If you haven’t started training for this weekend’s 60th running of the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon, it may be a little late. Perhaps less taxing would be a tour through the races’ history at the Pioneers Museum?
The second-oldest continuous marathon (Boston’s is the oldest) has its own exhibit. It can be seen during museum hours, from 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday through January.
The race began in 1956 when Arne Suominen of Florida, concerned about the dangers of smoking, challenged smokers to a race to the summit of Pikes Peak and back. Thirteen runners, including three smokers, participated that year. Bodybuilder Monte Wolford won the race — none of the smokers finished.
“What started as a dare between smokers and non-smokers has grown into an internationally recognized competition,” said Leah David Witherow, curator of history at the Pioneers Museum. “No ordinary marathon, competitors race over 13 miles up the side of Pikes Peak and back while navigating high altitude, inclement weather, loose gravel, tree roots and two-way traffic on narrow switchback trails. This exhibit features personal stories, historic photographs, medals and awards documenting the courage and endurance required to complete this extreme race.”
Ron Ilgen has been race director for 15 years, and has personally run the marathon twice and the Ascent (which only takes runners to the top of Pikes Peak) once. He said the stories over the last 60 years, combined with the races’ connection to the region’s outdoor spirit, add to its appeal.
Ilgen’s favorite marathon story is that of Arlene Pieper, the first woman to run the marathon.
“She didn’t really realize she had a place in history,” Ilgen said of her 1959 race. “She moved away for 50 years and lived in obscurity. In 2009 we were able to find her and gave her the recognition she deserves. It was very special to locate her.”
Every year since, Pieper is flown to Colorado from her home in Fresno, Calif. so she can watch the event.
The races are capped at 800 participants for the Marathon and 1,800 runners for the Ascent, Ilgen said, adding those caps are implemented by the U.S. Forest Service for safety reasons.
The number of runners hasn’t been the only thing climbing over the past 60 years, Ilgen said. An economic impact study was completed in 2005 and found local spending to be about $2.5 million during race week. He said that number is likely to be around $3.5 million today.
“More people are coming to stay and they bring their families,” he said. “It’s like a vacation week.”
He said the race has been placed on several top-10 lists for marathons across the globe.
“There’s Boston, the Great Wall of China, Paris — and the little Pikes Peak Marathon,” he said.
In addition to the museum exhibit kicking off during race week, the second Pikes Peak Run Fest begins at 5 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 18 at Alamo Square Park, 215 S. Tejon St., in front of the Pioneers Museum. The event is free and everyone is invited. Run Fest plans call for live music by the Austin Young Band, plus a selection of local craft beers, food vendors and exhibits by running organizations, companies and stores.
The Pikes Peak Ascent begins at 7 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 20 in Manitou Springs. The marathon starts at 7 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 21.
For more information, visit pikespeakmarathon.org.