“As Karnazes told me during my first marathon, in 2006, ‘You’re stronger than you think you are.’”
“As Karnazes told me during my first marathon, in 2006, ‘You’re stronger than you think you are.’” (Photo: Courtesy Katie Arnold)

Running to Sit Still

Or how running and meditating both led one woman to the same unexpected place

“As Karnazes told me during my first marathon, in 2006, ‘You’re stronger than you think you are.’”

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I’ve always been an accidental runner. I ran my first race, a 10K, when I was eight, on my father’s suggestion. I ran my first marathon while interviewing ultraunning phenom Dean Karnazes; I told him I’d only run six miles, but we were so engrossed in conversation that I lost track of time and ran the whole way. And when I signed up for my first ultra, a 50K trail race at age 40, my plan was never to become an elite ultrarunner. It was to write my novel. The story had been in my head for years, but aside from a few pages in a notebook, I hadn’t written a thing. I was going to start, really I was. I was just waiting for something. For what? I told myself I needed more stamina, more willpower. I thought that if I could train myself to run for five or six hours at a time, then surely I could condition myself to sit at my desk writing for just as long. I would use ultrarunning to train for ultrawriting.

Ever since I was young, tearing around my neighborhood streets, making up stories in my head, running has always been a way that I write. When I began working as a journalist in Santa Fe, whole sentences would come to me when I ran, ideas moving through me as I moved. I would run in the mountains, high above my world, and find perspective on it that I didn’t always have in the midst of it, going through the dailiness of my life, all its ordinary tasks and demands.

Running teaches you to tolerate uncertainty, to be OK with the strange twists and turns life throws at you. It forces you to be creative when the shit hits the fan and you run out of food, or get hailed on and forgot your jacket, or can’t see out of one eye. You learn not to panic but to troubleshoot—maybe you’re not blind, you just need to turn on your headlamp. It sucks sometimes to keep going, but it sucks more to quit. You learn to see the beauty even when you’re suffering. As Karnazes told me during my first marathon, in 2006, “You’re stronger than you think you are.”

After my father died, in 2010, and I was beset by anxiety and convinced I was dying, too, Karnazes’s words came back to me. I had a baby and a toddler at home, and my anxiety was like a living, breathing wild thing scrabbling inside my brain. The only way to subdue it was to run it into exhaustion. Only after I’d run 15 or 30 miles up a mountain and back was I sure I was still alive. I had to do it all over again the next day. Some days I was fast and running felt effortless, and other days I was so tired and sad I’d have to lie down in the dirt.

As Karnazes told me during my first marathon, in 2006, “You’re stronger than you think you are.”

Trail running didn’t erase my anxiety, but it did help me manage it. I started racing ultra distances and winning. I started to want to win, and then I wanted to not want to want to win. And so I taught myself how to sit. Not at the kitchen table in front of my computer writing my novel, liked I’d pictured, but on a stone bench in our backyard, against the sunny wall, feeling my breath whoosh in and out, smelling the lilacs or hearing the sound of a single faraway hammer. I was never entirely free of my thoughts—this is a misperception about meditation—but I learned how to see them and let them drift by without getting snagged. I would meditate for five minutes, then seven. If I was really ambitious, I might make it to 12. I told myself that I was not very good at sitting because I was so good at running, but a friend of mine, a serious student of Zen, dispelled me of this myth. “You should be able to meditate for longer because you can run for so long,” he said.

Sitting isn’t so very different from running. It teaches me to hold all possibilities at once, without judging any of them. Maybe I am fast, maybe I am slow. Maybe I’m hitting my prime, or past it. Maybe I am happy. And also sad. All are true. Most days when I get up from sitting, I go for a run. I take my sitting into my running and when I come home I bring my running into my writing. Some days I feel like I’ve stumbled onto a magical feedback loop that works in both directions: the more I run, the more I want to sit. The more I sit, the more I want to write. The more I write, the more I want to run. It’s like a motor, or a flywheel: the trick is to keep it spinning.

In the end, of course, it didn’t work out the way I’d imagined. I didn’t write my novel—not yet, at least. Instead I wrote a memoir about running. Like most books about running, it’s also not about running, but about fathers and daughters, the things they love and the things they lose, the stories they tell and the secrets they keep. I wrote it by running. Things are so rarely what they seem. Isn’t that marvelous?

Contributing editor Katie Arnold is the author of Running Home.