Ultramarathon runner Mirna Valerio understands that she is seen ― that someone may identify her as their source of inspiration to do things they never thought possible. Valerio is aware that, for black people, seeing a black woman knock out a six-day marathon in the Colorado Rockies may push them to do something within their own lives, shattering the internalized false narrative that there are certain things black people just don’t do.
Optimism and ambition pours over into every aspect of Valerio’s life and splashes onto the people around her as well. After a simple invitation to the gym, Valerio’s mother started working out and deconstructing the idea that the gym was no place for a black woman in her 60s. Valerio realized that others in her circle have begun to see health and fitness as a requisite for living a long life. For black folks, the significance in doing what you can for your health, in spite of the stress of racism and other socioeconomic factors, matters. A lot. Valerio never forgets that.
Her grasp of the complex relationship black people have with fitness and her own existence as a plus-size black woman who has completed 12 ultramarathons and 10 marathons — along with her bubbly personality and sharp sense of humor — made her so much fun to interview for Women’s History Month. Below is our conversation on uplifting community, the value of discipline and the pertinence of encouraging black people to put their health first in a society that does everything it can to break our bodies.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I wanna start off by asking you about your backstory. What got you into marathon running?
I actually started running as a high school student to improve at field hockey and lacrosse. Not a lot of people know this about me, but lacrosse is, like, my sport. I love lacrosse. And I was good at it, so I wanted to get better. I started running to condition, to be able to be a better contributor to the team. It made me feel better. I fell in love with the act of running early in the morning.
That’s my genesis of running. And I continued to run all the way throughout college, recreationally, in my early 20s and then all the way up to about 2004. Then, in 2008, I had a health scare that prompted me to start running again. Fast-forward to 2011 ― that’s when I started training for my first marathon, the Marine Corps Marathon.
I’m honestly in awe of distance runners because as much as I try to be a distance runner, it’s like Marie Kondo says: It doesn’t bring me joy. And part of a health journey, a fitness journey, a wellness journey — whatever you may call it — is finding what makes you happy. What about marathon running makes you happy?
I love being outside. I’ve always loved being outside and moving my body whether that was on the concrete sidewalks of Brooklyn or a school-sponsored hike or camping trip. I’ve always, always loved spending lots of time outside. I’m still like that today. And what marathon running — and long-distance running in general — gave me was an opportunity to be outside with a purpose.
And taking care of my body, exploring the limits — or my preconceived limits ― about what I thought I could do. The real appeal of it is pushing my body, pushing my mind, pushing my spirit.
Why is it important to change the stereotypes of what runners, what healthy people, look like — specifically for black women? We don’t see a realistic range of what healthy black women look like and there’s this perception that health is for white people. I know that when I started eating healthy, I had to break down these assumptions that I was eating white people food.
Right, or rabbit food.
Exactly. So, what do you think is the beauty of your presence?
Representation is everything. When you cannot envision yourself as a person who has health, who is able to take care of themselves physically, mentally and emotionally ― if you do not have positive representation of what that could be, then it’s not on your radar and it’s not important to you.
When you do have symbols of representation that are readily available to you, it becomes real. It becomes possible. It becomes something you can envision yourself as. For me as a runner, in my big body, for me as a woman, for me as a mother, for me as whoever I may be: Somebody may be looking at me or looking at the things that I do and say, “Oh wow, maybe I could do that. I didn’t know that we could go and run for six days in the Colorado Rockies. Maybe I could try to do this 5K. Maybe I could try to go to the gym without being so scared of what people might think of me.”
Even my mother who is in her early 60s started going to the gym because I said, “Hey, Mom, let’s go to the gym.” She had always thought the gym was for young people, the gym was for white people. But opening that possibility for her, it became a reality.
I think, like you said, the beauty of my presence or anybody who does this work, is that we are able to show people what is indeed possible for them.
That’s such a powerful statement. Just to go off of that, how else have you seen your outlook on fitness ― your outlook just on life, really, affect the other black people around you?
I see changes in my family and in the way that they view fitness as necessary. We are all not on the same page, we don’t all have the same capabilities. We don’t all have the same financial ability to do things. But, again, things are possible like going for a walk. My mom wants to go backpacking with me now.
Recently, I did a 50K in Tennessee. I saw a lot of my fans at this race and it was so cool because this woman — maybe because of me, maybe because of somebody else — decided that she wanted to try out trail running. It was really, really cool to see. People send me messages all the time saying, “Watching you, or just looking at your feed has shown me that I can be so much more, I can do so much more.”
And it’s especially beautiful when it’s from people of color.
Absolutely. Did you ever have a moment when you had to break through this false concept that “black people don’t do X”?
You know what? I have not ever had to do that personally because I’ve always just done whatever I was gonna do. That’s always been like an on-the-periphery thing. I went to boarding school. A lot of black people didn’t go to boarding school. I’ve played field hockey. No black people. But I did it anyway because I was interested and curious.
But others around me have had to do that. People who are very educated, people who are very worldly, sometimes don’t understand why I run in the woods. They think I’m gonna get kidnapped. That’s been very interesting. Other people sometimes have their own ideas about what people should or shouldn’t be doing, but I don’t care. I just do it anyway.
I respect that SO much. So what motivates you? I have this sticky note in my bathroom on my mirror, and it basically says, “You’re not always going to be motivated, you’re not always going to want to do something so you have to be motivated by your purpose. You have to be disciplined.”
You sound like David Goggins because that’s exactly what my thing is. You’re not always going to be motivated. Half the time I’m like, “Oh, God, I gotta go for a run? I’m tired, I’m sore, like, I just wanna sleep or sit on a couch.” And that’s the reality, you cannot live by motivation. Because you’re not always going to be inspired.
Once I’m in the moment, it’s fine. It’s where I need to be, but sometimes you just have to put in the work. My overarching goal is long-term health and wellness, which encompasses the physical, the emotional, the mental and the spiritual. So if I’m not putting deposits in the bank, I know that I won’t have long-term health and wellness. That’s what gets me out of the door. I have to put in the work; I have to be putting stuff in the bank.
Mental health, physical health, emotional health — those things are so important for everyone. But because of the ways in which black people are disproportionately affected by everything, those aspects of health really matter for us. Why is it important for us to focus on our health, holistically?
For such a long time, we haven’t been able to focus on our mental and physical wellbeing because we’ve been so charged with trying to keep our lives together — with all the different stresses that we have to contend with.
Not everyone has the same kinds of stresses but the stress of racism is real and we have to contend with that every single day. Why do black people as a whole have a higher rate of high blood pressure? We’re dealing with that, and that stuff is killing us.
It’s not because we are lazy as a people. It’s not because we don’t want to work. It’s because there are all these environmental factors, these socioeconomic factors. Again, not everybody has to contend with those things but largely we do as a community. So, it becomes more and more important to focus as much as we are able to focus on things that are going to give us longevity, health and wellness ― whatever that means to you.