Running Through the Fear
In the wake of a bizarre physical attack and the death of her father, Katie Arnold felt paralyzed by the anxieties of parenthood and being a woman alone in the wilderness. She got through it the same way she’d always done, by lacing up and hitting the trail. An exclusive excerpt from her new memoir, Running Home.
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There’s one question that people always ask me about running alone in the backcountry. It’s the same question they ask me about taking young children down whitewater rivers. I know because it’s also the one I ask myself. Aren’t you scared?
The answer is: absolutely. In the seven years I’ve been an ultrarunner, I’ve taught myself to tolerate uncertainty, to be comfortable being uncomfortable. I’ve run and won races ranging from 50 kilometers to 100 miles, but I still rarely leave the house without weighing my worries against my desire to run, assessing the risks of being on my own in the wilderness, thinking hard about what’s at stake. Everything.
I’m scared of getting lost and of getting hurt and of being attacked by animals wild and domesticated—even livestock. Dogs that lunge at me from yards; cattle that graze in meadows, staring at me with their mean, blank eyes when I sidle by, daring me to pass. They’re just cows, I chide myself, feeling foolish, but they are large and lumbering and ten times my weight, and they could mow me down in an instant.
I don’t worry about lone coyotes—at 40 pounds, they’re too small and skittish to do any harm—but packs of coyotes, though rarely encountered, are unpredictable. (In 2009, a female solo hiker was killed by a pair of coyotes in Nova Scotia.) Rattlesnakes are uncommon in my hometown of Santa Fe. They don’t do well above 7,000 feet, or so I thought, until the day I came upon a pair of mating rattlers in the middle of a trail. I was nearly on top of them before I realized the coiled brown rope at my feet wasn’t a rope at all, but a knot of amorous vipers, and I yelped and hurdled over them. Now I keep my eyes down.
Lightning exists in its own category of horror. On summer afternoons, heat rises above the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, east of town, forming thunderstorms. I’ve been in the high country when lightning strikes were so close that white flashed behind my eyelids and the thunder roared inside my ears. I’ve seen the long, serrated scars on ponderosa pines, bark flayed top to bottom. When I run up high, I leave early in the morning so I’m off the bald peaks by early afternoon; I always keep one eye on the sky, trying to remember what to do if I get caught above the tree line. Do I squat with my shoes on or take them off and crawl under a rock? Or do I sprint like hell for cover?
Of all the objective risks, though, mountain lions scare me the most. They’re not as big as black bears—adult males usually weigh about 180 pounds, compared with a bear’s 300—but they’re much stealthier. (As the saying goes, you might never have seen a mountain lion in the wild, but they’ve seen you.) They prowl silently through the woods and can leap 40 feet in pursuit of deer, coyotes, and rabbits. Sometimes they slink out of the forest, down through the arroyos, and straight into town, lounging in neighborhood trees, crossing two-lane roads in broad daylight.
Black bears galumph around eating berries, almost endearing in their shagginess, so big they can’t hide. But cougars are wily; cougars sneak. When I run, I scan rocky outcroppings for movement and listen for rustlings. Some days I can’t shake the feeling that I’m being watched.
In my mind, the greatest threat to a woman alone on the trails isn’t lightning or wild animals but other people. I should know: I’m the survivor of an incident that could’ve killed me or my child.
It was November 18, 2008, a Tuesday, 4:15 P.M. My daughter Pippa was four months old and weighed ten pounds. I strapped her onto my chest and walked alone into the foothills on a trail I’d run countless times on my own. I’d hiked almost every day of my pregnancy, and walking was the only thing that could reliably put her to sleep.
At the trailhead, I nursed Pippa in the front seat while her spindly legs kicked the gearshift. Then I laid her on the console, wrapped her like a burrito in a cotton insert shaped like an enormous tortilla, buckled the canvas baby carrier around my shoulders and waist, and shoved the entire package inside. She was still so tiny that she faced me, legs sidesaddle, her chin to my chest. She’d almost always fall asleep before I even left the parking lot. The only trick was that I couldn’t stop, not even to tie my shoe, or else she’d wake up and start fussing to be fed. For some reason, breastfeeding her on the side of a mountain intimidated me more than climbing it.
On that day, it wasn’t Pippa’s usual nap time. As I walked up the switchbacks to the top of the hill and began descending, her marble eyes flicked open and shut, watching me watching her. I could hear hikers behind me on the trail; the sun was still up, but it wouldn’t be for long. If I hustled, I’d be back to the car before it set.
I was a quarter mile from the parking lot when I rounded a bend and saw a man ten feet away, coming toward me. He had a shag of graying hair and wore shorts and a sweatshirt. His legs were deeply bronzed, the kind of tan you get when you live outside all year long and not on purpose. I recognized him right away—a sixty-something guy who my husband, Steve, and I often saw, usually trudging alone up the side of the road, carrying a plastic grocery bag in each hand. Shorts Man, we called him. We assumed he bivouacked in a camp on the edge of the forest with another homeless local we referred to as Duster Man, for the ankle-length oilskin coat he wore in winter and summer, along with a coonskin cap.
I ran straight uphill, off the trail, smacking piñon branches with one arm, cradling Pippa’s back with the other as he chased me. Someone was screaming so ferociously it reverberated off the hills. The person screaming was me.
My brain made a series of instant calculations, like a slot machine spinning. Because I’d seen him before, he was familiar, and because he was familiar, there was no reason to be afraid. I raised my hand in greeting and kept walking toward him.
Only… something was weird. Shorts Man was missing an arm. One arm was swinging next to him the way arms naturally do, but the other was gone.
Just as my brain struggled to recalibrate, the arm appeared. It had been behind his back. This was a grand, if momentary, relief. He had an arm! And the arm was—
The arm was throwing a rock.
Shorts Man was eight feet away, maybe only five. The rock was the size of a baked potato. It wobbled at first, as though in slow motion, but it came straight at my head and hit me right above the left temple. My knees gave out. As I fell, I instinctively pressed my hand to the baby carrier and pulled Pippa toward me. My first emotion wasn’t fear but outrage: I cannot believe this fucker just threw a rock at me. At my baby! On the trail! This can’t be happening!
The blood dripping into my eyes was proof that it was. I lay in the dirt, but I couldn’t stay there, because he was running toward us.
The slot machine spun. Cherries, oranges, sevens. Fuck, help, stop. Nothing aligned, and then it did. Get up. Get up. Get up.
I staggered to my feet and began to run. Straight uphill, off the trail, smacking piñon branches with one arm, cradling Pippa’s back with the other as he chased me. Someone was screaming so ferociously it reverberated off the hills. The person screaming was me.
I took a fast glance backward. Shorts Man was nowhere. I’d dropped him. A couple of hikers ran toward me, yelling, “We’re here! What happened?” I looked down: There was blood splattered across the carrier and the canvas sun hood that covered Pippa’s head. She had not moved or made a sound during the attack. Had she been hit, too? I pushed back the flap and there she was, staring up at me without blinking. Unscathed. Like a baby bird in a nest that instinctively knew it must keep absolutely still and silent to survive.
The hikers escorted me down the trail, one on either side, and called 911. Shorts Man had vanished into the trees. Later, en route to the hospital in an ambulance, a paramedic said: “You’re lucky the rock didn’t hit your temple. It could have killed you.” An ER doctor gave me four stitches and Pippa a clean bill of health.
And this was what I didn’t say aloud that day but couldn’t stop thinking: What if the rock had struck her instead of me?
A few days later, Shorts Man was caught and arrested. He’d been living in a tent in a thicket of trees just off the trail, adjacent to some homes. Residents sometimes glassed his camp from their kitchen windows, and he was seen walking around naked from the waist down. On the morning of the attack, he was hiking back to his camp when he came across me and apparently became paranoid that I was going to hurt him. He pleaded guilty to aggravated battery with a deadly weapon and aggravated assault, both felonies, and was sentenced to 12 months in county jail.
After the attack, I stopped hiking with Pippa. I stopped hiking altogether. Even when I pushed her in her stroller on the sidewalk downtown, I flinched when someone approached us abruptly. When I started missing the trails too much, I called friends to go hiking with us.
A year later, in November 2009, I became pregnant with my second daughter, Maisy. Pippa was 16 months old by then and so boisterous that she no longer wanted to be cooped up in the carrier, so I left her at home with a babysitter and hiked alone once more. The man who’d attacked me was still in jail. What were the odds of the same thing happening twice?
Every morning, I walked up Picacho Peak, an 8,600-foot mountain on the eastern edge of Santa Fe. Together with its neighbor to the south, 9,100-foot Atalaya, Picacho is one of the predominant landmarks in Santa Fe’s foothills. And at nearly three miles and 2,000 feet of vertical gain, the trail to both summits provides the most elevation and exertion in the least amount of time.
When I hiked, I carried a small vial of pepper spray Steve had given me. On Picacho’s summit, I sat on a rock and looked for ravens. They were my sign that everything was OK—with the baby inside me and with the trail that would lead me home. I’d hear them first, their wings whooshing above the piñons and ponderosas, cawing as if through a mouthful of pebbles. Then I’d look up and see them rise on the thermals, onyx against the clear sky, whirling and chortling and dive-bombing one another, but never in malice, and relief would wash over me. They knew nothing of life on the ground. They dipped and soared, the embodiment of fearlessness and freedom.
I wasn’t always such a worrier. As a girl growing up between my mother’s house in New Jersey and my father’s farm in Virginia, I bicycled alone around my Jersey neighborhood and ran my first 10K race in Virginia, without training, at my father’s half-serious suggestion. I jumped into a frozen river on a bet Dad made with me. He was a National Geographic photographer and always had a camera at the ready to document our exploits. When I was ten, I sliced my heel open on a rock while wading barefoot in a creek; a week later, with six stitches, I hiked a mile to the top of the Delaware Water Gap, my foot swathed in a thick white tube sock. When I was 23, I moved to New Mexico sight unseen to work for Outside. I traded a proper nine-to-five job with benefits for a three-month internship that paid $5 an hour. In my twenties and thirties, I climbed Half Dome and kayaked whitewater rivers and ran up mountains. Thoughts of death or danger rarely crossed my mind, and when they did I dismissed them easily. I was young and unencumbered. Invincible. Dying was something that happened to other people, people who were old or unlucky. I was neither.
But in the summer of 2010, a year and a half after Pippa and I were attacked, my father got sick. He was 73, still fit and active. The cancerous tumor on his left kidney was the size of a fist, “a rather massive ugly thing,” he wrote me shortly after his diagnosis. Maisy was two months old, growing as fast as Dad was dying. Ten weeks later, he was gone.
Afterward, in the disorienting fog of sorrow, everything scared me: my babies, so small and vulnerable and precious; my own body, once so strong but now ancient and aching with grief. Grief is almost unbearably physical, and I became convinced that I was dying, too—each new, strange sensation proof of a fatal disease burrowing through my bones and blood.
My anxiety lasted more than a year. I tried everything, but the only remedy that worked was the one that had always worked: running. On the surface, it seemed like the least logical choice. I lived in constant terror of my body breaking down, but I pushed my limits every day, clocking long miles alone in the wilderness. I didn’t know the first thing about training for a 50K ultramarathon, but deep down it made sense. My father had raised me to find solace outside, on camping trips and bicycle trips and river trips, on long rambles through the Shenandoah Valley, up mountains in Maine, in musty tents in Nova Scotia. Maybe, I reasoned, if I ran far enough, deep enough, into the trail networks and hills, into myself, I would find my way back to the fearless girl I’d once been.
There’s a difference between fear and anxiety. Fear is a response to a known threat; anxiety is dread of a perceived or imagined threat, of what could happen. It is anticipatory, not actual. It’s the voice inside of us that says: That man on the trail doesn’t look right. Turn around. Now. Both fear and anxiety originate in complex circuits in the amygdala and other structures deep in the brain, triggering the classic fight-or-flight response that has kept us alive for millennia. During periods of prolonged stress or trauma, the amygdala’s warning system can become too sensitive, overriding the cortex. It’s increasingly difficult to switch off the fight-or-flight impulse and distinguish between real threats and imagined disasters. Flooded with the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, your body exists in a state of constant anxiety, immobilized in clammy terror. The worries feed on themselves, magnifying until you’re locked in a vicious cycle of perpetual alarm.
Running long distances doesn’t erase my anxiety, but it does help me manage it. Caught up in the physical effort, I detach from the circuitous worry in my brain. There are practical hazards that require my attention, like looking for bears and not tripping over my own feet and pitching off a cliff. At night I no longer lie awake in a state of hypervigilance, convinced I’m dying. I’m so exhausted that I fall asleep as soon as I turn off the light.
And while I still fret about invisible diseases, my body tells a different story. My quads are taut, my glutes more defined. I can run uphill with a friend and talk without huffing too noticeably. My skin is clear and has a healthy glow. The circles under my eyes have faded; the frown creases beside my mouth are less noticeable. Running is both cure and proof of the cure. If I can run 20 miles and come home and take the girls to the park and finish a story on deadline, I can’t possibly be dying of cancer.
From a young age, we’re conditioned to suppress fear. This has always been my strategy. I feigned bravery in front of Dad at all costs. I put myself in the crosshairs of risk to prove that I wasn’t a wimp. I worked in an office full of macho guys, where vulnerability in the wilderness, in writing, and in life was taboo.
But trying to repress fear is counterproductive. It only makes it worse. Fear itself isn’t good or bad. It’s our resistance to it—our fear of fear, our anxiety—that makes us suffer so. The trick is not to run from it but to follow it. “Make friends with your fear,” my Buddhist friend Natalie sometimes says.
This was the same thing, more or less, I’d heard when I went to Utah with another friend, Mary, not long after Dad died. We’d signed up for a skiing camp led by former world champion Kristen Ulmer, but it wasn’t your typical sports clinic focused on downhill technique. Her coaching was all mental—by training our minds to be more expansive and present, she said, we would become more confident on and off the mountain.
On the first day, I rode the chairlift with Kristen and two other participants. She gave us a scenario: envision our absolute worst fear, then close our eyes and imagine it happening. I’d done this so many times already that the image came easily. Losing one of the girls—this was the absolute worst thing. As I sat there with my skis swinging above the powdery slopes, I pictured unthinkable loss. I felt it. My eyes stung, and I started to cry. It was so painful, but for once there was nowhere to run. I just sat there, sobbing quietly.
Finally, Kristen spoke. “Breathe in your worst fear and breathe out the possibility of ever letting go of that fear.” This was not what I wanted to hear. I’d come to Alta to exorcise my anxiety once and for all, to burn it out of me in one go, or if not, to squelch it as best I could. Bad idea. “If you ignore your fear,” Kristen continued, “it becomes like a sullen teenager, raging in the basement, tearing the place apart. It becomes anxiety.” She had faced so many of her own fears—perilous couloirs, avalanches, mediocrity, failure. There is never any end to the fears. The trick is to move toward them, not away.
Running is as good a way as any to try. I’m alone with the voices in my head for hours at a time. I can study my anxiety for patterns; I see its ragged, wily persistence. I greet it with a half-hearted wave as I would someone I’ve known a very long time but am not entirely happy to see. Oh, you again. On some days my worry is more acute and on others less, but it’s always part of the package: inescapable, chronic, not so very different from love itself. The crux is to live as big as you can, to love it all even when you stand to lose it all.
On the first of April 2011, my cell phone rang. “This is the Santa Fe County Adult Correctional Facility,” a woman’s voice said.
I couldn’t fathom why she might be calling me. I thought, Is this some kind of April Fool’s joke?
She said, “I’m calling about a case that may be of personal interest to you.”
Great, I thought, my confusion turning to irritation. Who got arrested? Steve?
No. The woman was calling to tell me that my attacker was being released that day. She explained that he was free to go where he chose and that if I had trouble with him in the future, I could file a restraining order.
I knew he probably had no memory of the attack. “Thank you for letting me know,” I replied and hung up. There was nothing else to say.
Shorts Man is back in the world now. Some days I pass him in my car on the street. He is still bronzed by the sun, still limping with his stiff-legged gait, still carrying his grocery bags. He favors one bad ankle, and he looks older, less threatening and more vulnerable. Sometimes I see him skulking along the perimeter of the playground where I take the girls to play. He’s no more than 20 feet away, his eyes lowered, and I recoil instinctively and look away to let him pass, to let my fear pass.
I’ve had to recalibrate again. In my new hierarchy of risk, running is safer than hiking, because it’s faster. I can get away more quickly. After my terrible encounter with Shorts Man, I understand things about myself that I’ve known but never quite trusted: That I can run. That I am fast. That my body and mind will always know what to do. And that running isn’t something to fear. It could save my life. It already has.
Worry is always part of the package: inescapable, chronic, not so very different from love itself. The crux is to live as big as you can, to love it all even when you stand to lose it all.
I don’t go back to the trail where it happened. I stay in my mountains, where the pitches are steeper and less accessible. These hills are farther from town and don’t border private property, and to some people the remoteness might make them seem riskier, but in my logic this makes them safer. I count cars at the trailhead. More cars means more people to help me if I need it. But the wrong cars—sketchy vans with boarded-up windows or pickup trucks with little wooden shacks listing on the bed—are worse. I go on instinct. Sometimes, when I drop into a hollow by the creek or run off the back side of a mountain into shadows and something about the light or air feels wrong, goose bumps rise on my forearms, and I pick up two small rocks, just in case.
A certain amount of fear in the wilderness is healthy. It keeps you alert. Like your lungs and your legs, courage is something you can train, and I have strategies for mitigating risk. I always tell Steve where I’m going. I never run without my cell phone (though I’m often out of range) and my pepper spray. Sometimes I take a friend’s 70-pound Rhodesian ridgeback, a breed that originated in Africa as lion trackers.
I rehearse what-ifs. If I see a mountain lion, I’ll yell and hold my pack above my head to make myself look less like prey. I’ll wave a stick in its face—never, ever run—and fight back if I have to. If I come upon a bear, I’ll back away slowly. If I fall and twist my ankle crossing the creek, I’ll soak it in the cool water and then hobble out to the nearest trailhead. If, on a desolate two-track dirt road where pickup trucks routinely rumble by with gun racks, someone pulls over and comes after me, I know what to do, because I’ve done it before. I’ll run.
I train on the same trails every week, committing them to memory, pushing a little farther and higher as the weeks go by. Each time I come home safely, I feel more comfortable. I know this is flawed logic. Animals and people are erratic, and risk factors shift with the weather, the season, the day. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.
I have so many scars. The pink ripple on my knee from when I fell on Atalaya my first week in town, the nearly invisible X on my forehead where I got rammed by an old-fashioned metal chairlift at a ski resort in West Virginia when I was five. The divot in my chin from when I took a surfboard to the mouth off the coast of Mexico, the pale white line on my right heel.
But the scar from the rock is one I can’t see or feel. It’s hidden above my hairline. The doctor sewed it so neatly, it may have vanished entirely. The scar that remains is in my mind. I will never again not think about risk. I will never again take my safety in the wilderness for granted.
Yet each time I ask the questions—Am I taking too great a chance? Is it worth the risk?—the answers are always the same. The answer is no. No, I will never give up my trails for fear. That would be an even greater risk. And the answer is yes. Yes, I still love this world and its wildness, for its wildness. And for mine.