The strength we seek is all around us
As a runner of marathons and ultramarathons, author and advocate Mirna Valerio knows a thing or two about finding reserves of power within herself. When she makes the decision to leave her job as an educator and build a new career around inclusivity in the running world, she must find a different kind of strength to take action and learns that it’s always there for her, even when her fear doesn’t go away.
The strength we seek is all around us
MIRNA VALERIO: I hear the muted sound of rain falling on our bodies and the leaves around us. The mini splashes of our foot falls on the ground. A soft blanket of pine needles provides a cushion for most of the trail. Every part of me is connected — my heart and my lungs and my legs. My whole body finds a flow. I often start with fear as I start running, but it always dissipates.
ROHAN GUNATILLAKE: Ultrarunner, author, and adventurer, Mirna Valerio has made a career out of tackling big athletic goals and modeling what’s possible in the running world for people of all kinds. Her boundless positivity leaves you with the impression that she’s fearless. But, in this week’s episode, Mirna tells a story of confronting fear head-on and realizing that, while fear is ever-present, the strength we need to take action is always there too.
In this series, we combine immersive first-person stories, breathtaking music, and mindfulness prompts so that we may see our lives reflected back to us in other people’s stories. And that can lead to improvements in our own inner lives.
From WaitWhat, this is Meditative Story. I’m Rohan, and I’ll be your guide.
The body relaxed. The body breathing. Your senses open, your mind open, meeting the world.
VALERIO: The classroom is quiet. Sunlight shines through the open windows. It’s February in the north Georgia mountains. The winters can be cold here, but the fresh air feels good.
I sit alone at my big teacher’s desk in the corner. Through the doorway, I hear the chatter of teenagers and a few faculty members. This is Rabun Gap-Nacoochee school, a private boarding school where I teach. I’m a Spanish teacher, I’m the choir director and the cross country coach.
It’s one of my prep periods, but I’m not really prepping anything. I’m just drinking my coffee, sitting in the quiet, and having a whole conversation in my head. I ask myself the same question I’ve been asking all year: Should I stay at Rabun Gap and continue my life as a high school educator or should I go?
I’ve been teaching for 17 years. I’m good at it. Here, I have a salary, security, and health insurance. My son Rashid is in the 9th grade. Rabun Gap is a welcome home for us. They give us a place to live. I have a strong community here. And I find real comfort in that.
But, I have another part of my life. I’m a runner. I run my first mile at 13 to try out for the field hockey team. Even though I’m slow, I love it right away. I don’t look like what most people think runners should look like. Sometimes, other runners say rude things. But I keep at it. I run marathons and ultramarathons. I relate to running like how I relate to my body. It’s intimate. It’s reverent. When I was younger, running was a tool to discover my strength. It allowed me to contribute to my hockey team. I may not play for a team now, but I play to embrace and love all kinds of bodies. As I get older, I advocate for inclusivity in the running world. I lead workshops and write articles. I start the Fat Girl Running Facebook group for other women runners who look like me. It turns out there are a lot of us.
And as more of these opportunities pull me away from school, I start to wonder if I should dedicate myself full-time to that work. And only that work.
Sitting in my empty classroom, I go over this conundrum in my head. Then I hear a knock at the door. I look up to see a student named Chris. He’s on the shorter side, with braces. “Hey, Ms. Valerio,” he says as he walks in.
I sit up a little straighter. “What’s up, man?” I’m posturing. Immediately ready to fight on Chris’ behalf.
He isn’t one of my students, but I know Chris because I know all the Black students at Rabun Gap. I do Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion work for the school. Chris is pretty beloved by everyone. But usually, when students I don’t have in class seek me out, it’s because someone has done or said something that’s racist, sexist or homophobic. I’m ready to go hard for Chris no matter what.
But as he sits down across from me, he smiles and says, “I just wanted to come and tell you that I love you. And I love that you’re here at Rabun Gap.” I’m blindsided by the sweetness of it. Before I can even fully absorb his words, he continues. “I also wanted to say that I don’t think you belong here.”
“Come again?” Chris is known around school for his big opinions. He’s not shy about speaking up.
“I’ve been watching you,” he says. “Your star is rising and you need to follow it.”
Wait, what? I’m speechless. This little 10th grader just waltzed into my classroom and burst my world wide open. He’s like a mini-Oprah or Iyanla Vanzant. This feels like a sign. I’m sure it is. It really is time to go.
But I’m also nervous. Filled with anxiety.
I have a huge family, and they look up to me. I’m a successful Black woman. And sometimes it feels like people see me as some sort of ‘golden child.’ There’s a lot of pressure, a sense of responsibility that comes with that.
A deep fear courses through my body. What if this doesn’t work? What if there’s not enough momentum? How will I function without being attached to a structured workplace? All on my own without support or a safety net.
The thought of diving headfirst into my running career and starting a new business venture is exciting. But failing could have devastating ramifications.
I look across my desk at Chris’ big smile, his mouthful of braces. I ask if I can give him a hug. He nods and I lean in for a quick squeeze. “Thank you for saying that,” I say. “For seeing me.” This conversation feels like the universe giving me a final nudge out the door. A nudge that I knew I needed to answer.
Looking around my classroom, I’m still filled with the fear of letting all this safety go. But I’m encouraged to jump anyway. I know what I have to do. I just hope that I have the strength to withstand the self doubt I’m feeling.
The cabin walls and floors are lined with colorful tapestries with braided cotton rugs and repeated geometric patterns. It’s southwestern Indigenous-inspired artwork. There are throws on comfortable chairs. The air carries the faint sweetness of the cherry wood that’s everywhere. Most of us are seated on the big leather couch in the living room. A few others sit on a woven rug on the floor or in chairs that are bar height, dragged over from the dining room table. There are 22 of us — 21 women runners and me.
This is the first night of my first weeklong running retreat I’m leading through my new business. We’ve all come out to a cabin in North Carolina, up in the Appalachians. I have no idea how it’s going to go, but people seem ready to jump into this adventure. When I open the signups on my Fat Girl Running group, all twenty one slots are filled within days. These women are excited to see what I have planned. And their excitement triggers a deep wave of fear. This is my first time organizing anything like this on my own outside of the safety of school. And I’m terrified I’ll disappoint them.
We form a circle of sorts and begin introductions. A woman from New Mexico speaks and then one from Virginia. Then New York and Chicago. “I’ve always wanted to do something like this,” one runner says. “But most retreats are designed for runners who are very fast or very thin.” I see a few women nod their heads. One of the other runners chimes in, “I knew this retreat was the right one for me, because I knew for the first time, I wouldn’t be left behind.” One after the other voices begin to speak up. “Thank you for doing this for us.”
I begin to feel like perhaps I did do the right thing. We continue around the circle and more women share their stories. Each person sharing encourages someone else to open up. We don’t discuss diets or weight loss. That’s my rule. We all know better than anyone that there are plenty of spaces outside of this cabin where you can do that. But we are not doing that here.
Together, one by one, these women create a camaraderie in which they feel like they belong. When I check my watch, I see that this opening question has led to two-and-a-half hours of tearful, emotional sharing. Most of us have just met, but we have shared experiences — shared frustrations, pains, and triumphs.
I don’t know where these women are finding the strength to bare their souls like this. But it feels both hard-earned and long overdue. I’m proud of myself for bringing them together. For helping create this space. But every day is a new opportunity for something to go wrong. My fear isn’t going away.
GUNATILLAKE: Fear and doubt. Do you recognize them in yourself? I certainly do. Let’s rest with the idea that the aim isn’t to get rid of those feelings but to get along with them.
VALERIO: Rain pounds against the van’s windshield. Lightning flashes across the sky. An instant later, thunder shakes everything around us. I can feel it in my chest. This weather is not having it. I look through the window at the dark gray sky and shake my head. I inhale deeply.
Really? An absolutely insane thunderstorm on the first day we’re supposed to run? Come on! This is a cruel joke.
The runners in the van swivel their heads around anxiously. I’m anxious too. Are they angry? Do they want refunds? This is a disaster. We haven’t even started running yet! A woman says, “Are we really going out in this?” Everyone wants to know.
I calmly and confidently say, “Yes, we are. We’ll wait 20 minutes after the last lightning. We’ll go out, and we’ll get wet. It’s trail running and that’s what we do.” I try to put on a good face. I want to show them that I’m not worried. So they shouldn’t be either.
But inside, I’m still questioning everything. Maybe I was wrong to think I could do this on my own. To think I could give up my safety net. I really want this to work, but right now, I feel like a sham. A disappointment. It’s hard to see a happy ending coming after this storm.
When the lightning dies down, it’s still raining like crazy. And it’s also hot and humid.
We set out for our run.
The Fonta Flora trail climbs up into the rich dark green of the Appalachian forest, running along a ridge that looks down over Lake James. This is the southern Appalachian mountains, where there’s a lot of iron in the dirt. The trail is ablaze with that iconic red clay soil. Either side of the path is lined with almost fluorescent green ferns and deep emerald conifers and deciduous trees. It’s breathtaking.
I hear the muted sound of rain falling on our bodies and the leaves around us. The mini splashes of our footfalls on the ground. A soft blanket of pine needles provides a cushion for most of the trail. There are layers and layers of sound. Occasionally, cool puddle water splatters my ankles. And even though it’s really steep in some places, I’m in my element. Every part of me is connected — my heart and my lungs and my legs. My whole body finds a flow. I often start with fear as I start running, but it always dissipates.
Periodically, I run up and down the trail to check in with everybody. It’s important to me that nobody is left behind. Some are walk-running, others are jogging. Everyone is going at their own pace and bursting with smiles. This group of women from all walks of life, emboldened by our determination to be here. We’re all totally in love with the rhythm of running in this magical place, with these magical people. And it’s like, Ah, this is the culmination of my work. We’re in flight.
It’s clear right away that one of the runners, Roma, is kind of a free spirit. I love her energy. We’re three miles into the run, and we’re all soaking wet. But it’s still so hot. So Roma decides to take her shirt off. I don’t typically take my shirt off in public. I like my body, I just don’t want people pathologizing it, or looking at me in that negative way they sometimes do. This is the reality of being in a plus-sized body. Constantly on guard against the criticism and opinions of others.
But soon, a few of the other runners follow Roma’s lead. They take their shirts off. And I think, what the hell? I take my shirt off, too. We run through the woods with our shirts off. Sports bras cling to our curves, celebrating every powerful inch of our flesh. It feels like a cleansing of shame over our bodies. A cleansing of fear. It’s an invitation to be free. To find the strength to trust one another and bare it all.
GUNATILLAKE: There can be a great joy, a great freedom in being vulnerable when we feel supported as part of a community. Let’s take a moment to reflect on the spaces and communities in our life, where we feel comfortable and strong enough to take off our layers. Sending them our gratitude as we breathe.
VALERIO: We’re happily exhausted, high off endorphins. Our clothes are dripping wet and our bodies are speckled with mud. There’s a collective sense of accomplishment. We did it! Time to head back to the cabin for cookies and a warm beverage.
But as we crest a small ridge and get to the trailhead, I see the van and I gasp. “Oh my God. Oh my God.” Both back wheels have sunk deep in the mud. They’re completely stuck. The van won’t move at all. We try a bunch of different ways of backing out, but nothing works. The tires just spin in place. The slick red dirt squelches and squishes.
For a moment, everyone just stands around in the hot, muggy air, unsure what to do. Part of me thinks, Well, at least we had a good run. But another voice inside says, you failed and soon, everyone will know you are a failure.
The success of this retreat is about more than just business. I’m a role model. There are people that follow my career closely. I’m not a celebrity, but I’m a very public person. And there’s a lot of scrutiny that comes with that. Especially as a Black woman in a plus sized athlete’s body. If I fail to reach a goal, I feel as though I’m letting down more people than just myself. That fear of failure sits with me every time I step out onto the trail. And, staring at this van stuck in the middle of nowhere, it’s more palpable than ever.
That’s when Aja steps up and says, “Hey, I think we can lift it.” Aja is a beautiful and tall Vermonter. Later, I’ll learn she is also a record setting weightlifter.
Everyone looks to me. It sounds ridiculous but I say, “Um, we can try? Yeah. Let’s try.”
So Aja and some of the other runners gather at the stuck wheel, hands under the van. My heart starts racing. I’m liable for the safety of these women. Someone could get hurt. Is it safer or more dangerous for us to just walk back to the cabin?
Before I can decide, Aja counts to three: “1, 2, 3, lift!” And slowly, miraculously, the van starts to rise. They don’t get the tire all the way out, but it moves a little. This is possible! They count and lift again. And again. There’s this kind of loud slurpy sound as the wheel breaks suction out of the mud. The van shifts. We’re on solid ground. We’re all hooping and hollering. I’m like, “Oh my God, did you all just lift a whole van, like a whole 15-passenger-sized van, with your bare hands?” I have no idea where they found the strength to do this.
They all look back at me and smile like, “Yeah, we did that.” That’s the moment I know we’re going to be alright. That’s when I know I’m going to be alright.
Watching everyone hug and high five, I think to myself: This is the work. This is what we have to do every day. There’s always some heavy burdensome issue that needs moving. Sometimes it’s a societal narrative about whether we deserve respect or compassion. Sometimes it’s a world that refuses to recognize that we are capable and accomplished. Sometimes, it’s a literal van.
When I’m staring these obstacles in the face, it can feel like I’m not strong enough to move them. Like I’m not strong enough to do something bold. Or something scary. But these women have reminded me, the strength I need is always inside me. I’ve found it before. And I can find it again.
It’s 2023. I’m in Vancouver, British Columbia, training for a long distance trail run. When I say long distance, I mean long distance. It’s a six day event, where I’ll run as many miles as I can in that time. The record is 644 miles. I am not interested in breaking that record, but I want to surpass my own. I am running on a wide trail, lined with tall fragrant conifers.
There’s only one other plus-sized woman in our training group. Her name is Vriko and she’s from Hong Kong. She’s a Brazilian jiu jitsu practitioner and fairly new to running. The trail today is challenging. I know she’s having a hard time of it.
So I come up alongside her as we run and I check in. I suggest we count trees. It’s a technique I use to focus on something other than my pain or exhaustion. One, two, three trees along the trail. For over four miles, we take turns. It’s the longest she’s ever run.
Vriko starts to struggle with her breathing. I know exactly what she’s feeling because I’ve felt this way before. I say, “Let’s just get to the next pole.” I can tell it’s hard for her. I say, “Let’s stop and stretch together.” We stretch. We keep going. We stop when we need to, and we finish the run.
At the end of the day, Vriko turns to me and says, “I wish you would come back with me to Hong Kong. There’s nobody like you where I live.” It makes me emotional. I’m so grateful that I get to remind Vriko of what she’s capable of. To remind me of what I’m capable of.
Every retreat I go on, every time I start training, I’m repeatedly dealing with fear and discomfort and doubt. The same is true for the women I run with. We’re all in a continuous series of stepping up, for ourselves and for others. After six years of doing this, I know I create environments where people feel emotionally and physically safe to do challenging things. To feel like they belong and won’t be left behind. A place where they can access that strength that’s always inside them.
The fear never entirely goes away. Being in the pain cave and embracing the suck is part of the process, both on trail and off. But we can all find ways to do things that may feel and be overwhelming. We can figure out a way to move through the fear of not being able to move through the fear. I have the strength. And you do too.
Rohan’s closing meditation
GUNATILLAKE: Thank you Mirna.
That thing that Mirna said at the end there really spoke to me. We all have fear and doubt and overwhelm, especially nowadays. But we also, as she says and as she shows, we always have the strength to move through.
There’s an idea that some qualities within us, such as fear or doubt or anger, are negative and others — say calm or kindness or strength — are positive. It’s an old-fashioned idea, the whole devil and angel on your shoulder kind of thing, but still surprisingly commonly held.
There is however, a different take, one from more of a mindfulness perspective. That our more challenging emotions and mind states are not in opposition to the more stabilizing ones.
We see this in the beautiful description Mirna gave of that opening circle at the runner’s retreat. Women sharing their stories, the painful and the joyful. And whatever it is that is shared, it is heard. It is allowed. It is supported by the circle. It is held.
So that is the idea we’ll explore together in our short closing meditation. Of how when it comes to our mind states, whether you call them good or bad, it doesn’t matter, because our awareness, our strength, can hold it all. There’s room.
So let’s start.
I’m going to ask you to think about your skills as a meditator. How you rate yourself.
Right now, you’re probably thinking negatively. Putting yourself down. Self-judgment. That’s ok. I’m doing the same to be totally honest. I could practice a lot more. My mind is so chaotic. These are the thoughts that can tend to arise. Let them arise. Let them appear and be held in our awareness. Be embraced. No need to fight. There’s room. Noticing how the awareness that can hold negativity is itself not touched by it. A kind of magic.
Now, bring to mind your favorite moment from Mirna’s story. Maybe it’s the van being lifted by superhero runners. Maybe it’s when everyone is feeling free in the rain. Or when Mirna supports Vriko through their struggles. Whatever it is for you, bring it to mind. Let it lift your heart. Let it lift the corners of your mouth. Let it remind you of your own moments of triumph, positivity, and strength.
This too is known. This too is embraced by awareness, is held.
The fear and doubt is present. The strength and joy is present too.
The apparently negative and the apparently positive, all held by that which is always here.
Awareness, always here. Always available. Encompassing.
So thank you again, Mirna, for pointing us to that which is always within us.
And thank you. Run well.
We’d love to hear your personal reflections from Mirna’s episode. How did you relate to her story? You can find us on all your social media platforms through our handle @MeditativeStory, or you can email us at: [email protected].