Ultra-marathoner Mirna Valerio gave a talk last night titled “A Beautiful Work in Progress” about her journey as a Black, plus-sized endurance runner. It was her final appearance in an action-packed day of programming. From a morning talk about DEI work, to meals with students followed by a guided trail run, Valerio generously spent the large part of Thursday with the Bowdoin community.
During the evening talk, Valerio showed a short REI documentary about her running and answered questions during a brief Q&A session. As a woman who describes herself as having a larger body, Valerio spoke about the challenges of existing in a sport dominated by thinner athletes.
The event was sponsored by Counselling and Wellness Services with support from Bowdoin Athletics, Bowdoin Outing Club, SWAG and the Society of Bowdoin Women & Edith Lansing Koon Sills Lecture and Prize Fund. Edmundo Ortiz Alvarez ’23, a former student of Valerio’s from Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School, introduced her talk.
In 2008, Valerio was juggling her obligations as a high school teacher, mother and graduate school student when she experienced a health scare brought on by lack of sleep.
In response, Valerio, who had been an athlete in high school, decided to take up running again.
“Running had been the thing that brought me back to myself. It was like a litmus test,” she said. “You know, How am I feeling? Let me go for a run.”
While training for her first half marathon in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, Valerio started her blog called “Fat Girl Running.”
“When I named the blog, people were like, ‘Well, maybe you should call it something else, because fat is a really triggering word,’” she said. “My goal was to kind of help take the stigma out of the word.”
In 2015, Valerio and her blog started garnering more attention when the Wall Street Journal did a feature on her. After that, Valerio was featured on Runner’s World and made an appearance on NBC Nightly News, while also filming a documentary with REI about the outdoors and inclusion. In 2018, she left teaching to pursue her passion for running.
Despite having several marathons under her belt, Valerio was criticized and questioned about her validity as a runner because of her weight. This culminated in her receiving a hateful email while finishing the lap of a 50K trail run during the filming of the REI documentary.
The author of the email called Mirna a fraud and went on to suggest that she’s not a real runner because she’s overweight and that her running is fabricated. This was not an uncommon experience for Mirna, who has not always felt accepted as a larger runner.
“People refuse to believe in other kinds of bodies,” Valerio said. “That bodies that are not skinny or aspirational can actually be out there and run and jog and walk and have somebody’s affection without the need to feel like changing our body to fit some societal norm we cannot conform to.”
Being a Black woman in the outdoors, Valerio is also aware of the lack of diversity and inclusion in these environments.
“I was being followed by an REI filmmaker, Sarah Menzies. They were doing a story about a Black woman running in the woods because that’s a story, and it is,” she said. “Diversity in the outdoors still doesn’t really exist. It’s a lot of the work that I do today.”
Lizzy Kaplan ’23, who saw the REI documentary a few months ago and attended the talk last night, said that she was struck by Valerio’s ability to ignore other people’s expectations of her.
“[She’s] not letting other people define who you are. I feel like she has such a good sense of self despite having a lot to overcome,” Kaplan said.
Since she launched her blog in 2011, Valerio has amassed 137,000 Instagram followers, taken sponsorship deals with brands like LuluLemon and even coached Will Smith.
“[Working with Will Smith] was so cool. I think about that. I’m like ‘Did that really happen all because of this idiot guy who wrote me this nasty email?’” she said. “And people ask me, ‘do I forgive the guy?’ I’m like ‘No, I don’t forgive him, but I thank him.’”