Grief has a way of reawakening us to our own bodies. When Katie Arnold's father was diagnosed with cancer, she turned to running — not for speed or for fitness but "to get out of the house and escape the dread," she writes in her memoir, "Running Home." She ran "to feel normal again, and just a little bit alive."
As she moves, Arnold works through her problems. The soothing power of physical activity in the outdoors is a recurring theme in this poignant and ultimately uplifting book. After her father's death in 2010, Arnold became obsessed with a fear of dying that turned every ache and twinge of pain into a fatal disease. To cope with her anxiety, Arnold, now 47, consulted nearly every therapist, muse and wacky alternative medicine provider in Santa Fe, where she lives. But ultimately it was her weekly hiking partner, the Buddhist writer Natalie Goldberg, who guided her away from her terror. "We joke that our hiking will save the world," she writes of their regular jaunts up Picacho Peak, "but I know it's saving me from myself, from my obsessive fears and imaginary ailments."
Arnold became a runner at the age of 7, "by accident." She was visiting her father in Virginia when he suggested that Arnold and her older sister enter a local 10k race. "The distance was so audacious that it meant absolutely nothing to me. I had never run a race, never a single mile, let alone six, all in a row," she writes. The siblings agreed to run while their father, a National Geographic photographer, documented the event. Somehow, though, he missed the finish, so the two girls had to reenact it several times, once triumphant, another time crawling on hands and knees. "Look like you're really in pain," he told them; later Arnold wonders, "Did he not realize we really (BEGIN ITAL)were(END ITAL) in pain?"
Arnold's complicated relationship with her father forms the heart of this story. As a young child, Arnold accidentally bumped into her father's bass violin, knocking it to the ground and snapping its delicate neck. The incident fills her with shame. "I had broken his beautiful instrument, which he loved almost as much as us, and some days maybe even more," she writes.
Some of the most moving sections of the book explore how the narratives we tell ourselves can shape our relationships and identities. When her parents' marriage unraveled, young Arnold imagined that she was "somehow responsible" and that it was up to her to make things right. When she discovered her mother sobbing, face down on the floor, she vowed to never do anything that might make her cry again. For years Arnold also believed that her father's pain over the divorce was of her own making. When she later learns new details that overturn this long-held belief, Arnold was shaken: "The story on which I'd built my childhood, maybe my very self, has been inverted."
Not long after her father died, Arnold signed up for a 31-mile ultramarathon, and soon she was running in 50- and even 100-mile events. She writes with candor about the strain her running sometimes put on her marriage. Arnold, a contributing editor and former managing editor at Outside Magazine, is frank in her portrayal of the quiet negotiations that take place in a relationship as each party seeks to balance self-care and training with the work required to make relationships and households run smoothly. Although she sometimes feels twinges of guilt about leaving her two daughters to exercise, Arnold also notes that running helps her be more present with her kids when they are together.
Arnold's training, race reports and newfound ambitions for athletic success after she won her first ultramarathon come to form a central thread in the book — one that could have easily grown tedious and boring, even to a lifelong runner like me. Instead, Arnold has written about running in a way that perfectly captures its essence. For her, running is a way of "being awake in the world." Long distance running, she writes, is really "about slowing down. In the quiet of prolonged effort, time stretches, elongates." It can simultaneously draw one's attention inward and outward, connecting the inner self to the surrounding world.
Arnold's running endeavors are not diversions, they are how she makes her own way after losing a parent. The story she shares in "Running Home" will resonate with anyone who has ever run, anyone who has lost a parent, and anyone who has struggled to make peace with a beloved but enigmatic parent — in other words, just about everyone.
Christie Aschwanden is author of "Good to Go: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn From the Strange Science of Recovery" and co-host of the podcast Emerging Form.