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Ultramarathoner sets her own pace

After healing from broken leg, Arnold took up sport--and is on a 5-race win streak--claiming Leadville 100

By James Barron
jbarron@sfnewmexican.com
Posted 8/30/18

"How did I get here?"A week has passed since Santa Fe's Katie Arnold went into the high elevation of Leadville, Colorado, and came back down with a truly …

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Community sport

Ultramarathoner sets her own pace

After healing from broken leg, Arnold took up sport--and is on a 5-race win streak--claiming Leadville 100

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A week has passed since Santa Fe's Katie Arnold went into the high elevation of Leadville, Colorado, and came back down with a truly remarkable story.

It wasn't just that she won the Leadville Trail 100 ultramarathon in her first try at that distance, two years after a broken leg threatened to take away her passion for running, or that she won the fifth straight race she's entered since returning to trekking the trails around her house tucked away at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Arnold, 46, can't help but feel that something bigger is at work, and she is merely the conduit.

"Something else is going on, and I've tapped into some energy," Arnold said.

As Arnold said that, she realized that the energy didn't come from only her.

"I know what it was," Arnold said. "It was my crew. It was the spectators. It was the beautiful scenery."

The best ultramarathon runners can't succeed on their own. It takes a"crew" of helpers who run with them for large portions of the race, holding their bottles and food while informing and encouraging them to keep up a pace that seems maddening - running 100 miles in a 20- to 30-hour period.

It takes the spectators, who sometimes number in the hundreds at certain points on the course, cheering on competitors, giving them that burst of energy to push just a little bit farther.

All of that energy culminated into an epiphany that hit Arnold at the 80-mile mark, as she steadily pulled away from Addie Bracy of Longmont, Colorado, and won the race in 19 hours, 53 minutes, 40 seconds.

Her performance was 1:23:32 faster than Bracy, who is a two-time U.S. mountain running champion and an accomplished distance runner.

"I was at mile 80, and I was like, 'Oh my God, I've never run this far. How did I get here?' " Arnold said. "I mean, the miles just dissolved. And it was all mental. It was just chipping away at it, and then I got emotional. How did I get here? I mean, literally, how did I get here, after a broken leg and being on crutches?

"It was definitely magical."

Running with Dad

Arnold was always an avid runner, buoyed by the bond she had with her father, David Arnold, who was the illustrations editor for the National Geographic Society. When he died in 2010 from kidney cancer, Katie Arnold used running as her therapy and began her career into ultramarathons, which is exactly how is sounds - any race that is longer than the standard marathon.

She also wrote a book about her relationship with her dad and ultramarathons, "Running Home," due out in March.

"He and I were kindred spirits," Katie said. "With this being Santa Fe, there was plenty of natural healing stuff, but I found that the thing that worked the best was running alone outside in the mountains."

Arnold was a very good runner, winning a few events, but the turning point for her career came on a whitewater rafting trip in Idaho in 2016. On the first day of a six-day trip with her family, the boat she was in got pinned against a rapid and flipped.

"My leg must have twerked, and it broke my tibial plateau," Arnold said. "I knew instantly something was wrong, but I didn't know it was broken."

Arnold withstood the pain and finished the trip. She returned to Santa Fe and learned she needed surgery. The surgeon who worked on the leg gave her grim advice, which struck at her core.

"He was great, but he was like, 'You should find another hobby because, if I were you, I'd never run again,' " Arnold said. "To sit there and hear that was devastating. I was already ultra-running and winning races and being super successful and writing a book. ... To be fair, the doctor didn't know any of this. He just sees my bone and said, 'You're screwed.' "

All it did was galvanize Arnold. While she waited 14 weeks for her leg to heal, Arnold set up a stationary bike in her yard, took one of the pedals off and cycled one-legged.

Once Arnold could put weight on her leg, she started running and cycling.

Her first race was an event at Picacho Peak that she had always run, and she was encouraged by how she felt after the race. As Arnold progressed, she felt the urge to return to ultramarathons to prove she could do it.

"I was free, of wanting to win," Arnold said. "It was like, 'God, if I could just finish.' "

All of a sudden, the clouds of self-doubt and worry lifted. By the summer of 2017, Arnold was putting in 40-mile weeks of training. She competed at the Valles Caldera Runs in September 2017, winning the marathon division in 3:40:58 - the fastest time.

Arnold's next event was the Grand Canyon Rim-To-Rim-To-Rim in October, her first try at an ultramarathon (at 42 miles) even though it was not an actual race. She ran despite a bout with the flu and finished in 10 hours.

Her next event didn't come until May at the Jemez Mountain Trail Run, where Arnold won the 50-mile race in 9:53:39. June brought the Angel Fire Endurance, a 100-kilometer race that was the longest race of Arnold's life, and she won it in a course-record 12:57.54.

Arnold followed that with a 5-kilometer race in Canada that she won. She was on a four-race winning streak.

"So, I'm on this winning streak, which is amazing, but Leadville's coming," Arnold said. "How am I going to keep the streak going?"

By smiling.

Keep smiling

When Arnold won the Jemez race, her mantra going into it was, "smile and relax." For the Leadville Trails 100, it was, "smile and flow."

Arnold said the reason for her mantra was one part scientific, one part personal.

"There is a science behind smiling when you compete," Arnold said. "It lessens the sensitive or the perception of discomfort. And it was my first 100, so I wanted to enjoy it."

So, she smiled, even as Bracy took an early lead and built a several-minutes advantage. Arnold credited her crew, which included her husband, Steve Barrett, pacer Joe Pulliam and fellow ultramarathoner Wes Thurman, for keeping her focused as well as keeping her hydrated, fed and massaged when runners hit aid stations that were set every 8 to 12 miles.

Arnold estimates that she needed about 200 calories per hour. So, during the running portion, Arnold ate sports gels, which she called "goo," energy chews and a liquid calorie product that provided her with electrolytes to keep hydrated.

At the aid stations, runners stopped and ate candy, fruits, soups, crackers with peanut butter and consumed a variety of drinks, including, of all things, sodas.

Wait, sodas? For the energy, of course.

"I've learned to drink and tolerate them, but they really give you a boost," Arnold said.

The aid stations also gave Arnold's crew a chance to rub down her muscles to help prevent injury. When she was on the course, Pulliam and Thurman helped her keep a steady pace (about 12 minutes per mile), especially in the second half of the race.

And the fans gave Arnold a boost, especially at the 62-mile mark. That was when Arnold caught Bracy at the aid station, and the two left the station at the same time. Arnold was holding a Coke and a watermelon, while Pulliam's hands were full, too. Arnold looked for a trash bin when she heard a female spectator tell her, "Just drop it, and I'll throw it away."

The pair took control of the race, which reached Hope Pass, the race's highest elevation at 12,600 feet.

Using poles to climb the trail, Arnold powered past Bracy and kept pulling away.

"I knew climbs were my strength," Arnold said. "So, I told my pacer, 'We're going power hike this, and when we get to the top, we're going to roll nine-and-a-half-minute miles.' And we did."

As she and Thurman ran into Leadville a bit before before midnight for the finish, Arnold didn't realize her goal of a 20-hour finish was almost a cinch.

"I just turned to him, because he had been so quiet, and I said, 'Wes, it's after midnight, right?' " Arnold said. "He was like, 'No, it's 11:49.' I started screaming. I was so excited."

Four minutes later, Arnold exceeded her wildest imagination, with a women's title in tow. To think, two years ago, she faced the prospect of never running again. In that time, she's grown into an elite distance runner and published a book with a follow-up to come.

It almost feels too much like a Hollywood script.

"I still can't wrap my brain around it," Arnold said. "The night before the race, I felt like, 'I am writing my own script.' Then I was like, 'No, I'm running it!' "

And it's how she got here.

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