From its origins as a form of survival, fleeing predators in the early days of human existence, to its modern iterations as a competitive sport celebrating human prowess, running has undergone quite the reinvention. For Mirna Valerio, it just feels like freedom...
Valerio is many things: an activist, an educator in diversity and inclusion, an advocate for celebrating non-traditional bodies in outdoor spaces, a mother, a pioneer, a runner, an author. However, we are particularly interested in her journey as an ultramarathon athlete turned pro runner, who’s been making a lot of noise about being the antithesis of what a runner is typically portrayed as, or should be.
A straight shooter with an infectious laugh, it's clear that Valerio has mastered fortitude down to a science. Since she first began documenting her journey on her blog Fat Girl Running, Valerio has been featured in the likes of Runner's World, National Geographic, and CNN, appeared in a film for REI, and received sponsorships and partnerships from leading outdoor and fitness brands like Lululemon, Merril, and Hylands Powered.
But despite achieving the type of industry success most athletes would kill for, she still gets questioned on her legitimacy as a pro runner because of her body type. This type of gatekeeping and the prevailing mental picture of the ideal (read: skinny) athlete is rampant in the fields of sports and the outdoors, which is exactly what Valerio is trying to combat. And as any long-distance runner knows, the mental barriers are just as difficult to overcome as the physical ones.
We recently hopped on Zoom to speak with Valerio about how she first fell in love with nature and running, the experience of switching careers later in life, and the importance of amplifying diverse Black voices and bodies in outdoor spaces. Read on for the full interview.
Let’s take it back to when you were a kid. How did you get into sports?
I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, in a time when people just kind of let their kids roam freely. [My family lived] in a building with a bunch of cousins and aunts and uncles. After school, we'd be outside: playing tag or Mother May I? In the summers, we spent time hopping from city park to city park, exploring all the pools in Brooklyn, and hopping from free lunch at the public schools to another free lunch. It was just such a joyous existence. Even though we were poor -- working-class -- we were able to spend a lot of time outside. My love of the outdoors comes from that time in my childhood.
When I was in elementary school, I had an opportunity to go to sleep-away camp in the Catskills in upstate New York. That was my first outdoor experience that wasn't urban. And it was phenomenal. I remember the very first night they gave us a choice of the activities we could do. I was interested in the thing that I knew nothing about, which was nighttime stream hiking. I had no clue what it meant, what the ramifications would be. They told us to put on our hiking clothes and, you know, my hiking clothes consisted of early Timberland boots and cotton everything.
It was the first time I had walked in the water on purpose that wasn't, like, the water from a fire hydrant. And I'm slipping on rocks, then it started to get dark quickly, and that's when it became scary. All we could hear were our footsteps. It was the coolest thing ever. I felt safe but scared at the same time. That was my initial experience with the outdoors, and I was sold. That was it. That's one of the cementing and formative things of my childhood.
"I am still passionate about education. I will always be an educator."
You had an 18-year career in education before pursuing running full time. What was it like to switch paths later in life?
I will say, I wish it were the norm. I wish people could pivot and do the things they are passionate about because I am still passionate about education. I will always be an educator. In fact, I’m probably more of an educator now than I ever was. It's just a different platform now.
As a boarding school faculty member, my time was spoken for—I was a full-time teacher, a director of equity and inclusion, the choir director, and the cross country coach. And on the weekends, I was juggling all of that while doing all of the appearances and races, trying to be a good mom—and, you know, honestly, I didn't do a great job. Now I have this opportunity to be with my kid all the time.
How does your background as an educator tie into being an athlete now?
I'm a different kind of athlete than most people are used to. Part of what I do by default on my social media is show that I'm a living example of the different types of bodies and people that are athletes. I’m high-performing in terms of all the things that I can do while not winning awards nor being super fast.
What do you love about running?
Everything, even the parts that hurt. I love that I'm able to explore on the road or, preferably, on a trail. It's just addictive when you're in a zone—when you get to that state of flow.
What was the most challenging race you've ever done, and what did you take away from it?
The TransRockies Run that happens in Colorado. It's grueling—120 miles over six days. You're at an altitude starting at about 8,000 ft. above sea level, and you go up to 12,500 ft. Over the six days, you're typically over 9,000 feet the entire time. The first time I did it was in 2017. I came from Georgia, and although we have mountains where I train and climb, I was not at that kind of altitude, and I suffered greatly.
I learned that sometimes you're not successful at something, but what that does is it gives you an opportunity to get better and work on whatever you need to work on. And that's what I did; I used my coach for my second go at it. He gave me very specific training, and then because of that, and because of my different approach, I was able to finish the third time around.
Do you have any advice for people considering becoming a sponsored athlete later in their lives?
I don't think there is a precedent for how people like me can make money. If you look at Latoya Snell, we're both Black women, who are fat, who are trail runners or road runners. We're cyclists. We have, somehow, attracted many sponsors and many other sorts of collaborative partnerships because we're Black. Black is hot right now. I don’t say that in jest but because it's true. After the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Brianna Taylor, and George Floyd, there have been so many companies after us specifically. The Black athlete. The fat athlete. Black women athletes. So, we're in a unique position.
I've been sponsored since 2015. When my Runner's World article and (2015) NBC nightly news spot came out, it was a pretty short learning curve. You know, I never expected to be a sponsored athlete or to be able to make a living off of [running]. You have to have a presence, and you have to be offering something new to people. Being a fat trail runner was mind-blowing to a lot of people; it is still mind-blowing to people that all types of people, all types of bodies, exercise and are out doing fitness. We've always been forgotten intentionally. It might be in two weeks that Black is not going to be in anymore because what society has deemed as normative is back in. So, I'm trying to maintain a very significant presence, because I think it's important. My story is just one of many. It's important to show people that there is a wide array of people and bodies that inhabit outdoor spaces: running spaces, hiking spaces -- to show they belong out there too.
If you have something different to offer, then go for it. The easiest thing to do is to tag companies on your social media.
How has being a Black, curvy woman helped or hindered your journey in becoming a successful athlete?
In terms of my body shape and size and my race being a factor in my success—definitely! That's what my whole platform is built on. Because again, it's mind-blowing for a lot of people. They can't believe that somebody who looks like me can do the things I do. The hindrance is the backlash that I get from people who cannot fathom someone like me doing something that the stereotypical image that's been pushed in our faces forever should be doing.
"There have been strides made in the running community and outdoor community, but it’s just not enough."
It's important to see people like me doing these things because it makes it possible for people in my community to envision themselves doing the same thing. I don't get as many negative comments as I have in the past, but people talk about me and sometimes very derogatorily. As strong as I try to be, it's difficult not to look at those things and not internalize them. But think about somebody who's not me who hasn't cultivated that skill yet. It can be traumatizing, and that person might think, maybe I shouldn't be out there. Maybe I won't go on a hike because somebody can say something negative on Instagram or Facebook.
I've been known to say, "I'll stick my Black beep where people think I don't belong." And so I'm going to keep doing that.
For those of us who are Black and in the outdoors, the 2020 murder of Ahmaud Arbery especially hit home. Being a runner, did this moment increase a sense of urgency to get the message out of diversity and inclusion within outdoor spaces?
I think the need for more messaging around inclusion in the outdoor space was already building. However, Ahmaud Arbery's death was a moment of huge catharsis when people saw what was happening to him in real-time. What it did was legitimize the experience of Black runners and Black people outdoors. Unfortunately, that's the way it works: when white people finally see something or experience it, then it becomes real. It's something that we all have to confront.
There have been strides made in the running community and outdoor community, but it’s just not enough.
Hike, Camp, Climb (a play on F*ck, Marry, Kill). Simone Biles, Serena Williams, and Jackie Joyner-Kersee?
I want to climb with Simone Biles because I know she has (and will provide) incredible strength and precision to the situation. Camping: I would love to have Serena by my side because I want to talk to her about her birthing experience - we experienced a similar experience. I gave birth to my son at a very famous hospital and I know as an educated Black woman that I did not have a good experience, and I'm 100% sure it had to do with me being Black. [At camp] I'll set the fire. I'll set up the tent. All she has to do is rest. I would love to have that sort of relaxed time with her. And then Jackie Joyner-Kerses… I'd love to hike with her and hear about her Olympic story. She's a runner, so our hike would eventually turn into a trail run. You know what they say: the dirty little secret of trail running is hiking.