Runner Mirna Valerio Is Not Here To Be Your Before-And-After Inspiration

"I was an anomaly at a trail race or a small town 5K a couple years ago. Now, not so much."

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In 2008, I had a stressful job at a boarding school in New Jersey. I didn't sleep: I loved my job, but I was always on duty. I had a full load, and on the weekends I would commute to Maryland to teach private lessons—piano, voice lessons, Spanish lessons. One weekend I was driving back to New Jersey with my five-year-old son and I started having chest pains. And I never, ever had chest pains. They got progressively worse and sharper, so I started getting worried that I was having a heart attack. I pulled over, looked at my son and thought, What would happen if I die? I was able to calm myself down and keep driving. It turned out I was having a panic attack.

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When I visited the cardiologist, he said if I wanted to see my son grow up, I'd have to change my lifestyle. I realized I wasn't sleeping, I was eating poorly, and I wasn't engaged in any physical activity. It had been four years since I had run regularly. So I decided to start running again.Mirna Valerio is a lot of things—a trained singer at Julliard, New York's premier performing arts school, a pianist, a Spanish teacher, a choral director and cross-country coach at a school in Georgia, where she also does diversity programming. She's a writer for several publications, and as of this month, with the release of her first book A Beautiful Work In Progress, she's now an author. And if you've watched this recent short film about Valerio, you'll know that she is also a runner.

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For the Brooklyn native, distance running is part wellness practice and part pursuit of happiness. Her blog, Fat Girl Running, is not about documenting a weight-loss journey. On her social feeds, you won't see "before and after" pics on #TransformationTuesday. It's a lifestyle she's made her own after watching joggers in Central Park and deciding to be one of them. "I didn't necessarily feel like, 'Oh, there's nobody big or black out there.' I just wanted to be out and running," she says.

She's since raced in events that many would call a sufferfest, including nine ultra-marathons (courses that are 50K and up) and in August, a six-day run in the Colorado Rockies that spanned more than 120 miles and 20,000 feet of elevation gain. "I'm already slow, but I could not believe how long it took me to cover a mile way up there," remembers Valerio. "But it's an experience that I'm going to do over and over and over again because it was so difficult and because there's so much room for improvement." She then adds, as if talking about a leisurely hike: "And also, because it was amazing and beautiful."

Valerio spoke with ELLE ahead of her book release about the pivotal moment that changed her life, and what other sports can learn from the running community.

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You're training for a 60K in New York. How is it going?

I signed up for it on a whim. I thought, well, I'm going to be in New York anyway, why don't I just do a 60K? My entire family's in New York, so I'll drive up from Georgia, do the race on November 18, and drive back down with my mom for Thanksgiving.

What was it like growing up in Bushwick, Brooklyn?

Before 1989, it was a really great neighbourhood. I lived in a big building with lots of cousins, aunts, and uncles, and we were always outside playing. We had a great sense of community on our block. Then I went to boarding school in Westchester County in 1989, and that's when Bushwick started changing. Drugs came in and destroyed parts of the neighbourhood.

Going to boarding school changed the trajectory of my life. It was like a world opened up to me in terms of music—I became a musician and I started studying classical voice—and sports.

If you have two legs, and they work, you can run! A lot of people don't believe that.

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How did you start running?

The very first day of school, I tried out for field hockey. We started practice and had to run a mile to warm up. I was taken aback by the amount of effort it takes to run a mile. I had no reference for what a mile was—back then we didn't have GPS. After that, we had to run a timed mile. I was nearly last, and I was in pain. Then after the timed mile, we had practice, which of course included running up and down the field. I'd never run that much in one day.

It didn't scare you away?

Actually, I loved it. Here I was with this group of girls and none of them made me feel like I wasn't part of the group—which happened in middle school over and over again. So I was immediately attracted to the camaraderie and the togetherness of the team. And even though I was slow and was clearly having some trouble, I was never made to feel bad about it. So I decided that I would stick with it. The day after, I got up in the morning and said, I gotta do this. I have to get better at running.

After high school, you continued to run on your own.

It felt really great coming back home to Brooklyn and running on the street because nobody was doing that. I had only really seen people running and jogging in Central Park. I wasn't doing it to lose weight or anything, at that point anyway. My goal was only to run, and it just became part of my existence.

You had a medical scare later on. Did that change how you approached running?

I pulled over, looked at my son and thought, What would happen if I die?

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In 2008, I had a stressful job at a boarding school in New Jersey. I didn't sleep: I loved my job, but I was always on duty. I had a full load, and on the weekends I would commute to Maryland to teach private lessons—piano, voice lessons, Spanish lessons. One weekend I was driving back to New Jersey with my five-year-old son and I started having chest pains. And I never, ever had chest pains. They got progressively worse and sharper, so I started getting worried that I was having a heart attack. I pulled over, looked at my son and thought, What would happen if I die? I was able to calm myself down and keep driving. It turned out I was having a panic attack.

When I visited the cardiologist, he said if I wanted to see my son grow up, I'd have to change my lifestyle. I realised I wasn't sleeping, I was eating poorly, and I wasn't engaged in any physical activity. It had been four years since I had run regularly. So I decided to start running again.

Would you say this experience was a turning point for your life?

It immediately reminded me of something: My mother had been sick because she had not taken into account her own health, ever. She was always concerned about how everyone else was doing. Growing up, I didn't want that to happen to me. I didn't want to be at everyone's service. But the way life happens, you forget about yourself because you get so consumed with your child and your husband or partner and your job.

I do want to be here for my son and my family, but I also have to be here for me.

So when the cardiologist said that to me, a lightbulb immediately went off. I was trying to do everything for everybody and I was forgetting about myself. And once I had that realization, I was like, I'm not going to do that anymore. I don't want to die. And you know, I do want to be here for my son and my family, but I also have to be here for me. And I can't forget that.

In your opinion, how inclusive is the running community?

I think in sports, the running community has probably been the most inclusive—in all areas of inclusivity, that includes size, gender, etc.—just because it's the most natural thing a human can do. But that said, in the past five years or so there's been an explosion of all different types of events that attract all different types of people. I was an anomaly a couple years ago at a trail race or a small town 5K, and now, not so much, which is amazing. You have older people, you have people who are differently abled, you have people who are of all different sizes and races and ethnicities coming together to participate in this great sport. It's awesome.

I am running for me. I'm not running for you. I don't actually care what you think. Because really, my running has no impact on your life.

The very act of running is to put yourself out there, literally. How do you deal with criticism and judgement?

I've always had the privilege of being able to just be my full self at almost every place that I've worked. I've been encouraged to be me and to do me, whether that's teaching Spanish or chorus or doing diversity work. I do what I love every single day, so this platform that I have shows people that you don't have to be the runner stereotype in order to run. If you have two legs, and they work, you can run! A lot of people don't believe that; they have all these hangs ups about being themselves in public, they have all these stories that they've created about the sport. So if I can help counter that, then I'm 100 per cent willing to do that.

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. Because really, my running has no impact on your life.

Running is such a polarising activity. You just seem to have always just loved it.

You know, I tried rollerblading, and that was not successful.

From: Elle
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