This Life with Gracie: Can a fat girl be fit, too?


Sometime around 4:30 this morning, Mirna Valerio slid out of bed, did a few squats to warm up her back and legs and headed to kitchen for a strong cup of black joe.

An hour later, she donned her headlamp and headed to a nearby track, where each day she runs, oh, 2 to 3 miles before returning home for a quick breakfast and work at the Rabun Gap Nacoochee School, about 117 miles northeast of Atlanta.

This has been her routine, really, for more than eight years, when Valerio said she first recommitted to running.

Despite the sometimes-twice-a-day workout, she hardly fits our image of a svelte marathoner, ultra-marathoner, and trail runner.

At 250 pounds, Valerio is, well, a big girl.

But in the years since she fell in love with running again, the 41-year-old mother has become all of these, shattering conventional wisdom that fit can’t be fat, too.

Indeed, a good number of folk think Valerio is a fraud albeit a very popular one.

RELATED: Former pageant princess drops 151 pounds on ABC weight loss show

She has been featured on the “NBC Nightly News,” and was the cover girl for September’s issue of Women’s Running Magazine and the focus of REI’s just-released documentary segment called “The Mirnavator.”

Wait, there’s more. Valerio, a Spanish instructor, head coach of the Rabun Gap Nacoochee School’s cross-country varsity team and the school’s director of equity and inclusion, also has a huge following on social media and her popular Fat Girl Running blog.

Not all of them have been kind, accusing her of trying to further the idea of fat acceptance and flat out calling her a fraud.

“They’re convinced that there is no way I could run the distances that I do and still be fat,” she said.

Truth is Valerio is just happy to be alive.

While she is by no means thin, she’s a long way from the 300 pounds she was carrying when she had her health scare in 2008.

That day, Valerio was en route home from work and started experiencing chest pains.

“I was so scared I started hyperventilating,” she said recently.

Fear will do that to you, but Valerio had reason to be scared. With a family history of high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity, she was a clear risk for a heart attack.

She had a decision to make — pull over to the side of the road or keep going.

Valerio thought of her 5-year-old son in the back seat and decided to head back to the Purnell School, where she worked as a Spanish teacher. A colleague drove her to the hospital, where a doctor assured her she was not having a cardiac episode.

She did, however, have a lot of inflammation that could lead to a cardiac event in the future. He suggested she see a cardiologist right away.

RELATED: Boston Marathon was about remembering as much as running

Valerio had been overweight at least since middle school, when she got a scholarship to attend Masters School, an all-girls boarding academy in Westchester County, N.Y. It was there that she fell in love with field hockey and lacrosse and began running to stay fit, but even then, she was considered a big girl.

She graduated in 1993 and headed to Oberlin College and Conservatory, where she studied Spanish and Vocal Performance. She met her husband, Cito Nikiema, in 1999.

Five years later, after moving from New York to Maryland in 2004, the running stopped and Valerio’s weight started the steady march northward.

Now she was being told she might die if she didn’t lose weight and change her lifestyle.

“That was all I needed to hear,” Valerio said. “I got back on the wagon and started to make exercising a priority again.”

Her first day out, she ran a mile. Then 2 miles. Then 3. She signed up for a local 5K. Then another one and another and then the big kahuna 10K.

By the summer of 2009, a friend joined Valerio on the journey, and suddenly she was doing a couple of 5Ks a week, working out at the gym, playing tennis and swimming.

“That first summer, I lost 37 pounds just exercising,” she said.

She continued picking up 5Ks and 10Ks and then graduated to a half marathon.

“That’s when I got the long-distance bug,” Valerio said. “One half marathon led to another, which led to another.”

She was feeling healthier than she ever had. All her numbers in her metabolic profile were now normal. Her blood pressure, her blood sugar and her cholesterol were all good.

A friend suggested she do a full marathon, and in 2011, Valerio registered for the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C.

“That’s when I started my blog Fat Girl Running to share my experiences as a larger woman training and doing distance events in a thin world,” she said.

There would be more marathons, and then in 2013, Valerio ran her first ultra-marathon, a whopping 31 miles.

“I became addicted to these longer and longer distances,” she said.

RELATED: Cycling class taking names, dropping pounds

RELATED: Why running doesn’t (always) burn fat

That same year, she moved to Rabun Gap to take a teaching job. By then, Fat Girl Running was getting a lot of attention. Valerio had dropped 61 pounds, but two years after she started running, her weight had plateaued at around 240 pounds.

People started questioning whether she was running at all and if she were, was she binge eating.

Even the media began asking whether one could be fat and fit like her.

“It really baffles people that I don’t lose weight, but that’s not my focus,” Valerio said. “I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been in my life. I’m still a big girl, but I think I look great.”

Valerio eats three meals a day but says she doesn’t overeat. For breakfast, she usually eats a yogurt parfait. For lunch, she has meat, potatoes and vegetables, whatever is being served up in the cafeteria, and for dinner, she cooks Blue Apron meals.

“I’m not sitting on the couch eating potato chips or bowls of ice cream,” she said. “I’ll have one or two glasses of wine and call it a day.”

If weight is your only qualifier, Valerio is by no means your average athlete, let alone marathon runner, but she is on a mission to challenge fitness stereotypes and prove the naysayers and hate mailers wrong.

“Fitness belongs to everybody, but there are some people who want us to believe that it only belongs to people who look a certain way,” Valerio said.

You can read Valerio’s whole story in her new memoir, “A Beautiful Work in Progress” (Grand Harbor Press, $14.95), which hit bookshelves Oct. 1.

It’s her attempt, she said, to frame her own fitness story.

She said: “I really wanted people to know the other side of the story, what made me a runner, and why I continue to run even though I’m still a big girl.”

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Living

When hate strikes in North Fulton, a community comes bearing gifts
When hate strikes in North Fulton, a community comes bearing gifts

Last Friday, not far from the place where six teens allegedly scrawled anti-Semitic drawings on Hilary Karp’s driveway, Erik Schefstad, his wife, Carson, and one of their two children came hoping to communicate a decidedly different message, and it blew Karp away. Actually, they came bearing many messages, about two dozen total that, taken together...
Festival preview: Tedeschi Trucks Band ready for its SweetWater 420 Fest closeup
Festival preview: Tedeschi Trucks Band ready for its SweetWater 420 Fest closeup

BY MELISSA RUGGIERI/AJC Music Scene The Tedeschi Trucks Band is renowned for its commitment to meaty, visceral concerts. Last summer, the 12-piece musical crew led by Susan Tedeschi and her husband, Derek Trucks, rolled into the Fox Theatre for a memorable night on its annual “Wheels of Soul” tour. It was also Trucks and Tedeschi&rsquo...
Concert preview: Bon Jovi returns to Atlanta fresh from Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction
Concert preview: Bon Jovi returns to Atlanta fresh from Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction

BY MELISSA RUGGIERI/AJC Music Scene Bon Jovi stole the show, as usual. At least that was the consensus following last weekend’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, at which the enduring New Jersey rockers were finally granted entry into the Cleveland shrine. Between an expectedly uproarious introductory speech by longtime...
Charges could be announced in Prince opioid investigation two years after his death
Charges could be announced in Prince opioid investigation two years after his death

Authorities in Carver County, Minnesota, could announce charges Thursday in the investigation into the opioid-related death of legendary entertainer Prince two years after he died, according to news outlets. >> Read more trending news  Prince was found unresponsive at his Paisley Park home in Chanhassen on April 21, 2016, and was later pronounced...
For Barbara Bush, Georgia was a place of love and legacy

For much of her life, Barbara Bush had Georgia on her mind. Her 73-year marriage began in 1945 with a honeymoon trip to the Cloister at Sea Island; she and George H.W. Bush were back in 1995 for their 50th anniversary. Her literacy foundation has partnered with programs across the state, and she was instrumental in helping Morehouse...
More Stories