Mirna Valerio is a bestselling author, speaker, ultramarathon runner and mom who is challenging the perceptions of what fitness looks like – simply by putting her head down and kicking up dust on the trail. We spoke with Mirna about her incredible journey, and how being outside is one of the best motivators there is.
You had a health scare in your early 30s that prompted you to improve your health. You really took that to heart. What drove you – and continues to drive you – to keep pushing the boundaries?
Mirna: I felt terrible – mentally and physically, so I knew that a pretty drastic change was in order. I knew that running always made everything better, no matter how long or short, so I recommitted to that. I did commit to leading a healthier life all around and after a while it grew into something beyond that initial need to regain health. Part of my nature is pushing the envelope, pushing against the norm or the status quo. I wanted to see what my body could do, so I kept aiming for bigger, harder goals.
You’re originally from Brooklyn. How did the outdoors become such a big part of your life?
Mirna: Nature has always been a part of my life, and make no mistake, nature exists in a big city like New York. I spent a majority of my summers growing up playing outside, exploring neighborhood parks with my cousins, brother, and sister. We dug up worms, played outside in the fire hydrant on super hot, sticky days, we went to beaches in Brooklyn and Queens. Our public schools took us on trips to Central Park, Prospect Park, Gateway National Recreation Park. We were always outside, expected to entertain ourselves and explore, and we did.
In what ways do you connect with your natural surroundings during multi-hour and multi-day races?
Mirna: Simply by being outside for hours and hours and days at a time engages all of my senses – particularly sight. There are so many views to behold and be grateful for. There are so many textures to feel, trees to inspect, balsam to smell, rock formations to be awed by, and sounds to absorb: birds, the wind blowing through trees, seeing the quaking aspens sparkle in the breeze, the scent of newness and life in an Alpine meadow in spring. I make sure that, especially when I’m having a difficult time out on the trail, I make a mental list of all that I’m surrounded by.
Image courtesy of Michelle Craig
Image courtesy of Skirt Sports
Image courtesy of Hilary Ann
How do you challenge the stereotypes that you have to look a certain way to represent “fitness,” or excel at physical activity?
Mirna: I simply go out and do the things that people think I can’t do. I don’t need to prove anything to anyone, but really just by being and existing in a physical activity space, in the shape of body and color of body I have, breaks down walls of preconceived notions. I don’t actively try to combat stereotypes, but it happens organically by simply showing up in a space that wasn’t deemed for me.
What kind of barriers do people of color face when it comes to getting outdoors?
Mirna: I think that one of the main barriers that any disenfranchised community has is representation. When you don’t see yourself in advertising, marketing or simply doing stuff in places like the forest or on a lake, it almost doesn’t exist for you. It’s not on your radar. Or, when the only people you’ve seen represented are primarily white, it drives home the notion that the outdoors isn’t for you.
Access to the outdoors and related activities might also prove a problem. Many places outside of your local area require reliable transportation and money to get to, even if the activity is free. Many things also require gear, which can also pose a barrier if you have limited disposable income. Obviously, this is not to say that all folks of color share the same socioeconomic class.
Has there ever been a time when you’ve questioned your ability to do something extraordinary? How did you push past it?
Mirna: I frequently have doubts about being able to complete something crazy hard, but that almost never stops me from trying. I know that I might fail, but there is so much learning that happens as a result. I put my head down and get to work – at TransRockies, at the Broken Arrow Sky Race, at any 50K I’ve done. I don’t allow my self-doubting chatter to take over. My legs know what to do, and so does my heart. That is how I push past those doubts.
Do you feel like you have to work harder to prove yourself to others?
Mirna: I never feel like I have to prove myself to others. I work hard to prove to myself over and over that my body is strong and capable. I do what I do for me and my family, and whether or not it proves something to others is a side benefit.
What would your advice be to someone who thinks they can’t do something because of a perceived physical limitation?
Mirna: Just go ahead and try it and visualize how you will feel, look and be when you have done it. On the flipside, you never know if you can’t do something if you don’t at least put forth some effort and try. If you fail, you try again, and again, until you make some headway. You’ve got to make change happen yourself even if you don’t feel ready. You’ll get ready.
You start every run by taking a selfie. How did this tradition start and what does it mean to you?
Mirna: I began carrying my phone with me on my runs, when I started running longer distances and especially when I’m running alone, which is most of the time. I always like to take pictures to remind myself of what I did, where I was, and what thoughts were going through my head – and it stuck. It became a thing that I always did. I love sharing with people what my mindset was through a simple selfie!
Running ultramarathons is often a pretty solitary endeavor. What are some your favorite outdoor experiences to share with your family?
Mirna:I took my mother camping twice in the Finger Lakes in Upstate NY, and she was so tickled and excited by the experience. As a family, we love the beach. My son and I went to Costa Rica for his spring break, and we surfed (my newest obsession) and will return in December for three weeks to work on our surfing, trail running and relaxing.
I think we don’t give enough credit to the traditional non-outdoor outdoor sports that get kids outside for hours a day. Those experiences are valuable too!