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The Inspiring Story Behind Ultrarunner Katie Arnold’s Leadville 100 Victory

Her doctor cautioned, “If I were you, I would never run again," after she broke her leg. But Katie Arnold knew better.

As Katie Arnold stood at the starting line of the Leadville 100, she carried a message on her left hand. There, scrawled in black Sharpie, were the words “smile” and “flow.” Though she’d never run a 100-mile race before, she believed if she stayed true to those words—if she embraced her joy of running while going with the flow of energy and events—she’d be fine. Her only goal was to finish.

“Those two things just reinforced each other,” says Arnold of the August race. “The more I smiled the more I flowed. The more I flowed the more I smiled. It was this great positive feedback loop.”

Arnold, 46, is still basking in the afterglow. Not only did she run a strong race over a challenging course, with its monster elevation changes and altitude, but she pulled away over the final 38 miles for a convincing win while also breaking the 20-hour mark and finishing in 19:53:40, 11th overall.

Two years after breaking her left leg in a whitewater rafting accident in Idaho and being told by a doctor that perhaps she should find something besides running as a hobby, Arnold won one of the sport’s most-revered races.

“That was his story, and it wasn’t going to be mine about running,” she says. “I think that’s what these past two years have taught me. Don’t let anyone set your limits for you, and even when you set your own, be willing and ready to push past them, because it’s possible.”

Since moving to Santa Fe, NM in her 20s, Arnold has been an avid outdoorswoman. She bikes, runs and hikes over mountain trails and rafts the wild rivers of the West, often with her husband Steve Barrett and two daughters.

In 2016, she was thrown from her raft while riding the rapids of the middle fork of the Salmon River. Her leg was damaged, but she didn’t know it was broken. When she returned to Santa Fe, her orthopedist looked at the X-rays and told her she’d need surgery and a long rehabilitation. She recalls him saying, “If I were you, I would never run again.”

“Needless to say, that didn’t sit well with me,” she shares. “I had to make sure he understood running wasn’t a hobby. It’s just ingrained in my wellness and happiness and fulfillment as a person.”

She had to spend weeks on crutches. Then came rehabilitation, strength training (something new to her regimen) and a return to the trails. Gradually, she regained her strength and confidence as she extended her distances. In September of 2017, she won a trail marathon in New Mexico. In October, she did the 42-mile rim-to-rim-to-rim run at the Grand Canyon. It was a hard day, but her leg held up. Then came a 50K in April, followed by a win in the 50-mile Jemez Mountain Trail run and a victory in the 100-kilometer Angel Fire Endurance race, her longest distance ever.

She decided Leadville would be a good place for her debut at 100 miles because it suits her strengths. She lives at 7,000 feet in Santa Fe and runs nearby mountains up to 12,600. She feasts on uphill climbs and knew she could handle Leadville’s Hope Pass (12,508). “I’m a mountain runner,” she says.

Still, she wondered how she’d handle running 20 or more hours and if her leg would respond. As she drove to Leadville, she was overcome by emotions and the feeling of being blessed. “I just carried that feeling of gratitude into the race,” shares Arnold.

Arnold, a writer and editor, had been a runner most of her life, but didn’t run her first ultra until 2012. After her father died of cancer she experienced acute anxiety and grief. “I tried a lot of things and the only thing that worked was long distance running alone in the wilderness,” she says. “I would just go out for hours and I would feel better when I got back.”

Running on those trails—feeling freedom in the beauty of the mountains—is spiritual to her. What other people call training she calls “enjoyment.” She says she doesn’t run for results or worry much about splits or running against a clock. It’s one of the reasons she went into Leadville simply hoping to finish.

But, the race played out well for her. She decided to go out easy, then pick up ground later, especially on the climbs. She stayed relaxed. At one point, her husband (one of her three pacers) was singing Men at Work songs to keep her loose. She trailed leader Addie Bracy up until Mile 62, then caught and passed her.

“I didn’t think it was possible to stay in the flow for 20 hours, but I felt great,” says Arnold. “We kept putting distance between us and I was just in the flow. It wasn’t like we were hammering to get out in front. I was just running in my own body and the gap widened. By Mile 87 I think it was, we were 30 minutes ahead and it just lengthened from there.”

All day, too, she received energy boosts from Steve and her daughters at aid stations, feeding off their cheers. “Everything aligned,” she says.

As she finally ran toward the lights at the finish, she learned from her pacer Wes Thurman that it was still before midnight. She would finish under 20 hours, something she thought was out of reach. When she and Thurman saw a shooting star just steps from crossing the line, the finish was perfect. “I sailed across the line on just pure happiness,” she says.

For now, Arnold has no definite plans for her next big race. She’d love to try the Western States 100, or a couple of the big ultras in Europe. She’s going to enjoy the victory, her health and the coming publication of her memoir about how running helped her cope with her father’s death entitled Running Home.

“I’ve recovered well,” she says. “I’m excited for what’s next. It’s fun to know the thing I’ve always loved, which is mountain running, is really a strength. I can’t wait to see where it will take me.”