Running history often notes Roberta Gibb and Kathrine Switzer as among the first American women to run a marathon.
However, seven years before Gibb hid in the bushes and snuck into the Boston Marathon in 1966 and eight years before Switzer ran Boston as K.V. Switzer in 1967, Arlene Pieper had finished the Pikes Peak Marathon in 1959.
Pieper not only completed one of America’s most challenging marathons, but she also became the first official female finisher of a marathon in the United States.
Equally impressive was Arlene’s daughter, Kathy, who ran with her mom that day. Kathy reached the summit in a time of 5:44:52, becoming the youngest competitor at that point to finish the race to the summit.
We first met Arlene and Kathy in 2010 at the Pikes Peak Marathon, and we have enjoyed reuniting with them each year since. Every year, both Arlene and Kathy meet new runners at the Pikes Peak expo, and Arlene signs countless photos of her on the summit of Pikes Peak in 1959.
Ready to get into the story of the original female marathon runner?
Arlene Pieper’s Marathon Motivations
It all began in the 1950’s when Arlene and her husband, Wallen, moved to Colorado Springs to set up a women’s only gym– ‘Arlene’s Health Studio’.
The pair were very business savvy. Arlene would walk around town in her studio’s brand colours by way of gold stretch pants and a purple top. The couple’s car was even painted gold and purple. Wallen, Arlene’s husband, even came to be known as “Mr. Arlene” as it was decided to be good for business!
One day, while out on a walk with his wife, Wallen mentioned to Arlene that if she were to run the Pikes Peak Marathon, that might be good for business, too.
Arlene Pieper’s Marathon Training
Arlene would say that she always believed that women should do what they want to do.
So she bought herself a pair of tennis shoes at the dime store and began to run laps at the local college track.
“And the three children sat in the middle of the track with their toys, and I ran a lot there,” Arlene said. “And once a week on Sundays, I went up to Barr camp and back to get used to the altitude and all that.”
“It got closer and closer,” she said, “I was excited about doing it.”
The Pikes Peak Marathon Event
On race weekend Pikes Peak offers runners two races: the Ascent, and the Marathon.
The Ascent is a 13.3-mile trail run with an elevation gain of more than 7,000 feet. The Marathon includes the ascent up the mountain, but then runners are to run all the way back down again.
Race director Ron Ilgen said that back in the 50’s, race organizers had always expected women to just run the Ascent. They didn’t even believe any woman would have the strength necessary to run back down again.
Arlene had run the Ascent back in 1958, but her goal for 1959 was the marathon. So she just kept training.
Arlene Pieper’s Marathon Race
On the day of the race there were 12 runners on the starting line. Arlene, another woman, Arlene’s daughter, and 9 men.
Arlene was 29 and her daughter, Kathy, was just 9 years old.
Arlene donned her short shorts, a white blouse tied in a knot at her stomach, and her tennis shoes from the dime store, of course.
It was a great day for a run and the sun shone down brightly on the runners as the race got underway.
On the first half of the course, the ascent up Pikes Peak, Arlene didn’t run much, it was more of a brisk hike. But as she kept chipping away at the course, her altitude training began to pay off.
The other competitors who had travelled in from other states often hadn’t trained on the mountain, and Arlene began to pass them. And every time she did pass a man she would smile at them and say…
“Isn’t it a beautiful day for a race?”, she would pick up the pace, and run past them.
And as she reached the top of the peak, Arlene waved over her shoulder at the cheering crowd without missing a step.
That’s where 9-year-old Kathy’s race stopped, quite the achievement! Kathy and Wallen got in the car and made their way back down the mountain.
On Aug. 7, 1959, the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph noted that Arlene Pieper had completed the marathon but the real star of the show was young Kathy:
“But the big excitement with the crowd on the summit was the arrival there of Kathy Pieper, Mrs. Pieper’s -year-old daughter, who set out just to accompany her mother part of the way, but who ran clear to the summit in five hours, 44 minutes, 52 seconds,” the newspaper article reads. “The crowd almost raised the sky with its cheers for the little girl.”
Arlene kept going.
“At the finish line, I felt pretty good,” she said. “I’m sure I was a little tired, but I wasn’t completely exhausted. I lost all my bruised toenails a few days later. Every single toenail fell off.”
Arlene finished the marathon in a little over nine hours. Considering the fact that there were no aid stations, the altitude gain was brutal, and that Arlene ran in dime store tennis shoes, 9 hours was a very respectable time indeed.
And did she ever run another marathon?
“Never, never, never,” she said. “One was enough. Thank you.”
The Search For Arlene Pieper
At the time of Arlene’s marathon, no one really realised that she was the first woman to ever run the distance.
Nobody might ever have noticed, if not for the controversy at the Boston Marathon, first with Roberta Gibb finishing the race as a bandit — an unregistered runner — in 1966, and then with Katherine Switzer’s worldfamous finish the next year in 1967.
Those two women prompted the folks at Pikes Peak to realise that Arlene Pieper had been the first.
But by then, Arlene Pieper had moved far away from the Colorado Springs community, and simply disappeared. No one at Pikes Peak knew where she had gone, if she was aware of what she had done, or if she was even alive.
A decade passed, and another one, and a couple more…
When Ron Ilgen stepped up to the role of race director in 2002, he took it upon himself to have Arlene found. He even went as far to hire a private investigator who came up blank.
Ron placed an ad on the local paper:
‘Find Arlene Pieper: $300 Reward’
The ad was picked up by Linda Vixie, amateur geneaologist living in Colorado Springs, who Ron recalls as having taken on the challenge of finding Arlene “like a bulldog and just kept at it.”
Linda searched the local library, poured over records, searched documents from far and wide, googled every fine detail about the family, before finally honing in on an unassuming Californian family.
After ringing almost every number in the local area, Linda finally got through to Arlene. Linda, for all her work, got the privilege of being the person to break the news to Arlene that she had been the first woman in the United States to run a marathon. Arlene had no idea!
“It just — just blew me away,” Arlene said. “I said, ‘I’m the first?’ I just sit there in shock. I was like, ‘Really?’ You know, I just, I couldn’t believe it.”
Arlene Pieper’s Running Legacy
Just two weeks after she found out that she had made history, Arlene Pieper was flown over from California to Colorado Springs for the race that marked 50 years since she had unknowingly become the first U.S. woman to run a marathon.
Race organiser Ron Ilgen spoke of what it was like having Arlene there that weekend:
“She just had this look of total amazement all race weekend, as people were coming up for autographs, as TV crews were filming her, as she was officiating the start of the race. You could just tell that it was still very hard for her to comprehend being just pulled out of obscurity like this and then all the sudden the queen of the event, just treated like royalty.”
That year was 2009. And every year since, the team at the Pikes Peak Marathon has flown Arlene Pieper and her daughter Kathy Pieper to Colorado Springs for the race weekend. And every year, Arlene stands under the big banner of the start line and sends all the runners off with many a cheer.
On the event, she says:
“I know there’s not very many people in the world that can say they’re the first at doing something that was important like this. So that’s why I feel so especially honored. I will go back as long as I can walk and talk, I told them.”
After your own marathon challenge?
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