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Pikes Peak Marathon legend Arlene Pieper Stine, the first woman to run a sanctioned marathon, has died

Eight years before Kathrine Switzer shocked the world by running the Boston Marathon, Arlene Pieper Stine did her 26 miles in the Pikes Peak Marathon, with a 9-year-old daughter in tow

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.)

One of Colorado mountain running’s most beloved heroes used to climb up the ladder next to the sign draped across the town of Manitou Springs’s main drag — “Welcome, Pikes Peak Runners” — so that she could send off the hundreds of runners who had packed the narrow street to head off for the summit of the 14,115-foot mountain more than 13 miles and 7,800 of vertical gain in the distance. Then they would turn around for the return trip.

“Runners, ready,” she said into the microphone in the absolute still morning of sun, rain, or even snow of late August. “Go!” said Arlene Pieper Stine.  

Pieper Stine became the race’s folk hero in 2009 when race officials went looking for the former Colorado Springs resident and health club owner so that they could bring her back to her hometown with some news: Not only had she been the first woman to complete the Pikes Peak Marathon — the punishing switchbacks, rocky single-track, and finally, the last few miles above timberline at over 12,000 feet — but she was the first woman to complete any sanctioned marathon, eight years before Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to complete the Boston Marathon in 1967. 

Fifty years after she finished the full “out and back,” as Peak marathon veterans refer to the course, with a time of 9 hours and 16 minutes, Pieper Stine was once again at the start line.  

Pieper Stine died Feb. 11, 2021, a month shy of her 91st birthday, as she was trying to build up her strength after battling COVID-19, her daughter Kathy Pieper said.

“She got cards and letters from runners and it meant so much to her,” Pieper said. “And I was able to go into her assisted living facility — all covered up — to see her. She ran such a good race.”

Pikes Peak sunrise October 26, 2017. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

She became a role model and inspiration for women runners who looked to her for her boldness and independent spirit — a wife, mother, business owner, and runner who hiked and ran on Pikes Peak with her family in the 1950s, dressed for the race in white sleeveless blouse, white shorts, white headwrap, and tennis shoes from Woolworths.

“We didn’t carry water or have aid stations in those days,” she said in a 2014 interview. “I still remember it like it was yesterday. You can be a wonderful wife and mother, but it showed me that if there’s something you really want to do, you should go for it.”

Year after year, Pieper Stine was as much a part of the race as the unpredictable weather, the friendliness and camaraderie of the runners whether elite or there for a bucket list challenge, or because life wouldn’t be the same without that weekend in late August that turned Manitou Springs into an excited, nervous, and glad-to-be alive running party.

“If I can do it, so can you,” she told the runners who thronged around her in Memorial Park at the Race Expo, at the pre-race spaghetti dinners, or on the streets of town. 

From the first time that she and Pieper returned to Manitou Springs in 2009 for the 50th anniversary celebration of the race that they had run together — Arlene at age 29 and Kathy at age 9 — Pieper Stine became living reminders of the beauty and challenge of running the Peak. 

 “‘It’s a beautiful day for a race,’ I remember her saying as we passed runners that day,” Pieper said of the race she did with her mother in 1959. “And she kept that same attitude every year. She never could believe that runners would come up to her and say ‘Can you just touch my hand for luck?’ or ‘It’s so good to see you again.’ She remembered everyone and had wanted to say something to them all. She could barely walk 10 paces down the sidewalk and people would say, ‘Can I get your picture? Can I get your autograph?’ It was just the thrill of her life when [race organizers] found her.”

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.)

In 2019, to mark the 60th anniversary of Pieper Stine’s marathon step for woman runners everywhere, a group of women runners dressed in white sleeveless blouses, white shorts, and headscarves and hats gathered to run up Pikes Peak to mark the occasion. And like the rock star of the trail running world she was for women, Pieper Stine showed up for the celebration.

Four years earlier, in 2015, I had the opportunity to celebrate Pieper Stine myself. The night before the marathon, I joined the Peak Busters gathering at the Manitou Springs City Hall and was reassured by Arlene, as I had come to know her. I had come back from falls and injuries like everyone else on the peak, since my first marathon on the mountain, in 2004.

At that time, Arlene was using a wheelchair after hip surgery. It was my second out and back and I was eager but nervous. “Good luck,” she said. “You’ll have a great time!” I bent down and she took her hand in mine. “OK,” I said, feeling tears about to come, feeling a part of history of this mountain that had both tested me and rewarding my training — or had spit me out during a few memorable Ascents and my first marathon. But I could always count on feeling inspired by the women who had come before me, especially Arlene.

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The next morning, she was at the start, shaking hands, giving hugs, and talking to racers through the speakers, to get ready and GO!

“Without pioneering efforts like Arlene’s, we would have no history nor legacy in our sport,” said Nancy Hobbs, executive director of the American Trail Running Association. “Many women — young and old — have been inspired by her.

That includes Pieper, who is planning to train for the Ascent along with one of Pieper Stine’s grandsons, Kyle, 29, who wants to train and qualify for the marathon. She also is survived by daughters Karen, 67, and Linda, 57, and her son, Karl, 66; three other grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

“Mom wanted to sprinkle some of her ashes on Pikes Peak,” Pieper said. “And I thought, ‘I’d like to go back 60 years later and see if I can do the Ascent.’ Maybe I can finish it, maybe not even do it as a race. And then maybe I could keep her legacy going.”

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