After about 100 miles of running, Pam Chapman Markle couldn’t take another step.
She felt awful. So, she stopped to lay down on the road, where her support crew wrapped her up and gave her salt pills. At that moment, still over 35 miles from the finish, Chapman Markle didn’t look as if she would complete her first Styr Labs Badwater 135, a 135-mile ultra race from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney in California.
But she says she’s never been a quitter. After 10 minutes, Chapman Markle stood up and proceeded to put one foot in front of the other.
“I just felt like I needed a break,” she recalls. “I never feel like I’m not going to finish. I just felt I was really sick.”
Chapman Markle kept going, finishing the 2016 Badwater race in 41 hours, 2 minutes and 4 seconds. It was a race record for women 60 or older, breaking the previous mark by 2 hours and 58 minutes. Though she had hoped to run between 38 and 40 hours, she crossed the line with a big smile on her face and her arms held high. It was a sometimes-painful, lesson-learning race—a crash course in Badwater 101—but all that was behind her at that moment.
“You just feel wonderful and proud of yourself for accomplishing something that’s very hard to accomplish,” she says.
Now Chapman Markle, a 61-year-old nurse anesthetist, cancer survivor and grandmother, is getting ready for her second Badwater on July 10. And, as proud as she is of what she accomplished a year ago, she believes she can break her own record by a couple of hours.
For one thing, she feels strong and healthy. A year ago she had a thyroid issue that triggered a rapid heart rate. Her doctor advised her not to race. It impacted her preparations and the way she felt. Since then she has recovered from a hamstring tear in December. Chapman Markle also feels good after recent hill-running sessions around Austin, Texas, training that is not possible in the flatlands around San Leon, her home outside Houston. She’s been running about 75 miles per week, and supplementing those miles with hours of cross training on elliptical machines. Plus, there’s the Badwater learning curve and the advantage of knowing the race.
Chapman Markle’s running resume isn’t long, but it’s impressive. She entered last year’s Badwater after just five years of competitive running. Her first race, in fact, was the 100-mile Rocky Raccoon in Huntsville, Texas. At 55, the former aerobics instructor went from an after-work jogger to 100 miles in one step, bypassing 5Ks, 10Ks and the marathon for an ultra.
“I actually wanted to run 50 miles first, but it was full,” she says. “So I thought, ‘What could 100 miles be?’ Well, I found out.”
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It was hard, but she liked the solitude, challenge and wide-open spaces. And she completed it in 28 hours and 45 minutes, despite a leg injury. Chapman Markle has since completed 10 other 100-milers, plus the Brazil 135. Much like Badwater, she says the Brazil race re-energized her as an ultrarunner. She completed it last year in 43 hours, 42 minutes.
“Brazil brought the fun of running back to me,” she says. “I was getting kind of bored with it a little bit, and I stepped outside my comfort zone…It was a spiritual awakening. It was beautiful. The people were beautiful. I realized why I was ultrarunning.”
Then came Badwater.
Chapman Markle was used to Texas heat, but the dry heat of the desert was different. With her sweat quickly evaporating, she had a hard time understanding that she was getting dehydrated and losing salt. She suffered leg cramps and chills early on.
She also misjudged how the lack of sleep would impact her. With the race starting at 8 p.m., she ran through two nights, a first for her. And, there was her unfamiliarity with the course and her failure to fuel for the final push up to Whitney Portal, which she calls “a huge mistake.”
“I learned I needed to watch my electrolytes better,” she says. “And I learned that fueling…it’s more important for me to stay hydrated than it is to put in calories. That’s pretty much what I’m going to be doing is using mostly liquids in this race.”
With all that in mind, she’s confident that she can go faster. Her coach, former Badwater champ Lisa Smith-Batchen, agrees.
“She’s definitely capable of doing a few hours faster,” Smith-Batchen says. “There’s a lot that comes with knowing the course now, knowing what you’re really getting into.”
Plus, Smith-Batchen says Chapman Markle has a rare attitude. She embraces every day as a “joyful person.” She survived cervical cancer at 19, and in her job as a nurse, she sees people fighting for their lives.
“That person is suffering,” Smith-Batchen says of Chapman Markle’s career caring for others. “When we’re out there at Mile 100 and it’s 120 degrees, sure, we’re miserable, we’re in pain, but we’re not really suffering because at the end of it…you’re going to be fine. Pam’s mental fortitude, she’s able to distract herself from thinking, ‘I’m in pain, and that this is temporary.’ It’s what it takes.”
Plus, Chapman Markle runs not only to challenge herself, but also to inspire others. She has seen too many people not take care of themselves, with bad diets and sedentary lifestyles, especially as they age. In her 60s, she wants to show that there is another way. In addition to running, Chapman Markle surfs, swims, bikes, hikes and roller blades.
“I want people to say, ‘Oh my goodness, here’s a woman, she’s over 60 and she can do it. Maybe I can do this,’” says Chapman Markle. “I’ve had several people write on my Facebook account that I’ve encouraged them, even to walk, to get out and walk. That’s my whole purpose. When you’re aging, just embrace it and do the best you can every day.”