“There are beliefs that a runner should look a certain way or run at a certain pace, but that’s not what running is about. I am so unafraid to go out in public and just be myself because I am running for me. I’m not running for you, I’m not running for the guy across the street – I don’t actually care what you think.” -Mirna Valerio
Mirna Valerio, also known as “the Mirnavator,” is many things…. a Spanish teacher, a diversity practitioner, a classically trained singer, a three-instrument musician, a cross-country coach, a Prep for Prep alumna, a wife, a mother, and an ultra runner. But, in everything she does, she is a strong woman full of unbreakable positivity. During recent Middle and Upper School Assemblies, she spread this positivity to our students when she shared her journey as a “fat” runner and her passion for inclusivity in sports.
Ms. Valerio began her presentation with a flashback to the year 2008. She had a 5-year-old son and was working full-time during the week at a boarding school in New Jersey. Every weekend, with no time to unwind, she would drive to Maryland to tutor and teach music lessons, among other odd jobs. Her lifestyle was fast-paced with little time to take care of herself, both physically and mentally. One Sunday afternoon, while driving back to New Jersey after her weekend in Maryland, Ms. Valerio began having intense chest pains on her left side. Scared, she pulled over to calm down before finishing the drive. When she arrived in New Jersey, her friend drove her to the hospital for an evaluation. What Ms. Valerio thought was a heart attack turned out to be a severe panic attack. “Looking back now, it makes sense. I was working so many jobs and my husband had a very demanding job. We were living a very stressful lifestyle,” Ms. Valerio recalls.
This heart attack scare, followed by some tough love from a cardiologist, inspired her to make a lifestyle change. Ms. Valerio dusted off the treadmill in her home and ran her very first mile. But it didn’t come easily. “I was disappointed, but I felt encouraged to keep going, to get better,” she shared with the students. “Each day I got a little bit faster.”
Though her focus has always been on fitness, not weight loss, Ms. Valerio lost 70 pounds in those first three years. She began running 5Ks and other races and fell in love with the training process. Her experience inspired her to start a blog about being different from the “typical” female runner called Fat Girl Running. “I’ve always been a big girl. I know the word ‘fat’ sounds negative to some people, but I’m fat!” she matter-of-factly explained to the group.
As she made her way in the running world, Ms. Valerio encountered many people who discounted her abilities based on her size. “Aren’t you a little big to be a runner?” “You should start going to the gym,” they would say. But she didn’t let their ignorance stop her. Ms. Valerio began entering tougher races, like marathons and 50Ks, and her blog began gathering attention from popular media outlets like Buzzfeed, CNN, and The Wall Street Journal. Fast forward to today and her story has been featured in Runner’s World, People, Elle Magazine, and NBC Nightly News, to name a few, and she is an ambassador for the major brands Merrell, Skirt Sports, and Swiftwick. “I want to show people it’s possible,” Ms. Valerio told the students. “I may not be fast – I may be the last person to finish – but, for me, that doesn’t matter.”
To conclude her presentation, the runner shared a video produced by REI about her experience completing a 50k trail run. About halfway through the race featured in this short film, Ms. Valerio looked at her phone, which she uses during runs to document her progress for her blog and social media accounts, and noticed she had received an unexpected email. When she opened it – “Which I shouldn’t have done during the race,” she admitted – she found a hateful note written by a stranger who had seen her story on TV. “You’re not a real runner,” he said. “You are a fraud.” He berated her appearance, her speed, and her accomplishments, concluding with the idea that big people can’t be runners.
Ms. Valerio read all of this while in the middle of running this challenging 50k race, one of many she would complete that year. Despite the hurt and discouragement she felt, she decided to focus on the good and finish the run. “I know the truth,” she said. “I am a runner.” Ms. Valerio explained to the students that this angry person was trapped in his thinking that a runner has to look a certain way. “Fat-shaming is real,” she said as she encouraged the students not to let their size or appearance hold them back from achieving their goals. “I love my body most when I’m running. I feel really strong and really powerful, and in that way I feel beautiful,” she proudly stated. “I may be a big girl, but I still get out there and run!”
In the end, that nasty email was a gift. Ms. Valerio’s REI video went viral and has provided her with many opportunities to share her message of inclusivity in sports, from speaking engagements to her best-selling memoir, “A Beautiful Work in Progress.” Her story of perseverance and self-love truly inspired the entire group of Chapin students and professional community members gathered before her and encouraged them to never let narrow-minded views hold them back from achieving their dreams.
*Follow Mirna’s running journey on Instagram @themirnavator.