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60 years ago, the first woman to complete a U.S. marathon ran to the top of Pikes Peak and back down again

Now, hundreds of women gather each year to follow Arlene Pieper Stine's tracks in running’s ultimate challenge, the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon

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Arlene Pieper Stine got into the Pikes Peak Marathon in 1959 as a stunt to market her Colorado Springs health club. When she finished, the 29-year-old mother of three was in the record books as the first woman to finish a sanctioned marathon. Unlike the Boston Marathon, the Pikes Peak race never had a prohibition on women participating. (Photo provided by Pikes Peak Marathon Inc.)

In white shorts, sleeveless blouse and dime-store tennis shoes, Arlene Pieper Stine, 29, stood on the start line of the 1959 Pikes Peak Marathon looking more like Marilyn Monroe than a mountaineer.

But Pieper Stine, then a Colorado Springs health club owner, not only finished the 26-mile race, with its grueling 8,000 feet of vertical gain to the 14,115 summit, she became the first woman to complete a sanctioned marathon in the United States.

Eight years later, Kathrine Switzer would be the first woman to cross the finish line at the Boston Marathon in a dramatic act of gender defiance.

This weekend, 60 years after Arlene Pieper Stine conquered Pikes Peak in 9 hours and 16 minutes, hundreds of women will line up at the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon start, following her path on one of the country’s toughest and highest altitude race courses.

In 2009, after a long search, a Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon historian tracked down Pieper Stine, who had long ago moved away and was living near Fresno, California. 

She had no idea of her place in running history. 

“I still remember it like it was yesterday,” she said in a 2014 interview. “You can be a wonderful wife and mother, but doing the race showed me that if there’s something you really want to do, you should go for it.”

A black-and-white photo of that race start shows Pieper Stine along with her 9-year-old daughter, Kathie, and her husband, who ran with her to offer moral support.

Pieper Stine said she got the idea to do the race as a way to promote Arlene’s Health Studio. The Pikes Peak Marathon never prohibited women from participating.

“In those days, we had no aid stations like there are now, and my running shoes were actually just those sneakers you get from the five and dime,” she said. “And about a week after the race, all 10 of my toenails fell off!”

Pieper Stine, now 89, sometimes returns to Manitou Springs to mark the official start of the race. “What a thrill to look out and see all these people getting ready to run.”

A group of Colorado Springs runners in the She Moves Mountains run up Pikes Peak on Aug .17, 2019, dressed themselves in white shorts, sleeveless tops and hats to commemorate Arlene Pieper Stine’s 1959 run in the Pikes Peak Marathon. Stine was the first woman to complete a sanctioned U.S. marathon. (Photo provided by Pikes Peak Sports Inc.)

She was inducted into the Colorado Springs Sports Hall of Fame in 2016 and has became a cult figure in the local racing community, inspiring a group of women runners to dress as Pieper Stine did in 1959 in the inaugural “She Moves Mountains” run up the peak last weekend, race organizer Alicia Pino said.

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Running for a multitude of reasons

The Ascent, 13.1 miles up Pikes Peak, and the Marathon, known by many runners as “the round trip,” was once a mostly local race of die-hard trail runners from across the state, with the occasional out-of-staters joining the Colorado contingent even as they did “the Double,” the Ascent on Saturday, followed by the Marathon on Sunday.

Now the run is popular with out-of-state so-called flatlanders as far away as Batavia, New York, and Hermitage, Tennessee. Whether runners are taking on the peak for the first time — Peak Newbies as they’re called — or back for their fifth, or 15th, or even 36th time, like Arkansas’s 60-year-old Bill Coffelt —  the race can become a bucket-list habit.

“The race has captured the imagination of so many runners,” race director Ron Ilgin said of Pikes Peak’s skyrocketing popularity over the last few years. Runners must use a qualifying half-marathon or marathon time for the limited spots in each race: 1,500 in the Ascent and 750 in the Marathon. Racers range from age 16 to the oldest runner registered, Bill Moyle, 80, of Lone Tree, a 30-time finisher.

Though the race still has a local, welcoming feel—“Welcome, Pikes Peak Runners”— a banner reads as you drive into Manitou Springs, it also includes some of the world’s best high-altitude trail runners. This year it’s the fifth race of the 2019 Salomon Golden Trail World Series where one of the world’s fastest trail racers, Spain’s Kilian Jornet, will try to set a new men’s course record for the marathon.

Runners start on Manitou’s main drag through town, hanging a left up steep Ruxton Avenue past the Cog Railway, and to the trailhead. If you make it to there, it’s straight up as “the Ws” zigzag along narrow dirt trails to the enchanted forest of aspens on the way to Barr Camp, to the rocky outcroppings on the way to the moonscape above the A-Frame, to El Paso County Search and Rescue’s kazoo band at the Cirque, and finally, on to the final switchbacks known as the Golden Stairs to the top.

Susan Cogswell, left, will make her 21st Pikes Peak Ascent on Saturday with her daughter, Meghan Cogwell, who is signed up to do the Double, meaning she’ll do the half-marathon Ascent on Saturday and the Marathon on Sunday. (Provided by Susan Cogswell)

Susan Cogswell, 70, of Colorado Springs, first ran Pikes Peak 1983. On Saturday, she’s making her 21st Ascent with her family. The running tribe this year includes her son and his family and her daughter, Meghan, 40, an ultra runner who first did the race in 2008. 

“My family has kept me going and inspired my running,” Cogswell said. “Back when I started, I of course had my family and I worked. But running is what I gave to myself. It became how I identified myself. 

“Getting sweaty, dirty, and taking on the challenge of the trail is what I love most about the peak,” she said of her years racing. “It’s where I feel I belong.”

Cogswell, who has a 20-year streak on the (literally) breathtaking 17.1 mile Imogene Pass Run from Ouray to Telluride, will run Saturday’s Ascent with her daughter, who will do the Double, winding down her weekend with the Pikes Peak Marathon.

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“My daughter really inspires me and keeps me going,” Cogswell said of Meghan, who in 2017 reached the top in the Ascent and then came back down 3 miles to the A-Frame, elevation 11,950 feet, to meet her mother and join her as she made her way up to the finish line.

Although runners like Ascent record-holder Kim Dobson, 35, of Eagle, who holds six Ascent first-places with a course record set in 2012 of 2:24:58 are looking for their best times, they also consider the Pikes Peak race to be one of the most special that they take part in because of the race’s camaraderie.

“When you’re in Manitou looking up and seeing the peak and you see how far you have to go, it’s surreal,” Dobson said. “But you’re surrounded by hundreds of other people of all ages and they’re just trying to get to the top, too. It’s one of the reasons I love the race.”


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