Photo credit: Elton Lima.
Pamela Chapman-Markle, 66, never ceases to amaze. She holds course records, and has set USATF and world age records in the 12-hour and 24-hour running events. Pamela holds a USATF 48-hour age and course record, and her age group course record at Badwater 135. With over 40 ultramarathons, her stats in Ultrarunning Magazine are impressive.
For Pamela, a cancer survivor, grandmother, and retired nurse anesthetist, there is no obstacle that will sideline her for long, and that she can't overcome. In February 2021, at the Pier to Pier 200K ultramarathon in Florida, she was in pain. "I couldn't lift my leg. I couldn't lift my knee up. My hip was going in and out. I could feel that." Pamela dropped out at mile 65.
"I had horrible femoral nerve pain that shot down my left leg to my foot." Pamela got an MRI of her back and left hip. The orthopedic doctor told her she had a fractured femoral head. The L3 and L4 slipped discs were pressing on her nerve. "He told me - 'You gotta go have surgery.'"
Pamela met with orthopedic surgeons. One recommended surgery. "I did not want surgery because that would end my running days," says Pamela. The second orthopedic surgeon performed an arthroscopy - a hip scope - because she had so much swelling in the area, and nerve pain. He also wanted to prescribe high doses of gabapentin and Celebrex.
Stem Cell Therapy
Pamela did not want this plan of treatment and got a third opinion. "I saw a sports medicine doctor. He said I could do stem cell injections." He didn't have a lab but he could withdraw stem cells, ship them off, have them frozen and processed, and shipped back to him. The fee was $2000.
Satisfied with the stem therapy treatment option, Pamela traveled to a treatment center in Chicago with its own lab. Pamela explains the procedure: "They withdraw your stem cells from your iliac crest, take them out. They inject them in your hip and what's left over - it takes about an hour and a half - if there's any left over, they put it in your IV. "
Pamela received a stem cell injection in June and July. But success did not come immediately. "It takes about six months to see a difference," says Pamela. And not one to sit idle, Pamela kept moving her body in different ways.
"I just kept doing yoga. I have a hyperbaric oxygen tank. I kept doing stretching and weight lifting. Weight lifting was the big thing. I heavy lifted three times a week even though I was having pain. I still heavy weight lift just to keep my muscles going and put a little pressure on my bones."
Itching to run, three weeks after the stem cell therapy was completed, she began running. "That was the end of July. I was in so much pain. I was running 18 minute miles," giggles Pamela. "That was all mental training more than anything else. I also did a lot of walking and that hurt too. I could bike without a problem."
Not allowed to take anti-inflammatory medication like Advil and Motrin, or pain medication to help with her hip and back pain during the stem cell therapy, Pamela found other ways to relieve pain - her sauna at home and heat therapy. And a book on McKenzie exercises to cure her hip and back problems. "I did these exercises every day. My femoral leg pain was gone in probably about five weeks after doing those exercises."
But pain did not discourage Pamela from tackling her next ultra in December. "I was still hurting when I decided to run the Daytona 100. My doctor said 'don't do it.' Even though my time was horrible, I finished it." Pamela adds, "I just wanted to get the miles on my legs because I was only running 30, 35 miles a week."
"The first 25 miles I was running a 6-minute pace and then it just petered out," chuckles Pamela. She finished her third Daytona 100 in 28:20:00, placed 19th female, and 44/68 finishers.
Pamela was not new to Brazil 135 having placed 4th female and 15th overall in 2016. Four weeks after Daytona, Pamela set out to conquer the 2022 Brazil 135, a journey through terrain consisting of beautiful landscapes, jungles, villages, and obstacles along the way, the first being the event having been cancelled twice before she and her husband Spencer left for Brazil. But once they arrived, Pamela didn't let uncertainty and hurdles get in her way.
"I was feeling more nervous than I've ever been in a race before. I couldn't sleep the whole night before Brazil started." She and her pacer - 36-year-old Elton Lima, a national Brazilian runner whose longest run is a 100K and who speaks only Portuguese - not only may haven't gotten lost in translation but they also got lost on the course.
Selfie by Elton at mile 112.
"The route was changed the first 20 miles and the last 20 miles. We got lost the last 20 miles. I finally realized we were running in circles for 12 miles." The weather also changed. "It rained all night long. I had a rain coat on and mud up to my knees. It was very, very dark." But her Ultraspire head lamp and waist light guided her and Elton.
Not only did Pamela get lost but her caloric intake of 200 calories per hour came to a long screeching halt. Due to a flooded bridge, she could not get to her crew and husband Spencer.
"I went without food and drink for 20 miles."
Dehydration and hallucinations set in. "I got extremely dehydrated the last 15 miles. I was hallucinating. I thought there were people that were living in the grass. There were family, kids in the grass," laughs Pamela.
Suffering from severe body chafing and blisters, including a right big toe blister from her wet sock, Pamela was relieved as she approached the finish line with Elton. "He was really awesome," says Pamela. "I was really glad to be finished. When I saw Mario, the race director, it was the greatest feeling."
"No one in their 60s ever ran it in under 48 hours," says Pamela. The oldest female runner on this day, Pamela finished in 47:47:43 and placed 40/83 finishers.
Elton, Pamela and her crew - husband Spencer and Mauricio Ramos, who speaks English and Portuguese,
Advice from Pamela
No doubt about it. Running injuries, healing, and comebacks can be tough physically and mentally. "I was extremely discouraged. Depressed. But I got outside and walked. It would take me two hours to walk what I would run in fifty minutes." Pamela advices staying away from naysayers. "I kept away from people. Eighty percent of the people telling me 'I don't know why you want to run again. This happened to you because you were running too much'."
She also advices to stay positive and to know your body. "Don't get discouraged. It happened to me because I was out of balance. Know your body will heal. You just need to take care of it and try to center it back again. It's a matter of listening to your aging body and tricking it." Pamela chuckles, "You got to give it things you don't necessarily like to give it, like more protein."
Pamela adds, "There is not a quick fix to allow a heavy injury to return back to normal. If you ask me how I'm feeling, I feel great compared to what I did yesterday or compared to what I did six months ago. I have no complaints."
With no complaints, and feeling strong and centered, Pamela has her sights on running ultras she's run before like the Keys 100 and 6 Days at the Dome, where she has set national records. She'll be running her fifth Badwater 135 in July. In the meantime, she's already registered for the Badwater Cape Fear - 51.4 miler in March and Badwater Salton Sea in April.
I am the author of Come What May, I Want to Run: A Memoir of the Saving Grace of Ultrarunning in Overwhelming Times. You can read excerpts, praise, and reviews, and order the book here from from the publisher, Amazon, Bookshop, or Barnes & Noble.
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