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  • Writer's pictureMiriam Diaz-Gilbert

The Pandemic Hasn't Stopped Ultrarunner Pamela Chapman Markle From Setting USA and World Records

Updated: Jan 19

I never tire of interviewing Pamela Chapman Markle. And she never tires of running grueling hours and distances, and setting USA and world records in in her age group, not even during the Covid-19 pandemic.

I recently interviewed Pamela about what it's been like during the pandemic. It hasn't been much fun. "Nine races cancelled on me. Badwater and Spartathlon were the last two cancelled. I was literally depressed about it," she lamented. "But I helped a lot race directors because a lot of cancellations did not defer. In the Badwater series you lost every penny you sent."

Pamela was one of twelve Americans given special permission to head to Greece in September only to learn a week before flying to Greece that Spartathlon was cancelled.

With so many races cancelled in 2020 due to the pandemic, many runners, elite and ordinary, have turned to virtual races offered as alternatives to fill the void of canceled races. Pamela turned to one virtual ultra - the Trans-Texas 879 mile ultra. Runners have from July 1 to December 31 to cross the finish.

While Pamela likes to run by herself, and likes to compete against herself, she also wants to run with others. "I like to have other runners competing too. It's inspirational to me."

However, virtual races don't lend themselves to real race competitions. Pamela finished the Trans-Texas 879 mile ultra on November 19 and not a day too soon. "It bored me to death."

Recording one's miles is an important part of running virtual races. Pamela does not like documenting how many miles she runs on any given day. "If I go out to run two hours and I feel I can run four, I'll run four. I do not keep a log. I have a running coach and she keeps track of it."

Chantalle Robitaille has been Pamela's coach for about a year and a half. "She's really positive and has good insight for me as a female runner."

Setting Records in the Year of the Pandemic

While not a fan of virtual races, the 879 miles were good training miles, if not for Badwater and Spartathlon, for the Icarus Florida Ultrafest, which was not cancelled. At the 2019 Icarus events, Pamela set a few records.

Now, at age 65, she races in a new age category and set three records at the 2020 Icarus Florida Ultrafest in November in the year of of the Covid-19 pandemic.

She's the world record holder in the 48-hour event with 174.76 miles. Pamela also set a new USA all-time age group record in the 24-hour event with 109.3 miles, and a new USA all-time

12-hour event with 60.64 miles.

With all the race cancellations, Pamela said, "I was scared to death because I hadn't raced in nine months." Her strategy was to take it slow at Icarus.

Unlike running Icarus in 2019 in her favorite weather - hot and humid - the 2020 Icarus ultra events had runners endure a combination of sun, heat, rain, and 30 mph winds.

"It was hot and sunny. Then it rained for a few hours. Then it got hot again. I chapped so bad," said Pamela.

Hard on Herself

Not racing for over nine months also affected her body.

With four and a half hours to go at the Icarus 48-hour in November, Pamela had had enough by mile 174.76. "I literally stopped because I was falling over. I told my husband I just want to lay down. I couldn't get up. My toenails were coming off again. It was a very miserable way to go for 44 hours."

Taking a nap or sleeping for a little while is not uncommon in 48-hour events. But not for Pamela. She did not nap or sleep. "I did not sleep at all until I stopped running." But she did sit for about three minutes to wolf down a grilled cheese.

She also hallucinated. "I was way behind in fluids and way behind in fuel so the nine months you don't race your belly forgets what you've done to it all year long."

Sleep deprivation and hallucinations are not stopping Pamela from plotting her strategy at next year's Icarus Ultrafest. ""I have to work out a better plan to redo this 48. Last year I took an hour and put my feet up and napped a little bit and then I took off running and I did 186 miles."

Pamela is tough on herself. "I'm very hard on myself. Probably harder than I thought. My husband has pointed it out to me."

Even though she set three records, she felt she didn't do her best at Icarus. "I was happy but I was sad. I set two US records and a world record. The world record hadn't been broken since it was set the late 80s early 90s, but I didn't do as well as I knew I could."

She is now rethinking her strategy for next year at Icarus.

Aging, Healing, and Sleep

At age 65, Pamela's body takes longer to heal after such grueling distances. Her sleep is also affected, "The healing takes longer. It's harder to sleep as you get older. It's very hard to get a full 8 hour sleep. I think it's aging."

But her aging body doesn't diminish Pamela's fast running. "I always run faster when I have someone to pass," she said. With runners to pass at Icarus, she kept running. "I didn't stop to even sit down until I hit the mile 110 marker. I ran solid for 110 miles."

Motivation and Nutrition

Having someone to pass during a race is a great motivator for Pamela. "Otherwise, I would run slower forever," she added.

Nutrition and carb intake at Icarus came in the form of Maurten gels, Spring gels, and alternate peanut butter and jelly.

"Maurten gels are tasteless and that's what I like about them. Spring gels are natural fruits and vegetables. I don't take more than 200 calories an hour. I like the Spring gels but I get sick of the gels at mile 40. I have to grab something different for my carbs. Cookies. Something with sugar," said Pamela.

Unstoppable and Grateful

After setting USA and world records in her age group at the 2020 Icarus Ultrafest, Pamela flew back home to Texas, and went to work on Monday. She is retired but works part-time as a nurse anesthetist for plastic surgeons. On Thursday she went for a very slow hour and twenty minute run. and was most likely plotting her 2021 ultras.

But before tackling her 2021 races, she's running the inaugural Into the New Year in Florida on December 31 to go after the world record in the 12 hour event.

No doubt, Pamela will continue to be unstoppable in 2021. She's having a go at the Pier 2 Pier 200K in Florida in January. She might take February off. In April, she'll take on the Badwater Salton Sea. She'll head back to The Keys 100 in May.

I've convinced her to take on the Dawn to Dusk to Dawn 24-hour track ultra on Mother's Day weekend. She'll go back to Badwater 135 and to Six Days in the Dome in July. Spartathlon is on the schedule for September. Then, it's back to the Icarus Ultrafest in November.

"I'm a work in progress," said Pamela. And she is also filled with gratitude.

Pamela and her husband Spencer.

"I'm just grateful to be alive. I'm very grateful to have had my father for 88 years. My husband came down with Covid in July. I, like every one else, have had a rough year. However, I have so much to be grateful for. I bought the house of my dreams. I'm living in Texas which to me is the best state in the whole world. I train along the seawater. I see dolphins," said Pamela with joy in her heart.

Photos courtesy of Pamela Chapman Markle.

Copyright 2020

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 order the book here from from the publisher, Amazon, Bookshop, or Barnes & Noble.

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