Written by: Anja Hayes
66 year old Pamela Chapman-Markle embodies the strength it takes to be a star ultramarathon runner. Since running Rocky Raccoon’s 100 miler, her first race ever, in 2011 at the age of 55, Pam has knocked out ageist stereotypes across the board. At 65, she has run nearly fifty ultramarathons in a little over ten years, including four times at the harrowing Badwater 135. In 2019, her incredible performance broke an age group record and made her an overall winner of the Badwater Cup. The same year, she swept Milhwuakee’s Six Days in the Dome, establishing three United States American Track and Field Records, (USATF), and one world record. She continued her record-setting trend a year later at Icarus Florida Ultrafest, where she landed records in USATF, USA overall, and the world. To this day, she continues redefining what it means to not only be an ultramarathon competitor, but “a woman of a certain age,” as well.
Despite the attention she receives from the media, Pam did not notice the hype at first. “I never thought I was amazing at running,” she confessed. “I just do it because I love it.” For Pam, running was never driven by any innate sense of competition. She began nightly treks after long shifts as a nurse anesthesiologist to relax and reflect on work and life as a single mother of three. During her runs, both then and now, she would let the light of gratitude lead the trail. When Pam runs, she focuses on how she is “so fortunate to be able to run and get the energy from outside and give it back.” For Pam, time on the trail is also time in the chapel. Because not only is she a great runner, Pam is also a woman of great faith.
There is a lot in common between religion and ultramarathons. On the surface, grueling training routines undertaken by runners mirrors the trials of a spiritual disciple. At a deeper level, both share similar mindsets, an understanding that the paths they tread rely not just on their hard work, but on their ability to hold on in times of despair. In the face of hopelessness, both must cling to faith– even, or especially, when it is the last thing they want to do. For ultrarunners, no matter the lack of energy or roughness of the terrain, the only thing to do is to keep moving forward.
Against the pain of life’s trials, Pam holds her conviction tight. At 19, she was diagnosed with cancer and told she had six months to live. She proved her death sentence wrong by 37 years and counting. After overcoming cancer, doctors informed Pam that she would likely never have children. Three lovely daughters later, Pam defied her medical prognosis yet again. Life’s relentlessness has only upped her tenacity and perseverance.
Around the time she was diagnosed with cancer, Pam became more invested in her spirituality. While her relationship with God started a few years earlier in high school, she found strength through praying during cancer treatment: “I truly felt prayer and good medicine could heal me,” she revealed. “Which it did.” After beating cancer, she promised that through her life, she would “follow [God’s] path through life… It does not mean I have lived without heartache,” she said. “But it does mean that I lean on my faith to get me through.”
The convergence between faith and long-distance running is apparent in Pam’s journey. Difficult workouts and grueling ultramarathons serve as spiritual havens for her. “I try to listen for God’s messages while running and they normally come,” Pam explained. The discipline she faces ultramarathons with also plays an important role in her attitude. “I try not to let any negative energy flow through me and create that [positive] energy for me,” she said. For Pam, positivity and devotion are essential. Whether it is facing the demons of life or stumbling through the mud in the heat of Brazil during a 135 mile marathon, maintaining hope means the difference between defeat or triumph.
Pam recently met these demons again last year when her ultramarathon career was threatened by two grueling injuries. After fracturing her femoral head and herniating a disc in her back, Pam was unable to run for months. “It was the worst thing that has ever happened to me as far as pain goes,” she shared. “I was told by three surgeons that I needed a hip replacement and that my running days were over.” Pam did not accept this; she had been through hurdles of setbacks in her life and knew there were other options. Using her medical knowledge, she researched solutions for her hip, deciding to pursue stem cell treatment last summer. The stem cells significantly reduced her pain and allowed her to begin running again in October. Back on track to continue competing, she resumed training for the coming year. While running 60-70 miles a week and biking on her days off, she also adjusted her routine to include heavy weight lifting, yoga, and exercises tailored toward lower back injuries. By late December, she had made incredible progress and was ready for her next ultra: the Brazil 135.
Though Pam had experience with the South American version of Badwater, her second time around was an entirely new race to run. “The race was canceled two days before I left,” she recounted. “Then it got put back on schedule. “The night before, [the race director] got in touch with us and said the race isn’t canceled, but the path has been changed.” The path’s alterations, necessary for avoiding traffic in local towns, had now included more inclination in the first and last twenty miles. There were also few markers and additional sections of farmland she had to endure. Needless to say, Pam could not sleep that night.
The new race trail proved to be as hard as Pam had anticipated: “It had rained so hard that night that the crew had to drive a different route,” she recalled. “I had mud almost up to my knees.” Lack of sleep and proper nutrition also affected Pam’s progress. At one point, she realized that she had been repeatedly running in the same area. While she had lost track of the path, she ran an extra 12 miles. At one point during the race, she was so malnourished that she hallucinated. “I was thinking that there were people made out of grass living in the grass.”
The challenges faced during the race did not prevent Pam from finishing. She managed to complete Brazil 135 in under 48 hours, a time unachieved by most in their 60s, let alone a 60 year old coming off of an injury. In the next coming months, she plans to run the Badwater Cup, which consists of three Badwater 135 events hailed as some of the toughest ultramarathons in the world. By the time Pam is 70, she wants to be the first female over the age of 60 to finish the Badwater 135 ten times and additionally break the USA and World records for the 50 mile, 100k, 12 hour, 100 mile, 24 hour, 48 hour and 6 day races in the 65-69 age group. “I have to have new goals every year that I plan my races,” she said. “I’m trying to plan when and where I’m going to go for the championships.” After completing the Badwater Cup, she intends on her speed and stamina paving the way. Pam knows that her “speed will be back. It’s coming back. I just have to maintain it.”
Pam sees her ultra-career as a way to show God’s love. She also wishes for her story to inspire women of all ages, that it will “empower people no matter how old they are.” When faced with ageist comments and negativity, she refuses to let others draw her energy out of her. “I get people who say ‘I can’t let this old woman beat me’ at the starting line,” she admitted. “I’ve had more than a handful of comments made to me like that. But my strongest point is at the end of the race, not the beginning. If you’re not a strong ultrarunner in the last 50 miles and you’ve been really ugly, that ugliness will draw your energy out.” She focuses on the positive influences in her life, like her husband, Spencer, to source her energy. “I want to be around people who encourage me… I don’t want to sit around and think about the negativity.” The formula to Pam’s ultra success and everything that moves her, be it faith or a finish line, is best captured in her own words: “I run my own race.”