Talking Ultramarathons, Mindful Running and Books

Paul L. Underwood
by Paul L. Underwood
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Talking Ultramarathons, Mindful Running and Books

When you are an ultramarathoner who won the 2018 Leadville Trail 100 Run, a 100-mile race through the Rocky Mountains, and you contribute to a range of publications, including The New York Times, your next move might be to write a book. You’d be hard pressed to find a more qualified person to write a memoir about running than Katie Arnold.

And yet, “Running Home,” her new book, is about more than running — or rather, it’s about connecting the experience of running to the experience of living and how one can inform the other. The narrative traces the death of her father, who was a shadowy presence during her girlhood. A photo editor at National Geographic, Katie’s father ultimately divorces her mother, who moves the family from Virginia to New Jersey, meaning she sees him only a few times a year. It’s during one of those visits she runs her first race — the Fodderstock 10K, which she and her sister run on a whim after her father dares them. She’s 7. She finishes (last), mugging for her father at the finish line, and a lifetime of running follows.

She reconnects with her father as an adult after he is diagnosed with late-stage cancer, and learns the story of his life through his archives of journals and photographs, not to mention the conversations and letters they share. Throughout, she looks back at her life on the move, including her regular runs on the mountain called Atalaya in Santa Fe, where she eventually calls home. The book is intimate and unflinching, daring and bold, deeply moving yet often laugh-out-loud funny. It’s a must-read for any runner, but non-runners will find something in it, too.

We spoke with her recently to learn how it all came together, what she learned from the experience, and (of course) running, and how it relates to the bigger journey we all share — one that, as her title says, ultimately entails running home.

Q: What did you learn from the experience of writing the book?
Arnold: I learned to trust the process. I think it’s a lot like running. We’re conditioned in our lives to think we can control everything. And obviously what I learned from my father’s death is that pretty much most things are out of our control — the idea of control is an illusion.

Some days are gonna feel like hell. Some days are gonna feel amazing. Same with writing and our creativity — don’t go in with this idea to manhandle your book. Let it show you the way.

Q: You talk in the book about progression versus regression.
Arnold: Right. Trust the progression, exactly. It’s not gonna be a straight line. But you can trust that it’s taking you somewhere, right? Easier said than done on some days. I think a big lesson from my father’s death, and from writing the book, is being in that space of not knowing is a really creative, fruitful place — if we can trust it.

Q: You write very movingly about parenting as well. Especially that idea that it’s not a linear process.
Arnold: Right. [Laughing.] Right. You think, “Oh, I’ve got a handle on it,” and then everything goes to hell. You have to let go. The best advice my doctor gave me when I became a parent was “Follow her lead.” Follow the kid’s lead. And that’s turned out to be some of the best advice, because as parents we just want to control everything.

I think that’s what was so amazing about my father. He had the advantage/disadvantage of not being an everyday father. I don’t think he would call that an advantage, but I think as a parent it’s easier to not be so controlling when you’re not there every day. My father really let me find my way. He was always there, like super-present, even from a distance. But he didn’t exert his ideas of who I should be onto me. Especially with running. He didn’t care one way or the other if I became a runner, and that gave me a ton of freedom to become a runner. And to become my own kind of runner. It wasn’t about competition, it was about creative process for me.

Q: For your dad, it seems like there was some motivation around the photo op, when I think about the Fodderstack 10K.
Arnold: Sure. Who doesn’t want to run across the finish line and see their parent with a camera? That became the motivation that drove running on a bigger level. I only ran that race once a year and I didn’t compete otherwise, but I did run a lot on my own, and so running became this very private experience for me.

Which, in so many ways, was such a lucky thing, and went hand in hand with how I became a writer. Those times running just thinking and generating ideas and daydreaming, really, as a kid. And yes, in those moments once a year when I went down to Virginia, my dad, the NatGeo photographer, was waiting at the finish line with his multiple cameras — that’s pretty cool. But 364 days of the year, the rest of the year, I got to run just for me.

Q: One thing I think your book nails is the interconnection between running — and not just any sport or practice, but running specifically — and spirituality. Why do you think those two tie together so well?
Arnold: It’s so elusive. It’s like Buddhism in itself, in that you can’t really explain it with words. I think because spirituality and understanding is not an intellectual thing but a physical thing, when we’re in our physical bodies running, the repetitive motion of running, we are more in a space to understand in a physical way whatever spirituality or belief system resonates with us.

So for me, I didn’t really understand Buddhism, but I understood that when I ran, I went beyond myself. I had that moment [in the book] where I had that total awakening, which I really think was when I understood that I was totally connected to the trees, and the great-great grandchildren I’ll never know, and my grandmother, and we’re all one. And that’s not something I would have intellectually thought of beforehand. It was an enlightenment or an awakening that I ran into. I ran beyond my thoughts.

In long-distance running, especially, you’re out for so long, you finally get beyond that chatter in your brain. So many things come to me in my state. It’s like a waking daydream. Which I’ve found super fruitful in generating ideas. It’s a really creative space to be in. I just think you’re more open to the unanswerable questions.

Q: It’s a pretty addictive feeling. I think for a lot of us it’s what keeps us going back out there.
Arnold: Right. It is addictive. And it’s not guaranteed at all. Ever. I think it’s just rare enough that you get glimpses of it, but you keep going back for more.

Q: How much of the book was written in your head on the trail?
Arnold: A lot of it! I really was writing this book in my notebooks for, like, two years before I realized I was writing the book. It was never premeditated — like, “Now I am going to run my way through my grief, and then I’m going to write a book about it.” It was this kind of stumbling forward. And having that intuitive feeling that it was about more than running.

I will say I got the title for the book on a run. I was running up Atalaya and I got to the top and I sat, and I felt like, gosh, I’m running home. I don’t know where that came from, but it was like the minute I got those words I knew they were for something. I don’t think I thought, “Well that’s the title of the book” I didn’t know I was writing, but I knew how important that idea was. That in some way that it was what I had been doing my whole life — running home, both to my father and to my two homes [growing up], to myself. So that was a super pivotal moment.

Q: You had a nice phrase for that, “the crux.” It’s one of those cruxes in your life when you’re able to articulate what you’re running to instead of what you’re running from.
Arnold: Right. Running gets a bad wrap for that. People are like, what are you running away from? And there are days when I’m running away from something. A deadline. Or my maternal duties. Or something that happened with my husband or whatever. But in the bigger picture, I’m 100% running to my true self. The writer in me. As a mother, how to be a better mother — that’s what I’m running toward, and running helps me with that.

People are always like “Oh, running, you must be running away from a lot of trouble.” But running is much more about becoming my true self than running from my past, or running from anything [else]. It’s sort of the same thing as how people love to say running is bad for your knees. That’s such a trope. It’s so easy, it’s such a toss-off. It’s like, that’s not always the case.

Q: And now for some lightning-round running questions … What is your favorite place to run?
Arnold: My mountains out my door and mountains in general. I love my little mountains here in Santa Fe, but I love being up super-high in Colorado. My favorite place, I would say, is above treeline. Those long views, it’s hard work to get there, and it’s gorgeous up at the top.

Q: Least favorite?
Arnold: Maybe the Rail Trail in Santa Fe, where I broke my knee. I have bad associations still with that. It’s mile-marked, so you cannot get out of that feeling of chasing the miles. It’s hard to get into that flow state because you’re like, shit, I’m going for one mile. OK, two. Three. Four. And I’m gonna get to the turnaround. So that’s probably my least favorite place to run. And it’s super-windy out there. And the Kenyans are always out there running really fast, and you’re just like “Shoot, I’m really slow.”

Q: Is there any running advice you wish you had received earlier in life?
Arnold: Oh, gosh, I mean, I never really got any running advice, which is kind of good! This is something I’ve always done, just running for the love of it. Not for times or for results. I have a tricky relationship with competition, because it’s addictive to do well. So I have these two parts of me. The part of me who shows up on race day and wants to do really, really well. And the part of me on all the other days who just runs because I love it, it’s how I love myself, it’s how I love the world. And so I’m still trying to figure out how to balance those two parts of me. It’s like the girl in the Fodderstack running for her father, versus the other 364 days of the year, running for myself.

Q: Do you have any go-to mantras during an especially long run?
Arnold: I just try to keep my mind open and get my mantra from the air. It will come to me. At Leadville, it was “Smile and flow.” Smile because I just love to run. And flow because I understood that there’s this greater energy out there, and when we tap into this bigger energy, we can ride that. That totally worked for me because it was a perfect feedback loop. There’s science behind smiling — when you smile it dulls the perceived effort. I had known that and I had trained a lot on smiling, so the more I smiled, the more I felt I was in that flow state. And the more I flowed, the more I smiled. And that turned out to be perfect.

Q: What advice would you give someone moving from marathoning to ultramarathoning?
Arnold: Not to be intimidated. If you’re already at sort of a marathon level or even a half-marathon, it’s not that big a leap. It’s six miles more than a regular marathon, and the trails are a lot more forgiving on your body than roads. I run almost exclusively trail, mostly because I just love to be in wilderness. That’s the best way to get into it.

Q: You make it sound so easy.
Arnold: I think everything counts toward training. Walking your kids to school and back? Those are miles on your body. Just stay in motion. Move as much as you can during the day. Don’t get hung up on mileage or workouts. I mean, I don’t — I’m pretty unconventional. I don’t worry about strides. Or speed work. It comes naturally. I let the day tell me what it’s gonna be or let my body decide.

This is the advice an elite ultrarunner gave me: The most important thing is your long run. If you increase that a little each week and just work your way up.

But I don’t think it’s really a big leap at all. More and more people are getting into that 50K distance. I just ran my first 50K in seven years, two weeks ago, and I was amazed by how fast it was. And how different it felt from my first one. I kept thinking “Why is everyone in such a rush?” And I realized: “Oh, it’s a short race, right?” There’s not time to catch people.

Q: You mentioned you’re already working on your next book.
Arnold: I don’t know that I would call it a sequel, but it’s called “Running Free.” I wanted to see if I could train my mind to be as strong as my body. It was that inquiry: What if my body is not my biggest strength as a runner, but [instead it’s] my mind? It’s a deeper look at the spiritual side of running, and some of the events that kind of set me up to be curious about that.

I had this traumatic wilderness accident that left me with a broken leg, and my body was basically shut down. I couldn’t run. So I had this crisis of, if I can’t move in my body, how am I gonna move in my mind as a writer? I had writer’s block because of it. It’s kind of [about] mindfulness training as a runner — not a how-to, but as a memoir.

Q: I can’t wait for it. And I’m sure you can’t either. I hope it will be a good excuse for us to talk again! Thank you so much.
Arnold: Thank you.

About the Author

Paul L. Underwood
Paul L. Underwood

Paul is a writer based in Austin, Texas. He tweets here, he Instagrams there and he posts the occasional deep thought at plunderwood.com. He’s probably working on a run mix as you read this.

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