A runner’s high is something that’s touted for having almost magical, life-altering (or at least day-altering) powers. For many, running a 5km loop feels like an impossibility, but for a subset of ultramarathon runners, hitting the pavement is a way of life. It’s a way to carve out a moment of peace in the day and an opportunity to see what their bodies are really capable of — and though non-runners may never understand it, it’s also a source of joy and deep fulfilment.
Mirna Valerio, who grew up in Brooklyn, New York, has been running regularly since she was 13 years old. She started running to improve her lacrosse and field hockey skills while attending an all-girls boarding school. Over the past 34 years, her running habit has evolved into an awe-inspiring ultramarathon career.
Valerio didn’t set out to run an ultramarathon (she was 13, after all) but as soon as she’d completed her first trail marathon, she was hooked. “It also allowed me to spend many hours outside moving my body — and I loved that,” she tells Refinery29 Australia. She explains that what initially drew her to the sport was finding out how far her body could take her. And all it took was crossing the finish line of that first race, and a little encouragement from the race director, for her to sign up for her first ultramarathon.
For the uninitiated, an ultramarathon is any footrace that’s longer than a traditional 26-mile (42.195km) marathon and can range from a six, 12, or 24-hour race of 50, 100, or 200 miles, all the way to a multi-day event.
It goes without saying that ultramarathons are not for the faint-hearted, but Valerio believes that her body is made for them. “I love that they’re long and they fit my body, how I run, and how I exist,” she says. “I can go all day walking and running, which I’ve literally done a few times.” For Valerio, running is about more than the physical, and although she admits that she feels amazing after a run, she also credits running for easing her anxiety and helping her cope after an “anxiety-ridden morning”.
“I also get to be a beacon for people who live in bodies like mine."
Running is typically thought of as a solitary sport, but Valerio explains that there’s actually a real sense of community among runners. That could be anything from passing another person on a trail, participating in a race and being surrounded by people who share a common goal, or joining initiatives like Lululemon’s FURTHER, as Valerio has. FURTHER will see 10 female athletes participate in a six-day ultramarathon that kicks off on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2024. As part of the program, each athlete will also participate in a research program that's interrogating what we know about female endurance training and helping to close the data gap that exists in sports science.
Like many other aspects of our society, the basis of many sports-related advancements has been research that involves men. Everything from the way our bodies move while running to the shoes we lace up before playing sport have been traditionally modelled on men (with the exception of select brands like Adidas and Under Armour, which also have women-designed running shoes). With FURTHER, Lululemon hopes to change that, by bringing together women from different backgrounds and of different body types to finally understand how women run.
“I’ve never been part of a study or found research that includes people in non-thin bodies,” says Valerio. “It’s exciting to be part of a research project that reflects women of such different builds, ages, and races, and to think about the research on female endurance performance that can come out of this. It’s revolutionary to have these kinds of resources allocated to better understand female bodies in endurance sports.”
For Valerio, sharing her experience as a plus-sized ultramarathon runner affirms that everyone deserves to move their body in a way that feels good for them. “I also get to be a beacon for people who live in bodies like mine,” she says.
Valerio has always championed running for all, penning a book titled A Beautiful Work In Progress in 2017 that explores how misguided the stereotypes of what a runner looks like are — namely thin and white. “People weren’t used to seeing people that looked like me running or on the start line," she says. "In a way, I was pigeonholed into representing multiple people and bodies.” Her message is clear: “All bodies — regardless of who they are — should be welcomed wholeheartedly into movement spaces. Humans are meant to move. If we don’t respect that, then why are we calling it a movement space if not everyone is welcomed or acknowledged in their humanity.”
As someone who works in diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging, Valerio loves to help people who have never seen themselves represented realise that it is a possibility for them. “Every time I go for a run or go to a gym, I am making a statement because of my body and people need to see that,” she says. “Whether it’s people that think bodies like mine don’t belong in these movement spaces or people that have been curious about whether they belong.”
Perhaps it’s the teacher in her (she was an educator for 18 years), but leading by example is important to Valerio. A big part of that is pushing through the tough moments, and as people in the ultramarathon community say, “Embrace the suck”. She isn’t immune to self-doubt, and admits that there are definitely times when she questions whether she can really get the race done, even though all past evidence points to yes.
“That’s where the mental grit comes into play,” Valerio says, adding that this requires a level of mental resilience, which has also bled into other areas of her life. “Sometimes I have to hunker down, clear my head and space, and get the work done — and that’s something a lot of long-distance runners have the ability to do,” she explains.
“If it’s mile 22 of 60 and I’m encountering physical or mental obstacles, I’ll tap into my strategies. This can come in the form of employing mantras, working on a problem in my life, zoning out or listening to music,” Valerio says. It’s this that gets us onto the topic of listening to music while running. As a fair weather runner myself, I can’t imagine hitting the pavement with nothing but my busy mind to keep me company, but Valerio explains that she was once a “die-hard no music” person, unless she was on the treadmill, so she could take in her surroundings while out on a trail. “Technology has since caught up to my needs, as I now wear Bose sunglasses that have speakers while keeping your ears free,” she explains. “It gives me the flexibility to hear my music and what’s going on outside.”
“Ultimately you want to run, and you want to like it. It’s giving yourself the time, space, and patience to get better at it.”
Call it a self-indulgent question, but I was curious to know how she copes with the silence, even when pushing through a gruelling 50km run — and this is where her mantras come in. Valerio also suggests tapping into what’s going on around you, and giving yourself assignments to work through. “I did a 25km [run] here in Vermont and there were so many birds communicating that felt like I was in a jungle,” she says. “This was an opportunity to have an intimate relationship with the natural world and embrace this sonic experience. I always try to be present, especially when I’m in a beautiful natural place where I can engage my senses.”
If you’re feeling inspired to try your hand at running, Valerio says that there’s no real secret to it: you just have to do it and be patient with yourself while you do. “Put your sneakers on and go. There’s really nothing more to it,” she says. “We have to deal with all the narratives we have in our brains, like how we should look or how fast we should go. You can have those narratives on one shoulder, and you can put on your sneakers and get outside or on a treadmill.” She also suggests considering what spaces you have access to, and how you feel most comfortable to try running, whether that’s on the pavement, a trail, or a treadmill at the gym. “If you need to stop and take a breather or run more slowly — do so! I like the idea of running at a conversational pace where you can say a few sentences without gasping for air.”
Embracing the present moment and giving yourself the grace to go at your own pace is the most important, according to Valerio. “Ultimately you want to run, and you want to like it. It’s giving yourself the time, space, and patience to get better at it.”
As for her next challenge, Valerio is excited to embrace training for the six-day ultramarathon next March. “I’m curious about how far my body can take me. That is my main priority,” she says. “I’m also curious about whether I can go farther after FURTHER. What can I do after? Would my goals shift? I go into it with a lot of curiosity and openness about what it will bring, and what I can get out of training as my training has already shifted my fitness in a really positive way. So, I’m excited for more of that.”