Vermonter Mirna Valerio on ultra-running, body image and becoming 'the Mirnavator'
“We can choose to be stagnant, or we can live our lives to the fullest.” Those are the words of author, ultramarathoner and Winooski resident Mirna Valerio, or as many of her online fans know her, the Mirnavator.
Vermont Edition host Mikaela Lefrak spoke with Valerio about overcoming body insecurities in order to get out in nature and move, as well as sharing her journey, from the "Fat Girl Running" blog to corporate sponsorship and traveling around the globe. Highlights from their conversation are below.
How Mirna Valerio became the "Mirnavator"
Mikaela Lefrak: I'm hoping you could give folks who might not follow you on social media a bit more of a picture of this rather remarkable career that you've created for yourself. Because you began as a teacher. Before that, you know, a couple other careers in the early 20s — as many of us have — accounting, a paralegal. Became a teacher and then, have now transitioned into this kind of amazing like, trip leader and runner and you know, collector of many major sponsorship deals and public speaker. Tell us a bit more about how that came to be.
Mirna Valerio: So I was a teacher for 18 years. I stopped teaching in 2018, and one of the cool things about this story is that — when I am sitting in my classroom, this is February of 2018, sitting in my classroom having this conversation with myself. "Should I stay? Should I continue being a teacher? Should I continue having this financial stability, the benefits, a place to live — because it was boarding school? Or should I make this huge leap out into the world of influencing... and being a sponsored athlete and being able to travel and do public speaking."
And so as I'm having this conversation in my head in a darkened classroom, a student comes in, a 10th grader that I didn't even teach, but I knew who he was. He was an African American boy ... I was a DEI — Diversity, Equity and Inclusion — director at the school, as well as a Spanish teacher and a music teacher and other things, and parent, and cross-country coach. You know, I'm thinking when kids who I didn't know came to see me, it was usually a DEI thing, and I would have to talk to another teacher or another student on behalf of that kid.
And that's not what he came in to see me for. He came in, he says, "Hi, Miss Valerio. I just want to let you know that I love you." And I said, "Oh, well, thank you. Thanks." He's like, "Well, but the other thing I wanted to tell you is that I think that you don't belong here."
And, you know, I was speechless. I am never speechless. I didn't know what to say in that moment. And he says, well, he's like, "What I mean, is that your star's rising, and you have to follow it." Again, there's speechlessness. That doesn't occur to me much. And it's like, "Whoa." He's like, "Yeah, I've been watching you. And you've got to get up, get out there. And follow that rising star." Wow.
And then he says, "OK, Miss Valerio, I'll see you later. Bye."
He's just gonna drop that truth-bomb on you.
"OK, angel, thank you very much." And he hugs me — and you know, obviously pre-COVID, and because you have to say that — and he leaves. And then my decision was made.
And I made an appointment with my head of school, he could see me right away. And as soon as I walked in, he said, "I know what this is about." And, and that was it. That was the beginning of that jump into this world of sponsorships, and speaking and traveling and in writing, and I had already written my book at that point, and doing all of the cool things that I get to do now.
And it's still teaching. I see myself as a teacher, but on a larger platform, on the platforms of social media, and wherever I speak, etc. I'm still doing a lot of DEI work. And so it's, it's cool to have made that leap to essentially be doing what I did as a teacher. But again, with a wider audience.
On choosing to live in Vermont
Now, Mirna you're originally from Brooklyn, worked in Georgia for a while. Now you're a Vermonter. What first brought you to Vermont?
Well, after I left Georgia, and before that I'd worked in Maryland and New Jersey, I was looking to move back up to the Northeast, because East Coast, Beast Coast, North Coast ... something Coast —
— We'll work on it
— There's gotta be a rhyme somewhere... But I, I happened to come here, I was in Montpelier for a whole week, December of 2018. And doing an adventure with my friend, who is one of the record-setters for like, weightlifting in Vermont. And we're having this incredible adventure, where we're hiking, we're snowshoeing, we're running, we did some of Hunger Mountain, we ate really good food.
And I, you know, actually as I drove in before this whole adventure, there was a, there was a Black Lives Matter flag, and there was a pride flag hanging down from the Unitarian Church in Montpelier. And I was like, I think, I think I need to live here. And it was just a thought that occurred to me in that moment. And I had such a good week here, so that I started looking for an apartment, and if you know anything about looking for apartments in Vermont ... finding one is impossible. Anyway, and the place that I was staying at had apartments. and I went in there, asked if they had anything available, and they had one more apartment available, and I signed a lease right then and there, at the end of that, that adventure week.
And that is how I came to live in Vermont. And it was only temporary at that point. I said, "I'm gonna try it out. I'm going to see if it sort of fits my lifestyle, and my goals and my values." And it absolutely does. You know, after having lived for a while in a very conservative place — though beautiful, I loved my kids, I loved my students, my colleagues — it was really hard on my body, and on my blood pressure, actually, to be in such a conservative space doing DEI work. You know, being a very visible Black woman with a Black son in rural Georgia.
So this was kind of a panacea to me. And it has been. Not that it's not without its issues. But I love it here. It is really the place that I've made home, I bought property. And I'm not going anywhere.
On being a public figure and Black woman
I've seen you say that you can't go anywhere in Vermont now without being called out by your fans, somebody saying hi at the grocery store, waving at you on the ski mountain. And I have a good friend who is also a public figure, and a Black woman in Vermont. And she has shared a similar experience with me, and says, "You know, it can feel good sometimes. But also that lack of anonymity can feel threatening in other situations." And I'm curious how that feels to you, that kind of loss of the ability to just be completely anonymous, in the place that you live.
Yeah, it's a really interesting dynamic. I love talking to people, I love being kind and gracious, because that's typically what I have received from people here.
But it is sometimes — I just am in a bad mood. And I need to do my run, or I need to be at the gym, or I need to do whatever it is that I'm doing. And I don't want to talk to anybody but I, you know, I feel like I have this responsibility to you know, put this face on sometimes. And not be in the mood that I am in. And it you know, that causes me some distress sometimes.
Sometimes I just want to run, like if I'm working, if I'm you know, training for something, I want to run and I don't want anybody to interrupt me. And I'm looking at my watch, I'm trying to like, get my splits — though slow, they're still splits! — and sometimes folks interrupt that and they you know, they are mostly intending to be kind. And they're excited to see me, so that feels good. But sometimes I'm like, in work mode. So yeah, so there's always trying to balance that, balance being kind, but also being very direct about, "Oh, I need to continue running, or I need to continue hiking, because you know, I've got these goals."
And then there are people that will stop me while I'm running, and say things like, "Oh, you know, good thing you're out here, you know, when — 15 years ago, I had a body like yours. So keep at it." So they're there, those types of people.
How do you respond in those moments?
I am so stunned that I don't respond in the way that I would like to, because I am not prepared for that sort of thing. And so, you know, I am, like, you know, trying to get a word in edgewise. And the person is just like, yapping about how you know, how good my body is gonna look, you know, in 15 years or more, if I keep at it. In my head, I'm saying, "Bro, I am a professional athletes. But I don't have the energy to explain that to you right now. Because you probably won't even believe me."
So there's there's that too, that I encounter. And those are not typically from people that know who I am.
Has your response to comments like that or to criticisms online changed over the years? I mean, I'm sure — I'm guessing you might see the same things over and over since you first began posting about being an athlete online. Yeah, how has your response changed, if at all over the years?
You know, I used to try to defend myself. But there's no use in that. I actually did it a couple of a couple of days ago with some online trolls. And I was expending a lot of energy on that. But I'm not going to change anyone's minds. And so like, that's the way that I go about it, I'm not going to change your mind about whether or not you think I'm worthy of being on a trail or trying to run or calling myself a runner or calling myself a person in fitness.
I'm not gonna try to change your mind anymore. That's not worth my time. What is worth my time is going out there, and letting myself be seen by the people who need to see me. And also those trolls need to see me. So that's a side benefit for them. So you're welcome.
On creating inclusive running events
So you said that you you lead groups for people who run at a slower pace. And it seems like a lot of what you do is kind of see a need or a gap in services, in focus, for folks somehow in the outdoor community. And you jump in and try to fill that gap.
Well, yeah, because I needed for myself. Number one, I needed slower-paced events, slower-paced activities, because I don't run even a 10-minute mile, actually. I've never run a 10-minute mile, even in high school when I played varsity sports. And so there's a whole community of people who run 11-minute miles or 12-minute miles or even 15-, 16-, 17-minute miles, where they're run-walking, or maybe they're doing a slow jog.
And there was nothing catering to us. And the cut-offs for races and events would be really short. And we would either be running without water, without services, or they would close the course and make us get off. And so you know, if you're paying for a race or an event, and the event says, "we're pace friendly," or that we you know, "we cater to all different types of paces," when they really don't, you know, it's demoralizing. I think it's immoral, to take folks' money, and to not service them in the way that need to be to be served.
And so I created events for that purpose, to make sure that we were being included that, you know, we don't feel awful, in terms of our spirit, after a race or during the race having to be pulled off because we're deemed "too slow." Or maybe the logistics haven't been set up for slower runners. And so I try to create small, intimate events that cater to us. And they've been pretty successful.
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On learning to love our bodies
We got a question from a listener named Dell in East Burlington, who asks: "Do you have any advice for parents and teachers on raising kids to love their bodies? And how do we coach athletes and protect them from the narrative that only certain bodies can perform?"
I love this question. So thank you, Dell. for that. I think it's really important. I mean, it has to start at home, you have to be very aware of the language that is coming out of your mouth. And you know, whether or not you're policing the food that your kids eat when they're hungry, or after a sports practice, whether or not you are saying things about your own body, whether you know, whatever sort of parent you are, whatever gender you identify with.
And so you have to model the behavior that you want to see out of them. And when you hear them talking poorly about someone in their class, "Hey, hey, why are we talking like this about so-and-so? Why?" ... [C]heck their social media, you know, if you're paying for the phone, you have every right to check their social media.
... One time my — I said something derogatory about my own body just in a moment of negativity that I had during the pandemic. And I was injured, I wasn't training the way that I wanted to. And I said something negative about my body, and I think it was about my belly. And my son overheard me, he was 17 at the time. And he said, "Hey, Mom, Mom, don't you teach like, body image classes?" And I'm like, "Wow. He's like, your body's OK, Mom. Oh, it's fine."
The student has become the teacher.
Yes. And I said, "You know, you're right. I'm sorry. I'm sorry, that, number one, that I had the thought — I'm not sorry that I had that thought, because we have these thoughts all the time — but I'm sorry I said that aloud." Because he was listening to me, and he was learning.
On breaking out of stagnation
Well, Mirna, one of my favorite quotes of yours that I've read is, "We can choose to be stagnant, or we can live our lives to the fullest." But it seems like part of the problem with stagnation or perhaps with depression is it can really be hard to get out of it once you're in it. So movement leads to more movement. But stagnation can also lead to more stagnation... What advice do you have for people who might be feeling stuck?
Well, first let me say that I myself deal with anxiety and depression. And the thing that helps me the most is moving my body, and it doesn't have to be running an ultramarathon or 20 miles, it could be walking outside, being outside in green spaces or blue spaces. Or if you're in an urban areas, simply being outside is very, very helpful. It's like just things with your endorphins. Like, I'm on such a high right now because I did like two hours of working out today, neither of which was very hard — well, Pilates ...
Speak for yourself!
My abs hurt. But it got me out into the sunlight, the science backs the the fact that sunlight can affect your mood, it affects your circadian rhythms and all these other things... Go get out into sunlight. If you need to talk to somebody, talk to somebody. And, you know, being around people ... but like having having a small, short conversation or something will make your day go better. Yeah. So you know, maybe it's a neighbor, maybe it's your kid, maybe it's calling up your your parents or something.
But those things are really important. I'm not a social scientist. I don't know the rest but like, but definitely getting out there and, being being a little social going out of your comfort zone. And it takes practice. It takes a lot of practice to you know, go beyond where you've gone before, but, practice, practice, good practice makes progress.
Broadcast at noon Thursday, May 18, 2023; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.
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