something that you've transitioned to with a mindset of maybe not a competitor, but as maybe aiming for big goals in the mountain biking world?

Answer: It's funny when you said that, “not a competitor,” then the competitive part of me thought, “I'm always a competitor.” That is the friction within me. That is the constant tension of the creative artist. This is my expression. On race day, I'm going to be a competitor. So I don't really know. With  mountain biking, I'm into anything that feels new, fresh, exciting, that is joyful. So riding my bike has always been a most joyful activity for me since I was a little kid.

And when I say freedom, I don't mean from responsibility or independence, I'm by myself. It means the freedom to be completely myself and to express myself exactly from my deepest place. And so biking has always been that. It's just wheeling around. As a biker always, I rode all the time as a kid and ever since I was pretty into mountain biking a lot. I did a bunch of races and that's when I came up with the idea of wanting to do Leadville. You're going to laugh at this, but I was too intimidated by 10 hours on a bike to sign up.

And then life is so funny because in my 40s I decided I'm going to do Leadville and I'm going to run it. And it seems like the exact right thing. So that's what I mean when your knowing self aligns with your life you know when it's time to do something. And so for me, mountain biking, I had to drop away. I had kids and nursing my babies I thought, “I cannot take care of a bike. Forget it. I'm not going to pump up a tire. I'm just going to run out the door in my sneakers.” So biking dropped away. And then in the last year or so, coming back from this surgery and just feeling frankly ancient in my body, I started getting back on my bike and I was having a blast. And for me, it just has to start from a joyful place and that's what running had been.

And then when running stopped being joyful, I listened to that. So biking feels very free and exciting and different. So Leadville is the dream of the 25-year-old coming full circle now, and she's twice that age. So I'm really excited. I haven't spent a lot of time on my bike and I'm not calling it training because that sounds like work and hell. So I'm just going to ride my bike as much as possible this spring and summer, which is not hard to do, because I love being on my bike, but it's the same as when I train for running. If I call it training, if I think of it as training, if I talk about it as training, it's just a bummer.

It feels like work and it feels honestly what everyone else is doing. And I just like to be, I guess that's that freedom I'm talking about. I just want to do it my way. And so my way is definitely more unstructured, let's put it that way than others, but I'm excited. The one thing that does scare me a little bit about the Leadville 100 mountain bike race is the mountain bike culture. As runners, we're really simple. I just want a pair of shorts and sneakers. Most of the time I don't even wear socks, honestly. And you look at the mountain bikers and the kids are insane. They wear those Lycra like dibs and shirts, and I see that and I want to run in the other direction, but then I just remind myself, Katie, you can do it your way and have a blast doing it.

So that's all I'm going to do. I'm just going to ride my bike a ton and run as much as I can and hopefully not break a lot of body parts in that race.

Question: Tell me about how your Zen mindset, how you use it in your, not training, but cycling and how you intend to use that as part of that mental preparation as you get ready for the Leadville 100 mountain bike race.

Katie Arnold won the Leadville 100 after being told by a doctor to not run.

Answer: I'll talk about how I used it or applied it or absorbed it is maybe a better word, after my accident. I started running again and put my name in the hat for the Leadville 100 run, again, inspired by my 25-year-old mountain biking self. So it's like the yin and yang, or the two parts of me are in conversation with each other. I had the surgeon who was very dismissive, telling me I should never run again and running is terrible for me. When you hear that from a medical professional, those words are devastating and haunting. The surgeon, to be honest, lived in my knee for the better part of two years. His voice was always there. My knee hurt, it was his cautionary or admonition was ringing in my ears.

Part of that time was just trying to exorcise him from my brain and learning that that was his story for me. But I could write a different story for myself. That's an important thing for anyone out there. When he said it, it sounded like the most awful thing in the world. But then when I realized that I was starting over, I realized I could reinvent the way I run.

And so the main thing about the Zen mindset is about being present. You hear that all the time, just be here now. But it's really simple. It's like Zen distilled down, and you don't have to be religious. I'm not a religious person, I was raised as an Episcopalian Church but I don't go to church. It didn't make sense to me. And same thing with Zen. It's not a religion, it's a philosophy. So you don't have to believe in Buddha and you don't have to buy into the Zen stories, but the teachings are really simple and practical. That's not saying they're easy to do. The main teaching is meeting the world as it is in this moment, not the way you want it, not having this fantasy of I'm going to change it, but what is real right now in this moment.

It also means dropping this fixed grip that we have on outcome or results. And so it's not to say you can't have a dream because I very much had this dream, this vision, and it came out in my notebooks when I was writing that I was going to run 100 miles. And when I wrote that I was in a cast, I was in a brace, I had not walked in months, and I didn't know if I could run again, but I could see myself running this 100-mile race. So you want to hold that as this vision, but you don't want to strangle it. So that meant I didn't go out the first day I could run and start training for 100 miles. I just held it loosely as something that my subconscious might want to work toward. And then what I did was I just ran each day in the process and I listened.

I am going to try my best in this moment to put my best effort forward. Then trusting that if you just show up for yourself, and that's really what Zen is, it's making just a true effort for the good in every moment, then those moments might add up so that when you are in the race or whatever it is the event or the book launch or that all the work, the intentionality you put into it will create a positive result. But if you go in just preloading for the positive result, you're going to always be out in front of yourself.

That was my biggest takeaway. And just embracing the spirit of not knowing is a big thing in Zen. And if anything trains us for being OK with uncertainty, it's an ultra marathon when there's so many variables. The weather could go to shit. You're at altitude, your body might break down, your stomach might rebel. And so as an ultra runner, I was already pretty well versed in tolerating uncertainty, but Zen really prizes this spirit of not knowing. And when you look at it in a certain way, it's actually the spirit of being open to anything. So when you come in with that openness or not knowing mind, you actually may achieve things that you could never have imagined.

Those are some of the Zen lessons I learned. And just again, bringing that spirit of beginner's mind to my running, even when I was so deep into the Leadville training and where I was like, yeah, I'm fit. I'm strong, but showing up every day and having a humility of today's a fresh day, I'm going to learn something today, and it might not be what I want to learn, but I am here for it. And so it's a letting go of control while making a full true effort in the moment. It's a paradox.

Question: That's a lot of great stuff there. I wanted to circle back a little bit to the book. I noticed up front you used a quote from Mary Oliver. One of hers that I love is about the wild and precious life that we get. I'm just curious about the one you picked and why you chose to highlight that at the start of your book.


"No, I'd never been to this country before.

No, I didn't know where the roads would lead me.

No, I didn't intend to turn back."


Answer: I love all Mary Oliver. I could compile a whole book of my favorite quotes from her and just wisdom on living. But that one I love because it captures this deep spirit of Zen, which again is not a religious thing. Anyone who pursues something with a determination, wholeheartedness is practicing Zen. It's showing up every day to do your practice. That's often how I think of running as a practice. It's something I show up and do as let go of what I want it to show me or what it to be. And I'm rather just doing the thing itself. And so I love that quote because she's both saying, I'm a total beginner. I've never been to this country before. And I could say that about running, even though I've been a runner since I was 6 years old, on any given day, if you come in with that mindset, I've never been exactly here. I've never been exactly in my body in this moment at 52 years old on this day in April.

So I'm a beginner here. But then also that spirit of no, I do not intend to come back. That fierce commitment and that I really think is an ultra runner mindset, of we were uncomfortable as hell, our body hurts, our spirits broken, but we're going to keep going. And that spirit of not quitting, and then it's called continuous practice. If anyone, any runner would just put their own spin on that, it's like that might be their definition of a streak or their training is continuous practice showing up every day or most days and making an effort toward the good. And so Mary Oliver, in a way, she probably wasn't Zen but that is a Zen spirit of both being open to not knowing what will happen, and but also at the same time being determined to make your true effort.

Question: Like your first book, the second — to my understanding — has running as a theme. But not only would runners enjoy it, others will too. Who you were writing it for?

Katie and her sister.

Answer: Yes, like “Running Home,” running is the vehicle, the conveyor belt, of telling the story. “Running Home” is how running helped me through the grief of my father’s death. But it was also a father-daughter memoir and explored the gifts and influences he had on me, and running was how I did that. And same with “Brief Flashings in the Phenomenal World,” it's a story really of healing and wholeness and coming back to oneself after a period of brokenness. My brokenness was physical, but we all, I think, experienced those points in life when we feel disconnected or upended from life as we've known it or as the person we think we are. And we're lost and flailing around and we feel like we've been chopped down to zero.

And that can be anyone going through a terrible illness to losing someone they love, to losing a job, to suffering a physical injury or being told they can no longer do their sport. How do we make ourselves whole again? The tools we have for doing that are all inside of us. It's our deep knowing will take us where we need to go. And if we bring to it that mindset of beginner's mind and humility and also a fierce determination, I would say that certainly characterizes a lot of those ancient Zen monks who were such badasses and would walk for days and days and days, or sit for seven years like the Buddha sat for seven years. That is some serious stamina. And so obviously the book is going to appeal to runners because we have that stamina.

And when you've been sidelined for a while or you even told you might not be able to do this thing ever again, the joy is so simple in the littlest things. That's really what the title of the book is about, “Brief Flashings in the Phenomenal World,” are those little hits, those moments that wake us up to the fact that we're alive right here, right now, in this body, in this world. It's not some future world. We are right here. And those moments happen all the time. They don't just happen in peak experiences like winning Leadville, or publishing a best-selling book or selling your company for a billion dollars. The moments are all around us and they're really, really ordinary, and they're so beautiful because they're ordinary. And I think most of us, myself included, sometimes they're too distracted to see those moments. And that takes me back to that wild and precious life quote from Mary Oliver.

It is wild and precious, and we really only get this one. And there's a Zen chant. Sometimes it finishes a meditation period, it basically means time is fleeting. This life and death are of the utmost importance. Do not squander your life. And I love that because it's so true. We get this one life and it goes so fast and let's just live it fully, whatever that looks like for us. And for me, it's about just moving joyfully in the world and having my physical practice be my creative practice and vice versa, and trying to be as present as I can because there is so much beauty all around us.

Question: What would you say was your biggest learning takeaway from writing this book? What did you learn most about yourself?

Answer: I learned to trust myself. Trust is a really important thing as a writer, and I guess I shouldn't say I learned to trust myself. I learned to trust myself to trust the book. And so again, what Zen taught me with running is that the result is not the important thing. The actual practice of writing and all the accolades you can get from winning and being on podiums and whatnot are fleeting, but the process and the practice itself will hopefully last a long, long time. So that means just the feeling you get when you're out running along a ridge top and you're not training, you're just living your life. And so with writing, what I learned is that it's not really about me when I write, it's about the book and it's about the story. I was just reminded of trusting that and listening to the story, the way I listen to my body.

Katie Arnold dishes out wisdom on the Zen mindset.

The book knows the shape it wants to take, or if it doesn't, it wants to be given the time to figure it out, what shape it's going to take. And so I could never impose my will on the story, and I had to let it flow, for lack of a better word. Rivers are a big theme in the book. If the book was going to be true in its spirit, it would have to feel like a river. And so it couldn't have all these predictable turns and right angles and turns, it had to flow. And that's really how I run best as well. And what then helped me tap into was this natural flow state of being hyper present and not acting from a desire to control results, but just being in each moment is really a flow state.

The book had to ride this balance. I needed to make sure the book never got too over-explanatory because I thought that would violate one of the main deepest principles of Zen, which is we all are enlightened already inside of us and the way we are in the world it's just our expression of that.

So no one's lacking anything at the outset. You don't have to become enlightened. You are enlightened in how maybe you run or work in the world. I had to listen to the book and I had to really write from that Zen place. In the end, the Zen learning that I absorbed and applied to my running, I applied in the same way to writing this book.

Question. On the fitness side, we talked about what's next. Do you have a plan for what's next on your writing side?

Answer: I have a few books I'm working on. One book that I'm actively working on is called “How to Disappear.” I won't say any more about that except that disappearing in two definitions of the word, both vanishing into that flow state, which is I think what we all seek and that maybe that's the true freedom is finally we're so ourselves and we're so essentially our true nature that we disappear, and I've experienced that in running where it's no longer me, I'm just the thing I'm doing. But then the darker side of disappearing is how we can make ourselves small. And certainly as women, I think that that has been a big story and have disappear ourselves to not make waves or to not ruffle feathers.

I'm also working on a screenplay, adapting “Running Home” for the screen. And it's going to be a lot of vintage '70s era vibes, which I love. I see that book so much in my mind as pictures because I think so much of it springs from my father's amazing photographs.

Question: Well, Katie, I appreciate all the time. Anything we didn't touch on that you want to mention?

Answer: There are so many layers to this book. In the way that my first book was really about my relationship with my father, I think life is relational. That's why it's beautiful. We are humans with human hearts. This story is very much an exploration of marriage and loving someone through the hard times and the times when you're top down to zero. But spoiler alert, it has a happy ending.


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