The Ultrarunner Look

Mirna Valerio couldn’t care less what anyone thinks a runner’s body “should” look like. She’s far more interested in using hers to grind through miles, launch across finish lines, and bust through stereotypes.

In the world of long distance running, Mirna Valerio is an unlikely candidate for superstardom. She isn’t terribly fast and hasn’t notched any records of note. But she is an ultrarunner through and through. The Georgia-based athlete — “The Mirnavator” to her rapidly expanding fanbase — maintains a blog called Fat Girl Running and has built her reputation on an enthusiastic wave of unstoppable body positivity. “I’m just like, ‘Here’s my body. I’m going to do what I like to do, which is running outside in the woods,’” she says. “And I don’t give a fuck what anybody else has to say about it.”

Photo courtesy of Mirna Valerio

Valerio grew up in Brooklyn, an ‘80s latchkey kid who spent summers kicking around outside with her little sister and cousins, exploring the city’s parks and pools while her parents worked. She wasn’t particularly athletic, although that changed during her teenage years in boarding school. Valerio wanted to squeeze the most out of the experience, so she and a friend scouted out the various sports teams. They decided against soccer after learning that the squad was required to run 10 laps to begin their practice—but saw something promising across the way. “We peeked over at the field hockey field and they were hanging out, just chilling with their sticks,” she recalls.

Thinking they’d discovered a relatively mellow option, the girls wandered over, were offered mouth guards and sticks, and to their surprise were put to work running a few laps that led to a timed mile, part of what became a grueling two-and-a-half hour practice. “It was my first time ever doing a continuous mile like that,” she says. “And it was really difficult. I mean, we were doing sprints, we were doing suicides, all in the first day.”

“That one day planted a seed for the rest of my life.”

But something clicked. Valerio found her teammates encouraging and decided to stick with field hockey (and eventually picked up lacrosse, as well). She began a morning running routine to build stamina. “That’s how I started running and that’s how I became an athlete,” she explains. “That one day planted a seed, I guess, for the rest of my life.”

Positive reinforcement from those high school teammates spilled over into her college years, where Valerio maintained her fitness through running, cycling, and swimming. “I did whatever just to keep my body moving. I knew that ultimately, that was healthy for me,” she says. “It was never about weight or anything like that.” She joined the corporate world for a brief while, began running road races, and maintained an active lifestyle while pregnant with her son Rashid, who was born in 2003.

“You need to lose weight or you’re going to die.”

Things changed when Valerio moved to Maryland for a high-stress job. Her activity level plummeted, her weight rose, and a serious health scare soon followed. “I was in the cardiologist’s office, and he’s like, ‘You need to lose weight or you’re going to die,’” she says. “And that was the moment I said, ‘I get it, I’m not taking care of myself.’ I don’t have a problem with my body aesthetically, but if it’s not working health-wise, then I need to do something about it. And that’s when I started running again.”

Uninspired by the treadmill, Valerio needed a goal to help ease herself back into a routine, so she signed up for a 5K. After four years away from the sport, she clocked in around 47 minutes, a “horrible” time compared to her previous best. After committing to improvement, she ramped up her training for a 10K, then set her sights on a half-marathon. Her accomplishments piled up in short time, and a colleague suggested she consider a full marathon. Valerio initially bristled, but after some convincing signed up for the Marine Corps Marathon. “That was the gateway drug,” she says.

Anyone who’s raced knows the subsequent high and certain amnesia that occurs at some point after crossing the finish line. That wasn’t so bad. I could do that again. Enamored with the training process and interested in continued self-improvement, Valerio felt she could best her time after that initial marathon, so she signed up for one on a trail. Afterward, race director Rick McNulty nudged her toward training for a 50K. She has since gone on to complete many more, along with a 100K.

McNulty’s support is important. Valerio cites Rick and his wife Jen, alongside runners like Scott Jurek and Anita Ortiz, as key role models. Her first trail race was a 10-miler in their NJ Trail Series during a time when she was already pushing her limits training for her first half-marathon. She arrived sleepless and ran on an empty stomach; after five miles, she called it quits. McNulty encouraged her to make another loop, promising to wait for as long as it took her to finish. She declined but made note of his kindness and of the special community he and Jen created with the series. Over the span of eight years, she continued to run their races, but also found a lasting friendship.

“I said, this is not a weight loss blog, because there are tons of those out there. This is about running in my big body.”

While Rick McNulty clearly appreciates the efforts of everyone who challenges themselves on one of his courses, he also acknowledges that Valerio brings a unique presence and message to the running community. “The whole misconception that if you go out and do this or that, you’re going to have this different body style—I’ve definitely become much more aware that for some people, it just doesn’t happen,” he says. “I think that she is taking the notoriety that she has achieved over the last few years and trying to make it [easier] for predominantly women, and people of all sizes, to feel more comfortable in their own skin.”

The acclaim McNulty mentions is the result of Valerio’s hard work, vibrant personality, online presence, and a bit of good luck. While she was training for her first Marine Corps Marathon, she began posting on Facebook to satisfy friends’ curiosity. After one suggested she start blogging about her experiences, Valerio set up Fat Girl Running. Her first post was in August 2011. “I said, this is not a weight loss blog, because there are tons of those out there,” she explains. “This is about running in my big body.”

In March 2014, she channeled a mix of back pain and anger into an emotional post that struck a nerve. “I went off! I was like, you know, when you say to a fat person who’s running, ‘Maybe you should be at the gym or something instead of running and ruining your knees,’ I have something to say about that!” She also laid into doctors who only saw her weight, instead of her actual fitness level. A barrage of positive comments ensued, and the piece made its way around running circles. The attention opened doors. Not only was Valerio offered a writing gig with trailandultrarunning.com, but journalists wanted to write about her. First came the Wall Street Journal, then Runner’s World, which featured a lengthy profile in the August 2015 issue.

Valerio was proof that you didn’t need to be thin to run, that fitness wasn’t dictated by dress size.

“That July is when everything changed,” she says. Not only was she suddenly fielding more media requests (including one from NBC Nightly News, which featured her in a segment), but more importantly, her story resonated with people who felt left out of traditional running narratives. To them, Valerio was proof that you didn’t need to be thin to run, that fitness wasn’t dictated by dress size.

Mirna Valerio and Nicole DeBoom | Photo: Kim Cook

Each media hit expanded her social media following, and several brand ambassadorships followed. Nicole DeBoom, Founder and CEO of Skirt Sports, reached out to Valerio after noticing the press flurry. The brand was expanding their ambassador program and wanted to move past traditional sports marketing and its assumptions of thinness into a more organic model that focused on the reflections of everyday women who were out there getting it done. Valerio and her message of body positivity fit the bill.

“Mirna is like an epicenter of community, warmth, and permission. It’s like she just, by being who she is, helps give people permission to be who they are,” says DeBoom. “Clearly, she’s not your standard runner type, or standard athlete-looking body. What she does is open doors for people. The whole ‘If she can do it, I can do it,’ is a really positive thing. Instead of being frustrated with that perception of her, she embraces it, and that’s the key right there for allowing other people to open their own doors to setting greater goals in their lives.”

“Bodies and genetics, you sometimes can’t control. But what you can control is what you do in that body.”

Merrell also drafted Valerio for their ambassador program. Sue Harvey-Brown, the brand’s director of sports and marketing, calls her a “daily motivator,” someone who is able to inspire others by the simple act of sharing both her triumphs and her struggles. “Mirna comes around and she’s so different than what you would expect an outdoor athlete and enthusiast to be. She’s a strong female, she’s African American, and she’ll say it—she’s overweight,” she says. “And what I love is that people are now realizing that bodies and genetics, you sometimes can’t control. But what you can control is what you do in that body. And that’s what she embraces: This is the body that God gave me, and I’m going to use it to the best of my ability, and I’m going to let it do things that some people think I can’t do.”

For her part, Valerio is up to the task. “I’m a teacher… I’m a mom—my job is to be a role model for my son,” she says. “I do have some days of, I don’t want to say ‘body hatred,’ but some days of body dissatisfaction. But in the long run, I know that what I’m doing is a great thing. It’s great for my body, it’s great for other people to see me being successful… it’s just an honor for me to have that sort of responsibility.”

Photo: Kim Cook

After leaving so many marks in the Mid-Atlantic dirt, Valerio now lives in tiny Rabun Gap, Georgia. She fell in love with the mountains, what she calls the “mysterious, cool atmosphere,” and the people, quickly joining a trail running community not dissimilar to the one she left behind up north, a consolation prize of sorts to her lifelong dream of living in the Adirondacks.

She accepted a job at the private Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School where she wears many hats, including one she created herself: Director of Equity and Inclusion. “I’d been doing the work, anyways, for the past eleven years without being paid for it, so I said, ‘Well, if you want to keep me here in the South, in the mountains where there are no black people, then I need to do this work!’”

“I think people know deep down that the more inclusive you are, the better the world is.”

Challenging exclusivity is par for the course for Valerio, whether she’s running or not. “I think people know deep down that the more inclusive you are, the better the world is in whatever respect you’re talking about,” she says. “I think people are finally realizing that this is important for our world, and it’s important for us in terms of human progress.”

Earlier this year, Valerio was featured in an episode of The CW’s digital series The Challenge Within, which documents the stories of a handful of Tough Mudder competitors. Her star is set to rise even further in October with the release of her first book, A Beautiful Work in Progress. After being courted by not one, but two literary agents, she spent last summer hunched over her keyboard. While it took her away from the trails for a while, she embraced the opportunity to share her story. “I’m not winning anything, I’m not podiuming, even in my age group… very frequently I come in close to last! But that’s not what this is about. This is about the journey, and the training, and what I’ve learned from each of the things that I do,” she says. “What I really wanted to achieve was to show that I could have these experiences, too, in my body—I didn’t have to be this super fit-looking, athletic-looking person.”

“I have become a better human being.”

In addition to the upcoming book release, Valerio has a full slate of races scheduled over the coming months. Her three biggest goals are to attempt her second 100K or her first 100-miler, compete in the World’s Toughest Mudder, and complete the TransRockies Run, which she’s been training for since January. On top of that, she rattles off a slew of other races: the Black Mountain Monster, the North Face Endurance Challenge marathon, the Catamount Ultra, and the Finger Lakes Fifties 50K. No doubt that as she continues to rack up miles, there will be more interviews, more articles, and more people finding hope in her message.

There will always be those who see only her weight and not her accomplishments, but the haters are no match against The Mirnavator and her unstoppable spirit. “I’ve gleaned a tremendous amount of self-learning from the experience. I have proven to myself what my body and mind are able to do despite perceived odds. I have done a fairly difficult thing that many aren’t willing to try. I have improved my physical, spiritual, and mental health by engaging in the activity and all it entails. And I have become a better human being,” she says. “That, to me, is what success is.”