- By Gracie Bonds Staples The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
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.
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.
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.
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.”