Pamela Chapman Markle: The Ultrarunning Grandma Who's Breaking Records
Updated: Mar 6
Pamela Chapman Markle finishes 3rd overall female and sets a new record at
the 2017 Badwater 135.
I first learned of Pamela Chapman Markle on my Twitter feed this past July. She had just broken her own Badwater 135 record in her age group (60 - 69). In 2016 she ran Badwater in 41:02:04. She set a course record by over two hours. This past July Pamela shattered her Badwater record by over 5 hours and placed third overall female in 35:48:31. I was impressed for two reasons. One, we are about the same age; I will be 59 in a couple of months. Two, she is a grandmother of six; I am a grandmother of two.
Pamela's stats on Ultrasignup.com are spectacular - 24 ultra events since 2011. What's even more mind-blowing is that her first ultra event was a 100 miler - the Rocky Raccoon 100 without ever running any distance. At the 2016 Brazil 135, she set a new record in her age group, placed 3rd female, and 15th overall.
How does she do it? What is Pamela's secret? What does it take for older ultrarunners to place in their age group and break records? In a recent interview, ultrarunner to ultrarunner, grandmother to grandmother, Pamela shared her evolution into the world of ultrarunning, her training regimen, diet and recovery, and the role of age in ultrarunning. She also offers advice to those, young and old, thinking about running an ultramarathon.
MOTIVATION TO RUN ULTRAS - SOLITUDE AND TALKING TO GOD
When Pamela was 45, she was diagnosed with osteoporosis. She began running about 30 miles a week. She reversed her osteoporosis. A nurse anesthetist, she first learned about ultrarunning from a surgeon, an ultrarunner. Intrigued by the world of ultrarunning, she planned to sign up for her first ultramarathon - the Rocky Raccoon 50 miler in her home state of Texas. Fate had other plans for her. The 50 mile event was sold out. She did the next best thing. At age 55, she registered for the 100 miler and finished in 28:45:07.
Unlike ultramarathons, the half-marathon and the standard 26.2 marathon distance have no appeal for Pamela. "I had never run a half-marathon, a marathon." She added, "I don't like crowds when I run so marathons never did stimulate me. I didn't really want to be in a bunch of crowded people pushing and shoving." Avoiding crowds of the marathon kind is not the only reason ultrarunning appeals to her.
Ultrarunning is a spiritual practice for Pamela."The solitude is my major thing for running. It's a way to make me pray. That is pretty much like the first three miles I'm into the run. Mentally, I'm figuring out all of the problems I need to resolve during the day. Then after the first three miles, I'm talking to God. It's a talk that I do until I'm done."
This year Pamela has trained 75 - 80 miles a week and has run an impressive roster of ultra events. So far, in 2017 she has completed six ultra events. They include the Tahoe 200 miler in September and the Arkansas Traveller 100 miler a couple of weeks ago. Her plan now is to increase her mileage to 100 miles a week to train for the Around the Years 24 Hour ultra in December in Arizona.
Pamela Chapman Markle at the Tahoe 200 miler in September
Because she trains in flatlands in Texas, to get hill work, she signs up for ultras with hills. And it is paying off. "That helps me a lot and has made me faster." Most of her training runs are slow but she throws a day of speed work into the mix. "I also do spinning once a week on my own spin bike. I pull out a video and spin. It has helped with my legs." She also climbs onto her elliptical, StairMaster, and rowing machine after a run.
Her full-time, 5 days a week, work schedule does not hamper her training regimen nor diminish her sleep time. Pamela sleeps an average 7 to 8 hours a night. She goes to bed at 9 pm and wakes up at 4 am. After she logs in her miles, she's off to her duties as a nurse anesthetist. Her long runs are logged on weekends.
DIET and RECOVERY
Pamela cooks seventy-five percent of her meals. "I am really careful about my diet. I eat only grass-fed beef and organic vegetables. I go to a farmer's market every week. I am low carb. I maintain a very low blood sugar in racing." Her diet is more Keto than Paleo. "I need a little dairy. I have whipped cream in my coffee. I eat grass-feed cheeses. I don't eat any processed foods. I'm light on the fruits and eat only berries." Living in Galveston Bay affords her a diet abundant in shrimp and oysters. Her diet and movement also help in her recovery after ultras. "I do bone broths. I increase my protein. I get up and walk. I get back out and do small runs. I swim. The swimming makes me feel better in recovery. I recover well."
AGE AND ULTRARUNNING
A 2015 New York Times article points to research that suggests that older ultrarunners do well for a variety of reasons. They run slower but longer, pace themselves effectively, and because many ultras take place on trails, their legs don't suffer the pounding that marathoners endure on road and pavement races. Older ultrarunners are patient, cautious, turn to reliable patterns of training, and suffer less injury. They are also driven.
For Pamela, life experience and a good attitude makes for stronger older ultrarunners. "Running an ultramarathon is like living life," says Pamela. "We learn to fall down and stand back up in our daily lives. I think we have many years of training with that. We look at the positives instead of the negatives."
Unlike older runners, younger runners, "worry about quick fixes and there's no quick fix," adds Pamela. When older ultrarunners get sick in an ultramarathon, "we just hang through it and it will pass." To younger ultrarunners, who tend to "just quit, and give up," Pamela encourages them to "learn to slow down in life when things get tough because life is tough. Go into your inner self and start praying. I think older runners get through it because they know how to get through life. We've got more years to experience that."
TIPS FOR ATTEMPTING YOUR FIRST ULTRA
Ultrarunning has taught Pamela to have fun during an ultra event and to listen to her body. "There's a point where you have to separate your body and your mind. Run your own race. Do not worry about what everybody else is doing. Just worry about you and what you are doing."
If you're a grandma or grandpa thinking about attempting an ultra, follow that advice, too. Pamela adds, "Train. Get your body prepared to do it. My body literally started getting stronger after the first four years running ultra distances. Being the age we are, I don't expect things to come really fast. I never expected to win. I just expected to finish. If you have this expectancy, you will eventually keep increasing your expectancy."
RUNNING TO BREAK RECORDS
Diagnosed with cancer at age 19 and not expected to survive, Pamela continues to perform astonishingly in the ultrarunning world. Starting ultrarunning later in life, Pamela says, "keeps me young and healthy. I have a great immune system. My VO2 max is probably outstanding for a 62 year old." Her husband Spencer, her crew and support, tells her - "you can be the best in the world."
Pamela and her husband Spencer.
Pamela is setting her sights on the Across the Years 24 hour ultra in Arizona in December. Her goal is to log 115 - 120 miles and set a new record in her age group. But before that, she will again run the Daytona 100 miler, where she already has a course record. In April, Pamela will tackle the 2018 Umstead 100 and strive to set a USATF world record in her age group. She has accepted an invitation to run Leadville 100 in 2018. And she's toying with the idea of running Spartathlon, too!
UPDATE: Pamela placed 8th female and 21st overall at the Daytona 100 mile ultra - 21:07:54
and set a USTAF record at the Across the Years 24-hour ultra - fastest female
60 - 64 age division - 109 miles!
To learn more about Pamela's inspirational ultrarunning feats, visit her website.
All photos courtesy of Pamela.
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