Cover Stories

Practice Run

In her new book, Santa Fe elite athlete Katie Arnold overcomes a devastating accident by starting over

Katie Arnold has just returned from a family vacation in Europe with her husband and two teenage daughters, a trip that included six days of 18-mile walks on El Camino de Santiago in Spain. “It was amazing,” she tells SFR. “Walking is where it’s at. I loved it. All you do is follow these little arrows— you can never get lost.” She pauses. “I wish there were arrows in life.”

Most people would not be up for a long meandering interview while jet-lagged following a journey that included more than 100 miles of walking. Katie Arnold is not most people. In her acclaimed 2019 memoir Running Home, Arnold traces her path of becoming an ultrarunner while grieving the death of her father. Her new book Brief Flashings in the Phenomenal World is not a sequel, she says, but it is in “in conversation” with her first. Subtitled “Zen and the Art of Running Free,” Brief Flashings, like Running Home, includes vivid descriptions of Arnold’s athletic and adventurous feats—100-mile runs,, but also delves into the Zen practice that helped her survive a devastating river-rafting accident. A former Outside magazine editor, Arnold’s writing has also appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Travel + Leisure, Runner’s World and ESPN, to name a few. Brief Flashings publishes April 16 from Parallel Press; Arnold will read from the book that evening at a 6:30 pm Garcia Street Books event at Bishop’s Lodge. SFR this week presents an advanced excerpt, accompanied by an interview with the author.

The following interview has been edited for style, concision and clarity.

SFR: Did you know after Running Home you would write another book at least partially about running?

Katie Arnold: I knew when I was writing Running Home that the story didn’t just end where the book ends. When I had that crazy accident, I thought, ‘This is what’s happening next.’ But I never planned to write running books. One of the reasons I started running long distances, in addition to dealing with my grief, was that I wanted to teach myself how to write a novel. And I thought by practicing something every day and running, I would teach myself how to sit in my chair and it would be the same kind of concept of sticking with something and showing up daily and having that practice. But life has a funny way of working out. What came out of that was not a novel, but this book about grieving and my father and teaching myself how to run long distances and care for myself in that way. But it took me a few years to realize that’s what I was doing.

It was the same with this book, which became a story unfolding from this river accident and reconceiving my relationship to not only running but writing and life, of having to come at it as a beginner.

Reading about your regular runs up Atalaya compelled me to hike it. How much of your writing is meant to be aspirational?

I love that it inspires people—100 percent. It’s certainly not why I wrote the book: to say that everyone needs to go outside and be on mountains. But I do believe that. I believe running and walking and being outside is a relationship more than a sport. It’s the relationship we have with our bodies and our imaginations. My life is infinitely richer and at times more challenging because I live in my body in the natural world. But everyone has their own expression.

Some of the things you do seem super human. You ran a 100-mile marathon. Where does the drive to do that come from?

Going back to some of the themes in Running Home, being outside in nature was where I always felt most at home because I had the tumultuous childhood that many of us had, so outside was where I felt most myself. I also think that’s just my natural curiosity is to see how far I can go and how far my legs can take me. What I learned in Brief Flashings is how far the mind can carry you—especially when your body is broken or compromised.

The title of your book comes from a section of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Suzuki. Why did that phrase, ‘flashings in the phenomenal world’ stick with you?

I think it encapsulates everything about how I try to live as both a writer, an athlete, a mother and a human. Those moments as brief flashings are coming all the time. It can be the way the light comes in the window or something you notice or the way your dog does something. It’s that moment that wakes you up to: ‘Oh, my God, I’m here. I’m alive right now in this space and time.’ Certainly, as a writer, that’s what I’m always seeking—trying to capture what it feels like to be alive right now.

I’ll never forget the moment I read it. My family and I were camping in Colorado and I was in that phase where I was reading that book over and over. I was reading that and I just had this lightning bolt effect of, ‘That’s what life is—these moments.’ And you don’t have to climb the highest mountain or run 100 miles to see it. They can be really ordinary, lovely moments, like sitting beside a river. And so that just jumped out at me. And I kind of always knew that that’s what I was writing about.

Your accident plays a central role in the book, but is not the sole focus. How deliberate was that choice?

I knew the accident was the inciting incident. That’s what rearranged my relationship with running and threatened to upend my family life, too, for a little while. But I knew that it wasn’t just about getting hurt and then recovering. Everyone gets hurt and recovers. I think I wanted to convey some of the things I learned while hurt about writing your own story and not listening to what others are going to tell you about how it should be.

The book delves into the toll your accident took on your marriage, though I gather you made it through?

We made it. The accident itself was a fracture in our relationship, but [there] was a discontent with how things were going just in general—not specific to us, but just how all of a sudden it seemed like we had taken on the kind of marriage that neither of us had wanted originally when we met each other. We knew we were unconventional and we sort of wanted to break open gender roles and expectations. But you have kids and time goes by, you’re in the trenches…and then there’s a pandemic, your earnings go to nothing, and all of a sudden you wake up one day and you’re like, ‘Oh my god, we’re living…an older version of marriage that neither of us had really wanted.’ So the accident kind of cracked it open so that it was more visible and there was more tension. Plus, there was a feeling of anger that the accident had happened and my husband had been rowing. All my friends were like, ‘Forgive him! It was an accident.’ And I knew I would because I love Steve more than anyone. But I also knew that it was just going to have to take the time it took and, as I write about in the book, it wasn’t just anger toward the accident. It was kind of a generational anger that as women we’re expected to be in a certain role and when we try to aspire to greatness beyond our gender roles, we get flack for it. All of this just came to a head and cast our marriage into a bit of turmoil. And of course, I’m not at my best because the normal way I care for myself is movement and being in nature, which I couldn’t do, so I was definitely no joy to be around.

It’s surprising in the book how unsupportive some people in your life have been of your athletic goals. Were you able to make peace with that?

That’s one of the harder points of the book, I think, is wondering what could have been different if I’d had a champion on my side.

When did it occur to you there was something about Zen you wanted to convey?

I was really in this back-to-zero kind of place, just emptied out of identity. When you’re in a traumatic experience, or you have a loss of some kind—death can do this—you’re just taken down to the studs. When the surgeon told me, ‘We’re going to take you back to zero,’ it was terrifying. And it’s super unpleasant, I will say, but there’s actually something beautiful in a way to be at zero because you’re like, ‘I can start over. I can shed myself because these labels or preconceived ideas have maybe been serving me, but are also hindering me. The tenets of Zen are: showing up; making a true effort for the good; not gripping onto an idea of results. Letting go of ego and and being more in this mind of not knowing what the hell is going on. And that’s super liberating, right?

It’s also not a way Americans are taught to be; we have to be the expert; we need to hack things; we need to know all the shortcuts. Zen is the opposite. In fact, it’s a sign of enlightenment if you don’t have a freaking clue what you’re doing.


Brief Flashings in the Phenomenal World


By Katie Arnold

On a cold, snowy December evening just after Christmas in 2018, I drove half a mile from my house to a Zen Buddhist temple at the foot of a small mountain in Santa Fe. It was not long past sunset, but the dirt road was dark, and the only light was my headlights, two bright cones illuminating the flashing blizzard and the narrow, quickly-filling tracks of a car that had traveled the road just ahead of me.

I was going to give a talk about running and Zen. I was so nervous I felt like throwing up. Also, I was strangely calm. It was the darkest night in the darkest month of year and the snow fell softly and with great determination and steadiness. The effect was transfixing, as though I was riding a night train to adventure in the deepest, farthest Siberia. Something mysterious lay ahead. I was going to discover what it was.

At first, giving a talk had seemed like a wonderful idea. I’d learned about Zen through running and about running through Zen and about life through both, and I hoped I might have something to offer that could be of use to someone somewhere, fumbling through the dark mysteries of their own life.

As the date approached, however, I began to worry. I’m not exactly a walking advertisement for Zen. I wear bright colors, and I move fast. I can run thirty miles, but when I meditate, the longest I seem to manage is fifteen minutes, twenty-five if I’m feeling very strong. What did I know about sitting! Running was my practice. I realized that I would have to say something that made sense and contributed to the greater good, in front of a room full of people who had probably been studying Zen for far longer than I, and much more dutifully, and I fell into a mild panic. I’d been absorbing the ideas of Zen and Buddhism by osmosis for a decade, but suddenly everything I thought I understood was slipping like seaweed through my grasp. I needed to get a handle on the basics. I needed an explanation.

I went to see my friend Natalie. She’d been practicing Zen for more than thirty years. She would know. “What is Zen?” I asked her desperately.

When Natalie and I met almost a decade earlier, we hiked up the mountain above the Zen center every week. It was winter, and some mornings the thermometer barely edged above twenty degrees. The trail was snowy and slick with ice in the shady patches. My father had just died, and my grief tricked me into believing I was dying, too. I carried my five-month-old daughter, Maisy, in a pack on my chest. Walking up the mountain with Natalie was an act of survival: it meant I was still alive, that maybe I wouldn’t die that day, or the next. On the most frigid of mornings, the landline in our kitchen would ring during breakfast and I knew even before answering it that it was Natalie, calling to ask, “Should we go?” And I always said yes. Whatever the weather, we went.

Natalie was in her late sixties with clipped, grey-black hair and a blunt manner that belied her soft heart. A prolific and beloved author, she was most famous for Writing Down the Bones, which she’d penned in a three-month frenzy in Santa Fe in 1986, after more than a decade practicing meditation and writing. Wisdom seemed to ooze out of her like a direct transmission from the sages, but she wasn’t the usual blissed-out Buddha-type. She practically rattled with energy and laughter and often joked that I was her only friend who could match her zeal for life. Natalie became my unofficial mentor in writing and Zen, and in exchange, I taught her how to go up mountains in the dead of winter when neither of us felt like it. This, we joked, was my version of Zen.

Still, I should have known better than to ask Natalie for a definition. There’s rarely a straight answer in Zen, and also every answer, in its own weird way, is a straight answer. Natalie tilted her head and was silent for a long moment, considering her response. “Wear black clothes to the Zendo,” she said finally. “And loose. Baggy.”

The night of the Dharma talk, I dressed carefully in wide-legged, dark-blue pants and a navy turtleneck sweater. I put on my warmest wool socks and winter boots. The snow had been falling all afternoon, piling up on the streets.

The Zen center was nearly as dark as the road had been, lit by low lights along the perimeter, beautiful and peaceful. Winter boots were lined up neatly under a bench outside the door. Rosy-cheeked people in dark clothes sat on cushions on the floor, heads bowed in somber preparation for the meditation that would precede my talk.

For the first time in my life, I found myself wishing that the meditation period would never end, that I would not have to get up and walk to the front of the room and try to remember what I’d come to say, what it was that I’d learned, and to attempt to express it in words.

Two years earlier, I’d been in a terrible accident on a river in Idaho. I fell from a raft and was so badly injured I was told I should never run again.

I didn’t listen.

I knew a little about brokenness. After my father died, I’d used my body to heal my mind, running long distances through the wilderness. Now I would have to use my mind to heal my body.

During my long recovery, Natalie gave me copy of the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, by the late Japanese Zen master Shunryu Suzuki. I’d had surgery and was unable to walk for months. I felt as though I’d been dismantled, unmoored from my usual ways of moving through the world, like a stranger in my own skin.

“It’s a classic, but you might not understand it,” Natalie warned me. I didn’t take it personally. Zen, by definition, is beyond definition, sometimes even description. As soon as I started reading, though, I understood everything. Not with my brain but in my body. I understood Zen Mind because I understood running.

I’d always been a runner. I ran through the woods when I was a girl, making up stories in my head. In my twenties, I ran through the sadness of breakups; in my thirties, I ran to write, and to find my feet beneath me in the deranged Tilt-a-whirl of new motherhood. I ran through the grief-fog of my father’s death and the anxiety that nearly paralyzed me. I won ultramarathons (any race longer than 26.2 miles), and once I ran so hard I broke my own bone.

Running threaded through my whole life, but it was still only part of my life. In between the exhilarating highs were all the regular moments—gorgeous, ordinary moments, gorgeous often because they were so ordinary: wooden pins dangling on a clothesline, the morning sun slanting across a chipped picket fence, my eight-year-old meticulously buttering her toast, ravens circling above a bald summit.

Suzuki Roshi described these bursts of understanding, these momentary awakenings, as “flashings in the vast phenomenal world.” They’re happening all around us, all the time—while we’re eating an ice cream cone or riding our bike or sitting broken beside a river—but we’re usually too distracted to notice. We don’t have to be religious or spiritual or know how to meditate to experience these moments. We just have to pay attention and live wholeheartedly with what Suzuki Roshi called the “full quality of our being.”

The accident had upended everything and made me a beginner all over again. It was unclear if my body or my marriage would come through intact, or if I would ever run again. If I did, I would never run the same as I once had, just as I would never be the same. Even then, part of me understood that this was a good thing, maybe the very best thing.

When the temple bell chimed, I got up and walked slowly to a metal chair in the front of the room. My talk was called “the Zen of Running,” but to talk about running, I would have to talk about the river that broke me and the mountains that healed me.

I would have to talk about endings and beginnings, and how when you’re in the middle, it’s almost impossible to tell the two apart. Falling from the boat felt like a hard stop, a boulder rolled into the middle of a long tunnel, impassable. It was only after I healed that I saw my injury for what it was—a beginning wrapped around countless other beginnings. It was the start of something deeper, a spiritual practice, my own kind of wild Zen, an experiment in how to live and how to wake up to the brief flashings.

Excerpted from the book, Brief Flashings in a Phenomenal World by Katie Arnold, with the permission of Parallax Press.

Katie Arnold book event

6:30 pm, Tuesday, April 16

The Ballroom at Bishop’s Lodge, 1297 Bishops Lodge Road

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