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Grief Inspired Her to Run. Now She’s Leadville’s Reigning Champ.

The ultrarunner turned to running in 2010 as a way to manage grief. Now, she’s Leadville 100’s defending women’s champion.

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When Katie Arnold runs at elevations exceeding 10,000 feet near her home in Santa Fe, the scenery reminds her to “make the most of the time we have here.” After her father’s death in 2010, Arnold turned to running to process her grief. Years later, what began as a passion for nature and fitness has transformed into wins at major races and opportunities to share her journey—most recently through her new book, Running Home, expected out on March 12 . Running through the wilderness is what makes Arnold feel at peace, but her journey hasn’t been without obstacles—and even she struggles sometimes to meet her daily fitness goals.

Congratulations on the upcoming release of Running Home. What inspired you to take on this project?

Running Home was a very organic process. It took me a while to realize I was writing a book. My father passed away and my daughter was born—within a few months of each other, in 2010. I had all the intense grief of losing a parent coupled with those crazy hormones of having a newborn. It was probably a little of that existential mortality crisis, where you realize for the first time that you are going to die. People die. Seeing my father die and my daughter born, the acute anxiety that followed for about 18 moths…I must have just taken on his pain. I thought I was dying, too. I had a long period of anxiety and grief. The only thing that worked—and I tried a lot of things—was running in the mountains, in the wilderness and nature, which has always been a source of healing and solace for me. I was running long distance and I didn’t know what any of it was for. I had that knowing sense that that’s what I needed to do to get through it. It was only a few years in when I began running ultras that I realized there was a book in there. I was on a journey; it was never premeditated.

As the writer of Outside’s “Raising Rippers” column, was it an easy transition for you to begin working on a memoir?

It felt very natural. In my work at Outside, my column is very natural, an expression of my life with my children. My first daughter was born in 2008. My husband and I have always been athletes, so when you have a baby it’s easy to get caught up in that style: It’s over now, you can’t do the things you love. Some of that’s a little true in the beginning, but it’s really what you make of it. Before my father died, a friend of mine gave me some advice that I took to heart. She said, “Start off as you mean to go on.” Start off having the baby as you want to continue. If you want to do outdoor things, start doing those things. Don’t wait until the kid is 5 or 8 or 10. We took that to heart.

It’s easy to get caught up in, “I can’t do that.” Especially as a mother. What running taught me was that you can do both. By taking care of yourself, you’re taking care of your family.

Many runners use running as a way to process and manage their grief, anxiety and frustration. In what ways does running still help you on a day-to-day basis?

It helps in different ways at different points. Everyone wants to know, “Why do you run?” The reasons vary all the time. Sometimes I’m running because I’m stuck on a story and running is how I write. Being in motion moves my creativity. I can be out on a run, not even consciously working on a story, but it happens. You go into this moving meditation or waking daydream where you move past conscious thoughts. The ideas flow more naturally.

Running is so important to me as a writer. It’s so important to me, feeling strong in the world and very present. It’s meditation for me. When I’m out the first 20 to 30 minutes, I might be caught in my head making lists, or this or that. That monkey mind that doesn’t stop. But at a certain point in a run, those thoughts drop away. They don’t go away completely, but you let them pass. There’s this freedom from that constant narrative in my head when I run.

I love being in nature; I’m not a road runner. Ideally I want to be deep in nature, where there’s a perspective that you don’t get in your daily life, especially with phones on all the time, constantly checking social media. There’s this contestant comparison with other people. In nature you’re so small, but not in a way that makes you feel insignificant. You are but one part of this larger whole. It’s consoling, somehow.

What trails or races have been your favorite to run?

The Grand Canyon has a super special place for me. I went there the first time I ran across it [for the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim] in 2013. The landscape is so magnificent; the rock is so old and so weathered, and you feel so new by comparison and young. I felt that way; I had one of those days that I know I’ll never repeat. That’s sort of a sad feeling, but also a happy feeling. It was a gift. I felt like my feet weren’t even touching the ground. This was pure me and the canyon and the awe I felt in that landscape. I ended up having a really fast time, but it wasn’t because I was trying; it was because I was fully present to myself and to the incredible landscape. I’ve been back twice, and each time is more and more special.

When I ran the [2018] Leadville 100, I had a similar day where I transcended myself and my body. I really was carried by some energy that’s greater than me. That’s how I felt in the Grand Canyon, and that’s how I felt when I was the women’s winner at Leadville.

I imagine that there are still days when running feels like a chore, or days when you’d rather unwind in other ways than logging miles. How do you motivate yourself to get outside and run on those days?

Not all days are easy or smooth. When I have those days—and I do have them—I tell myself that I almost always feel better after a run than when I haven’t gone. I don’t like to quit; I don’t like to stop midway through. I feel worse when I do that. If I’m injured or something happens, I will pull the plug. On a normal day, I’ll just slow down or walk on steeper sections. I’ll do what I need to do to finish.

Last year, I went back to the Grand Canyon [for the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim trail run], and 3 or 4 miles in I started to feel like I was having a fever. I was so stubborn that I did the whole run, burning up. Someone had dropped some Advil on the ground, and I happened to look down, see them and pick them up. I kept saying “I’ll turn around up here,” but I didn’t want to give up on myself.

Oftentimes I will tailor my runs to how my spirit is and how my body feels. If I’m feeling low or unmotivated, I’ll go to a trail I love. Even if I’m feeling crummy, I will take care of myself by going to a place that makes me feel good. Nothing’s set in advance, and I think that’s a difference with me from a lot of elite ultra runners. A lot of people follow a prescribed training plan. I have an idea and I build up, but I really give myself freedom to decide each day.

What does a perfect run look like for you?

It’s in the mountains in the summer—but it’s not too hot. I’m up high; above the tree line is my favorite, when you can really get out and see long distances. That’s the perspective that is very calming to me. I’m away from distractions of cell phones or deadlines. You’re high and away, free from all of that. Often it’s with a good friend, where we’re just talking and running. It’s that sense of traveling instead of training. I love the adventure side of things. I love being up high and needing to figure out how much water I need to bring. That feeling of range, of getting really far in or up high, and sharing that with someone I’m close to.

I run a lot with my dog, Pete. He’s a great runner. I’ve had incidents before where I’ve had run-ins with other people, and he definitely has my back. The most I take him is maybe 12 miles, but that has to have water. He’s such a great trail dog.

What do you most want readers to know about Running Home?

Running Home is not just for runners; it’s for people who’ve gone through something and want to push themselves and see what’s possible. It might be running for some people, might be triathlon or playing piano or being a dee-jay. What’s that thing inside you that fills you with energy and makes you feel most alive? For me, it was running. It’s a book about finding that and going for it, about making the most of the time we have here. That’s what I learned the most from my father’s death: we don’t have unlimited moments. I want to live to the fullest.