Sit, Write, Run: Running With the Mind of Mountains

Katie Arnold, author of the new book “Brief Flashings in the Phenomenal World,” offers advice for running with freedom and flow.

By on April 25, 2024 | Comments

[Editor’s Note: This article was written by guest contributor Katie Arnold. She is the author of “Brief Flashings in the Phenomenal World: Zen and the Art of Running Free,” which just published in April 2024, and a former Leadville 100 Mile champion.]

On a sunny April morning last week, I ran up the mountain near my Santa Fe, New Mexico home. I’ve gone up 9,200-foot Atalaya nearly every week for over 25 years, starting when I was a young writer new to the area. I didn’t know anyone in town at first, so I made the mountain my friend.

Hiking up the three-mile trail after work, and then, once my lungs had adjusted to the altitude, jogging slowly, became my daily habit. I went up the mountain in all weather, seasons, and moods alone and with my dogs and friends, my boyfriend who would later become my husband, my daughters in utero and then in hiking packs — then as toddlers and now as teenagers who set a tough pace. I was building a relationship with the mountain as much as with my own body and imagination.

Katie Arnold trail running

Katie Arnold running free on her local trails with her dogs. All photos courtesy of Katie Arnold.

It had been six months since I’d been up Atalaya, by far my longest hiatus since breaking my leg in a whitewater rafting accident in 2016. It was winter, and the trail was snow-covered, so I ran at lower elevations; we had the best ski season in recent memory, and for myriad other reasons, the mountain hadn’t been calling to me.

But that morning it did. It was the day before the launch of my second book, “Brief Flashings in the Phenomenal World,” about the river accident and its tumultuous aftermath where I trained my mind to heal my body. I woke up to spring light flooding the bedroom and my heart flapping with anticipation, and I knew just where I wanted to be.

I was expecting the climb to hurt more than it did: 2,000 feet up in just under three miles. But it didn’t. The obstructions and aches in my legs had lifted. I was attuned to the morning, the ravens, the thick-skinned ponderosa trees smelling like vanilla, the dust swirling underfoot. I didn’t care about time or pace. I was in flow. I was running free.

This is why I run. Not for fitness or competition, or to win or to prove my stamina, but to be so fully myself and part of my surroundings that I disappear and become running — and the mountain — itself.

When I do, I almost always run happier, healthier, and — yes — occasionally even faster.

My recipe for flow running is simple by design, easy to do anywhere, anytime, and best of all, enjoyable. Let’s not call it a training plan because it has nothing to do with miles or pace or data. You don’t have to track your progress or post your results.  You’re simply learning to study your mind, listen to your body, and hear your intuition.

The only rule is that there are no rules. You can do these practices in any order and for any length of time, whenever and wherever where you want. Okay, there is one rule. Be yourself. Feel free to interpret and tweak these habits to fit your life. Make them your own and they will take you places you can’t imagine.


Many of my best running days start with sitting. Come spring, I move my meditation cushion from its spot next to the wood stove in the living room to beside the fountain in our backyard. I practice Zen style of meditation, or zazen, which translates quite simply to “just sitting.” That’s really all it is. No guided meditation, no mantra, no visualizations — just sitting upright and breathing.

Sitting helps me come into my body and into the moment before I move my body into the world, and you can do it any way you want. If you prefer listening to an app or repeating a phrase (I sometimes use “I” on each inhale and “am” on each exhale) or counting your breaths from one to 10, then starting over, that’s totally okay. If you have your own meditation tradition, perfect! Any way you sit in stillness and silence is fine.

Likewise, any amount of time counts: one minute, six minutes, 12. You can use a meditation timer or set an alarm on your running watch. As with building your running base, start short and work your way up, gradually increasing your stamina for stillness over time. Or not. Ten minutes in the morning before a run is almost always enough for me.

Katie Arnold meditation practice

Any way you sit in stillness and silence is fine.

One word of advice: Don’t worry if you’re thinking while you sit. Everyone has thoughts while meditating — sometimes hundreds in the course of a few minutes. The point is not to eradicate thoughts from your mind, but to see them, notice them, and let them pass, like clouds in the sky. Don’t follow your thoughts or ideas and make them into stories.

By practicing this detached noticing and letting go, we train ourselves not to believe or chase every idea we have. We learn equanimity, which comes in handy on long runs when our body aches and our mind frets that we’re injured or tired. Let those thoughts go, and more often than not, the fears and pain dissolve with them.

As a bonus, sometimes I read before or after I sit — lines from a poet I love or a page or two of a Zen text. Zen, by its very nature, is beyond definition and sometimes even description; its teachings are not understood with our minds, but with our bodies. When I read before I sit, I put the teachings and inspiration into my body; then running helps me digest them, alchemizing ideas into understanding in ways that my brain alone can’t do.


After I sit, I write. I’ve kept simple soft-bound notebooks for much of my adult life, filling roughly one a month with journal entries, story ideas, random jottings, brief flashings in the phenomenal world. If sitting helps us quiet our bodies and minds, writing helps us listen to what they tell us. We all have innate knowing, or intuition, instincts — Zen calls them inmost desires — that can guide us in running, training, and life.

Often, though, we’re too distracted or busy to hear our true voice — the one that says, I’m scared but I want to try to run 100 miles; the one that says, I’m tired. I don’t want to push so hard right now. Our voice knows what we need and want. When we learn how to listen, we run and live from our deepest instincts and most genuine self that will never lead us astray.

I write in my notebook the same way I sit: in short bursts, simply, without grand ambition. Five minutes, maybe, or 10. Anything that comes to mind. Sometimes, when I sit, I’ll get a flash of where I want to run that day, or a picture in my mind of a trail I love. Writing it down in my notebook helps me understand what I need from my run that day: freedom, speed, mountains, rivers, company. Maybe even a rest day.

Katie Arnold writing in field

Hearing ourselves when we write, we become better friends to ourselves when we run.

I generally don’t give myself prompts but, instead, write what came through me and to me while I sat. It might not have anything to do with running, but even so, it is about running.

Hearing ourselves when we write, we become better friends to ourselves when we run: knowing what we need to feel safe, inspired, challenged, cared for. If you come to the page with a blank mind — totally okay! — you can try a simple evergreen prompt, such as: what I hear, what I see, what I want.

Let your thoughts flow freely through your pen. Writing by hand is best so you’re not tempted to edit or delete while you write. This keeps you closer to your true voice as opposed to your thinking brain.


Running free is a different kind of running than training.

Turn off your watch and don’t worry about time, pace, or distance, and definitely not Strava. Run by feel. Do your legs want to go far? Go far. Does your heart feel heavy and want to go home? Give yourself time to ease in, eat calories, and stay hydrated, and if you still feel draggy, take that as a sign you need a break. Run where your body and mind want to go instead of where your training plan tells you.

While you sat and wrote, did you imagine yourself on a high ridgeline with the ravens? Go there. Did you see yourself running a favorite loop in reverse, or a trail you’ve been friends with forever but haven’t seen in a while? Yes, and yes.

As you run, open your senses to what’s around you. What do you see, smell, hear? Take note, as though you’ll write them down when you get home. Maybe you will. These observations are just as meaningful as your metrics. You’ll remember the creek running high with snowmelt and the wild irises in the meadow long after you forget whether you were running an 8:05-minute mile or an 8:30. This is the stuff of stories, and what is running if not one never-ending story?

Katie Arnold running with her dogs

Running free is a different kind of running than training.

Running free means running by feel, but it takes practice and patience. Don’t expect it to feel natural or easy at first, or every day. Try these flow practices a couple of times a week and gradually build your appetite and momentum for the practice. Notice how you feel when you run, and afterward.

Do you feel more ease and lightness in your body? Do you wake up and want to run rather than drag your feet? Are your legs lighter on the ground? Are you pushing against the mountain or running like the river, fast and free? Tap into your innate inner flow, and you’ll be amazed at where it will carry you.

Call for Comments

  • Do you have a meditation or journaling practice?
  • Do you free run, or do you always keep track of all your metrics?
Katie Arnold Brief Flashings in a Phenomenal World

Katie Arnold’s new book, “Brief Flashings in the Phenomenal World.”

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