Katie Arnold is deeply observant, to be sure, but she is no mere observer. The prolific journalist and Outside contributing editor says that in order to write a story, she first needs to live within it.
Like, say, the time Arnold, with only a handful of climbs under her harness, found herself nervously sweating up Half Dome’s eight-pitch Snake Dike route when writing about climber, BASE jumper, and wingsuit flyer Steph Davis. Or when she interviewed ultrarunner Dean Karnazes during his successful bid to visit each state while running fifty marathons in fifty days, and unwittingly notched her very first 26.2-miler while wielding a recorder.
It’s perhaps a tad ironic, then, that Arnold—who has since become an elite ultrarunner herself—needed a bit of coaxing from the universe to recognize her own lived story, which is detailed in a beautiful and raw new memoir, Running Home.
While running a few years back, those two words appeared almost as if in a vision. At the time, Arnold was slowly emerging from what she describes as several years submerged within “a complete fog of grief” after her father, National Geographic photographer David Arnold, succumbed to late-stage kidney cancer. As she mulled the phrase, Arnold began to realize that the personal observations she’d jotted down during her father’s illness and after his death formed a sort of connective tissue—that “running home” had a meaning beyond the literal.
In 2014, Arnold won her first multi-day trail race, the TransRockies Run. During the post-race euphoria, she began working on what would become Running Home. As in running, she slipped into a flow state, completely present and in the zone. Though she never intended to write about her own life—or her father’s for that matter—this was Arnold’s ultimate lived story, and it was hers to set free. “I always thought I’d be a fiction writer,” she says. “But life works in funny ways.”
Running Home begins in the grassy depths of a massive caldera as Arnold runs the Jemez Mountain 50 Mile Trail Run in 2012. Her writing is luminous and visceral, describing the landscape—both physical and emotional—with such poetic detail that we are deposited directly into this volcanic gouge, watching helplessly as Arnold goes off course, suddenly lost in the expanse after race markers disappear.
From this opening scene, Arnold goes deep to retrace a difficult, but ultimately redemptive three-year span between her father’s illness, his death, and its crushing aftermath. At the time of his diagnosis, Arnold has just given birth to her second daughter. Already stretched to the limits of exhaustion after repeated travels between her home in Santa Fe and Huntly Stage, her father’s pastoral spread in rural Virginia, Arnold becomes gripped with anxiety in the wake of his death. Each ache and pain digs its own black hole—is she sick, too? Or even worse—dying herself?
As in the caldera, we watch as Arnold struggles to find her way through debilitating emotional turmoil. There are no route markers here, either—well, save for her father’s expansive stash of photographs, writing, and recordings, each unlocking a bit of the past to help her contend with the present.
While Arnold settles into the hard work of sifting through her father’s belongings and her own memories, running becomes first an emotional release valve, then something beyond. “Being in motion is my natural state, and I actually think that’s true for all humans,” she says. “I think that’s why we’re in a place where anxiety and depression have risen so greatly, because we’ve become more sedentary.” As her mileage increased, Arnold began to experience extended states of flow, her brain locked firmly in the present. It gave her the space to recognize that she wasn’t running away from her thoughts or emotions, but instead was moving through them.
Arnold details her rather remarkable running achievements throughout the book, but she does so with a sort of charming nonchalance that indicates how her relationship to the sport—or really, her practice, something akin to a moving meditation—has changed over time. “Racing and winning is like the tippiest tip of the iceberg; it’s the littlest piece,” she says. “If all I cared about was winning, I would lose what running really is, which is a creative expression, a true expression of who I am.”
This isn’t a put-on; Arnold is rare among top tier ultrarunners in that she doesn’t employ a coach or adhere to any discernable training plan. Case in point: her most recent win at the 2018 Leadville Trail 100—her first hundred miler, to boot. Instead of stacking her calendar with brutal workouts, Arnold trained in the course of daily living—coaching her daughter’s lacrosse team, walking their dogs, hiking with her family, biking around town to complete errands.
While she clearly enjoys pushing her limits, Arnold has also learned to accept that control is an illusion. She says that the process of writing Running Home helped her realize that no matter how much you attempt to act as the architect of your own life, you cannot predict the unknown—and that’s okay.
“There is a flow to life. If we’re just always going, marching, looking at the next thing, thinking we have a plan, there’s so much we can miss,” she says. “Sometimes it’s better not to know where you’re going. You end up in amazing places.”
You can purchase Running Home here.
Top photo: Nicole Moulton