The Profile Dossier: Katie Arnold, the Ultra-Athlete Who Outran Her Anxiety
“I’ve always been running towards something, which is my true self and my expression as a human being."
After her father died, Katie Arnold spiraled into a thick cloud of grief and anxiety.
She was consumed and paralyzed by fear as she grappled with her own mortality. Each day, she would ask herself questions that would only further fuel the fire blazing in her brain: Would she die too? What would happen if she wasn't around to help raise her daughters?
Arnold tried a multitude of remedies in an attempt to heal what she referred to as "her worry brain."
Nothing worked, until one day, she went on a run.
"Running was like putting lettuce in a bowl and tossing it with salad dressing, jiggling loose my ideas, so that by the time I finished, everything was coated and interconnected," she writes. "I saw links I’d missed, and I knew what to do and how to get forward."
To her, running acted like an elixir for her anxious brain. Over the course of three tumultuous years, she ran alone through the wilderness, logging longer and longer distances, first a 50-kilometer ultramarathon, then 50 miles, then 100 kilometers.
In 2018, Arnold became the women's champion of Leadville Trail 100 Run, which is an intense 100-mile ultramarathon held annually on rugged trails and dirt roads. It took her 19 hours, 53 minutes, and 40 seconds.
“I’ve always been running towards something, which is my true self and my expression as a human being," she says.
Running healed her grief and cured her constant rumination. She turned her experiences into a popular memoir called, Running Home.
Similar to running, Arnold says, the power of writing is "not to be therapeutic but transformative, even transcendent."
Here's what we can learn from Arnold's journey of finding her passion, overcoming worry, and learning to observe the world from a lens of admiration and curiosity.
On how running saved her life: When her father died, Arnold felt as though a perfect storm of grief and anxiety was unleashed within her. It was her father who had been her best friend. It was him who introduced her to adventure. And it was he who encouraged her to run her first race when she was only seven years old. In this memoir, Arnold explains how running helped heal her grief and worry about her own mortality. Her story is one of sadness and renewal paired with adventure and obsession.
On running through fear: If you want a taste of what Arnold's memoir is like, read this excerpt. In it, she writes about how running became the antidote to her fears. She underwent a bizarre physical attack while hiking with her baby, and then her father passed away suddenly. Arnold felt paralyzed by endless worry about life, death, parenthood, and being alone in the wilderness. Here's how she learned to manage the everyday anxieties of life.
On a life of observation: Arnold says curiosity and observation have been crucial to helping her make sense of a chaotic world. In this episode, she opens up about how her parents’ divorce led her to become curious about her own life and how she used running as a form of expression rather than an escape. This is a really good one.
On preparing for races: When Arnold was preparing for the Leadville Trail 100, she created a "real-life training plan." She accepted the fact that she had young kids, she was a writer, and she had a million little tasks to complete each day. So Arnold created a training plan around her daily life that promoted mental toughness. Here's how she trained both her body and mind for one of the hardest ultra-marathons in the world.
On outrunning her anxiety: After her father died, Arnold developed acute anxiety because she had the persistent thought that she was dying too. She tried many remedies to alleviate her constant worries, but the only thing that had a calming effect on her was the act of running. "I just did one step in front of the other, and that's a practice to trust that even if you don't know where you're going, even if you're moving forward, it will lead you somewhere."
On her writing routine: In addition to the book, Arnold has written multiple longform profiles for Outside Magazine. In this video, she delves into her writing process. "I would just immerse myself in my subject's world," she says. "The story's unfolding as you're experiencing it, and your job is just to capture it."
TECHNIQUES TO TRY.
Pretend to be a photographer for a day: Arnold learned one key lesson from her father's NatGeo photography career: Learn how to observe the world through a lens of curiosity. "He taught me how to see the world as a photographer, which is to pay attention and be an observer of those moments that happen in all of our days. He was an expert at noticing." Go an entire day noticing the tiny, mundane moments in your life that you typically take for granted. The act of noticing can help you generate new ideas, develop an appreciation for your surroundings, and find the beauty in the mundane.
Activate your beginner mind: Ultra-running has taught Arnold how to trust. When she shows up at the starting line of a race, she tells herself: "I've trained, and I've prepared for this." She explains that she feels as though she turns a switch on in her head to "receive mode." "I go into it thinking, 'I've put in the work,' now I'm open to whatever is going to happen." No matter what happens during a race, Arnold's shifted her mindset to one of curiosity and learning because she believes every race has the power to teach you something about yourself. "In ultras, you have to be able to let go," she says. "There are so many variables you can't control — the terrain, the elevation, the weather — so you really have to learn to let go of any preconceived notion."
Learn to stay the course: Arnold once read this quote by Lao Tzu: "Be who you really are and go the whole way." She said it resonated with her because she realized that if you follow your true passions, then you are capable of anything. "This is your superpower. And you will be able to go the whole way, to achieve far more than you ever thought possible," she says. For her, it's running. For you, it may be writing, cooking, swimming, or investing. If you see things through, you can create long-lasting original work.
Document the boring: Arnold's a big believer in keeping notebooks in which you can write your observations or just record the mundane details of everyday life. She doesn't like calling them "journals," because a journal brings added pressure to write something precious and special. "If I'm working on something in my writing but I don't want it to feel formal or that it has to be good, then I write it in my notebook," she says. "I go through a notebook a month." I also have a tiny notebook that I carry with me to record my thoughts, ideas, or interesting quotes I hear from random people around me. It's nothing special but it keeps me present and curious throughout the day.
Step outside of your ego: Find an activity that allows you to let go of your ego. Because society loves to put labels on us, it's important to be able to do something that frees us of all of those identities. "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," Arnold says. "Sometimes 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." For Arnold, running is the activity that allows her to transcend all her identities and burdens in life. "I see that it’s becoming something even bigger — a spiritual practice — and it’s just the beginning," she says. The way to get out of your ego is to immerse yourself in an activity that requires your full attention and energy.
Detach from illogical, circuitous worry: Arnold emphasizes the difference between fear and anxiety. Fear is a response to a known threat; anxiety is dread of a perceived or imagined threat, of what could happen. It is anticipatory, not actual. "On some days my worry is more acute and on others less, but it’s always part of the package: inescapable, chronic, not so very different from love itself," she writes. "The crux is to live as big as you can, to love it all even when you stand to lose it all." When you feel your stomach in knots and your mind racing, ask yourself: "Is my fear real or perceived? If it's real, what can I do that is in my control?" Learn how to let go of anticipatory fear. Focus on what's actually in front you.
QUOTES TO REMEMBER.
“Some days I can no longer tell if running is madness or the clearest kind of sanity.”
“I’m running to forget, and to remember."
“Anxiety creates indecision and a lack of clarity, but coming back to my values always cuts through that uncertainty.”
“When I move my body, I move my mind, and I move that imagination, and that is integral to how I write and how I do my work as a journalist and a writer.”
“It’s not about emptying your mind of thoughts. The thoughts are going to be there, but it just helps me to think: They’re coming and I see them, but let them pass like clouds. A cloud will come over, and then it just goes by. I don’t grip onto it.”
"If you can listen to your intuition rather than your ego, you will almost always end up where you’re meant to be."