Nobody loves the referees, it has been suggested, except by their families and friends -- and that's assuming those officials stay away from working a game involving a favorite team of those loved ones. If so, Wild Bunch Desert Guides owner and operator Laurel Darren is a notable exception – and for one very good reason after one of the Phoenix mountain bike tours she guided recently.
Scottsdale mountain biking becomes a Mother’s Day gift
“I’m coming to Scottsdale!” roared the familiar voice of Mirna Valerio, better known as The Mirnavator of Social Media fame.
“I’m coming to see my family,” she added, “and I’m going to have Salsa Cycles send me a bike so we can go mountain biking in Scottsdale Arizona.”
Along with guided Phoenix hiking tours, guided Scottsdale mountain bike trips is exactly what we do at Wild Bunch Desert Guides, my little mom-and-pop specialty shop that is highly rated by Google, Yelp, and TripAdvisor.
I also had urged Mirna to add mountain biking to her long list of skills and inspirational adventures since becoming fast friends in 2018.
So, I was in disbelief. “NO WAY! We are?”
And Mirna asked me: “Here are the dates. Where should we stay?” I told her the Four Seasons Scottsdale because not only is the resort great, but the facility is close to the trailheads.
A couple of minutes and details later, I remember hanging up the phone wondering, “Am I dreaming? Did this really just happen?”
Were Thelma & Louise getting together for another adventure?”
The Mirnavator (left) and Laurel Darren have their helmets on and are ready for their first mountain bike ride together.
Scottsdale mountain biking with Mirna
Gentle reader, please allow me a moment to explain how incredible of an honor this was for The Mirnavator to select me and my little Phoenix adventure tour company to teach her how to ride during a series of guided Scottsdale mountain Bike tours.
Mirna is a global phenomenon as the self-titled “Adventurer-in-Chief” behind the movement to inspire people of all shapes and sizes to get moving physically and gain confidence emotionally to live their best lives possible.
The Mirnavator has shown people across the planet to plow through health and weight problems for more than a decade now by sharing her journey as a plus-size athlete and woman via her immensely popular Blog, “Fatgirlrunning.”
Mirna also is a published author with an incredible book that has received fantastic reviews, “A Beautiful Work in Progress.”
Her writing also has appeared in numerous magazines, and she has been featured by the Wall Street Journal, Runner’s World, NBC Nightly News and CNN to name a few.
With such a huge media presence, The Mirnavator is in high demand as a corporate speaker, and she has grown into a Social Media influencer for companies aligned with her values and inclusive message as a brand ambassador on Facebook, Instagram and elsewhere on the Internet.
Mirna has big companies, big-time coaches and professional athletes coming at her all the time. So, she could have gone anywhere else in the world rather than ride on Phoenix guided mountain biking tours with the Wild Bunch Desert Guides.
Rebecca Rusch, the best female pro mountain biker in the world, sent her a message on Instagram the other day asking to ride with her.
Rebecca Rusch is MY IDOL.
It is like Michael Jordan inviting you to come down to North Carolina for a game of one-on-one, and instead choosing to go to the neighborhood park with your best buddy. How many people are going to pass up MJ? Nobody could blame you for bypassing your pal just this once!
You talk about things like this, but there are only a few people on this journey of life that really do what they say they are going to do.
That tells you volumes about Mirna. She has never forgotten where she came from, so to speak, and never forgotten about her family and friends and what they mean to each other.
Because of The Mirnavator’s monstrous international profile, I prepared to roll out the red carpet when she was in town last week.
I even had an old sportswriter buddy from back home do a deep-dive interview one day with Mirna so he could add the next great chapter to her incredible story in this Blog post.
And we may yet share those amazing thoughts from her during a rainy day in the future.
However, several events during Mirna’s visit led me to conclude this was a deeply personal story I needed to share about the power of friendship, family, and unconditional love.
Mirna Valerio (left) and her mother JoAnn enjoy a moment together while holding hands on the Red Rocks of Sedona, Ariz.
Scottsdale mountain biking’s Mother’s Day link
Do not get me wrong: The Scottsdale mountain bike tours with Mirna were super fun and the ultimate reason I was part of the trip.
Our daily Scottsdale mountain biking trips carried us all over the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.
We shared so many great laughs.
But the most awesome part of the week, especially heading into Mother’s Day, was being accepted unconditionally as part of somebody’s else’s family.
That included being lovingly embraced as an “extra daughter” by Mirna’s mother, JoAnn, and being allowed to be part of the overarching Mother’s Day Gift for her.
Near the end of Mirna’s epic visit on Thursday, the three of us drove together to the most beautiful spot in Arizona, the fabled Red Rocks of Sedona.
From working for Detours American West early in my guide career upon first arriving in the Valley of the Sun, I was able to use my knowledge of Sedona to navigate to JoAnn’s abilities and limitations at her age to get her out on the Red Rocks to experience the energies of The Vortex and get some incredibly beautiful photos.
JoAnn is an artist and photographer and is so passionate about photography, so the amazing scenery made for a truly special hike for her. I loved watching JoAnn take in the beauty of Red Rocks with her daughter, who is not only my friend, but my sister on so many levels.
I also was able to take the girls to my favorite restaurant in Sedona – The Outlaw Grill – and JoAnn trusted me on the recommendation of the epic Burger and Fries there.
I got to show them the one-of-a-kind Turquoise Arches at the Sedona McDonald’s. Everywhere else in the world, those arches are of course Golden. But not in this scenically special place.
It was so awesome to share these experiences with my friend, who gives so much of herself to inspire so many people around the globe to do better for themselves.
But it was even better to watch her with her mom – helping her navigate Sedona and take photos, and not just for her the business of her Social Media platforms. That alone was my own Mother’s Day treat for being a “Dog Mom.”
However, to have JoAnn treat me as one of her own, to hug me, and look me squarely in the eyes, and tell me she loves me? PRICELESS.
My mom is a thousand miles away in Iowa, so I am unable to spend time with her on Mother’s Day. So, this is exactly what I needed on Mother’s Day week.
Michelle Craig (left), Laurel Darren (center) and Mirna Valerio enjoy either a Prickly Pear Margarita or Mojito during one of their all-girl talk sessions after another day of mountain biking.
Scottsdale mountain biking Girls Club
Mirna’s incredible photographer, Michelle Craig, was along for the ride on one of the usual Marin rental bikes from Wild Bunch Desert Guides.
Michelle documented the whole trip for Mirna’s Social Media platforms and was kind enough to share her fantastic work in this Blog. Check out her website at https://michellecraigphotography.com.
Mirna learned many new and valuable skills and I am so excited to see her move forward on too many more mountain bike adventures.
The Mirnavator also made many valuable Social Media posts to continue to boost her sponsors and overall brand.
She also graciously shared her platform with the Wild Bunch, exposing my little Phoenix guided adventure tour company to a wider audience without charging me a dime when a post from Mirna commands thousands of dollars.
However, the bottom line from our many guided Scottsdale mountain biking tours? We all just had a BLAST.
Just as awesome one night at was three female business owners talking shop after dinner. While we all head up companies doing different things, we found we were all struggling with the same things.
I was sitting there listening to Mirna talk about the things she deals with, and I was like, “Damn, I thought I was the only one who deals with X, Y and Z!” And Michelle was knowingly nodding, too.
We had a really raw girls’ conversation about being business owners, and we all three agreed the next day that was exactly what we all needed was that conversation to energize us. It was so cool and really confirmed the direction we are all headed.
So, there I was later that next day standing at Brown’s Ranch, watching Michelle and Mirna doing take after take of photos for Salsa Cycles, and I am just thinking again, “She fricking chose ME!”
It still blows me away, The Mirnavator with little old me, just an average person, with my tiny business.
It was such a cool moment when Mirna put one push notification on Instagram and tagged us with an @WildBunchDesertGuides.
Mirna got over 3,000 likes from that one post of her on a bike during one of Wild Bunch’s Scottsdale guided mountain bike tours.
“Have you ever looked at the Instagram notifications for somebody you tagged in a post?” I said in a mocking complaint while showing her the next morning at the Four Seasons.
“Look at my phone, Mirna! I cannot even use it. It’s blowing the hell up!”
We shared a laugh and then I told her seriously: “This is so valuable to my little adventure tours in Phoenix. I already have 500 new followers off one post. You have no idea how grateful I am.”
Mirna just looked at me, smiled and waved it off saying: “I got you, girlfriend!”
Laurel Darren (right) points out some scenery of interest to Mirna Valerio while they stand atop rocky scenery during a mountain bike ride. (https://michellecraigphotography.com)
Scottsdale mountain biking before riding
Mirna and I have had each other’s backs from the moment we met in 2018 at the TransRockies Run.
She had swallowed hard on those three words runners most despise -- DID NOT FINISH – the year before on Hope Pass and had to be taken off the mountain by a ski patroller named Barrett.
So, when Mirna came back with a vengeance, I was on top of Hope Pass at the check point, and I had read her Blog on what had happened in 2017, so I made it my goal to wait for her as a race volunteer and ask her if I could help her get through the next nine miles by running next to her.
I certainly knew who she was as a fellow ultra-runner – but I had never before spoken to her.
So, I waited – and she was dead last, as she often highlights in her Blog. When I asked if I could help her by joining she said, “Come on!”
That glorious day we each found a sister. We ran, walked, talked, laughed, and sang. We bonded over ‘80s music, especially Pat Benatar and “Love is a Battlefield.” That is our traditional go-to song now.
During our run together, we also got to the spot where she DNF’d and I gave her a moment and walked away so she could get through it. But we ended up finishing the stage together and I gave her a hug goodbye and started following her on Social Media.
After that? A friendship formed and quickly deepened. I hung in with her that day, and she has returned the favor countless times.
In my experience as an athlete, I have been the sweeper at many races because I am the volunteer who says, “I’ll hang out with the slower people and bring up the rear.”
I do that because I have been that person – I have finished last or finished back-of-the-pack. I have crashed and burned before and tasted my share of hard-to-swallow DNFs.
In another life and on a smaller scale, I have tried to encourage people to get off the couch and move just like Mirna. I used to write a weekly newspaper column detailing my trials and tribulations as a female athlete in running, cycling, and triathlons.
The column helped shine a light on a lot of local races in my hometown area, the Quad Cities. But like Mirna, I also tried every endurance sport thrown my way, and never shied away from sharing my experiences, good or bad, tragic, or triumphant. I never hid from my failures. I hope it inspired people locally to live their best lives by showing we are all human and often share the same struggles, doubts, and demons.
We all get knocked down sometimes in life, but we all need to find a way to get back up again and keep moving forward.
In 2019, Mirna came back to TransRockies looking to better her finishing time from the previous year. I was there again, too, but this time I was a massage therapist.
Mirna was fighting through some injuries at the time and got a couple of massages from me. But she ended up pulling out of the race because of an Achilles tendon issue.
We talked after that. She was on the massage table and she was incredibly disappointed.
But I said to her, “You need to get it together and go halfway up Hope Pass tomorrow and cheer people on. You need to get out there on that course. I know it sucks, but your energy is going to move SOOOO many people up that mountain.”
A couple others told her the same thing and she did it.
Mirna was singing and cheering people on, and everyone was so grateful because she took a DNF with grace by not going home. She got back out there to help others reach their goals.
She told me this week: “You know, I’d have never done that if you didn’t kick my ass.”
I joked: “Well, you’ve got a big ass, so how could I miss?”
The Mirnavator (right) holds her cellphone up for a selfie picture while sharing a laugh with Laurel Darren during a Scottsdale mountain bike adventure. (https://michellecraigphotography.com).
Scottsdale mountain biking the buildup
When Mirna announced on Social Media in 2019 she was visiting Arizona to see her family, I immediately contacted her hoping we could get together. So, we set up a guided Phoenix hike and had a blast!
I prodded her to jump on a mountain bike with me, too, but she was not quite ready to try that challenge.
Then in 2020, she planned to do a running retreat in Scottsdale and add the element of mountain biking, but it got cancelled by CoVid-19.
So, during the pandemic, Mirna started riding a gravel bike because she had knee surgery and her running coach wanted her to cross-train.
I was so freaking proud of her -- inspiring bigger women to first run, and now she is putting them on bikes, with her posts blowing up with pictures of other women on bikes.
In the interim, Mirna also was there to hold my hand when I thought my world had been torn apart.
I was at the Dubliner Bar in Scottsdale in mid-March 2020 celebrating St. Patrick’s Day when an avalanche of cancellations came rolling in for the Wild Bunch Desert Guides, claiming every single booking for Scottsdale guided mountain bike trips and Phoenix guided hiking tours on our future calendar.
I thought to myself, my business is finished. So, guess who I called? Mirna.
She was driving in Nowhere, Utah. But she hung with me through the doubts, fears, and tears.
I was like, “I’m going to lose my business. I do not know what I am going to do. I am going to take a job as a delivery driver to keep hope alive. But I need your advice.”
Mirna kept assuring me: “Girl, you got this.” It was so great to hear a treasured friend tell me she loves me, and everything will work out OK.
Laurel Darren (left) and The Mirnavator sit on some steps to laugh about their latest adventure together.
Scottsdale mountain biking and shopping
Besides Sedona, one of the coolest moments last week with The Mirnavator also had little to do with guided Scottsdale mountain biking trips.
I have always been a dress size 10-12 because of my height and brick shithouse-build. I was a softball player in college and a multi-sport athlete in high school. As an adult, I have done everything from the Boston Marathon to the Leadville 100 to triathlons.
Despite the pride in my athletic accomplishments, I always have been a bit self-conscious about my figure.
One of the stores in Scottsdale I felt most self-aware was at Lululemon, which had a reputation of catering to smaller-sized women.
If you were a size 6 or 8? You had better luck finding something that fits your figure at Lululemon. So, in the past, when I have gone into their store here in Scottsdale, I felt like I did not belong. You know?
I always felt uncomfortable when I treated myself on my birthday with a piece of Lululemon apparel. It is expensive, but super comfortable and very well-made. But because of the price and the sizes, it is not always a comfortable fit.
I always bought some accessory anyway, though, so I did not leave the store empty handed feeling bad about my body.
But then Mirna comes along and steps into the arena to say, “Look, there are plus-size women out here, too – dress sizes 12, 14, 16, 18, 20 – and we all want to feel good about ourselves, too!”
So, Mirna gets a contract to be a global ambassador for running apparel with Lululemon and changes the world. Now, you go into the store in Scottdale and there are sizes 16, 18 and 20. You no longer need to be a swimsuit model to wear Lululemon.
During The Mirnavator’s visit, we decided to visit the swanky store and when we walked in there, I was imaging a “Pretty Woman” moment. I wanted this to be the one moment in my life where I could say, “Don’t you KNOW who this is?”
I also confessed my apprehension to her about getting an outfit: “Mirna,” I said, “I don’t wear this stuff.”
And she answered: “But you are going to. We are going to celebrate you because you are a woman, and you are awesome. And you should feel good about yourself.”
So, a girl helped us, and she was great. No judgement. No attitude. No nothing. Just genuinely helpful.
After we picked out a few things and went to the counter to buy it, I said to the girl, “I just want you to know this is Mirna. She is a global ambassador for Lululemon.”
And everybody in their store just stopped.
The store manager came rushing over and greeted us. “It’s so nice to meet you! You’re in all the running ads in the bigger markets!”
But here was where I was most impressed with my friend. Not only does she represent the brand and wear their apparel, but Mirna knows EVERYTHING about the company and its products. She is very aware of what the products feel like and what the apparel does for the body.
I also gained renewed admiration for my friend during that shopping trip. She truly is changing the world for good. Lululemon and other companies have become more inclusive and responsive businesses to “real” women because of the Mirnavator.
Mirna is changing so many things with her physique, her power and her energy, and her platform and beliefs. This is her mission: Everybody’s body is beautiful, and everybody’s body should move.
Mirna literally gets paid thousands of dollars for a slide on Instagram. She is an amazing influencer. But most of all, she is my friend, and I am so damn lucky to have found her on this journey called life.
Mirna Valerio (left) and her friend Laurel Darren share a huge hug together during a Scottsdale mountain biking adventure in the Sonoran Desert. (https://michellecraigphotography.com).
Scottsdale mountain biking summation
This past week for Mirna was a chance to come to Arizona and learn to ride a mountain bike and spend some time with her family.
But I felt such a great family connection, too, and at the end of the day, this trip turned out to be about much deeper things, like talking businesswoman-to-businesswoman, and learning we are both going through the same shit in life.
We are both women dealing with menopause. We are both dealing with overwhelming anxiety over business moves and making decisions that are hard. We both agreed our lights had been dimming a little and we were feeling a bit overwhelmed and rundown, but the week helped recharge us both and fully turn the power back on.
The haters and doubters can suck the life out of you. It is also easy to feel overwhelmed by everything in our given professions. But that is why rest, relaxation and vacation time also is so important in all of our lives – to get back in touch with our inner-most selves, and to spend time with people who love you and make you laugh.
It is so heartwarming to know I found a genuine friend on this crazy journey and the level of respect between us is so high.
At the same time, Mirna and JoAnn went above and beyond by welcoming me into their family and that is what I feel I needed the most – that connection that has been missing for me for too long.
I needed a mom’s hug. I needed somebody like that to love me unconditionally and celebrate me for who I am. I needed to feel that special mom’s energy in my personal journey.
As weird as it sounds to some, I needed Mirna’s mom to hug me after dinner and look me in the eye and say, “I love you.” And as a mother, I think she sensed it, too.
That genuine moment – that validation -- was EXACTLY what my soul needed to help me move forward.
It was awesome and powerful on so many levels. The stars aligned and cosmically what I have been searching for appeared to me when I needed it the most.
It is such a sweet feeling when your heart is filled with nothing but love.
I fricking love what I do. It is a sacrifice being away from my native home, away from my mom on Mother’s Day, but I have found my life’s passion in Arizona.
So, I put my heart and soul into Wild Bunch Desert Guides with the commitment of giving every guest the gift of once-in-a-lifetime memorable moments like Mirna and her mom in Sedona.
It inspires me so much to be the best I can be when somebody puts their faith and trust in me to help better their career like Mirna with the guided Scottsdale mountain bike tours or take care of their family‘s hiking vacation needs and wishes same as that Sedona visit.
I do not expect any “thank yous,” but maybe that is why moments like this week are SOOOOO heartwarming, when your love is reflected back a thousand times over by a woman you only just met this week.
The feelings were so pure, so unconditional, so genuine. My heart is bursting, and my soul can barely contain the smile.
With the way the world is, and how angry and mean and divided so many seem to be, it was so incredible to find my New York-raised “Bronx Mom” after all these years.
Mirna flew back Saturday. I took Mirna’s bike back to the bike shop. I also dropped off a Wild Bunch Desert Guides shirt for more of her mom’s early Mother’s Day present.
I am sad to see my friend go after such an epic week. But all good things do come to an end, so we will have to look forward to the next “family reunion,” because this past week was so good for all of us – but especially me.