“RW Classic: Ultra, ‘Anyone who runs as much as you do deserves to be skinny.’ Of course, what they’re really saying: ‘If you do all this running, why are you still so fat?’ ”
Mirna Valerio climbs out of her car at Black Rock Lake. It’s a shining afternoon in early April in the high country of northeastern Georgia, along the eastern reach of the Appalachian Mountains. The serviceberry trees are budding on the hogback hills, but the oak trees and other hardwoods remain bare.
Early that morning, before dawn, Valerio had led a three-mile group run around the campus of Rabun Gap-Na-coochee School in the nearby town of Rabun Gap, where she serves as Spanish teacher, choir director, and head coach of the cross-country team. She’s about to start her second run of the day.
“Or people think, She claims to follow a healthy diet, but I bet she goes home every night and eats a gallon of ice cream.”
Moving toward the fishing platform where she always begins her Black Rock runs, Valerio pulls out her smartphone. “But you know what bothers me the most? People look at me and think, Big as this girl is, how can she possibly enjoy her sport? She says she loves to run, but she’s really just punishing herself.”
Valerio’s voice—bright, plangent, and Juilliard-trained—rouses a middle-aged man who’s been dozing on a sunny bench on the fishing deck. He looks at Valerio—a 39-year-old, 5-foot-7, 250-pound African-American dressed in a ball cap, fitness top, knee-length running tights, and training shoes—and does a cartoon-grade double take. Valerio blasts him with a big smile and a “Good afternoon, sir!”
And then, turning, she extends her arm for a ritual selfie. Every run, every race, every traverse of a mountain trail, every gym workout, Valerio begins by taking a photo. “To prove that I was out here,” she explains. “To document the fact that I achieved something today.”
Later, she will post the photos on her Facebook page and her blog, Fat Girl Running, in which she both writes of the joys of the running life and thoughtfully, humorously, and sometimes angrily rebuts her doubters, who can’t believe that a self-described fat person might discover—or deserve—this kind of joy. No pun intended, her blog has earned a widening audience and influence.
“Over the last 40 years, the collective BMI (body mass index) of the American public has shot up dramatically, with catastrophic consequences,” says David Ludwig, M.D., Ph.D., founder and director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children’s Hospital. “We understandably spotlight the biggest losers, the people who drop 100 pounds and turn their lives around. But there are countless others who, despite exercising and following a high-quality diet, can only whittle their BMI to a certain point. They need to learn to live healthfully with the disease of obesity, rather than make themselves miserable trying to ‘cure’ themselves of it.”
With a BMI of approximately 39.2, more than nine points above the National Institutes of Health-established line defining obesity, Valerio, a marathoner, ultramarathoner, and trail runner, has emerged as a role model for this group; a living argument that it’s possible to be both fit and fat. “I’m pretty much in love with my body,” she writes in her blog. “Sometimes I get disappointed or angry with it, but like any long-term, committed relationship, it usually comes right back to love and respect.”
“Mirna is proud of who she is and what she’s achieved,” says Craig Lloyd, chief operating officer of TrailAndUltraRunning.com, an online publication that posts Valerio’s work as a contributing writer. “She doesn’t want to cure herself of anything.”
By making peace with her obesity—or, more accurately, by fighting her disease to a kind of enduring, vigorously active truce—Valerio draws kudos from a formerly skeptical medical community. As recently as a few years ago, the jury was still out on the fit and fat controversy. A highly publicized 2008 study, for instance, found that compared with normal-weight active women, the risk of developing heart disease was 54 percent higher in overweight active women and 87 percent higher in obese active women. In effect, the study seemed to suggest, you really can’t live healthfully with obesity; being fit and being fat truly were mutually exclusive.
Since then, however, a number of studies have been published reaching a somewhat different conclusion. “The scientific evidence has become quite powerful to suggest that a healthful lifestyle dramatically mitigates the risks associated with mild levels of obesity,” says Yoni Freedhoff, M.D., author of The Diet Fix and a professor at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Medicine in Canada. “Scales don’t measure the presence or absence of health. A woman with obesity running marathons makes a superb role model.”
However, fit and fat runners such as Valerio still have their nonscientific detractors, whose criticism, while most often tacit and unintentional, still cuts deep: the running-shop clerk who laughs when she tells him she will be running every day, and media outlets (including Runner’s World) that have traditionally sent an implicit but powerful message that the sport belongs to the slender, or to those who strive to be.
“I know how hard it is for some people to accept me,” Valerio says. “Serious running and being seriously fat just don’t go together in people’s minds. If I didn’t run, I wouldn’t draw notice. I’d just be one more obese black woman. And if I were thin, I’d just be one more number at the starting line. But I run a lot, and I’m still fat. Some people can’t get their heads around that. They don’t think I’m for real, that I’ve earned the right to call myself a runner. They don’t say it out loud; you learn to read it in their eyes.”
VALERIO SETTLES in to the three-quarter-mile-long trail along the lakeshore. She runs about 25 miles a week if she’s not training for a race, 35 if she’s pointing toward an event, with the bulk of the mileage logged on a long weekend run. Right now she’s in a higher-mileage phase, preparing for a 50K trail race in Georgia at the end of the month.
Valerio runs at about an 11-to 13-minute-mile pace, roughly the same rate at which Terry Fox ran across Canada on one good leg and one prosthetic leg in 1980. She takes walking breaks, but they’re neither extended nor frequent; unlike many runners following a structured walk-run system, she doesn’t cling to her chances for rest. In fact, the breaks grow shorter as the miles accrue. “Mirna outdoes almost everyone on campus,” says her friend, colleague, and training partner Rebecca Smith. “The farther she runs, the stronger she gets.”
Also similar to Terry Fox, there’s nothing elegant about Valerio’s sprawling, swivel-hipped gait. Coaches would tell her that she wastes energy by holding her arms too high and rapidly swinging them across the meridian of her chest. But the style works for Valerio, appearing to serve as corrective balance for the ponderous progress of her lower body, distinguished by barrel-like thighs and a heavy scoop of belly.
Her determined stride has carried Valerio over six marathons, two trail ultramarathons, and scores of shorter road races. Her marathon PR is 6:13, but she doesn’t judge success by the clock. “I almost never finish last,” she says.
Near the end of her first loop around the lake, Valerio encounters a hiker, a middle-aged woman moving in the opposite direction. The woman, astonished, stops in her tracks. “Beautiful day for a walk!” Valerio says with a smile.
Then she runs on, her smile fading. “The reaction from that woman back there—it’s not just that I’m fat.”
Valerio explains that, unlike more well-known parts of the South, the mountains of northern Georgia were unsuited for cotton plantations or other large farms and thus accumulated few black slaves and their descendants. Today, Rabun County has a small Hispanic population but only a handful of African-Americans. “As far as I know,” Valerio says, “there are very few black families that live in the county.”
White people around the nearby town of Dillard, a center for tourism and the arts, have proved welcoming, she says. But the attitudes along the impoverished, meth-ridden back roads sometimes reflect a darker past. “Rumor has it that one of Georgia’s last active Klan chapters is based in the next town over,” she says, adding that parts of the movie Deliverance, the 1970s classic depicting chilling scenes of backwoods violence, were filmed in Rabun Gap.
“One Saturday morning I was out for a long run on the road by my house,” Valerio recalls. “It’s a great place to run, except for the dogs. I always carry a carved walking stick on that route.”
The scene seems all too easy to imagine: a 250-pound black woman, running alone down an isolated road in Deliverance country, carrying a big stick.
“I’m running along and a police cruiser pulls up beside me,” she continues. “The deputy looks at me, but he doesn’t say anything. We go on like that for maybe a minute, but it felt like an hour. Finally, he just eased away.”
After her run, relaxing at the fishing platform, Valerio engages the man and the female hiker, who are a couple. They’re visiting the lake with their son, who appears to be around 20. “Did you really run all the way around the lake?” the father asks. It’s the type of ingenuously condescending question that Valerio hears regularly.
“Yes, sir,” she says. “I’m training for a race.”
“What kind of race?”
“A 50-kilometer trail run.” The father gives a blank look. “That’s about 31 miles,” Valerio adds.
The man gapes, then recovers. “Say, maybe you know Sean, my nephew? He runs all those crazy races.”
The Georgia trail-running community is small and tightly knit; Valerio says she has run often in Sean Blanton’s events. Blanton is a prominent trail runner from Atlanta. The man is delighted. “Hey, this lady knows Sean!” he says to his wife.
Valerio talks about some of her recent races. The son listens with a wistful look; his mother explains that he was a good high-school cross-country runner but in recent years has drifted away from the sport. Valerio locks in on the boy—she is a fierce proselytizer, as the community has discovered.
“Mirna is the reason I started running again,” says Rebecca Smith. “My parents are runners and tried to get me into it. But it never quite worked for me. I always had an injury or a shoe issue or some other problem. Then I got to know Mirna, who you just can’t say no to. She’s also extremely knowledgeable on the practical aspects of the sport. Now I’m a regular in the early morning group.”
Valerio also spreads the gospel to her students. Kids who are late or don’t show up for cross-country practice have to run with her early morning group on campus. “Ms. Valerio is the most popular, energetic teacher on campus,” says James Maxwell Trammell, a rising senior at Rabun Gap, co-captain of the cross-country team, and the president of the student diversity club that Valerio started. “In terms of running, she projects an aura of inclusiveness: No matter who you are or what you look like, you have a place in this free, open sport.”
Now, at the lake, Valerio invites the boy out to a morning run at the Rabun Gap track. He nods evasively. “No, I mean it,” Valerio says, looking the boy in the eye. “Come run with us. We’ll be out there tomorrow morning.”
The parents glow from the attention bestowed on their son. “Where are you from, honey?” the father asks.
“Brooklyn,” Valerio replies.
“Brooklyn! How come you don’t sound like it?”
Valerio gives another smile. “It’s a long story,” she says.
WHEN MIRNA VALERIO TELLS her friends that she was raised in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, bordering the Ridgewood neighborhood, they imagine poverty, drugs, gangs, violence, and stark gray housing projects; they envision absent fathers, single mothers on public assistance, children locked away in apartments to avoid the danger of the streets, and type 2 diabetes scourging the community worse than handguns or heroin. Valerio knew this world as she was growing up, but there were grace notes, too: Love and grit instilled a strength in her family and propelled Valerio on her extraordinary trajectory.
Her mother was a strong matriarch who insisted on sitting down to a family dinner every night. Homework time was strictly enforced. Although Valerio’s biological father, a Honduran merchant seaman, was often absent, off on ships around the world, he communicated by long, detailed, carefully typewritten letters. Her stepfather, who worked in a hospital laundry, brought home books he acquired at the hospital or from catalogs—odd tomes that no one else wanted, including obscure medical textbooks. There was church all day Sunday, as part of a Pentecostal congregation with a caring, intelligent pastor.
Valerio loved to read. “The family would tease her, call her a bookworm,” recalls her younger sister, Natasha Taylor. Valerio wanted to be a gastroenterologist because of one of the medical books her stepfather brought home, and because she wanted to help her family with their health problems. Her mother was obese, diabetic, and hypertensive. Valerio and her three siblings were likely headed down the same path.
“In second grade I remember being very thin,” Valerio says. “In third grade I noticed my legs getting big. By the time I was 12 or 13, I was big all over.”
However, she wasn’t generally teased about her size. “Nobody gave us a hard time,” says Taylor, who at age 30 continues to deal with obesity-related health problems. “Our parents shielded us from the worst stuff in Bushwick, and everybody on our block was like family.”
Perhaps the sisters were spared ridicule because obesity is so common among African-American females. According to CDC statistics, 57.6 percent of black women age 20 and over are obese (with a BMI of 30 or above), and almost 82 percent are overweight (defined by the NIH as having a BMI ranging from 25 to 29.9) or obese. On the infrequent occasions when she was hassled—in seventh grade, she recalls, one boy called her a “fat bitch”—Valerio found solace in her books and her journal.
“It might be hard to believe now, but I was extremely shy as a young girl,” she says. “I couldn’t look people in the eye.”
School formed another refuge. From Head Start forward, Valerio followed the talented-and-gifted track. In middle school, she was selected for the “Prep 9” program, which prepared gifted disadvantaged students for entrance into elite private boarding schools such as Exeter and Andover. Valerio excelled in academics but remained shy and insecure. As ninth grade approached, teachers steered her to the Masters School, an all-girls 5-12 boarding academy in Westchester County, New York.
“From the moment I stepped on campus, I felt comfortable,” Valerio says of the school, which took pride in nurturing girls from all over the world; for instance, the attorney Michelle Roberts, a native of a Bronx housing project who was recently named head of the National Basketball Players Association, graduated from Masters. “There were a lot of smart kids at the school, and being in a boarding school helped me to grow.”
On her first day at school, Valerio decided to join the field hockey team. “I had never heard of it, but it looked interesting,” she says. For all her bulk and shyness, Valerio felt at home in her body. Unlike many overweight kids, she hadn’t learned to hate herself. (Interestingly, cultural and racial factors seem to play a key role in the complex interplay of body image and self-esteem; in a 2012 survey commissioned by the Kaiser Family Foundation in partnership with The Washington Post, 66 percent of overweight black women reported feelings of high self-esteem, compared to just 41 percent of thin or average-sized white women.) “I never had PE at middle school,” Valerio says. “I didn’t have the money to join leagues or organized sports, but I knew what it was to play.”
The first task was to run five laps around the field. Valerio and another unathletic scholarship student, Kristina Calbo from the Bronx, decided to give it a try. They started the death march around the field while Valerio’s mother, by turns proud and horrified, watched through a plate glass window up in the dining hall. Valerio might easily have quit after one heaving, lurching, agonized lap. She could have honorably taken the out of being a fat girl, and retreated permanently from physical challenges. Instead, she and Calbo struggled but kept running. “After the laps we had a two-hour practice,” Valerio says. “The next day I was so sore I couldn’t move, but I was hooked.”
She loved being part of a team, and the absorption and pulse of the game. She learned to tolerate, and eventually enjoy, running the pre-practice laps. For extra training, Valerio and Calbo started rising at dawn to run a mile or two around the dark leafy campus.
While making herself into an athlete, Valerio spontaneously blossomed as a singer. Her mother and sister sang R&B around the apartment, and Valerio had taught herself to play piano by ear and sometimes sang gospel with her church choir, but she’d never had formal musical training, aside from basic classes at school. Two minutes into Valerio’s audition for the Masters School Glee Club, the director told her to stop. “‘In 25 years of teaching, I have never heard a soprano voice like that,’” Valerio remembers the director saying.
Members of the school music department gave the girl free lessons. She forged an identity as the vocalist on campus. “Mirna was an incredible talent and even more amazing person,” recalls Nancy Theeman, who became Valerio’s music teacher during her second year at the school. “Mirna wasn’t into singing for the attention and glory. There’s this dense textbook that every music student gets assigned—A History of Western Music—but few actually read. Well, Mirna took the book home over winter vacation and read it for pleasure.”
Valerio’s talent and discipline were such that one of her teachers arranged for the girl to audition for the Juilliard Pre-College Division program, which prepares elementary through high-school performers for entrance into the famous music academy in New York City and other conservatories around the country. “The audition was insanely competitive,” Valerio recalls. “Students traveled in from D.C., Baltimore, and Florida to try out.” Valerio nailed the audition and enrolled in the program.
She attended Masters during the week, excelling academically, demonstrating a particular gift for languages. She played field hockey and lacrosse and ran in the mornings with Calbo, then on weekends rode the train and subway two hours to Manhattan’s Upper West Side to study at The Juilliard School, perhaps the foremost performing arts conservatory in the world.
Throughout her high-school years, Valerio says, she was unfazed by weight and body-image concerns. “My hockey and lacrosse coaches were unfailingly positive,” she says. “They had to improvise to find uniforms big enough to fit me, but they never said a word about my weight. They just expected me to do my workouts and eat sensibly. If I did that, my weight would take care of itself, which is pretty much the rule I live by today. I didn’t think much about dating or boys. I was busy and happy, and I didn’t define myself by my physical appearance.”
Graduation approached, and Valerio faced a difficult choice. “Mirna had the talent to pursue a career in opera,” says Theeman. “The question was, did she have that total single-mindedness that you need to make it as a professional performing artist? She was so bright and inquisitive—by this time she was fluent in Spanish. She didn’t want to limit herself to one narrow calling.”
Valerio puts her choice in plainer terms. “Sopranos have the reputation for not being the brightest bulbs,” she says. “I had a lot of interests besides music. If I had just pursued singing, I wouldn’t have been happy.”
She accepted a scholarship to The Oberlin College Conservatory of Music in Ohio, where she could pursue both music and the liberal arts. At Oberlin she majored in Spanish and vocal performance and kept physically active, although her voice teacher told her she couldn’t play sports because practice times conflicted with her commitment to the Oberlin College Choir. As graduation approached, she faced the same choice as when leaving high school: Grab for the brass ring in opera or go for a more conventional career? Valerio opted for the latter.
She went to work in New York City for KPMG, a prestigious audit, tax, and advisory consulting firm, and sang on the side, auditioning for The Metropolitan Opera Chorus and other positions. She met her husband, Cito Nikiema, a native of Burkina Faso in West Africa, one day while waiting for the subway during a blizzard. Recalling the pleasure she took in sports as a teenager, she started running road races put on by New York Road Runners. She enrolled in an eight-week-long running class, learning the craft of the sport in the same thorough way that she studied music. Valerio seemed to be on her way, but success in the corporate world left her unsatisfied. She decided to return to where she’d first blossomed, taking a job teaching voice and music at the Masters School. “Actually,” Theeman says, “I recruited her.”
“After my third day I was hooked,” Valerio says of the teaching profession. The next year, she was hired at Masters as a full-time music teacher. Thus began a career that would involve teaching posts at a private school in Maryland and a boarding school in New Jersey. In 2013, Valerio accepted a job offer at the Rabun Gap School in Georgia, where she is today.
That Pre Thing the new smoking, but that’s not why Valerio weighs 250 pounds.
In 2014, U.K. researchers published a study suggesting that a combination of high levels of physical activity and low levels of sitting time was necessary to reduce the risks of obesity. Further, the research showed that individuals reporting high levels of activity and low levels of sitting were less likely to develop long-term obesity.
So could excess sitting be the trigger of Valerio’s seemingly anomalous case of chronic obesity? Observing her in action through a typical day at Rabun Gap School, the answer clearly is no.
Her day begins before dawn with a three-mile run around the school’s hilly campus. Then she drives home, showers and dresses, wakes Rashid, her 12-year-old son, and has breakfast with him before school. Then she heads back to Rabun Gap for a full docket of teaching and interacting with students, fellow teachers, and staff. During her second-period high-school Spanish class, she is constantly on her feet, moving around the room, taking advantage of the small class size to engage with each student. In Spanish, she talks about her experiences as a runner. Race photos and bib numbers decorate the wall above her desk.
In choir class, where she presides over a group of 34 kids, she takes a more structured tack, with a little less joking and humor, but she’s even more active, conducting, waving, gesticulating, moving with light-footed grace. “People have a preconceived idea about the way a fat person is supposed to act,” Valerio says between classes. “A fat person is supposed to be depressed and lethargic and slow-moving. A fat person is supposed to be diabetic and asthmatic and engage in a lot of self-destructive behavior. I don’t act that way or look that way, and so, once they get to know me, people stop seeing me as a fat person.”
In the afternoon, on the last day before the long Easter weekend, the entire student body of the church-related private school convenes in the auditorium for a chapel service. Valerio conducts the choir in a rendition of a solemn hymn in Latin, and then it’s her turn to perform. She stands for an unaccompanied solo version of the spiritual “Were You There?” Her swelling soprano voice fills the theater, holding the audience spellbound. Even the squirrelly middle-school kids sit raptly. Valerio concludes to a cascade of applause.
After the assembly, out in the lobby, she accepts more accolades. Then, finally, she sits for a moment, riffing on the tired old saw, “It ain’t over till the fat lady sings.” “Of course, deep down, I would like to be thinner,” she says. “Accepting my weight doesn’t mean I’m satisfied with my weight. You meet a fat person who says otherwise, she’s lying.”
If Valerio weighed less, for one thing, she could run faster; a loss of one pound increases speed by about two seconds per mile of running. “And I’m well aware of the health risks of fat around the belly, and that obesity increases the chance of developing rheumatoid arthritis,” she continues. “I see myself as engaged in a long-term—maybe lifelong—campaign to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. I’ve already had my season of dramatic weight loss, and I don’t expect to go through another one.”
THAT SEASON STARTED in crisis. On a late summer evening in 2008, while driving through Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley on Route 222, en route to New Jersey, where she then taught at the Purnell School, a blazing star of pain rose in Mirna Valerio’s chest. She felt certain she was having a heart attack and was terrified that she was going to die. She was only 33, and her son, who was with her, had just turned 5.
Rashid had developed a pernicious case of asthma that kept the child and his mother up at night. Valerio would work all week at the Purnell School on little sleep; on weekends, she supplemented her teacher’s salary by giving music lessons in the Baltimore area, where she’d previously taught. So on Saturday morning she’d drive three hours to Maryland and give lessons all day, while a babysitter watched Rashid. She wasn’t eating more than usual, but the exhausting schedule left scant time or energy for exercise, and her weight ballooned north of 300 pounds. She knew she had to confront her obesity—which was now a matter of health, not appearance—but she kept putting it off. Now, with a point of pain digging a divot in the middle of her chest, Valerio was forced to face herself.
She pulled over to the side of the road and tried to breathe. The pain eased enough for her to keep driving. If she could just make it to the home of one of her colleagues from the Purnell School. By the time Valerio pulled into her colleague’s driveway, she was sure she was dying. Her friend graciously opened her home to Rashid and drove Valerio to the hospital emergency room.
There, Valerio received a mixed verdict. The good news: no evidence of a heart attack; doctors believed that Valerio had suffered a panic attack brought on by stress and exhaustion. The bad news: Blood tests showed extensive arterial inflammation. “Combined with my weight, it wasn’t a question of if I’d have a coronary or stroke, but when,” Valerio says. She was discharged from the ER but referred to a cardiologist.
She saw the specialist the next week: Dr. Freilich, a blunt-talking man from Brooklyn. “He looked at my charts, looked at me, and leaned across his desk,” Valerio recalls. “‘How old is your son again?’ he asked me.
“‘Five’ I told him.”
“‘Want to be alive when he’s older?’” Valerio saw no need to reply.
“Then lose 15 pounds in the next two months,” the doctor said. That got her attention, but what really nailed it was a follow-up appointment with her primary care physician. Valerio was in the office when the doc got called away. Her file was open on the desk. She leaned over and took a peek at the diagnosis. “Patient is morbidly obese.”
“Morbidly obese,” Valerio says. “Those words hit me between the eyes.”
She called Nikki Buccello. Buccello was a colleague at the Purnell School, a math teacher almost as intense as Valerio. The two women would get talking over a glass of wine and in an hour have outlined an entire diversity curriculum. Valerio knew that Buccello wanted to lose weight for a wedding she’d be attending in September. Now it was June, the end of the academic year. They had the whole summer in front of them, with the school’s facilities at their disposal. “‘Before we get started, I’m warning you,’ ” Buccello recalls Valerio telling her. “‘I’m the kind of person that once I begin something, I really get into it.’”
“I said, ‘Whoa, sister, who do you think you’re talking to?’ ”
The two women dove into an intense exercise routine. They ran, hit the gym, and played tennis in afternoon heat and humidity. “We gave up junk food and obvious stuff, but neither of us was into a starvation diet,” Buccello says. “Mirna loves food and cooking. She makes grocery shopping a sensuous experience.”
Recalling the 5Ks she enjoyed during the years she worked in Manhattan, Valerio suggested that they enter a local road race in New Jersey. “Sure,” Buccello said. “We can work up to it and try one in a few weeks.”
“Actually,” Valerio said, “there’s a 5K tonight. I already paid our entry fees.”
They started doing a 5K each week, sometimes more than one. Buccello would run until she got tired, and then walk. Valerio steamed along at her steady 13-minute pace. They rarely finished last.
“For me, running has always been a necessary evil, something I endure for the pounds to come off,” says Buccello, whose weight dropped from 185 to 150 that summer. “But Mirna loves running for its own sake. It’s paradoxical, almost funny in a way, but it seems like, big as she is, Mirna has a gift for running long distances. She doesn’t start to feel good until she’s covered five or 10 miles.”
Still, matters that most runners take for granted—from finding clothes to avoiding chafing to simply melting invisibly into the pack at the starting line—were an ordeal for Valerio. Even though she had every apparent motive to hate running, Valerio loved it. “I fell in love with the usual things,” she says. “The endorphins, the goal setting, the way running evened out my thinking, the taste of the air at dawn.”
At Valerio’s prodding, she and Buccello graduated to 10Ks. Then, over her friend’s protests, Valerio entered them in a 15-mile trail race at the Jersey Shore, which they drove to amid a wild thunderstorm. “Let’s go home,” Buccello said. “No way they’re going to have the race in this weather.”
“Maybe it’ll clear up,” Valerio said.
But the storm raged even stronger at the shore. The race was canceled and the women drove home. “I was relieved, but Mirna was really bummed,” Buccello remembers. “She was so disappointed that I let her talk me into meeting at 6 o’clock the next morning to run 15 miles on our own. She was so excited about getting that run in that I did my best to suffer in silence.”
As the summer wore on, the legend of Mirna Valerio grew. Colleagues from work and their families came out to road races to cheer the women. Valerio dropped a total of 27 pounds, getting down to the 270 range. Her blood pressure, resting heart rate, and cholesterol readings dropped down to healthy levels, and the dangerous inflammation in her arteries calmed. Perhaps most gratifying, her doctor struck the “morbidly obese” diagnosis from Valerio’s medical chart.
That Pre Thing the climax of the standard weight-loss narrative, when the cascade effects of running, healthy eating, and other positive changes produce a metabolic sea-change. The former fatty continues to shed her avoirdupois, transforming into a new woman. She goes from 240 to 120, and from size 18 to size 8. Her PRs drop in tandem with her BMI; she qualifies for Boston. Calories out exceed calories in: a morality tale we have read hundreds of times, often in the pages of Runner’s World.
But instead of continuing on the familiar arc, the story of Mirna Valerio hits an impasse; one possibly more common than a Disney-style breakthrough, but much less publicized. Valerio had embraced every aspect of the running life, from training to racing to nutrition. She had even started coaching her school’s cross-country team. But while no longer morbidly obese, she remained obese.
“No matter how much I run and work out, my weight never goes below around 240 pounds,” Valerio says. “I don’t know why. I eat a lot of healthy food, but no more than most skinny distance runners I know, and I don’t secretly binge on pizza and cookies and potato chips. I’m just not interested in starving myself on some 1500-calorie-a-day plan, losing a bunch of weight, then gaining it right back because my diet is totally unrealistic.”
Valerio’s supporters say she has worked her weight to a healthy, sustainable set point. Her critics could insist that by accepting obesity, she also accepts a greater chance of debilitating disease, and the likelihood of a significantly shorter life span.
However, ideas ranging from a round earth to women’s suffrage were also once novel and unsettling. Recent scientific evidence reveals a few provocative truths: What you do is more important than what you weigh; and what you weigh is determined by myriad factors, some beyond an individual’s control.
“I’D NEVER SAY weight doesn’t matter,” says Martha Gulati, M.D., director of the Women’s Cardiovascular Health Program at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “Weight will always influence a number of important health variables. But compared to the effect of exercise, weight and BMI have been proven to be secondary. By far, physical activity and physical fitness has been shown to be the single most important factor in maintaining good health, regardless of one’s body weight.”
Early this year, a study of 300,000 men and women in Europe conducted by U.K. researchers at the University of Cambridge found that twice as many deaths may be linked to lack of physical activity compared with the number of deaths linked to obesity. The study also found that a modest amount of physical activity, the equivalent of a brisk daily 20-minute walk, produced significant health benefits, even for people with a high BMI.
Long-term studies by the Cooper Clinic in Dallas found that the death rate for adults who are thin but unfit was at least twice that of fit obese individuals, and that fitness provided protection against early death regardless of body weight.
In short, exercise in general, including moderate exercise such as walking and vigorous exercise such as running, benefits everybody, regardless of weight. By the same token, physical activity, not diet, forms the behavioral key to achieving and maintaining a healthy weight.
By this logic, weight control would seem to be a simple matter of calories in/calories out. Burn more calories than you consume, and your body will adapt by burning fat. The pounds will drop away and you can buy new clothes, and stand a better shot at rewards ranging from getting promoted to getting a date. It seems an ineluctable law of physics, a Biggest Loser calculus relentlessly drummed into our brains by the American media. Hence the suspicion that dogs Mirna Valerio: If she runs so much, how can she still be fat?
“If controlling obesity were a simple matter of calories in and calories out,” says Ludwig, “I would be out of a job.”
“The calories-in/calories-out idea is ridiculously simplistic,” says Freedhoff. “It’s like a financial adviser telling an investor to buy low and sell high.”
Ludwig explains that weight loss, gain, and control are complex biological processes. “It’s a combination of genetic, behavioral, environmental, and psychological factors, and varies tremendously from individual to individual,” he says. “In many ways, obesity is similar to complex diseases such as cancer.”
Dr. Steven Blair, P.E.D., the lead author of the Cooper Clinic studies who is now a professor in the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina, agrees. "If you fashioned a hypothetical world in which every person ran 10 miles a day and subsisted on the same daily ration of carrots, you would still have a full range of body types, from svelte to stout.”
“Imagine our bodies as cars,” Freedhoff says. “They come out of the factory with various fuel efficiencies—an SUV’s is always going to be different than a sub-compact’s. How you drive definitely affects mileage, but the SUV is never going to burn less fuel than the subcompact.
“Well, just like cars, our bodies are all wired with their own distinctive genetic makeups. We can modify our BMI through exercise and diet, but only to an extent. Some of us are subcompacts, others are SUVs, and one type isn’t inherently ‘better’ than another. We can be healthy and happy no matter how much we weigh.”
Mirna Valerio has been wise enough and brave enough to strike this balance. Through years of hard but mostly happy work, she has attained her own healthy weight. She accepts herself without being satisfied with herself. “Instead of wondering, If she runs so much, how come she’s not skinny? we could be wondering, How heavy would she be if she didn’t run?” says Blair. “Is she a good person? Is she active, healthy, and contributing to the world? Those questions are far more pertinent and interesting than asking what she weighs.”
“A woman like Mirna makes an excellent role model,” Ludwig says. “She reinforces the fundamentals: Work out, be active, and eat a high-quality diet. Weight loss should be the by-product of a healthy life, not the goal.”
AT 6 O’CLOCK in the morning, her headlamp lancing the predawn darkness, Mirna Valerio stands in the parking lot above the track at Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School, meeting Rebecca Smith and three other women teachers, regulars in the running group that Valerio joined when she came to the school two years before.
At first she had resisted the Rabun Gap recruiter—“the last thing I wanted was to live in the South”—but she came down for a visit and was impressed by the educational philosophy, the elegant campus, the access to mountain running trails, and the chance for Rashid to go to school at a reduced tuition rate.
In 2011, Valerio launched her first marathon campaign, aiming for the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C. “The marathon was a big step for me,” she says. “I realized I was at risk, so I went to a pulmonologist, told him what I’d been doing, and what I had planned. ‘So am I going to drop dead?’ I asked him. He said, ‘Seriously? No way!’ Due to all the changes I had made, my chances of dropping dead were greatly reduced. He told me to go for it.”
Valerio started training in her thorough manner, using a plan from Jenny Hadfield and John Bingham. Everything was going fine until she rolled her ankle on a downhill during a half marathon. X-rays showed an avulsion fracture. With only eight weeks until the marathon, Valerio was devastated. She went to an orthopedist who was also a runner. “She gave me a cross-training program and said I could still do my marathon after three weeks in a boot and no running for eight weeks,” Valerio says. She gradually healed, and in November she and her husband and son drove to D.C. for the race. In many ways it was as much a death march for Valerio as that first agonizing lap around the high-school hockey field. She lurched and sweated and chafed and suffered, running just ahead of the bus that picked up stragglers who hadn’t reached the 14th Street Bridge by the cutoff time. Then at mile 16 she found her second wind; as always she felt stronger the longer she ran. She crossed the finish line in tears, with Rashid and Cito cheering her on.
Shortly afterward she was drawn to trail running and ultras. The longer the better, by Valerio’s lights, and she took to the solitude and challenge of the mountains. She also liked the comradeship and spirit of the trail-running community. “My first long trail race, an 18-mile loop course, I was out about nine miles from the start and was suffering,” Valerio recalls. “I had blisters, cuts, mosquito bites, you name it. I stood at the side of the trail. I didn’t think I could go on. Then a runner came along, an older guy. He asked if I was all right, if I had enough water and gels. He could see I was tired and discouraged, but I wasn’t sick or injured. ‘Well, it’s a long way back to your car and there’s only one way to get there,’ he said. ‘Maybe you better get started.’ I love that attitude about trail runners.”
Indeed, on both trails and roads, Valerio’s detractors form a shrinking minority. “In all the events she’s done with us, I haven’t seen anyone be anything but accepting of Mirna,” says Rick McNulty, co-director of the New Jersey Trail Series. “In fact, the first race she did with us, she was the one who raised issues. She didn’t want to be a burden. She didn’t want someone waiting around for hours for her to finish. I assured her it wouldn’t be a problem.”
Now, other than the morning runs at school, Valerio mostly runs on trails. When she feels weary, or especially inspired, she’ll rear back and belt out songs by Luther Vandross or Schubert. “Schubert and the mountains just go together,” she says.
She started her Fat Girl Running blog in 2011. “I’d go to races and hardly ever see anyone my size,” she says. “There were classifications like Athena. But that was for women 165 pounds and up. 165 pounds? They call that big? I wanted to encourage other big women runners, give them information, let them know they’re not alone.”
Back at the dawn run at Rabun Gap, Valerio gathers the women for the ritual selfie. She looks for the boy she’d met the day before, but he hasn’t shown. “No surprise,” she says. “I’ll keep trying.”
The women start their run in darkness. Headlights probe the highway in the valley below campus. They listen to the morning surge of birdsong, and the boom and wash of distant trucks. Gradually, the mountains take shape against a graying sky. White tufts of fog hang in the hollows.
“I love this time of day,” Smith says as they work past the dark high-school dormitory. “The kids are still asleep.”
“Not all of them,” Valerio says, moving in a stride that at first looks labored but after awhile appears powerful, implacable, her wide hips swinging, her arms pitching rhythmically across her trunk, her feet hitting the pavement steadily and quietly.
“I bet one or two kids are awake and watching us,” Valerio says. “Someday, in class, one of them will ask about my running. We’ll start talking, I’ll tell my story, and some morning soon that girl or boy will be out here running with us.”
Story Update · October 6, 2016
“Once I met Mirna and spent time around her, it was like, wow,” writer John Brant says. “In many ways running was the least interesting thing about her. The nerve her story touched blew me away.” Indeed, much has changed for Mirna Valerio since this story came out. She was profiled on NBC Nightly News, became a sponsored ambassador for Merrell, and landed a book deal. She also spent the latter half of 2015 racking up finishes at escalating distances, including a 12-hour run in Pennsylvania (in which she logged 31.5 miles), the Georgia Jewel 35-miler, and the Javelina Jundred trail 100K, which she ran in just under 26 hours. So far this year, Valerio has run a pair of 25Ks, a marathon, a 50K, and is targeting both the New York City and Marine Corps marathons this fall. Since becoming a global ambassador for Merrell, she’s also started doing Tough Mudders. Valerio has been balancing all of this with a promotion at her day job: She’s now the director of equity and inclusion at the Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School in addition to her responsibilities as a Spanish instructor and cross-country coach. Her memoir, titled A Beautiful Work in Progress, is scheduled to be published by Grand Harbor Press in October 2017. “It’s not necessarily about me being a fat athlete—I want to reach out to anybody who wants to feel good in their own skin, exercise, and enjoy things that they may not feel able or welcome to do,” she says. “I feel that I’ve been given this huge gift of being able to reach people. If I can continue to inspire and motivate others, why shouldn’t I?” –Nick Weldon