JACKRABBIT INTERVIEWS KATIE ARNOLD
JackRabbit: Your journey from being a long-time runner, to breaking your leg so severely your doctor recommended to you to find a new sport, to winning Leadville 100, one of the most sought-after wins an ultra-runner could want – you’ve had quite a busy few years! How did you first get into running, ending up in the land of ultra-running?
Katie Arnold: I started running as a kid, when I was very young. I just always loved to be in motion. My first race was a 10K road race near my dad’s farm in Virginia. It was a total whim, almost a dare. I’d never even run a mile before let alone 6.2. I was seven years old. I must have walked a lot of it, and as I write about in my new memoir, probably hated a lot of it, but I loved crossing the finish line—the elation and runner’s high of having survived something seemingly possible stuck with me.
I continued to run on my own, and raced that same race every year. But otherwise I didn’t really compete except for some city track meets here and there. Running was personal for me, not competitive, and around the same time—age 7— I decided I wanted to be a writer, and so running became a way that i wrote. I would make up stories in my head as i ran, a waking, moving daydream also.
Since then, running has always been a way that I tap into my imagination. I often come up with ideas or stories when I run, or whole sentences. Much of my memoir came to me while I was running. I would try to hold all my ideas in my head while I ran so I didn’t forget them, or sometimes brought notecards and a pen on long runs and would stop and write things down (I must have been the last person on the planet to discover Notes or VoiceRecorder on my phone!). Now I do voice memos or type into my phone.
I started ultra distances after my father died, in 2010. I had a new baby and was nursing or pregnant for 4 years straight, and rocked by his death I fell into a deep anxiety that I was dying too. I write about this in RUNNING HOME—it was a combination of grief and existential mortality crisis and postpartum. I tried everything to help with the anxiety but the only thing that worked was running in nature. I had always sought and found solace in motion and in the natural world, since I was a girl, and so I began running longer and longer distances into the wilderness.
Nature healed me as much as running did.
I ran and won my first ultra, a 50K in 2012, and have kept going every since. But I still don’t compete as much as other elite runners, because running is still a private creative act for me as much as it is a physical sport or competition. It feeds my creativity and if I become too outward or goal oriented/competitive, it takes away from my creative process.
So it’s a delicate balance. I write about how I grapple with competition in Running Home.
JR:How have your performance priorities changed from when you started to where you are now?
KA: As I’ve raced more and across all distances I am more attuned to the natural rhythms of a training cycle and trusting my body and mind to tell me what I need and when. I am self-coached and self-taught and listening to my body and spirit are very important part of the training cycle for me.
I have added (daily) meditation into my training as a way to stay connected to the real reasons I run (see above) and being present helps me enormously in training and races. It helps me attune to myself and my surroundings, strengthen my mental training, and stay focused. It also helps allay anxiety when it inevitably comes creeping back in.
I’d say that the mental component, the mindfulness piece, has been the biggest shift in my training. I find if I don’t have those quiet moments leading up to big runs or races, I don’t perform as well on race day. Part of my meditation practice is letting go of the desire for future success and being present to what is.
I find when I run to win or train to win, explicitly, I am more likely to overtrain or get injured or race outside of my body. When I am running to run, to be in the flow of the moment and accepting what is rather than pushing against the clock or other competitors. I am much more relaxed and have better results. But it’s alwas a balance to keep the desire for results from driving the process.
JR: When were you first introduced to GU?
KA: I’ve been fueling on GU for as long as I can remember, easily since the early 00’s before I had kids and was really into mountain biking. That was my sport for a long time. I was into trail running, but I loved being on my bike and I would stash GU in my pockets for long rides and events like 24 Hours of Moab.
After my daughters were born, it felt too daunting to me to try to maintain my bicycle (never my strong suit anyway) and my babies, and my impulse was to simplify, so I really ramped up my running. it was easy to nurse the baby, put on my sneakers and run out the door to the trails.
GU has always worked for me from the get-go.If I’m hungry or spacey and tripping over my feet or starting to bonk, I will take a GU gel and within 5 minutes I will feel the effects on my pace, mental clarity, power, etc.
JR: How have the GU products changed since then?
KA: More flavors! Though vanilla is still my go-to. Birthday Cake is my new favorite. I hope they don’t discontinue it. It seriously tastes like a piece of cake from my 8th birthday party!
JR: What is your typical pre-race and race day routine? Post-race meal?
KA: I always pack in the calories the day before a race or big effort. Protein in the form of a bison burger or hamburger, lots of sweet potatoes and salad. This is my superstitious good luck meal, ever since I ate it before I spontaneously ran a marathon with Dean Karnazes in 2006.
I was just going to “interview” [Dean] while running a few miles with him, but before I knew it, I’d run the whole thing. It was my first marathon, and like my first 10K, it was kind of a spontaneous accident. Our pace was very conservative because Dean was running a marathon every day for 50 days in 50 states, and I felt like I could just keep running and running. I credit the giant hamburger I ate the day before! And Dean’s enthusiasm.
After a race, I try to do a GU recovery drink to get the carbs and protein in because I find I don’t have much of an appetite for at least 12 hours, sometimes longer. I want so badly to eat a huge meal but I rarely feel like it. So I’ll pick at what I can and then when I find myself starving the next day or day after, I eat whatever I feel like.
JR: What is your nutrition strategy like during races? And does it change based on distance?
KA: I try to eat 200 calories an hour, or 2 GU gels. I am still on gels more than liquid Roctane though I am trying to switch over a bit, and trust that the liquid nutrition will stick with me the way that gels and blocks do.
Recently I have been doing fewer gels, like one every 45 minutes, and I think that is not enough for me so I need to ramp it back up to 2 per hour. I always eat one 5 minutes before the start. I think that in shorter races I think I can get away with less but in reality I need the calories per hour and I can tell when I’m skimping. I get light headed (especially at altitude) and kind of clumsy.
If I’m feeling at all down or low in a race, the first thing I do is eat. In long races like Leadville I trained myself to eat off the aid station tables…whatever they’re serving and this was a good strategy. So I would eat Ramen and drink Coke, but everything else was 100% GU.
TALKING LEADVILLE, WRITING AND INJURY
JackRabbit: Talking of Leadville, this race was your first 100 miler in 2018, and you won! We’ve read you had a race strategy, you followed it methodically, and it worked! Can you share your thoughts about running your first 100 miler coupled with leading the race going into the unknown mileage?
KA: See above about meditation. My approach to training was very generous…everything counted. Everything. All time on my feet and cross-training, so walking my daughters to school every day and taking the long way home with the dog (3 miles) counted. Coaching their lacrosse team 3 days a week counted. Time in the weight room obviously counted, time cruising around town on my fat bike which I loved to do counted. Riding bikes with them. You have to be creative when you have kids and a demanding job (in my case writing ) and so I didn’t get hung up on weekly mileage.
As long as my long run was progressing more or less every week, and I was getting 15 miles or so on my watch…in any form…after dinner walks etc…I felt like I was on the right track. I also did a few strategic training races to get my big mileage, but they were always with a training mindset, not racing. It was important that I didn’t stress over it because the stress wouldn’t help me, only hurt.
And as I said above, I meditated most mornings before my run to set intentions and ground myself. This was huge. I didn’t know what 100 miles would be like so I trained myself to be OK with the unknowns, with not knowing…which is really what life is all the time, we just think we know what’s going to happen.
When I went to Leadville, I knew I’d put in the work and the training, at altitude here in New Mexico (up to 12,600 feet out my door) and a month of “speed” training, aka at sea level in Canada where we spend our summer, and I knew my mental state was strong. So I just tried to relax and feel grateful for the journey, for being able to toe the line at Leadville, after my traumatic broken leg in 2016.
The gratitude and humility are big components in my race day “strategy.” They help prime me for flow, as does physical preparation. Knowing I’d done the work to the best of my ability enabled me to let go on race day and just open to whatever happened. Which was amazing! It was a prolonged flow state, almost 20 hours. Which now I realized I’d been training for all spring and summer without being conscious of it.
JR: You write for Outside Magazine and have written a powerful book Running Home, about the power of running to change your life. Writing could be described as much of an endurance event as much as running. Can you share with us why you are drawn to both writing and running?
KA: I’ve always been drawn to writing, since I was very young 5 or 6. I always knew I wanted to be a writer, there was never any question. My father, whom I write about a lot in Running Home, was a photographer for National Geographic and though his medium was pictures, he was a story teller just like I am , and a huge influence on the way I see and observe the world, and tell stories.
It’s all about paying attention and letting the story unfold, not trying to manhandle or control it, much like the flow state of running, when you are running flow you are not controlling anything, you are flowing with each moment. So that’s how I’ve always approached writing.
Keep your eyes open and capture all the details. In this way running trains me for writing because I am always very present (most days) when I am on the trail—all my sense firing. Writing is an endurance event , especially a book. Running Home took 3 years and I was able to sustain my momentum and energy the whole time, with one slight break (pun intended) when I broke my leg. Unable to run, I found that my writing stalled too. Which was a gift in a way because I could see even more clearly how the two are linked for me, and I was able to write more truthfully about the connection in my book.
JR: Many athletes have to deal with injuries, but you took injury to a high level with a leg break a few years ago. How were you able to navigate the recovery process and how did it impact you as a runner, writer, mother as well as your mental game?
KA: That was tough because it was a traumatic accident, in the wilderness, and I had to stay on the river for 6 days with a broken leg (I didn’t know it was broken) until we could get out and get help. So there was a lot emotional trauma as well as physical. I had to have surgery and the orthopedist told me I should give up running. That was frightening and hard to hear…and his words haunted me for a long time and sometimes still do.
But I was determined that would not be my story and so during recovery I focused on staying positive (meditation was important) and doing what I could to move my body every day and keep my spirits up.
Within days of surgery I had borrowed a trainer for my town bike, took the left pedal off and set it up on the patio and would spin one-legged for an hour or so to get my HR up and listen to podcasts. I only listened to positive things, and would only let positive info in…about recovery. I had a physical therapist who liked to talk about how bad running is for the knees and didn’t realize that that was counterproductive to healing! You really have to cultivate a strong mental state as much as you have to do your PT.
Strength training was huge once I got off crutches (14 weeks) and I was in the gym 3 times a week for an hour. That’s one of the best things to come from the accident. I still do it 2 times and it’s kept me injury free and has become an integral part of my training. When I skip it as I have for the past 10 weeks (gym closed due to mold!), I can tell! Overall the injury made me stronger mentally as I saw the power of positive thinking and imagery and the negative impact of negativity.
JR: Let’ talk GU… what is your favorite GU flavor? Dream flavor? Do you mix up the flavors, or are you drawn to a one-stop-flavor per season?
KA: Vanilla and birthday cake are favorites. Dream flavor: grape, like Grape Crush the soda we used to drink as kids. Also cola, maybe, or mint chocolate chip, that’s my favorite flavor of ice cream! Cookie Dough?
JR: Runners can be creatures of habit. What advice would you give to others who are nervous about switching nutrition brands?
KA: Dedicate some time and days in each training cycle to practicing with different kinds of fuel and food. Because you need to be able to be nimble and adapt to new foods in a race…its good to train for that. I had never used Roctane hydration before Leadville and I practiced with it at training camp and had great results.
Some training days can be about nutrition or gear as much as they are about pace and strides (not that I ever really stress about specific workouts). Same goes with training yourself for new gear. You can pick a 3-week block to try new nutrition or gear, after a big race when you are in recovery mode and the stakes are low, or a few months out from a big effort. The most important thing is to be intentional about it and open-minded. You never know what’s going to work for you!
JR: What is it that you like most about GU and why do you choose to use it?
KA: See above about how it works right away, give me steady energy and never any stomach issues. I’m lucky I think but my stomach usually behaves and I credit it a lot to my nutrition strategy and GU. I don’t have to think about my nutrition except to make sure I’m taking in calories, because I know it’s proven and it works for me every time.
JR: You had “smile” and “flow” jotted down before you took on Leadville, can you tell a little more how you came to choose those? Are those just running thoughts, or do you also apply them to everyday life?
KA: I aspire to smiling and flowing through all my days but the reality is that it’s hard sometimes, with kids and deadlines and real life, so rather than get attached to being in a high performance flow state all the time, I choose to see flow as presence, being present to all the moments, and these can be the hard, doubtful ones as well as the effortless ones. This is an evolution for me in my approach to flow, because if you chase it or try to hold onto flow, you’re not flowing. That’s the conundrum.
But smiling is huge because it reminds me of why I run in the first place, not because I’m trying to win but because I love it and it makes me happy, and it’s how I love myself. Smiling is also proven to dull the perceived pain or effort…which is nice at mile 60 in a race. It;s like putting on music—a real boost.
JR: And for all mother-runners out there, how do you balance training, racing, motherhood, writing when there are only 24 hours in a given day?
KA: Motherhood is the best thing that happened to my running! It forces you to be creative and efficient with your time, get your runs in when you can (which may be at odd hours when you’d rather be sleeping!) and this is good mental training.
Motherhood is great mental training because you think you’re in control but the reality is you're not! There are so many variables at play, just like ultra running.You learn to roll with things and also it puts everything into perspective.
Running is essential to who I am but my children…well there's nothing more precious to me in the world. It’s also almost impossible to overtrain with kids because there are too many other things I need to be doing, like driving them places or helping with homework etc so you can’t get too self-centered about things. Parenting creates a natural balance that's very healthy for endurance athletes.
Also my children are amazing motivation for me at races! Running into an aid station knowing they’ll be there keep me going, Especially if like at Leadville, they are wearing hilarious costumes that they keep changing…always a surprise! And to see them at the finish line, there's nothing like it.
The title of my book is Running Home because I’m always running home to my children and husband!