“I’m good in my big body.”
That’s what Mirna Valerio—ultramarathon runner, author, and educator—wants her naysayers to know. In 2017, her story went viral and Valerio was subjected to both praise and public scrutiny. Despite racism and body-shaming, she continues challenging stereotypes and inspiring others to do the same.
“I think that people are really having trouble grappling with the idea that fit comes in many forms and that people can still participate in athletics no matter what kind of body they have,” she says. “I want to continue sticking my big ass into places where people think I don’t belong. That has been the nature of my life—I’m going to do it and I’m going to do it proudly.”
A LIFELONG LOVE
When Valerio was eight years old, she watched the Brooklyn skyline shrink into the distance from a bus window. It was the beginning of lifelong appreciation for the outdoors. Concrete edifices and blaring horns made way to the lush Catskill mountains, where she spent the next month at sleepaway camp.
“I fell in love with swimming in the lake, and hiking, and just being outside all day—even when it was raining,” Valerio says. “I remember the sights and the smells … all that is so firmly etched in my memory.”
It was a time of discovery—of her own strength and athleticism, and of the intrinsic peace she found through nature.
Valerio was a member of the field hockey and lacrosse teams during high school, but, as a freshman, she found a new type of comfort in running. “It was different than playing team sports. I’m an introvert by nature, so it was a way for me to start the day on my own using my body and just get my blood flowing. It just made me feel really good.”
After college, Valerio experienced several stressors in her career and personal life. She stopped exercising and gained weight.
“We’re always working. Everything’s about work, everything’s about making money, so we don’t create enough time and space in our lives to be outdoors and to be away from the daily grind,” she says.
When Valerio decided to take up running again years later, she had a new challenge to contend with.
CONTENDING WITH CRITICS
“I’ve never had any body image issues … that wasn’t a thing in my family culture or schools that I went to,” she says. “I didn’t start getting comments until I would show up at these races and say things like, ‘I don’t believe you’re still out here,’ ‘You’re kind of heavy to be running, you should walk,’ or ‘You’re going to ruin your knees.’”
When Fat Girl Running started gaining attention, those voices were amplified. Valerio started the blog in 2012 while training for her first marathon as a way to share stories with her friends and family. Her following grew, and so did the negative comments.
“I think there’s some inherent racism and sexism going on, especially with body image and body shape. They don’t like to see me on a cover of a magazine because I do not represent what fitness means to them.”
But Valerio says she isn’t going anywhere—an unwavering spirit that solidified her place as a 2018 Adventurer of the Year.
“Mirna is the definition of a trailblazer. She is redefining what a runner looks like and she's doing it with style, grace and a huge smile,” says visual storyteller Jenny Nichols, who nominated her for the distinction. “The press that Mirna has been getting lately is placing her squarely in the public eye and providing the public with a positive role model. She gets messages from people who do not fit the ‘runner’ mold to say that she is the reason they get outside, that now they know that they too can engage in the running community.”
Nichols and Sarah Menzies were so inspired by Mirna's story, they made a film about her. Funded by REI, The Mirnavator is playing online and being shown at film festivals.
“Maybe some people are tired of seeing me in the media, but if what I’m doing and my body is changing the way one person thinks about what bodies can look like and what bodies can do, then I’m going to keep doing it—I don’t care what you think,” she says.
She has since built a large, supportive community and is dedicated to creating positive messaging around health and fitness.
“There’s all of this self-deprecating chatter, this fearful chatter about engaging in athletic activity because of all these stories that they tell themselves, that people have told them—all the narratives they have in their minds about who is an athlete and who isn’t,” she says.
Valerio believes seeing is believing and there needs to be a cultural shift. She thinks if there are more diverse representations of fitness in the media, it would reduce people’s self-doubts.
“We are much more than our bodies. Whether it’s body image, our choices to be moms or not, our career choices—we are more than our bodies,” Valerio says. “We’re so powerful beyond our wildest dreams.”
Looking back on her childhood, Valerio, a teacher for 18 years, also stresses the importance of providing youth with opportunities to get outside—a space where they can discover their own physical and mental strength. She is proponent of investing in green spaces in cities and supporting more private-public funding for school field trips.
“It’s not just a necessity for urban kids, but it’s a necessity for kids all over no matter what their level of privilege is and no matter what their level of exposure and access is,” she says. “Whenever I think of the outdoors, it’s not only a place to be myself and live in my introverted ways, but I also look at the outdoors as a place of bonding with other people and having these really deep, profound experiences with nature that you can’t have looking out a window.”
Valerio plans to continue advocating for body positivity, outdoor education, and personal health. She’s currently training for her first international marathon in the Azores Islands and has several others planned in the coming year.
“I know there’s going to be ups and downs,” Valerio says. “That’s the beautiful challenge of running long races. I think they really prepare you for difficult things in life.”