I'm so excited to be interviewing Katie Arnold. Katie is a contributing editor at Outside magazine where she has been on staff for twelve years. She writes a column for Outside Online called Raising Rippers about how to raise adventurous kids. She has contributed to The New York Times, Travel + Leisure, Elle, and many other publications and currently lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with her husband and her two daughters. Running Home: A Memoir is her first book.
Welcome to Katie. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Katie Arnold: Thanks for having me. It’s exciting to be here.
Zibby: Katie made a special trip in from visiting New Jersey. I feel particularly honored that she was willing to do that for this. Can you please tell listeners what your beautiful memoir called Running Home is about?
Katie: Running Home, it’s about a lot of things. Predominantly, it’s about my relationship with running and with my father and how the two converged after he died in 2010. I was beset by this really crippling anxiety. I’d just had a new baby. I had a toddler and an infant. After he died, I became convinced that I was dying too. I didn't realize at the time that that's not uncommon. It’s not an uncommon way to grieve. It was terrifying to me. I live in Santa Fe, New Mexico. There's lots of alternative therapies and healing and healers. I tried a lot of them over the course of eighteen months. I was really looking for a way to not worry so much. The thing that worked the best was the thing that had always worked for me, which was running. It made a lot of sense. I've been a runner my whole life. In some ways, it didn't make sense because I was terrified of dying. This wasn’t running on the road. This was into the mountains alone on backcountry trails and real wilderness for many hours at a time. I found that when I ran, I could run through and pass those worries. My mind would settle. It became a moving meditation. The book is really a story about how I grieve my father and how running healed me and the wilderness healed me.
Zibby: And also about the love you had for your dad growing up. There's a lot before he passed away that you captured in your childhood.
Katie: He was a huge, huge influence on me, both artistically -- he was a photographer forNational Geographic. He really taught me how to see the world and to pay attention, which is what you need as writer. He was a beautiful writer, but his medium was photographs. I knew from a very young age, six or seven, that I wanted to become a writer. His way of capturing the world, really paying attention to those moments -- they're ordinary moments. They're beautiful moments. There's something about them that you want to capture. By osmosis, by being his daughter, I learned how to pay attention. That was a huge influence on me in that way. He also taught me to find solace and inspiration outside in nature, those two things. That's a narrative in the story about how I became who I am, in large part because of him.
Zibby: In the book, he said at one point, “The most important element of a photograph is what you leave out so as to frame only what is most significant.” I was wondering, is there anything you felt you left out in order to frame this story?
Katie: So much. The story always had to come back to my father, my relationship with him, and my relationship with running. Of course, there's so much more to me than both of those things. My relationship with some of my siblings, my stepsiblings, that's a whole other book, being a blended family in the seventies and eighties.
Zibby: That's the next book proposal now. [laughs]
Katie: Ann Patchett, she wrote a novel, Commonwealth, which from what I understand was autobiographically based. There's a whole story in that that couldn't be in this because it had to come back to the main narrative. There was some grief over the things I couldn't include. I'm really pleased with the shape of it. The book always had its own momentum and energy, like running, often because I would run and then I would come back and write. I would bring that feeling into my writing. The book always told me what it needed and where it was going. My job as a writer was to listen and to let it be what it wanted to be. There were many times when I felt the shape wasn’t quite there. I kept winnowing it and trimming out what wasn’t essential.
Zibby: When you went back to visit your dad when he was sick, you had been working for Outside magazine for twelve years. You told him you wanted to write about being a mom. He said something like, “Pick something serious.”
Katie: He said, “Make sure whatever you write about, make sure it’s important.”
Zibby: Did that become the beginning of the book?
Katie: It was interesting because that was a hard moment. My father was sick at the time. Although, his illness was quite short, so it progressed very rapidly. This was still at the very beginning of it. He was still in good shape. I just said that. That came from deep within me. It had not been premediated that I was going to tell him or even that I'd really been thinking about it. I must have been. That's the beauty of that intuitive voice, which is what the book is about a lot, listening. We have our own answers. We don't need to grab things off the shelf and find the answers.
Zibby: I even noticed he says to you at the end, when he says, “Listen to your own body,” that's such a theme.
Katie: Listen to your body. Exactly. I said, “I want to write about being a mother, I think.” When he said, “Make sure whatever you write about is important,” there was that moment of is this not important? I could never find out what he would think about this book. I don't think I need to. It did become important in its way. It probably was the beginning. I know it was the beginning of my writing about being a parent for Outside. That moment was the genesis of my column that I write called Raising Rippers about bringing up kids outside. It’s funny when you look back, those moments that were defining. When he said that, it was a little bit of a gut punch. Is it not important? He wasn't making that judgement. As his daughter, I was feeling --
Zibby: -- internalizing it.
Katie: Yeah, as we often do with our parents.
Zibby: Speaking of all the running for a minute, when your dad was sick and you visited him at Huntley Stage, you went running in the midst of illness. You said, “My legs are heavy and slow, but I don't care. I'm not running for speed or fitness. I'm running to get out of the house and escape the dread of what's to come. I'm running to feel the humid air swoosh through my lungs, to feel normal again, and just a little bit alive. I'm running to forget and to remember.” Can you talk to me about how you felt right then?
Katie: The grief in the house, even before he died, was so heavy. It was a very physical feeling for me. I had lost people that I loved before, grandparents. I hadn’t experienced such an intense close-up experience with grief. It surprised me because it was so physical. You think it’s an emotion like a sadness. For me, it was a felt sensation. It was a layer on my skin or a heavy, heavy coat. I wanted to scrape it off my skin. I would take these hot showers at his house thinking I could rinse it off. I even went home to Santa Fe and went to the fancy Japanese spa on the mountain and got the salt rub. Lying there as the salt is literally in -- if you have a little cut, it’s like salt in the wound. It really was that. I got up. She rinsed it off. I was hoping I would feel better. It was still there. In that moment that you just read about -- that was on one of my trips back -- it was this deep need to get out, and to be out in the open and in the fresh air, and breathing in that clean air, and out of the cloying heaviness of grief. I thought then when he died several weeks later that the grief would end. Little did I know, it was just beginning.
Zibby: Tell me more about the anxiety that came afterwards. Had you had anxiety like this?
Katie: I had never had health anxiety like that. No, I'd never had extreme anxiety at all. I'd had little worries here and there over things, and of course when you become a mother. I'd become a mother two years earlier to my daughter Pippa. All of a sudden, that's a whole new level of worry that you've never experienced. I'd had those moments of “I brought this creature into the world. Now, I have to keep her alive,” normal mother stuff. This was, I could hear a report on the radio or read a snippet of a headline or the first paragraph in the Modern Love column in New York Times, which for the longest time seemed like it was the cancer column in the paper.
Katie: I could read that, and then I would think that I had those symptoms. I would feel them. I think it’s a little different than hypochondria. Although, I'm not entirely sure. I didn't go to the doctor all the time. I was afraid I was dying. Partially, it was postpartum. It was grief. It was also a little bit of midlife. I was probably, at the time, thirty-eight. When you lose your parent, you really do realize that you're going to die. That’s what youth is. You don't know that. You don't believe it. It’s not going to happen to you. Then you lose a parent. You realize it will. You're a mother at the same time. You're like, “Please, not now.” I've always had a big imagination. I've been a writer since I was a young girl and a huge reader. The imagination is great tool as a writer, but my imagination went a little bit haywire. I had something new every week, I felt like. This went on for about a year and a half.
Zibby: I feel like you also have this added layer of pressure or something because you were a child of divorce. You didn't get to see your dad on a daily basis growing up. I thought you wrote about that in such a beautiful way. My parents are divorced. I could relate to that part of that. You wrote -- if it’s okay if I read that part, it was so good -- “The heaviness in my chest is old and familiar. It’s not quite grief, not yet, though I can feel that coming, but a hitch in my heart, a tick of apprehension. Something is missing, but I don't know what. I feel as young as the girl in dad’s pictures. I'm homesick, that discomfiting in-between feeling, not quite there, not quite here that I've felt my whole life with my father. Our relationship has been a constant cycle of coming together and moving apart, hellos and goodbyes, the excitement of arriving and the guilt of going all twisted up like a tangled skein of wool, happy and sad. Now that we’re heading toward our last goodbye, the word has a terrible new meaning, homesick.” It’s so beautiful. I was crying as I read all of this. Oh, my gosh. That intense in and out feeling, that loneliness but you're not alone, it stays with you.
Katie: I think it’s in your muscle memory as a child of divorce, that here and there and home in neither place. Although, I will say I had very loving parents. We had very comfortable homes in both places. Something about going back and forth, it was leaving when you weren’t quite ready, and that apprehension of what would be waiting for you when you got there, and how would it have changed since you were last there, and then the awful feeling of leaving. I did only see my father four or five times a year. Now in this day and age of divorce, that is so different. Kids are going back and forth all the time. The leavings were always hard. My dad’s face was just the saddest thing on the planet. That feeling of being betwixt in between I don't think ever goes away.
Zibby: Now, I'm the one who has kids of divorce and remarried. I so didn't want to be that person where they could see my sad face. I remember at the beginning, I would say goodbye at their dad’s. Then I would have to hide behind the cars on the street and cry and make sure nobody leaned back to see me. [laughs] It’s so hard to protect yourself and your kids. The worst is when you feel like you have to carry the emotions of your parents and that delicately carting it around.
Katie: Yes. That's what I did.
Zibby: That's a lot for a child.
Katie: You have these loyalties. Who are you loyal to? You think you have to choose. It’s an either/or. This was all so new. We certainly weren’t talking about it. It was just going into my little seven-year-old body and brain. Again, my parents were so loving. They kept it together. They got along and didn't ever speak ill of each other, which was an incredible gift, incredible. As a child when you don't know what's going on and you don't know how all of a sudden you ended up in New Jersey when your father’s in Virginia, you start to make up stories. You want to solve it. It becomes a mystery. That's a large part why I became a writer. I'd always had that urge. You're trying to solve your own story.
Zibby: Did you ever get any formal writing training? You're such a beautiful writer, seriously. I went back and I read a bunch of your essays online. I love your column. I'm printing out the “Brave Girls” one for my daughter. The way you see things, even a simple topic becomes really literary and beautiful. Does it all come naturally? Did you take any classes? Do you have a workshop?
Katie: A little bit of both. I've always written. I’ll mention this because it just happened yesterday. I was in New Jersey at a reading. My fifth-grade teacher came to see me. She was hugely influential in my life. When I was in fifth grade, so nine or ten, I wrote a piece, a story. She recognized something in it. She became a champion for me and a believer, even when many times I didn't believe. I write about this in Running Home. My sister, who’s older than me, had a typewriter and was “the writer” in the family. You know when you're a kid, you make up this weird logic like, “My sister’s the writer, so I can't be.” I always had that tug a little bit. When we were talking about that betwixt in between, am I or aren’t I? I want to be, but my sister is. This fifth-grade teacher, she really recognized it and named it in me. That stuck with me. I just kept writing.
I didn't take creative writing classes in college or anything, again, because I'd had that storyline in my head. That's what this book’s about too, the stories we tell ourselves that hold us back, like that one, and then the ones ultimately like this book, I hope, that set us free. I became a journalist at Outside. I really learned how to write there. It suited me. I've also always kept notebooks. I write in notebooks. I capture those moments that I was talking about earlier. They don't have to be for anything. It’s either something I observe on the street, or a conversation I overhear, or a thought I have about something. I’ll write it down. There's no pressure for it to be perfect or beautiful. It’s just something I know caught my eye.
That's something that my father taught me. He always carried notebooks and little Steno pads in his pocket. One time, he gave me one. He had labelled it “Things My Dad Says I Won't Want to Forget,” or something. I learned from him how to be an observer and take notes. That's a big part of it. To write like that, it doesn't have to be for something. It becomes that writing practice that was influential to me. When I met my friend Natalie Goldberg, who is a quite well-known writing teacher and student of Zen -- she teaches her students just to write and not edit and to fill their notebooks. I would do that. I did writing practice for many years. I still do. When you write that way, you might start writing about an apple. Then you might end up writing about your mother. In the course of that ten-minute writing exercise, you see where your minds goes, and the leaps. That's really the practice I do.
Zibby: You can take situations like the horrible one with the man attacking you on the path and you turn it into something to get some sort of closure on it when in actuality, there is nothing. How do you cope with knowing -- back to anxiety for a little bit and running by yourself on these trails -- that things can happen? You wrote a whole essay, which was so great, about when people ask you, “Are you afraid to run alone?” You listed the fifty-seven things why you should be afraid. [laughs] But then --
Katie: -- you go anyway.
Zibby: Do you feel like the people in your life like your husband and your kids feel protective of you in these situations? Do you feel like you're ever being reckless?
Katie: I think about that a lot because the stakes are obviously higher now that I'm a mother. In the piece you're referring to, I was attacked on the trail. That's a chapter in the book. This was when my daughter was four months old. We were hiking. I was hiking with her on the trails that I had hiked every day of my pregnancy, very familiar to me. The man was caught. He went to jail for a period of time. Now, he’s out again. I see him occasionally. I do sometimes wonder, it is a marvel to me that I came through that and not only went back to the trails, but then began running ultradistances alone. What that episode taught me is that I can protect myself.
My strength is running. As he came toward me on the trail, I ran. In that moment, I realized that I'm strong. I'm fast. That can save me. I think it had to put it way away. I had to tuck that way down because of how horrifying it was. He could've killed my daughter. That, as a mother, as you know, you can't think about that. You just have to close that door. I tucked it away. I had systems, as I’ll call it. I would always tell my husband where I was going. Before I had a dog who could run with me, I brought my friend’s dog. I always carried my phone, though a lot of times I was out of range. I carried pepper spray. There were things I could do to mitigate risk. It seemed to me and it became clear to me that not going out into the wilderness or onto the trails was a greater risk to me than going. My husband, he thinks about it. He knows that we have those systems. He knows how important it is to me. I think about it all the time, the risk of it.
Zibby: It’s not just that you run. It’s that you've become this ultrarunner. You compete. What's the longest you've ever run?
Katie: The longest is a hundred miles. I ran that last summer at the Leadville Trail 100, which is a very prestigious race. If you know the book Born to Run, it’s the book that Chris McDougall writes about. It’s a fantastic race. It’s more than eight hundred people, but fewer than half finish the course.
Zibby: You did it over what time period?
Katie: I did it in nineteen hours, fifty-three minutes. I won the race. I was the first woman. It was a convergence. I write a lot in this book about how things come up at certain moments. There's almost a magic to them, a serendipity. Things align. That was certainly true with a lot of my dad’s material that he left behind that I found after he died that formed this secondary narrative in the book of discovering who he was as I was discovering who I was as a runner. This material he left, it was all very documented and organized. A different kind of person would have, right after he died, gone in and gone through it systematically. That's not how my brain works. I'm more intuitive. I came to things bits and pieces. Everything seemed to come and show itself to me at the right moment. That's really how Leadville felt. It was a convergence of my real essence as a mother, a writer, and a runner all in one day. I was basically in a twenty-hour flow state. I was tapped into something bigger than myself, for sure.
Zibby: How do you eat?
Katie: I eat energy gels. The kind I use is GU. They're my sponsor. I've been using them forever. Each packet has a hundred calories. I need about two hundred calories an hour. That means I'm eating one every thirty minutes. Then I drink an electrolyte drink that has two hundred calories a bottle. As soon as I start spacing out or if I get klutzy or trip on rocks, I know that I'm behind on my calories.
Zibby: Do you ever think about doing the Olympics?
Katie: They don't have trail running or ultrarunning.
Zibby: I know. Don't they have the marathon?
Katie: Oh, my gosh. The marathon seems way more terrifying to me.
Zibby: Than running a hundred miles?
Katie: Yeah. Running fast on the road for twenty-six miles seems way harder and more scary to me than a slower hundred miles. I love being in the wilderness and being in the mountains. The running is so important. As a writer, that's my creative process, is being in motion. It’s also being in nature and feeling that there's a larger force out there and that it is big enough to hold you. You feel small in it, but in a good way, not in an un-insignificant way. I fit into something bigger. I'm connected. It’s hard, I can't think which is more essential. Is it the running? Is it the wilderness? That's why being an ultrarunner is so beautiful because it’s the two combined.
Zibby: That's just the coolest. The stamina and all the stuff, physically and emotionally...
Katie: It’s very mental. Running is very physical. One hundred percent, you have to be running. A hundred percent of the time, you're running. Your legs are moving. It’s such a great way to study your mind because in the beginning part of the race or a run -- I talk about this in the prologue -- you're excited. What's happening? What's going to come? In the middle, every little thing that you feel in your body becomes a worry. Is this a problem? Is that? You have to work through it. In a way, that's why meditation is so good. It trains you or you learn how to not attach to those thoughts. The thoughts will come, completely. When you're running a hundred miles, invariably you will think, many times probably, am I going to make it to the end?
Zibby: Time to stop. [laughs]
Katie: Am I going to trip and fall? Am I going to get lost? If you were to attach to all those thoughts, you probably wouldn't finish. What you have to do is just see them and say, “There's that thought again.” If I have a pain in my ankle early on in the race, I note that thought. I’ll tell myself, “If I'm still thinking this or feeling this in three or four miles, then I can take it more seriously.” Basically, it’s my way of saying “I see you. Next. Move on.” Don't get hooked on those thoughts. It is a meditation. You have to be vigilant. You're not going to not have the fears. The trick is to just see them and then let them pass.
Zibby: When did you write this book? What was your process? Did you write it at night?
Katie: When? During the day?
Zibby: When, actually?
Katie: I wrote it all over the place. My general best day -- every day is different as a mother, writer, and a runner -- I would run first thing in the morning. I would get the kids off. Then I would go for a run. I would come back and work. I would sit at my desk, and by desk, I mean either my kitchen table or outside under the portal if it was nice out. I might be at my desk by eleven. The kids are in school until three. I wrote a lot at night. We'd get the kids to bed around eight. Then I would often write from eight until ten.
Zibby: Would you do it again? Did you enjoy it?
Katie: One hundred percent. I loved it. The book was a flow state, not always, just like not every day when you run do you feel great and does it feel effortless. The book very much wanted to be told. There was magic around every corner. That was because I was willing to let the book show me. The few times that I got all bossy with the book and thought I was in charge, I would hit the wall a little bit. I would find that resistance. Things weren’t flowing. Then I realized I had to step back and just listen to the book. Of course, I also wrote while running. Sentences would come. If I didn't like the way a paragraph was sounding, you absorb that in your body. As I would run, it would jostle itself loose. It would reassemble itself in the right way with the right words in my head.
Zibby: You would actually remember it?
Katie: I had this whole system. I would either try to hold it in my head -- then I realized I was holding too many thoughts. As I was running, I was trying not to forget them. I started carrying a little notecard shoved down my sports bra with a pen. [laughs] I would stop and write them. Then they would get sweat-smeared. I would get back and couldn't read them at my car at the trailhead. Because I carried my phone after I was attacked, for safety, I would type them into my phone. Then I was pretty much the last person to discover voice memo on her phone. Now, sometimes I’ll talk into it. I do all those things. More even than the actual sentences that are rewritten while I run, it’s that feeling of running, that flow and that momentum and the rhythm. Writing, to me, has always been like music. Running gives me that cadence. Then I’ll come back and write from that place.
Zibby: It’s like the running is the instrumental part. The words are the...
Katie: The lyrics.
Zibby: The lyrics, thank you. Yes. [laughs] That's how you make them. Very cool. I know we’re almost out of time. Tell me what you see coming next for you. More of these ultrarunning whatever?
Katie: I've got a race on Saturday, which I can't believe. What's today? Monday? I'm running a hundred kilometers on Saturday in Virginia.
Zibby: That's like...
Katie: Sixty-two miles.
Zibby: [laughs] Don't ask me about...
Katie: I know. It sounds absurd. Yes, I'm running a race. I've got a couple other races on the calendar. I'm writing. I'm working on my next book.
Zibby: Good. What's that about?
Katie: It’s a deeper exploration or a continuation of this story. It starts with this very traumatic wilderness accident I had in 2016 on the Salmon River in Idaho when I broke my leg and then goes through and looks at how my body had been very strong. I trained my body. The question became what if my greatest strength as an athlete is not my body, but my mind? It’s a deeper look at how I use mindfulness and meditation to train myself as an ultrarunner and as a writer. It concludes with the Leadville, that day that was beyond expectation. In some ways, it made no sense -- I'm in my mid-forties -- that this could happen. It was such a mental -- I had done all the work. Everything just came together.
Zibby: That's so great. Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?
Katie: Write things down. Keep that notebook. Keep your phone or your voice memo. Write things down even when you don't know what it’s for. It doesn't have to be for anything. I fill notebooks one a month of the kind of notebook I use. I've used the same kind forever. A lot of times, I don't know what it’s for. Only later when you have a little bit of distance on it can you go back and see the narrative. In fact, that's what happened with this book. Years after my dad died, I did not know I was writing the book. I was writing in my notebooks all the time about the grief, the anxiety, the details of losing him. The running, I didn’t know what the running was for, but I allowed myself to be in that place of not knowing with it. There was the scene in the book where my husband, who’s very patient -- we give each other a lot of freedom -- even he was starting to get impatient. He was like, “What is this for, this running?” I said, “I don't know, but I know that it’s about more than running.” I was in the thick of it, but doing it.
Then later when I had that distance, literal miles under my feet, could I look back at those notebooks and see that I had really been writing the book in the notebooks. To trust yourself -- again, you have the answers inside, not someone else. If you think something is interesting or there's a story there, write it down. I always keep something by my bed because I get a lot of ideas just as I'm falling asleep, in that neither here nor there place, that liminal space between wake and sleep. A lot of times I’ll be too lazy to turn on the light and write it down. Always write it down because in the morning, you'll try to remember what it was. It’s hard.
Zibby: That's awesome. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Katie: That was great.