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Smokers vs. Nonsmokers: The Unique Origins of the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon

Posted at 6:53 PM, Sep 15, 2023

EL PASO COUNTY, CO — A Pikes Peak Region staple event returns this weekend to El Paso County as the 2023 Pikes Peak Marathon and Ascent is set to take place this Saturday and Sunday.

The two races will see runners either make the grueling 26.2-mile climb up the 14,115-foot Barr Trail of Pikes Peak. The race will begin in downtown Manitou Springs before making the 1.5-mile journey to join the Barr Trail.

This year marks the 68th year of the race and will feature runners from 17 different countries looking to etch their name into Pikes Peak history, but the unique origins of the race are something often overlooked.

According to the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum, the first official Pikes Peak Marathon started in 1956 to commemorate the 150 years since Zebulon Pike first saw the mountain in 1806.

The original race, however, began as a fitness challenge and call for change around the idea that smoking was bad for you. According to the museum, a former Finish Distance Runner, Dr. Arne Suominen challenged smokers saying, "no smoker could beat him" up Pikes Peak.

The original race featured 14 participants, two smokers included in the bunch. The doctor's point was made that of the two smokers who participated, one made it to the top of Pikes Peak, but neither completed the race.

The race that began as a fitness challenge has continued every year after and now brings runners from all over the world to El Paso County to take on America's mountain.


HISTORICAL MOMENTS OF THE RACE

The race would go on to not only be a major part of athletic history, but has undergone changes throughout its years. In 1960 and in 1976, the course underwent significant changes in its distance and course route following criticism.

In American Sports History, the Pikes Peak Marathon was a major accomplishment for women's athletics. In 1958, women were allowed to race in the climb for the first time, and a local gym owner, Arlene Piper Stein was the first to attempt it.

Stein would not finish the descent down that inaugural year and was disqualified, but would return after a year of intense training. Stein was not only the first woman to complete the Pikes Peak Marathon, but was also the first woman in the United States to complete a marathon.

According to the Colorado Encyclopedia and History Colorado, another notable feat in women's athletics came in 1976, when New Mexico born runner Lynn Bjorklund won the Pikes Peak Ascent, being the first woman to record a time under three hours at 2:44. Bjorklund's record would hold for more than thirty years until being overthrown with Kim Dobson's 2:24 ascent time.

The 1980s saw remarkable performances in the marathon with the introduction of Matt Carpenter, a legendary Colorado high-altitude runner. In his first attempt in 1987, Carpenter came in fourth place, but would go on to record 18 wins in his next 22 appearances in the marathon.
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