On the morning of August 17, 30 women gathered at the Pikes Peak Cog Railway Station in Manitou Springs, Colorado, to celebrate an unsung trailblazer in women’s distance running.
Clad in white shorts, T-shirts, and hats, the runners dressed in the same outfit that Arlene Pieper, then 29, wore when she unknowingly made history in 1959 as the first known woman to officially complete a marathon in the United States. Eight years before Kathrine Switzer made headlines as the first registered female finisher in Boston, Pieper climbed and descended the 14,115-foot summit of Pikes Peak, covering 26.2 rugged miles in nine hours.
On the 60th anniversary of Pieper’s finish, the Pikes Peak Marathon and Ascent race organizers commemorated the accomplishment with a series of events, the group run being the first celebration.
Decades later, Pieper’s accomplishment continues to inspire generations of female runners who want to take on their own mountains.
“She was one of the first to lead the way and pave the path for us,” Debi Holton told Runner’s World. Holton, who moved to Colorado from Wisconsin three years ago, was one of the participants in the group run in preparation for her first attempt at the Pikes Peak Marathon this Sunday.
The inspiration behind the event came about when event organizer and Pikes Peak social media strategist Alicia Pino posted a photo of Pieper to a local Facebook group for female runners in the Colorado Springs area.
The photo showed Pieper standing at the top of the summit in her signature white ensemble, which was modeled after her favorite movie star, Marilyn Monroe. One member of the group commented that they should organize a run where all of the ladies wear the same classic look.
“I kind of laughed, and then I was like, wait a minute, we should do that! That would be so much fun!” Pino said.
The race organizers also embraced the idea, but due to park permit restrictions, Pino had to limit the number of participants to 30 women. Event partner Lululemon provided the shorts, while Trailheads.com donated the hats.
Some of the runners summited Pikes Peak multiple times prior to the event, but others were climbing the mountain for the first time. The range of ability and experience reminded Pino of Pieper’s impact.
“Her run opened up so many different possibilities for different people to participate,” Pino said.
For 50 years, Pieper had no idea that the race had a significant place in running history. It wasn’t until she received a phone call from a historian that Pieper learned she was the first woman to officially complete a marathon in the United States. Race organizers had spent four years trying to track her down and finally made contact in 2009 for the 50th anniversary of her run.
At the time of her race, Pieper signed up to promote Arlene’s Health Studio, the gym that she and her husband owned in Colorado Springs. To prepare for it, she trained for a year, building speed on a local track and running miles up the mountain on the weekends. On race day, she ran without food and drank from a stream, all the while famously teasing her male competitors with the question: “Isn’t this a beautiful day for a race?” With her young daughter Kathy, who accompanied her for almost six hours of the race, Pieper finished in 9:16.
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“It feels relatable in a sense that Arlene didn’t know she was this glass ceiling breaker. She just wanted to go run a mountain in a race,” Pino said. “She brought her 9-year-old daughter along, and she didn’t think twice about it.”
“There was no question of, ‘Can I do this, will they allow me?’ Arlene just has this cavalier attitude like, ‘Of course I can do that!’ It never crossed her mind that she couldn’t run this mountain,” she added.
During the ascent on Saturday, the group of 30 runners dressed in white celebrated the fact that Pieper boldly set out to complete a goal that no woman had ever achieved before.
On the mountain, the runners were asked multiple times by fellow runners and hikers why they were running together in uniform, and they proudly told them the story of Pieper and why her run matters. In fact, 2015 Pikes Peak Marathon champion Alex Nichols even stopped to take a selfie with the group.
At the aid stations along the route, several volunteers shared fond memories of Pieper, which empowered Holton during her ascent and will continue to inspire through her Pikes Peak Marathon debut.
“It gave me strength to say, ‘This woman in 1959 was wearing dime-store shoes and she did it and was the first woman to do it,’” Holton said. “However I’m feeling, no matter how tired I am, I am going to do this for her and just keep going.”
With the 2019 Pikes Peak Marathon and Ascent this Sunday, the celebrations for Pieper, now 89, will continue all weekend long. She will be the official starter for the marathon and ascent distances, as well as a presenter during the award ceremonies for the race.
Contributing Writer Taylor Dutch is a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas.