First held in 1956 as a contest between smokers and nonsmokers, the Pikes Peak Marathon is an annual trail-running race that takes competitors from Manitou Springs to the summit of 14,115-foot Pikes Peak and back, mostly via the mountain’s famous Barr Trail. The third-oldest marathon in the United States, the Pikes Peak Marathon was also home of the country’s first official women’s marathon finish, by Arlene Pieper in 1959. The Marathon proved so popular (and so difficult) that it spawned an ascent-only race, aptly called the Ascent, which ends at the summit and is now held the day before the Marathon. Colorado mountain runner Matt Carpenter long dominated both races, boasting a total of eighteen wins between the late 1980s and early 2010s, which included setting the Ascent record of 2 hours, 1 minute, and the Marathon record of 3:16 in the same race in 1993.
The first known race to the summit of Pikes Peak involved automobiles, and the first known running race on Pikes Peak was inspired by automobiles. In 1915 Spencer Penrose improved an old carriage road to make it suitable for cars, and in 1916 he staged the first Pikes Peak International Hill Climb to publicize his new toll road. In 1936 the auto road became the property of the US Forest Service, which started to operate it as a free road with no toll. To celebrate this new “freedom,” on June 28, 1936, a group of twenty-five men and two women held a running race up Barr Trail, a 12.6-mile trail that Fred Barr had built from Manitou Springs to the summit in 1921. The first male finisher was twenty-four-year-old Lou Wille, who reached the summit in three hours, and the first female finisher was twenty-one-year-old Agnes Nellesen, who made it in 6:42.
That first running race on Barr Trail had no immediate sequel. The next race on Barr Trail—and the first official Pikes Peak Marathon—did not occur until 1956. That year, the 150th anniversary of Zebulon Pike’s expedition to Colorado, a Florida doctor named Arne Suominen wrote to the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce proposing a contest between smokers and nonsmokers to see who could run up and down Barr Trail the fastest. The race was held on August 10, 1956. Eleven nonsmokers, including Suominen, competed against three smokers, including 1936 race winner Lou Wille. Wille reached the summit first but stopped there, leaving a twenty-eight-year-old nonsmoker and former Mr. America contestant Monte Wolford to win the full race in 5:39. Only four runners finished the race, all nonsmokers, and no women competed.
The Pikes Peak Marathon has been held continuously since that first race in 1956, making it the third-oldest marathon in the United States (behind only Boston and Yonkers). The course has always followed Barr Trail from Manitou Springs (at about 6,400 feet) to the summit of Pikes Peak (14,115 feet) and back. In the race’s early years, it started and finished at the Pikes Peak Cog Railway depot, making its distance only about twenty-four miles. In 1960 the finish was moved down the hill to Manitou Avenue, and in 1976 the start was moved to the Manitou Springs City Hall to make the race a full 26.2-mile marathon.
In the 1960s, a growing number of women, boys, and older men chose to run the Pikes Peak Ascent, a half-marathon option ending at the summit, while men aged nineteen to thirty-four still had to run the full Marathon. That restriction was lifted in the 1970s. By 1981 the Ascent was attracting so many runners that it was separated into its own race on Saturday, while the Marathon remained on Sunday. This opened the new possibility of “doubling,” or racing both the Ascent and the Marathon on the same weekend, an option that now attracts about 100 runners each year.
Somewhat surprisingly, given its difficulty compared to flat road marathons, the Pikes Peak Marathon was where a woman first officially finished a marathon in the United States. In the 1958 Pikes Peak or Bust Marathon, named in honor of the gold rush centennial, local gym owner Arlene Pieper ran to the summit but did not descend to Manitou Springs to complete the Marathon. The next year, the twenty-nine-year-old Pieper entered the race again as a way to promote her gym. She ran to the summit with her nine-year-old daughter, who stopped there, and then turned around and descended to Manitou Springs, finishing the Marathon in a time of 9:16.
Perhaps because the Pikes Peak Marathon rewards a specific skill set—competitors must run uphill and downhill quickly at very high altitudes—its history has been marked by repeat winners who have dominated the race for several years at a time. Monte Wolford won the first two Marathons, then Calvin Hansen won the next four. In the late 1960s, New Mexico runner Steve Gachupin won six straight before the great Colorado mountain runner Rick Trujillo owned the race in the 1970s, posting several times close to 3:30. Elite competition increased even more in the 1980s, with New Mexico runner Al Waquie recording the first two finishes under 3:30 in his wins in 1981 and 1982.
Later in the 1980s, legendary Colorado mountain runner Matt Carpenter first came to Pikes Peak, finishing fourth in the Ascent in 1987. Carpenter returned to race the Ascent or the Marathon twenty-two more times in the next twenty-five years, recording eighteen wins. His duels with Mexican runner Ricardo Mejía in the early 1990s pushed both men to the fastest times in the race’s history. In 1992 Mejía passed Carpenter on the downhill to win the race in a course-record time of 3:24, spurring Carpenter to avenge his loss the next year. In 1993 Carpenter set new records for the Ascent (2:01) and descent (1:15) portions of the course en route to an overall Marathon record of 3:16. Two years later, Mejía and fellow Mexican runner Martin Rodriguez made strong runs at Carpenter’s record but fell a few minutes short, running the second- and fifth-fastest times in the race’s history. Carpenter’s Ascent and Marathon records still stand after more than twenty-five years and have gained a reputation as some of the most impressive times in the history of mountain running.
On the women’s side, nineteen-year-old New Mexico runner Lynn Bjorklund inaugurated a new competitive era when she won the 1976 Ascent in 2:44, the first women’s time under three hours. Bjorklund returned to win the Ascent in 1980, lowering her record by three minutes, and then won the Marathon the next year, setting another new Ascent record (2:33) on her way to a Marathon record of 4:15. Despite strong Ascent and Marathon races from women—including Linda Quinlisk, J’ne Day-Lucore, and Anita Ortiz—Bjorklund’s remarkable records lasted more than thirty years. Finally, in 2012 Colorado mountain runner Kim Dobson reset Bjorklund’s Ascent record by finishing in 2:24. Bjorklund’s Marathon record narrowly fell to Megan Kimmel in 2018 before Swiss runner Maude Mathys set a new standard of 4:02 the next year.
Today the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon are among the best-known and most competitive trail races in the United States, drawing more than 2,000 mountain runners to Manitou Springs every August. The Ascent has hosted the World Long Distance Mountain Running Championships in 2006, 2010, and 2014. Meanwhile, after taking a competitive dip in the early 2000s, the Pikes Peak Marathon once again draws an elite international field thanks to its inclusion in the Salomon Golden Trail World Series since 2018. The advent of the series has attracted a growing number of the world’s top mountain runners to the race, including women’s record holder Maude Mathys; 2018 winner Dakota Jones, who broke Carpenter’s descent record by more than a minute; and 2019 winner Kilian Jornet, who notched the race’s sixth-fastest time (3:27).