Mirna Valerio shares how she rediscovered running and learned to focus on herself without guilt or shame.

By By Mirna Valerio as told to Faith Brar
November 10, 2017

The word "struggle" has never been in my vocabulary, so I never saw myself as someone who "struggled" with their weight. While I've always been a big person, my weight started becoming an issue until 2008. At that time, I was over 300 pounds and that's the most I'd ever weighed. In an effort to balance family and career, my health to got pushed to the side. (Related: 5 Unintentional Ways You Stress Yourself Out)

I started noticing that something wasn't quite right after I had a two-year-long sinus infection that I just couldn't shake. And then while driving back from work one weekend I had an experience that completely changed the course of my life.

On the highway, with my kid in the back, I started having sharp chest pains that I thought were signs of a heart attack. I had a friend take me to a hospital where I was told I'd experienced a panic attack. Still, they referred me to a cardiologist who told me that even though it wasn't a heart attack this time, it was something that would happen if things stayed the same with my health. He reminded me that if I wanted to see my son grow up, I had to make a change. And with those words, I knew what I needed to do.

I made a promise to recommit myself to my own physical well-being and emotional fortitude. I knew that if I re-prioritized and re-ordered my life, I could reap the benefits of wellness and wholeness, which was something I deserved after neglecting myself for so long.

So I decided to gauge my fitness by trying complete a mile on the treadmill-no matter how long it took. I had been a runner all throughout high school and up until 2004, so I didn't think it was going to be that hard for me. So when it took me 17 minutes and 45 seconds, I was really disappointed. But in that disappointment, I was also motivated to do better. From there on out my goal was to run a mile a couple times a week and focus on improving my time. (Related: How Setting Small Goals Led to Big Success)

Three weeks later, I slowly started bumping up the distance and began doing a mile and a half, then 2 miles. Before I knew it, I started losing weight-but that wasn't what kept me going. The most amazing thing that started to happen was that I began feeling better than I'd had in years. It was that feeling that rekindled my love for running, which started to become something I looked forward to every day.

Rather than waking up at 4:30 in the morning and getting caught up on work, I started using that time to log in my miles and slowly started incorporating workout videos and yoga. That summer alone, I lost 35 pounds and I knew I was just getting started.

Within months, I had so much energy I started to run a couple 5Ks a week. The following year I was doing 10Ks like it was no big deal. In 2010, I did my first half marathon and that started to become my go-to distance-that is up until a friend of mine convinced me to enter the world of marathoning.

Knowing deep down that my life would continue to change and move if I continued along this amazing trajectory, I couldn't say no. I became hooked on the training and the long hours I would be out on the pavement depending solely on the strength and endurance of my body to carry me long distances.

So in 2011, I ran my first marathon, and though it wasn't painless, it was the most phenomenal experience for me both physically and emotionally. I fell in love with training and how it forced me to be outside for long periods of time, which is why I decided I was going to do at least two more the following the year.

During that time, I caught wind of trail marathons, which were all about running long distances surrounded by amazing terrain and stunning views. So I signed up for one at the end of 2012. After finishing the race, I realized that trail running was for me and immediately started exploring the idea of doing an ultramarathon (50K) at the same race the following year. Through setting that goal I was able to run on beautiful trails all year and became a part of a community that more suited my personal lifestyle.

In 2013, I ran my first 50K and haven't looked back since. Today, I've run seven road marathons, two trail marathons, and nine ultramarathons. And somewhere in there, my weight loss had plateaued at 239 pounds. My body just hasn't budged after that. That being said, I no longer run to lose weight. I run because it changed my life. I'm not sick all the time anymore and as a result, my son is less sick. I'm able to get through my day without having these huge lows and I'm healthier than I've ever been.

Still, people have had a hard time accepting that I could be a professional runner at my size. While I've never seen myself as a "fat girl running," passersby will often stop and stare and people will do a double-take while I'm running long races.

So, I started my blog Fat Girl Running in 2011, to spread this joy I had for running and the pursuit of intentional physical activity versus just working out because you're supposed to. I wanted to share my experiences around re-centering myself with friends and family-my journey to making me the focus of my energies, without guilt, without shame, and with pride. I wanted to share how I felt and existed as a bigger person in a fitness world filled with thinner people. I wanted to show how I felt entitled to unapologetically taking up my own fitness space.

A few years later, media outlets found my story interesting: One about a big girl who loves running and uses it simply to keep herself on the continuum of happiness, wholeness, and self-fulfillment without the singular, narrow-minded goal of conforming to often unattainable social beauty and fitness ideals.

I conform to none of that. And, as I had hoped when I made my journey public, some folks began to be able to envision themselves as runners, as people who did yoga, or as people who participated in obstacle course events. I was able to help spread the message that yes, all bodies are good bodies and that all bodies are entitled to nonjudgmental holistic health and wellness.

And now, probably on the largest platform ever, I have written a body-positive running memoir, A Beautiful Work in Progress, to tell my own story, so that others are able to hear it/read it from me, from my own perspective. It's my way of paying fitness and inspiration forward.

I feel blessed to represent folks in fitness who have previously been stigmatized, ignored, and/or forgotten. I also represent those, especially women, who have forgotten to include themselves in their own aspirations. I hope that in the future, we learn to enhance ourselves, without the minimizing effects of self-doubt and hatred-that we're able to grow with love and respect for who we are, who we wish to be, and with the knowledge that we are all beautiful works in progress.

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