Ashley Arnold, College of Charleston

There’s a theory in evolutionary biology hypothesizing that humans were born to run.

When Ashley Arnold ’08 is running at her best, she seems to provide living proof of this theory. She’s blessed with an aerobic engine that throttles at top speed for hours on end. Her slight, board-rigid torso is mounted atop powerful, indefatigable legs that motor up near-vertical ascents. She has a pain threshold that a Navy SEAL would envy.

But there’s always a catch with such gifts – the universe keeping things in balance. What if the activity that sustained you also caused you to question your self-worth and your abilities? What if running called forth your darkest demons? What if you gave in to those whispers that tell you you’re fat, even when the needle on the bathroom scale has dropped into the danger zone?

Skinny wins races, the coaxing demons say, so you kneel over the toilet and heave your guts out, hoping to purge the guilt and whatever nibble of food you just ate.

For half of her 28 years on earth, Arnold has lived with these demons. To silence them, she must stop running.

By Ron Menchaca ’98
Photography by Kevin Hoth

It is fitting that Ashley Arnold ’08 grew up amid the bluegrass fields of Kentucky, a region renowned for its horseracing. She is like a champion thoroughbred – durable and fast, graceful and magnificent.

Horses graze in the calcium-rich meadows of the Arnold family acreage in Lexington. For young Ashley and her older sister Lauren, the wide-open spaces provided ample room to play and explore. At the end of a summer’s day, the giddy girls staggered home filthy, having spent hours making mud pies, wading through creeks and running through the forest in search of fireflies and blackberries.

Gymnastics was her first athletic passion. Mirroring the famous athletes she worshipped, like gold medalist Dominique Moceanu, Arnold had the characteristic body type of a gymnast: compact, lean, sinewy and flexible.

Gymnastics seemed the ideal outlet for her boundless energy. Her family called her the Energizer Bunny. Like the hyperactive pink mascot from the battery commercials of her youth, Arnold kept going and going … until her parents and teachers would demand, “Ashley, stop! Sit still!”

She loved gymnastics – loved the freedom and self-generated power of somersaulting across the mat and springing deerlike into the air. It felt like flying.

Ashley Arnold, College of CharlestonBut the sport could also be dangerously serious. Practices and competitions existed in a pressure-cooker environment. There was an unhealthy emphasis on weight and body type. And always the piercing stares of judges, the nonnegotiable harshness of scorecards and the unrelenting pressure to be the best, the most beautiful, the thinnest. This was the beginning of her battle with eating disorders.

As Arnold grew into her early teens, the gymnastics routines became increasingly complex and difficult. One day she was practicing on the balance beam when, airborne several feet above the hard wooden surface below, she twisted her body in the wrong direction and dropped, back first. Her body bounced off the beam like a rubber ball.

There were other close calls, though none left her seriously injured. The real damage was to her psyche. Following these near misses, a new and unfamiliar feeling invaded her thoughts: fear.

She had lost that crucial edge that all gifted athletes know. The ability to transcend fear and pain is the margin that separates competitors from champions.

“The moment the fear sets in, you just cripple yourself,” she says. “I was afraid.”

She never again regained her enthusiasm for the sport. After years of grueling practices, thousands of miles traveled to competitions and camps, and scores of medals and trophies, Arnold quit gymnastics.

In the years that followed, Arnold found new outlets to fill the void gymnastics left behind. She satisfied her need for creative expression through dance and theater. And she discovered that the athleticism she developed through gymnastics translated easily into track and field events such as pole vaulting and sprinting.

Ashley Arnold, College of CharlestonInitially, she had no interest in running longer distances like her sister Lauren did on the high school cross country team. The 300-meter hurdles appealed to Arnold because it covered only three-fourths of the track. But the more mileage she logged and the more her confidence grew, the less daunting the longer distances seemed. One lap around the track stretched to two. After four laps, she’d covered a whole mile. The Energizer Bunny kept going.

Her body adapted to meet the different physiological demands of running long. For the sprinting events, she had bulked up and focused on building strength and power. But longer runs required more endurance and a leaner physique.

The thinner she became, the faster she ran. As she had done years earlier in gymnastics, Arnold began to associate size with success. Her fast times and high finishes in races only reinforced the restricted eating habits that had by then become a routine part of her life.

By her junior year of high school, it was clear that Arnold could compete at the next level. She considered following her sister to Centre College in nearby Danville, Ky., until her future was revealed on a college visit road trip to Charleston.


In 2003, Amy Seago was still finding her footing as the first-year head coach of the College’s cross country and track teams. Seago met with Arnold when Arnold and her mom visited Charleston during her junior year of high school.

Seago harbored reservations about Arnold. From her previous coaching stints at other universities, Seago knew that eating disorders could be a problem for many collegiate runners, especially female distance runners

“As I was recruiting her, I don’t know that she necessarily told me she had an eating disorder, but I had the sense that this was the kind of kid who was going to have trouble with those kinds of things, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to take that on the team,” recalls Seago.

The fact that Arnold had been a gymnast, another sport in which eating disorders are not uncommon, only heightened Seago’s concerns. Still, she kept Arnold on her recruiting radar as the promising runner entered her final year of high school.

Seago’s instincts were spot on. Anorexia had wringed Arnold’s body of excess fat, calorie by calorie. She was floating around the track at a gaunt 86 pounds and had thrown her body’s rhythms so far out of whack that she had stopped menstruating.

As if to affirm her self-destructive behavior, Arnold had a breakthrough senior season, finishing 10th in the Kentucky State Cross Country Championships and winning the unseeded section of the Footlocker Cross Country Regional in November 2003. She capped off her high school career in June 2004 with second-place finishes in both the mile and two-mile events at the state championships.

Ashley Arnold, College of CharlestonBecause Arnold had bloomed late as a high school distance runner, larger universities had overlooked her. It was something of a coup for Seago to sign her to a partial scholarship. But it didn’t much matter if other schools were interested in her or not. Arnold had already fallen hard for Charleston and never seriously considered going to college anywhere else.

From afar, it appeared everything was falling neatly into place for her. Before the start of the semester, she was assigned her college roommate, Heather Clark ’08, a talented running recruit from Cincinnati. Separated by only an hour and half drive, the girls met up before moving to Charleston to bond and discuss decorations for their room in McAlister Residence Hall. They quickly became best friends.

Arnold’s carefree spirit brought levity to the otherwise painful and lonely business that is distance running. She was an integral member of the team, Clark recalls. “She was goofy. She would have team get-togethers and pasta dinners. She made everyone laugh. Running was hard and draining, but she always made it fun
for everybody.”

While Arnold’s fun-loving personality made her popular among her teammates, Seago and the other coaches struggled to harness her energy and keep her focused on the conservative training plans they developed for the rising star. Arnold begged to run more mileage and often questioned the training philosophy of her
young coach.

But those battles were eclipsed by her strong performances in competition. In fall 2004, Arnold placed fifth at the cross country conference championships and was named the conference’s freshman of the year.

“She was really starting to turn a lot of heads,” says Seago.

What Seago and others did not fully realize was how serious Arnold’s struggle with eating had become. She was obsessively weighing herself and meticulously tracking every calorie. Her restricted eating had whittled her body to less than 100 pounds.

A typical female athlete has between 14 and 20 percent body fat. Below 10 percent is considered unhealthy. Arnold’s body fat hovered around 6 percent. She had fallen into a vicious cycle. As her weight dropped, so, too, did her running times. But her mood and energy levels were up and down like a volatile stock. Running was actually killing her.

During practice one day, a coach pulled Arnold aside and told her she needed to put on some weight. The coach suggested that she set her alarm clock and get up during the night to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Arnold fumed. How dare they suggest such a reckless diet. “It made me so mad. I thought, Really? That’s not even a good way to gain weight.”

Ashley Arnold, College of CharlestonHer struggle with eating disorders had less to do with food and more to do with her need for control – a desire that often drove her to make major, life-changing decisions at the drop of a hat.

Arnold was feeling homesick as winter break of her freshman year approached. Her sadness mushroomed from typical first-semester blues to “I’m leaving the College.” She abruptly announced to her coaches and teammates that she was transferring to Centre College, where her older sister was running.

After returning home over the holiday break and spending some time with her family, Arnold changed her mind and decided to return to Charleston and to running. She geared up for the spring track season.

Seago had circled one meet in particular on that season’s race calendar – the Duke Invitational, where some of the fastest runners in the country would be competing.

Throughout the season, Seago would predict times she thought Arnold was capable of running based on her recent training results. The calculations usually proved accurate. Arnold’s training had been strong leading up to the Duke outdoor meet, and she and Seago were feeling confident that she could run a personal record of under 17 minutes in the 5k.

The thunderous clap of the starter’s pistol ricocheted around the Duke track. The pace was quick from the get go, faster than any race Arnold had ever run. Among the elite pack of women was a future Olympian.

Elbows flew and wayward track spikes ripped gashes in shins as the women jockeyed for lane position. Arnold ran strong for the first few laps before the demons started chirping in her ear: You don’t belong here. You’re not good enough to run with these girls.

She finished in 17:34, a new outdoor personal record and an impressive time for a freshman, especially one from a smaller running program. Her time also established a new school record and qualified her for Junior Nationals. While she knew Arnold could run faster, Seago was ecstatic with the performance because she knew they could build on it.

But the achievements were no consolation to Arnold. She crumpled to the ground, devastated, inconsolable. She felt she hadn’t run to her potential and had let her coach down. Through sobs, she told Seago that the pressure was too great and that she had to stop running for a while.

At first, Seago encouraged Arnold to explore other interests outside of running. She was hopeful that Arnold’s burgeoning fascination with the arts scene in Charleston and an African drumming and dance circle in Columbia would bring some desperately needed balance to Arnold’s life. As it turned out, these other activities became distractions from running.

Something was different when Arnold returned for her sophomore year. She still had raw speed and posted some impressive times, but her heart was no longer in it. The rocket flare that had illuminated her freshman season began to fizzle out.

One of her last official race times for the College was recorded at a meet in North Carolina in March 2006. Arnold ran the 10k on the track, a grueling event in which the runners speed around the oval a dizzying 25 times. Arnold finished the race in 38 minutes, 38 seconds. Another school record. She lopped 48 seconds off the previous best mark. It was not enough, however, to change her mind about running.

The pressure to perform was fueling her obsession with weight, and her eating disorder, in turn, was triggering a host of other issues, such as sleeplessness and depression. As much joy as she derived from running, the cost to her health was too high.

“I desperately wanted to not be that way,” Arnold admits. “I thought getting away from running and getting away from competition would help.”

Arnold’s parents, Charles and Jeanne Arnold, pleaded with her to stick it out, especially since quitting the team would mean forfeiting her athletic scholarship. Her father had played college football at Kentucky. Her mom was an avid runner. They told Arnold it would be a mistake to walk away from her team.

Seago was heartbroken. The coach had invested countless hours and considerable resources in training the fickle runner, counseled and consoled her through tough losses and self-doubt. Together, they had celebrated Arnold’s achievements and excitedly imagined her future in running.

“Still to this day, I wonder what she could have done at the NCAAs had she stuck it out and been focused and not gotten distracted,” says Seago. “I’ve always wondered what Ashley would have been able to do.”

At first, the break from running proved positive. She threw herself into the arts, modern dance and choreography. She was bursting with creative energy and ideas and enjoying the freedom of not having to train, travel and compete.

She began doing more writing through internships with local art publications. It thrilled her to work on photo shoots and coordinate events. She attended dance festivals and workshops, networked with teachers, choreographers and performers. This was her future. Running was in the past.


Ashley Arnold, College of CharlestonThe subconscious mind works in mysterious ways. Arnold hadn’t run seriously in over two years. But her brain was craving this primal locomotion like a drug she once knew intimately and needed to taste again.

Arnold remained in Charleston after graduating with a degree in arts management and a minor in dance. Her love of dance kept her active and she managed to put on some weight. But she was still feeling depressed and confused. She had been so sure that getting away from running would solve her problems, but she had stopped running and the problems hadn’t gone away.

“It was like I was trying to fix something that I couldn’t fix,” Arnold says. “I started doing other things and partying and going in the opposite direction.”

To maintain some measure of control, she began making herself vomit.


One afternoon in late 2008, she was having lunch alone at an Earth Fare supermarket. She was busily typing away on her laptop, stressing over details of an upcoming dance festival she was organizing. She was feeling overwhelmed.

She popped open a Web browser and Googled “running magazines in Colorado.” One of the top results caught her eye, and she clicked on it. Trail Runner magazine, based in Carbondale, Colo., was accepting applications for writing internships. The job came with no pay, only the promise of adventure writing about the fast-growing sport of ultrarunning in scenic locations around the world.For her application, she put together a mini-magazine showcasing her accomplishments in writing, dance and running. It worked. The magazine’s editor offered her an internship the next day.

If I work for a running magazine, maybe I’ll start running again, she thought. The answer to all of this – the answer to my unhappiness – it must be running.

And just like that, “I started getting fascinated with this idea of running really far,” she says. “I guess it was so strange and crazy and difficult and weird that I was like, I want to do that.”


As its name implies, ultrarunning is running taken to an extreme.Take one of those ubiquitous 26.2 bumper stickers. Double the distance. Better yet, quadruple it. An ultramarathon is any race distance longer than the traditional marathon distance of 26.2 miles.

If running 100 miles sounds crazy, that’s because it is. Imagine the aid stations at your run-of-the-mill marathon, typically spaced at two-mile intervals, and stretch out the increments to one every 25 miles or so. Now, move the racecourse from a smooth, relatively flat city road to a steep mountain at an oxygen-starved elevation of 12,000 feet. Make sure the trail is pocked with holes and covered in tree roots and jagged rocks. Crank the air temperature way up until it’s baking hot. This is the world of the ultramarathon. It is intense, agonizing, humbling, dangerous and, to its devotees, gloriously liberating and transcendent. If you truly want to know who you are and what you’re made of, go run 100 miles. You’ll know death.

Once considered a fringe activity for running extremists, the sport has surged in popularity in recent years and is now one of the fastest-growing endurance sports on the planet. Last year, there were an estimated 1,300 ultramarathons held in the United States alone.

Ultras attract all types, forming a tight-knit community of hippie athletes, burned-out middle-agers, former marathoners or adrenaline junkies looking for new challenges, young guns, mid-packers, geezers and everything in between. Women, in particular, are reshaping the sport’s male-dominated roots.

Outdoor gear and running shoe companies such as North Face, Salomon and New Balance sponsor ultrarunners and major races. And certain cities around the country have become home to ultrarunning communities. Boulder, Colo., is one such mecca. The city is like Hollywood for runners. On any given day, you can see stars of college and professional distance running plodding along the local trails and hammering up mountain passes in the front ranges west of town.

Unlike a local 5k or a charity fun run, ultramarathons are not the sort of weekend activity one jumps into on the spur of the moment. Unless you are Ashley Arnold.

Before she left for her internship in Colorado, Arnold signed up for her first ultramarathon – a 50-kilometer race in Huntsville, Ala. She had never run anything approaching that kind of distance.

Yet, despite being totally unprepared in terms of training, gear or knowledge of the course, she won the women’s division of the race. It was sheer hell. One of the hardest things she has ever done. Afterward, her body was wrecked and she could barely move for several days. She swore she’d never run another ultra.

But pushing herself mentally and physically had lit up caverns in her mind that she hadn’t known were there. There was also something special about the atmosphere and the people at the race. The spectators, the runners, the volunteers– everyone was so laid-back and positive. It wasn’t at all like the competitions she was used to. These ultrarunners might be crazy, she thought, but they sure were cool.

Arnold had found a new tribe. They even had their own language, talking about altitude and pacers, super foods and 100-mile races with odd-sounding names in remote locations. The name of one race in particular stuck out because the runners talked about it in such reverential terms. They called it Leadville. First staged in 1983 with 45 entrants, the race takes place every year in the historic silver-mining town of Leadville, Colo. Maybe she would check it out when she moved out West. Maybe she’d run it someday.


A few weeks later, Arnold loaded up her black Subaru Outback and steered it toward the vastness of the Rocky Mountains.

She was greeted warmly by the magazine staff in Carbondale, a small town nestled at the foot of 13,000-foot Mount Sopris. She quickly made friends with the other interns, who taught her the ins and outs of ultrarunning. Later, she turned her internship into a full-time job as a writer and associate editor for the magazine.

Arnold’s job and her sponsorship deal with North Face gained her entry into and travel to many races she otherwise could not have afforded. She took full advantage, flying to exotic running locales all over Europe and South America. Month after month, she did little else but travel, run and write about running.

The training cycles that coaches had once tried so hard to force on Arnold fell by the wayside as she spun at maximum RPMs, barely recovering from one grueling 50-mile race before toeing the starting line at another. She trained and raced according to her own internal coach and spontaneous impulses. She was living in the moment. And it worked unbelievably well for a while.

She was making the podium in nearly every race she entered. She was gradually building up her weekly mileage and her courage to tackle her first 100-miler – the one she’d heard about before moving west. By summer 2010, she felt ready to test herself at Leadville.

Her mother and sister and a few running friends formed her race crew. A race crew in ultrarunning serves essentially the same purpose as a pit crew in NASCAR. When the runner rolls up, the crew springs into action, doling out food, hydration, medicine, massages, words of encouragement – whatever is necessary to get the runner refueled and back on the course in as little time as possible.

Ultras are won and lost at the aid stations. After covering 75 miles of a 100-mile race, the very innocent – and logical – decision to sit down and rest for just a few minutes can end a runner’s race. It’s that hard to get back up and run the equivalent of another marathon.

She finished third in the women’s division. Almost immediately after finishing, she vowed to come back stronger next time. In the meantime, she focused on a new goal.

Since her gymnastics days, Arnold had always dreamed of representing her country in athletic competition. While it was too late to get into the 2012 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, she still wanted to see if she could get close to the minimum qualifying time.

She was undertrained and inexperienced for the marathon distance, which, at the elite level, demands a hard-earned blend of endurance and speed. Arnold could easily handle the 26.2-mile distance, but maintaining a pace fast enough to run under the qualifying time would push the limits of her capabilities.In January 2012, she lined up at the Charleston Marathon start along East Bay Street. She went out too fast. Her lack of preparation became painfully evident as her pace slipped in the latter miles and the lactic acid building in her legs felt like cement hardening in her veins. She was cramping and couldn’t eat or drink at the aid stations. Her vision blurred.

She finally hit the wall somewhere around Park Circle in North Charleston. She had had enough. She stopped and walked. She seriously contemplated dropping out until she managed to gather herself and set off again at a plodding pace. She grinded through the remaining miles but finished way off the qualifying time she needed for the Olympic trials. In her mind, she had failed.

But to the jubilant spectators who cheered wildly for her as she broke the finish line tape in 2 hours, 57 minutes, her finish as the first-place female was something to be proud of.

Back in Colorado, Arnold returned to the trails. It’s where she feels most at home. The natural environment calms her mind. There’s a reward waiting for her at the top of a mountain. She runs up and up under her own power, her lungs searing and heaving. Just when she can’t will her body to climb any farther, the trees part and the sky opens a window on the city below. Up here, in the thin, cool air, she is happy, her soul cleansed.

Ashley Arnold, College of CharlestonShe summited peak after peak over the next several months. Her top finishes in several prestigious races thrust her onto the radar of the ultrarunning media and blogosphere.

But she could only stifle for so long the crippling self-doubt and fear that had long plagued her in competitions. They were always there below the surface, just waiting for a crack to slip through.

Nearly three years had passed since Arnold ran her first 100-mile ultra at Leadville. By summer 2013, she had amassed an impressive running résumé, sponsorships and a hefty sum of frequent flyer miles. She decided it was time to return to Leadville. She left her job at Trail Runner magazine to devote more time to writing, dancing and running the trails.

She logged upwards of 80 hard miles at elevation some weeks and jumped into one race after another, including the 148-mile Desert Rats Stage Race, where she ran out of water and became hopelessly lost in 100-degree temperatures. In all, she ran a total of 162 miles from Grand Junction, Colo., to Moab, Utah, before winning that race.

She was on a tear heading into the final weeks before the 2013 Leadville Trail 100. She was as strong and fit as she had ever been. But no matter how hard or far she ran, Arnold could not free herself from the death grip of depression and loneliness. She was secretly gagging herself almost every day.


Ashley Arnold, College of CharlestonThe self-talk that sloshes around the mind of some ultrarunners during a 100-mile race sounds schizophrenic. The chatter never ceases. Is that a rock in my shoe? Am I eating enough? What’s that pain in my right calf? Will they have the peanut butter I like at the next aid station? Why am I doing this? Is that a blister forming on my pinkie toe? What day is it? Am I still awake? Are those footsteps? Is someone about to pass me?

The pain becomes so great and overwhelming it morphs into another state of consciousness.

“Once you’ve been running for a while there’s this total exhaustion and this other place you go to,” Arnold says. “I don’t know if I’m masochistic. I’m totally obsessed with the idea of altering your consciousness through movement – whether that’s running or dance.”

When she is hurting and wants to quit, she tries to focus on a fixed point in the distance. If she can get to the next aid station, she’ll quit there. But her crew will be cheering for her, egging her on. Their energy and love give her a boost and she sets off again. As their whoops and hollers fade in the distance, the suffering resumes.


Leadville 2013 was the first time her boyfriend, Austin Lottimer, crewed for Arnold. “It’s a difficult thing to crew somebody you love,” says Lottimer, “because you are watching them hurt themselves. You have to tell them to keep going, but you don’t really want to. You want to tell them to just chill and that it’s not that big of a deal, but you have to be like, ‘go, go, go, you got this, you’re good. It doesn’t hurt.’”

Of course, it does hurt.

Arnold’s ankle is throbbing. She injured it in a previous race. She most likely broke a bone, but because she had no insurance at the time, she didn’t have it treated and it didn’t heal properly.

One of her crewmembers slathers comfrey oil on the ankle to help reduce inflammation. The pain causes her to run tentatively on the downhill rocky section of Leadville. She has always run well uphill and has always struggled going down. The voices are there. The ones that got in her head after those nasty falls in gymnastics: Slow down or you’ll fall. She sips from her handheld water bottle and tries to swallow the fear.

Sometimes, very rarely, all of the voices and noise and all of the second-guessing and minute-to-minute fluctuations that make running 100 miles so hard just disappear. Some athletes call it flow.

Arnold calls it transcendence. She peaks at just the right time, has just the right crew, the right course, the right weather, the right competition. She doesn’t think about her struggles with eating or her work or her relationships or any of that stuff. She just runs. There are moments when it feels like flying.

Out of the hundreds of races she has run, this one race, this big important race called Leadville, feels totally different. She is focused, in the moment. There is no next mile, no next aid station. There is only right now.



Photo by Glen Delman

There’s a picture of Arnold winning the Leadville Trail 100 in 2013. It’s about 1 a.m., still dark. The white finish line tape wraps her chest. Her arms are extended out and slightly upward in celebration. Her right lower leg is smeared in mud. The beam from her headlamp throws out shards of light. She wears white earbuds, the cords framing the lower half of her face. If her music is still playing, she doesn’t realize it. Her eyes are closed, as if she is still fighting off sleep after having been awake and running virtually nonstop for an entire day and night. Her finishing time – 20 hours, 25 minutes and 43 seconds – is nearly three hours faster than her time at Leadville three years earlier.

The expression on her face is a mixture of complete exhaustion and euphoric relief. She knows she’s won. The sense of overwhelming joy washing over her at that moment is the greatest feeling in the world. Ashley Arnold can stop running now.

There will be a period of calm during which she won’t feel compelled to push herself to her physical and emotional limits. The sense of accomplishment, however fleeting, will act as a force field, protecting her, for now, from the doubt and insecurity that are waiting to pounce on her ego. They will eventually penetrate the swelling bubble of victory.

But right now, she will savor this hard-earned bliss. In this perfect moment, she tastes satisfaction so completely. It has not yet been subjected to her scathing self-critique. That will come later when she looks back at this moment – this monumental achievement – and tells herself that it is not enough, that she can do better, run harder, endure more pain.

“I know I can break 20 hours,” she says.

Winning Leadville catapulted Arnold to the upper echelon of ultrarunning. She was in high demand. Running and fitness magazines wrote articles and posed her for photo spreads. She was the darling of her sport. Her humble, aw shucks indifference toward her unbelievable feats only seemed to generate more interest. The articles and profiles gushed over her accomplishments and abilities, her preference for avocados and bacon during ultras, and her ritual of holding a small rock in her hand when competing in trail races.But she was struggling inside. Life got crazy fast. At the beginning of 2014, Arnold and Lottimer decided to move from Carbondale to Boulder to get their new film company off the ground. The move and the stress of trying to build a new venture sent Arnold into a tailspin. Everything seemed fuzzy and out of focus. Maybe another race would quell the turmoil inside her.

If the Leadville win was the high point of her career, the low point came in August 2014, when she and Lottimer traveled to France for the start of the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc. It is widely considered to be one of the world’s premier ultramarathons. Runners cover 103 miles as they scale the Alps through France, Italy and Switzerland.

Deep down, she knew before she even started the race that she wouldn’t finish. Her stubbornness, however, wouldn’t let her admit it.

“I kept thinking, I’ll be fine, I’ll be fine,” she says. “I just progressively and quickly started feeling bad like I had already run a hundred miles. My legs hurt. I kept falling. I continually kept getting slower and slower. I couldn’t see straight, and I was already at that hallucination stage and it was way too early for that.”

Lottimer, her lone crewmember and usually a strategic tactician, was himself in shambles. He was sputtering around foreign towns in the middle of the night in a rental car on unfamiliar roads with unfamiliar signs, wrestling with maps written in languages he couldn’t read. All he could think about was how much Arnold needed him to be ready with the proper gear and food and treatments when she arrived at each aid station. If she failed, it would be on him. In those frustrating moments, the whole thing – the whole ultrarunning obsession that was eating away at the woman he loved – made absolutely no sense. He realized then that these races and the unhealthy way Arnold was attacking them, were insane and totally unsustainable.

“What the hell is the point of this?” he asked himself as he sped through the night.

About 47 miles into the race, Arnold reached the same conclusion. She could not walk another step. It was about 5 a.m. near the Italian town of Courmayeur when she finally called it quits. More than two-thirds of that year’s field would drop out of the race at some point.

The sun was about to come up, which was a bummer because she had run all through the night. If she could have survived a little longer, until the sun broke over the mountains, the inspiring views might have lifted her spirits just enough to keep her going. Instead, the breathtaking beauty was just a sad reminder of what might have been.

She had bottomed out. And she stopped running. Again.


Ashley Arnold, College of CharlestonIt’s midday, sunny and clear. Spring has arrived. From the top of Mount Sanitas in the foothills of the Rockies, a peak in Boulder’s famed Flatirons, the city spills out below in a grid of Lego-like blocks and swaths of juniper and ponderosa pines. Prairie dogs peer out from craters in the dirt. Students from the local university trudge down the sidewalks with backpacks slung over their shoulders. It seems like every other car on the road is a Subaru.

Somewhere down there, on the outskirts of downtown Boulder, is an old warehouse Arnold calls “the hive.” True to its name, it’s been a hub of activity and collaboration since Arnold and Lottimer began renting it last year. The space serves as their work studio. Last year, they – along with Lottimer’s brother – formed a video production company called Trine Films. They aspire to make feature films, but to pay the bills they’ve been taking on clients for documentary work.

The hive is a beautiful wreck – gritty, interesting and eclectic. The shower is located outside behind a lattice of thin boards. Arnold’s black cat Fugazi saunters past. There is stuff stacked and stored everywhere – random bicycle and skateboard parts, storage bins full of clothes, old punching bags, beat-up guitars and enough video and audio equipment to fill a Radio Shack. Somewhere in all of this stuff are some of Arnold’s running awards, which, for most ultramarathons, are big Texas-size belt buckles. She has no idea where her belt buckles from Leadville are.

Arnold wanders into the backyard behind the studio, kicks off her running shoes and climbs onto a trampoline. She bounces slowly at first to find her rhythm, storing energy in her legs. Then she uncoils like a pinched spring set free, soaring 10 feet in the air, her lean legs kicking out into a split at the height of her rise. The muscle memory kicks in, and she is transported back to those childhood performances on the gymnastics mat. She hated being scrutinized. What did those judges know anyway? Her display here is free and natural. It’s play. No judges, no scores, no clocks, no aid stations, no expectations, no labels, no fear – just an impromptu celebration of self-expression and movement.

She doesn’t know when or if she will return to competitive running. Maybe she’ll get back into road races. Maybe she’ll do shorter distances again. Maybe she won’t. This crossroads reminds her of when she quit running in college. She didn’t know what was ahead then. But things worked out.

Whatever happens, this period of reflection has been good for her. She feels healthier. She’s eating normally for the first time in years. Her mind is starting to clear.

“I had to quit running to really see,” she says. “I had to deal with the dark, uncomfortable places I never wanted to go and just be with them. It is working. I was able to separate from running. Find me again. Find me for the first time maybe.”

If she goes back to running, things could get crazy again.

“I’m a little bit worried about that,” she says. “I feel like I’m still trying to figure out my intention with running and not to come at it from an unhealthy place. It’s like the addict mentality of going back to something.”

Arnold rockets skyward, rising higher and higher above the trampoline. Her short blond hair billows like a small cape with each jump. Looking up at her from below, her frame silhouetted against the blue sky and the mountains where she once ran, it looks like she is flying.

Postscript: After a long hiatus from running, Arnold laced up her trail shoes again in May 2015. She signed on with a coach and plans to compete at the U.S. Mountain Running Championships to be held in Bend, Ore., in July 2015.