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Mirna Valerio: The Mirnavator

Not the typical ultra-marathon runner, body-positive role model Mirna Valerio shatters stereotypes, advocates for greater inclusion in the running world, and is no stranger to the odd running-induced hallucination...

'I was sore in all these new places and really tired and hungry, but I was so happy I had done something new and came out the other side.'

I did my first ever trail run in 1999. I lived by this beautiful park in the Bronx, New York, and I’d been running the entire summer. I signed up for a 10km race with no idea it was a trail race. I thought we would start out in the park and eventually end up on the road, but we just kept going deeper and deeper into the park on all these hiking trails. I loved it immediately. Even though it was harder, and I was much, much slower than I had been that entire summer, I really enjoyed essentially hiking at a faster pace and covering more distance. 

I tripped on a root and face-planted, but somehow I just popped right back up. I guess I was so stunned I had fallen that I just got back up and kept going like I was on autopilot. On the second loop of the race I face planted in exactly the same spot and again just popped back up, wiped the dirt off me and kept going. 

I thought, ‘Okay, I fell but I didn’t die’, and it actually felt kind of badass. That might actually have been what sold me on trail running. When I finished I was sore in all these new places and really tired and hungry, but I was so happy I had done something new and came out the other side. I’ve since done 11 ultra marathons and 14 regular marathons.

'I run 100km races and I don’t care that people finish faster than me. That doesn’t make them better athletes, it just makes them faster.'

The message we get from the media is that our bodies are either too much, not enough, or somehow both those things. My story destroys the idea of seeing the body as an obstacle. Maybe I’m slower but I can hike or run to the top of a mountain just like anybody else, it just takes me longer. When did pace become the determining factor to success? When did having a specific type of body become the determining factor to success? When did your body type become indicative of your greatness? I reject all that.

I’m slow, but so what? I run 100km races and I don’t care that people finish faster than me. That doesn’t make them better athletes, it just makes them faster. They don’t live in the body I live in and they don’t have the mass I have.

So many people are striving towards some idea of ‘perfection’ that is simply unattainable. We have this societal message that if you go to the gym you should be a certain body type. Yet in order to be that body type, you need to go to the gym. It’s an unending cycle of bullshit messages that we have been socialised into believing.

Elite athletes are on strict eating regimes and they can train for hours every day because that’s their job. If you aren’t a professional athlete, it’s totally understandable that you have restraints on your time that mean it’s just not possible to replicate that kind of lifestyle. We can’t all hire three different coaches and get massages every day. 

'When you stop moving, you stop learning, and when you stop learning, you stop living.'

It’s hard to maintain body positivity while living in society that still feeds us so much negativity. That stuff preys on your self-esteem and your willingness to do whatever it is to get the quick fix. The more we are able to separate ourselves from that negativity and observe it as the bullshit it is, the better body image we will have.

Every now and then I will get a DM saying, ‘If you run so much why are you still fat?’ I just delete them. I don’t answer, and I don’t let it take up any real estate in my mind. To the people sending those messages: you do you! You live in your own darkness and you figure that stuff out for yourself because when you’re projecting hate on somebody you’re really just dealing with your own darkness and dissatisfaction with yourself.

I also get messages saying, ‘Thanks to you I feel I finally have permission to run in public.’ They’re lovely to see but also a little sad because no one needs anyone else’s permission to run! As long as it’s not damaging to anyone else, do whatever the hell it is you want to do. If you want to run, run. I never sought anybody’s approval or permission to do it, and neither should you.

One of the best things about sport is the knowledge it gives you of your own body. Our bodies are built to move, and when you have an intimate relationship with your body and the way it moves and looks and feels, you're more likely to have a healthy body image. You feel your muscles working and getting sore or stronger and that has a direct connection to your mindset.

I once interviewed an occupational therapist. She said that when you stop moving, you stop learning, and when you stop learning, you stop living. I love that.

© Hilary Matheson
'I started hallucinating... I kept hearing these sounds and thought I was going to die in Arizona, that I would be eaten up by a javelina.'

My longest run was a 100km race called the Javelina100. It was the first time I had ever done anything over 55km so it was uncharted territory for me. Located right outside Phoenix, Arizona, it was also my first time running in the desert with sand, scorpions and the possibility of rattlesnakes. It would also be the first time that I would have to be awake for more than 35 hours at a time. 

With any sort of endurance sport you can feel vastly different from minute to minute. That’s what happened on the Javelina100 after around the halfway point. I would feel really great for a few minutes and then I would be despairing and despondent for the next 10. It started getting dark and my headlamp went out, my stomach was not doing well and then…

I started hallucinating. The race is named after a pig-like animal called the javelina and I started thinking I could hear a herd of them. My headlamp was out and I was trying to keep up with people that passed me on the trail so I could use their light, but they would be too fast for me and I would soon be sunk back into darkness again. I started hearing these roaring sounds and thought, ‘Oh no, the javelinas are coming after me!’ I kept hearing these sounds and thought I was going to die in Arizona, that I would be eaten up by a javelina. This went on for about 45 minutes. 

As I passed people I would ask, ‘Did you hear those animals growling?’ They would look at me strangely and say they hadn't heard anything. Then, after running a little bit more, there was a clearing. There were cars doing doughnuts and revving up their engines. I realised it had been the sound of cars all along. I was so embarrassed that I had genuinely thought it was the javelinas coming after me.

I got to the main aid station in really bad shape. I was dehydrated, hungry, and obviously a little bit delirious because I thought javelinas were coming after me. The great thing about the trail running community is that the people that volunteer are usually trail runners themselves so they know what to do and know what you need. I was made to sit down and put my feet up for a little bit. They gave me broth, then noodles and then ginger because I was nauseous. It was like magic; I was revived.

© Hilary Matheson
'We always want to put people on pedestals and ascribe the word ‘hero’ to them, but we all have the capacity to do something incredible.'

We have to get rid of the notion that when we learn something new, we have to look like we already know how to do it. That’s dumb. For example, I started cycling just a couple of months ago. I went to the bike shop and said I needed a bike. A bike that will fit me, one that won’t break when I get on it and also, I need someone to teach me how to ride. I mean, I’ve known how to ride a bike since I was a kid, but I didn’t know how to ride a bike with fancy gears and this and that. I went in there knowing that I didn’t know anything, but ready to learn. 

Be okay with being a beginner. I still go into trail running as someone who wants to continue learning. Hopefully that keeps me humble. I try to go in with the spirit of knowing that I don’t know everything and that I’m still learning, and I want to get better at this. I want to continue learning, and I want to do it well and I want to be able to do it for a long time. 

Anita Ortiz is a role model of mine. A trail runner, one of the reasons I was drawn to her is that she was a kindergarten teacher who somehow stumbled into the world of professional trail running. Even though she had four kids and a full-time job, she would get up at 3am and run 20 miles in the mountains, with the mountain lions and the snow, and then come back and make breakfast for her kids, teach all day and then train again.

We always want to put people on pedestals and ascribe the word ‘hero’ to them, but we all have the capacity to do something incredible. We want to think of certain people as symbols of perfection to strive towards, but again we find ourselves chasing perfection when there really is no such thing. Anita was just a normal person I could look up to and think, ‘Wow, her life echoes mine.’

Now, some people see me as a representation of what is possible. They think, ‘If she can do it, maybe there’s a place there for me too.’

Mirna Valerio is a cross-country coach, ultrarunner, obstacle course enthusiast, public speaker, and author of the memoir A Beautiful Work in Progress. Check out Mirna's website for more information.