June 9 2017
Fat Girl Running's Mirna Valerio explains why she—and everyone that runs—deserves to consider themselves "serious runners."
Back when my husband and I were dating, it took a long time for me to invite him over—a couple of months, actually. I had to know he was serious candidate for companionship and that he warranted being allowed into the sanctuary of my small but prized apartment in the Bronx. More than once I almost lost my reserve, but each time, I vowed to make sure that I knew in my heart that I could safely invite him into my life without threat of immediate emotional pain afterwards.
One humid evening, we met up after I had completed a running clinic session at the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan. I had just run 4 miles without stopping (for the first time ever) along the East Side Esplanade. I was spent, sweaty, happy and proud of what I had been able to accomplish. Even though my feet hurt, I ran to him and jumped (he is very tall), gave him an awkward hug (it was the jump’s fault), and a light peck on his newly shaved cheek. My spirits were high. I had broken through an enormous wall that I’d previously thought was impossible for someone as slow and cumbersome as I was. I was also elated to see him.
“Hi baby!” He greeted me in a lilting West African accented English accompanied by a big, toothy smile.
We walked and talked, ate at a Peruvian place and lingered over a glass of wine (me) and tea with sugar (him). Both of us looked forward to our weekly rendezvous. He would always pick up the check for our meals (my meal, actually—he would only have tea and soup) even though I insisted on paying every time. What I didn’t know at the time was that he spent a good portion of his paycheck on these weekly outings.
It was getting late and we would have to part ways soon—that was our routine on Tuesday evenings. I’d take the subway back to the Bronx, and he would take the PATH train, then bus to New Jersey. He knew better than to look at me longingly, hoping that this would be evening I finally relented. He did anyway, and I said no again. It wasn’t the right time. And anyway, I had to get up early and run 2 miles because that’s what my training plan said. I had big goals and I was determined to get my mileage in, no matter what. I would be running in Van Cortlandt Park the next morning, and I was not about to deviate from my schedule because some man wanted to come over. Only, he wasn’t just some man.
“I’m gonna run with you. Yeah, tomorrow morning, right?”
Now he had my attention. He’d get up and run with me? No one had ever taken me up on an offer to run together. He had just proven something intangible to me. I didn’t know quite what, but whatever it was allowed me to relax and relent. He had no running shoes on him, nor did he have any running clothes to speak of. In fact, he was dressed in jeans, a T-shirt, dress shoes and thin socks. Deep down I knew there wouldn’t be any running in the morning, but he had just created an inroads into an area of my heart that was sacred.
When we had been married for about 10 years, I convinced him to join me at a trail race. We had very occasionally run together in Van Cortlandt Park, but his interest in running dissipated a few years into our marriage.
This race took place on a snowy 4-mile loop in Northern New Jersey. My plan was to enjoy the scenery, run a bit with my hubby and then let him join all the folks who were ahead of me. I didn’t care about my time or even if I came in last. I was in it for the experience and I was happy to have him by my side, if even for a little while.
The race director said GO! and we were off. I began a bit more casually than my husband cared for.
“Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go Mirna. We’re gonna be last.”
“Oh that’s okay. I don’t care.”
“I don’t want my wife to be last.”
“If you want to go ahead, go. I’ll meet you at the finish. You can drink beer until I get there.”
“Don’t walk. You see? You can do it.”
“I know I can do it. I just don’t want to. But go ahead. I don’t mind.”
And then he slowed down a bit so he could get behind me, and started pushing ever so gently on the small of my back.
“Let’s go! Mirna, you are so strong!”
We passed one woman and then another.
“You see? We passed her. Now you’re not last.”
About 2 miles in and after a lot of slippery and icy uphill, he began to get tired. I was now ahead of him, having warmed up my legs and adjusted my effort and breathing to the demands of the constant rolling hills of the course. I began to walk, allowing him some time to recover his own breathing. I looked back at him and smiled. He shook his head, a little bit embarrassed.
“You see? It doesn’t matter. Nobody cares if we’re last. It’s not that kind of race. You ready to run some more? Thank you for coming with me.”
Steamtown was my second ever marathon. I traveled to Scranton with two friends. It was a short girlfriends’ getaway with the prize of finishing a marathon at the end. We dined at the carbo-load dinner and made new friends with the people at our tables. Afterwards, we checked in at our hotel, watched the end of a comical political debate on TV, then bid an early good night to each other, nervous about what the next day held for us.
In addition to setting a PR of 10 minutes, it was the race that cemented in me the desire to do this long-distance running thing long-term. I’m not sure if it was the ease of the 8-mile downhill at the beginning of the course, or it was because I knew that I could finish and that my body could actually take on another marathon. I came in last of my friends, but they waited for me at the finish with food, drink and sweaty hugs.
Katie and I enjoyed a great, albeit painful car ride back to New Jersey in which we rocked our creaky bodies to good music and noshed on the variety of snacks we had brought along with us for post-marathon recovery. About halfway in, I called my husband to remind him to pick me up at my friend’s place.
“Hey, don’t forget to pick me up…What? What do you mean you forgot? We talked about his like 10 times…dammit!”
I’m not sure what Katie was thinking as she listened to our increasingly heated conversation, but I am sure she knew from the tone of it that she’d have to drive me home since we had only one working car. That part of the car ride was uncomfortably silent.
When my husband came home late that night with my son, we had the loudest, most expletive filled argument we had ever had. There had always been an unspoken rule about arguing, which we both usually respected, but in my low blood sugar-cramped muscles-dehydrated state, I broke that rule immediately.
As I described the hurt and embarrassment I’d felt that day in the car with my friend, my anger was deepened by memories of all the other times he’d simply left me alone or with our son, leaving me to scramble, mostly unsuccessfully, for childcare. I wondered if I was taking this running thing too seriously. Was I putting my marriage at peril, making such a huge deal about all this running and marathoning? What was the real problem here?
The truth is I had never felt healthier, more alive and more capable of being the human being I was meant to be. My body was strong, flexible, fierce and able to carry itself over many miles. My mind was sharp. I was flourishing in every way—except this.
Was I neglecting my marriage? Did my running habit contribute to its increasing fragility? Was my routine of waking at four to head to the gym detracting from daily snuggles and closeness? Was I so invested in myself that I neglected caring for my family? Was this profound change in me, this newfound freedom from lethargy and mediocrity, the cause of the increasing emotional and eventual physical distance between us?
These are the questions that float in my head daily, especially since we haven’t lived together for the past four—almost five—years. He lives and works in West Africa, and my son and I currently live in Georgia.
I know this isn’t the reality for everyone, but running has always gifted me a profound sense of self, a deep knowledge that I am, and have always been whole no matter where I find myself in life. Sometimes I don’t realize it in the moment, but I have learned that this is my truth. In running, as in life, there are mountains with technical trails that ascend steeply and knock the wind out of you. There’s the coasting that comes at moments when you’ve reached a state of flow—when you don’t even remember that you are engaged in this difficult thing because everything has fallen into place perfectly. There are boring, asphalt-filled flats and ugly side streets—but sometimes they open up to the most beautiful vistas that remind you why you run, and why you choose this particular struggle.
This may or may not be an apt metaphor for the constant work that marriage requires, but I know that I must keep moving forward, through this shadowy, obstacle-ridden valley and up that scary mountain with all of its crazy pitches and sudden drop-offs, so that I may once again experience that life-altering view.