“I run. I run because I love it. I just love being outdoors. I love using my body in that way but people are so blocked, they can’t even hear that.”
– Mirna Valerio
On an ordinary morning in late September, I found myself scrolling my Facebook feed, vacillating between likes, dislikes, side eyes and eye rolls. As I scrolled through digitized judgments, fake news, and the insecurities of strangers, my attention caught on the swash of emboldened typeface in a video posted to the REI Facebook account. The words, “You are a liar and a fraud” stood out in bold contrast to the spoken soprano of a woman’s voice. The narrator continued as images of a formidable, yet feminine, sized black woman outfitted in fashionable running gear trekked through lush, green mountain trails. It became clear that the narrator’s voice belonged to the woman shown in the video, and that she was reading an excerpt from a letter, that I could only describe as “hate mail”, that had been sent in response to some story of how she had come to be a formidably sized black woman running lush mountain trails. As if she were somehow undeserving of the space she occupies on the planet. By the time the anonymous author of the email had reduced themselves to the use of expletives to emphasize their disdain for Mirna’s physicality, I had closed the Facebook app and decided it was time to log off for the morning.
What manner of gall must this email author have had to refuse to acknowledge Mirna’s identity purely because of her appearance? How is it that we live in a world wherein we can watch several live videos of a full figured black woman running, and immediately contact her to inform her that what millions of people have viewed, in fact, did NOT happen? This dismissal of facts was not based on skepticism or tampered video, rather genuine disbelief because when Mirna Valerio runs, her body challenges the systems of label assignment that are quickly being carted away to bulk storage next to the first IBM processors.
Later that day, I received a message from the editor with the REI video embedded asking if I would be interested in interviewing Mirna Valerio for publication. I took that as a sign and scheduled a phone interview with Mirna to talk about everything else but her weight.
Mirna is whole. She is wife, mother, blogger, author, educator, classically trained opera singer, performance artist, brand ambassador and ultramarathoner who is living her best life more abundantly than can be confined to a three-minute trailer. Her life is so full that she recently penned a memoir titled, A Beautiful Work In Progress released October 2017 by Grand Harbor Press. Coupled with her work as Director of Equity and Inclusion for an independent day and boarding school in the rural North Georgia mountains, Mirna trains to execute full seasons in the ultrarunning world. Ultrarunning is the sport of long-distance running, categorized by races that are anything longer than the 26.2 miles which constitute a marathon. The shortest distance that is considered an “Ultra” is the 50 kilometer or 31.07 miles. Mirna stacks her race season with as many as ten of these races across the country and trains all year. Mirna is a badass.
The outdoor community is one that is dominated by whiteness. Mirna is often the only visible black person on many of her courses and has experienced the pressure of isolation and microaggressions that often occur in such spaces where black women especially, are not present or accounted for. Following the success of her blog, Fat Girl Running, and recent media attention, people in the running world know who she is. Her presence has become much less of a surprise although she still does not see herself represented in the spaces she occupies.
The pressure of the media to discuss her participation in ultrarunning, as if she is an anomaly instead of a whole human being, is perhaps one of the biggest challenges faced daily by Valerio. She is not swayed by the labor and is clear that her work as an educator is directly linked to the experiences she has when she takes up all the space she is entitled to on 50-mile jaunts through rough Arizona terrain.
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
– Audre Lorde
“I would like to see more racial and socioeconomic diversity within the outdoor community but realize that before that can happen, the communities themselves must be more invitational and open. Currently, they are not. My work is preparing the communities to have conversations about diversity.”
Valerio recently penned a deal with REI that will serve the purpose of bringing people of color into the conversation in ways that are non-threatening and honest.
Black women’s bodies are inherently marginalized, and stepping out of the margins of society into spaces that were not created for us can be intensely difficult. When asked how the work has impacted her personal life, Valerio is unswayed and self-assured, “I’m a performance artist and singer who is used to being on stage and receiving attention and accolades. Stereotypical notions about what I should like or be doing don’t affect me. It is hard to constantly be fighting the cognitive dissonance that people experience when they see me. There are so many esthetic and athletic ideals versus the reality that there are different types of bodies and people can do different types of things. The lens is skewed toward the struggle.”
Mirna Valerio is happy and grateful. She is a beacon of self-love, body positivity, diversity, and inclusion. Mirna Valerio is a champion who has learned to practice self-care as an act of love for herself and her family. “My number one priority is my own health. That’s why I’m out here,” says Valerio when asked what wisdom she has to impart on the #BlackGirlMagic constituency.
She wants us to feel entitled to take care of ourselves and harkens to Mother Audre Lorde who told us, unapologetically: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
Mirna Valerio, we see you, Sis. Always forward.