Arlene Pieper: The Marathon Pioneer Almost Forgotten By History

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Arlene Pieper at an event for the Pikes Peak Marathon. (Courtesy Ron Ilgen)
Arlene Pieper at an event for the Pikes Peak Marathon. (Courtesy Ron Ilgen)

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Unlike Boston, the Pikes Peak Marathon never actually barred women from racing. When it began in the mid-1950s, women had been climbing Pikes Peak for at least 100 years — and had been running official races up the 13-mile trail to the top since 1936.

Pikes Peak has two races: The Ascent, a 13.3-mile trail run with an elevation gain of more than 7,000 feet, and the Marathon, which climbs up the mountain and back down again. Race director Ron Ilgen says organizers always expected women to run the Ascent. They didn’t think any woman would have the strength necessary to run back down.

'We Already Have A Woman Who's Done This'

In 1959, Arlene Pieper proved them wrong.

"And how did Arlene do?" I ask Ron.

"Well, she finished in a little over nine hours," he responds, "which, considering back then, with no aid stations, per se, running in dime store tennis shoes, she did quite well. That's a very respectable time."

On Aug. 7, 1959, the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph noted that Arlene Pieper had completed the marathon. But …

"But the big excitement with the crowd on the summit was the arrival there of Kathy Pieper, Mrs. Pieper’s [9]-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 Pieper atop Pikes Peak in the 1950s. (Courtesy photo)
Arlene Pieper atop Pikes Peak in the 1950s. (Courtesy photo)

"I don't think anybody at the time really realized, look, this is the first woman to ever run a marathon," Ilgen says. "This is an amazing thing."

Nobody might ever have noticed, if not for the controversy in Boston, first with Roberta Gibb finishing the race as a bandit — an unregistered runner — in 1966, and then with Katherine Switzer’s famous finish in 1967.

That’s when folks at Pikes Peak starting saying ...

"Well, wait. We already have a woman that's done this," Ron says.

But by then, Arlene Pieper had moved away, and "just disappeared into obscurity."

Nobody knew where Arlene had gone, or even if she was aware of what she had done. A decade went by. And another. And another couple decades after that.

Ron Ilgen came on as race director in 2002, and he tried to find Arlene. He even hired a private detective who "came up blank."

"Nobody thought we'd ever find her," Ron says. "Or that, honestly, she was even still alive. So, figuring we're just going to have to go on without her, she was lost to history and we'll never know what happened to her."

'Find Arlene Piper: $300 Reward'

Ron had almost given up hope, but he went ahead with planning a gala event to celebrate 50 years of women running the Pikes Peak Marathon. With less than two weeks to go, he decided to take one last try.

"And that's when we placed the ad in the local paper: 'Find Arlene Pieper: $300 reward,'" Ron says.

Linda Vixie, an amateur genealogist living in Colorado Springs, says she doesn’t often read the sports section, but the ad appeared on a Tuesday — and the weekday paper wasn’t very thick.

"It was right beneath another little article describing the catching of a record-setting catfish in Colorado, and it happened to catch my eye," Linda says.

Linda sent me a copy of the ad. It offered a $250 reward, not the $300 that Ron remembers. But no matter.

"She took it on like a bulldog and just kept at it," Ron says.

Linda started at the local library. She was hoping that maybe the family had stayed long enough for Kathy to graduate high school.

But no such luck.

"They weren't here very long, but Arlene's husband who had run with her had a very unusual name," Linda says. "His father's name was Walter and his mother's name was Helen, and so they named him Wallen."

Linda documented her search for a genealogy magazine, and it reads like a mystery novel — with false leads and dead ends and calls to other women named Arlene Pieper who, it turns out, never lived in Colorado and never ran a marathon.

But before long, Linda found a family in California that fit the description of Arlene and her children. Linda knew that Arlene and Wallen had owned a women’s gym — at that time it was called a "health studio" — in Colorado Springs. And after some Googling, she noticed that that the youngest son in this family had been named after a 1940s bodybuilder.

With that, Linda Vixie was sure she had found Arlene Pieper — who was now Arlene Stein. But, it turns out, finding her was the easy part. Linda called all the numbers she could find for Arlene and her now-adult children. She even searched for the phone numbers of Arlene’s neighbors, hoping one of them would put her in touch.

"I could see a picture of Arlene's house at Google Maps, and I just wanted — I wanted so badly just to walk through that screen and knock on that door," Linda says.

Finally, Linda left a message with the son who had been named after the bodybuilder. He called back. And on the Monday before the Saturday event, Linda Vixie reached Arlene Pieper-Stein on her cell phone.

"I got to be the one to tell her that she was the first woman in the United States to run a marathon," Linda says. "She had no idea."

"It just — just blew me away," Arlene says. "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."

"This is something that's really important to all of them, and there's a real sisterhood. To realize that the woman ... who started it all was gonna be there. That they would — they would get to meet her."

Linda Vixie

Linda and Arlene talked on the phone for a while, and Linda got to be the first to hear Arlene’s story from Arlene herself.

And it was a good one.

'Isn't This A Beautiful Day For A Race?'

It starts in the 1950s, when Arlene and Wallen moved to Colorado Springs to take over a health studio.

"Arlene's Health Studio, because it was a women's health studio. It was just for women," Arlene explains.

"And did you really walk around town in gold stretch pants?" I ask.

"Yes, I did," she says. "Gold stretch pants and a purple top, oh yes. Our car was even painted gold with purple on it. So, everywhere I went it was, 'Hey, Arlene, Arlene.'"

Wallen had people call him "Mr. Arlene." It was good for business. And one day, while on a walk with his wife, he mentioned to Arlene that if she were to run the marathon, that might be good for business, too.

Arlene says she always believed women should do what they want to do. So she bought a pair of tennis shoes at the dime store and started running laps at the local college.

"And the three children sat in the middle of the track with their toys, and I ran a lot there," Arlene says. "And once a week on Sundays, I went up to Barr camp and back to get used to the altitude and all that."

Arlene ran the Ascent in 1958, but the goal was the marathon. So she kept training.

"It got closer and closer," she says. "I was excited about doing it. Did you want me to tell you about the day of the race?"

I can’t imagine anyone saying "no" to that question.

Arlene Pieper (center) and her daughter Kathy (far right) at the starting line. (Courtesy Ron Ilgen)
Arlene Pieper (center) and her daughter Kathy (far right) at the starting line. (Courtesy Ron Ilgen)

"That day, there was 12 of us at the starting line," she says. "There was another lady, my daughter, myself, and I was 29. And the others were men. It was a beautiful day. Couldn't have asked for a better day. Sunshiny, I had my short shorts on that we used to wear back then and a white blouse, tied in a knot — that's how we did things back in the '50s. And my tennis shoes from the dime store, and off I went."

Arlene says she didn’t run that much on the way up. It was more of a fast hike with her husband and her 9-year-old daughter. But all that training at altitude started to pay off.

"Men would come there from other states not knowing that they wouldn't be able to breathe too good," Arlene says.

And every time Arlene and her husband and her daughter would pass one of the men who were panting on the trail, Arlene would say …

"'Isn't this a beautiful day for a race?' And go running past them. My husband told me to do that," she says, laughing.

The newspaper account says that when Arlene got to the top, she waved over her shoulder at the crowd without missing a step. That’s how Arlene remembers it too.

Wallen and 9-year-old Kathy and the other woman who ran the Ascent all got in cars and went back down the mountain.

But Arlene kept going.

"At the finish line, I felt pretty good," she says. "I'm sure I was a little tired, but I wasn't completely exhausted. I lost all my toenails a few days later. Every single toenail fell off.

"And did you ever run another marathon?" I ask.

"Never, never, never," she says. "One was enough. Thank you."

A Place In Running History

Ron Ilgen says it’s not Arlene’s dime store tennis shoes or how she taunted the men during the race that makes this story special. It’s the fact that, for 50 years, Arlene had a place in running history — a very important place in running history — and she didn’t even know it.

The night before Arlene and Kathy were set to arrive for the 50th anniversary celebration, Ron spoke at an event for the Peak Busters — a women’s organization that supports runners in the Marathon and Ascent. Linda Vixie was there.

"It was very dramatic," she says. "He got up and he said, you know, 'We've been looking for her for four years, and we've even hired a private investigator.' He went on for quite a while. And then he said, 'We found her. And she's going to be here tomorrow.'

"I saw women who I later learned were world class runners wiping tears from their eyes."

"Why do you think that moment was so emotional?" I ask.

"I mean, I'm not a runner," Linda says. "This is something that's really important to all of them, and there's a real sisterhood. To realize that the woman who — sorry — who started it all was gonna be there. That they would — they would get to meet her."

And they did get to meet her. And, better yet, she got to meet them.

"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," Ron says of Arlene. "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 was 2009. And every year since, the Pikes Peak Marathon has flown Arlene Pieper-Stein and her daughter Kathy to Colorado Springs. Arlene stands under a big banner at the start, to send the runners off.

"There's so many people running that they have to do it in waves, you know, a couple hundred people at a time," she says. "It just amazes me. Here's all these people out ready to run, and they're all clapping and cheering for me.

"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."

This segment aired on April 22, 2017.


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Karen Given Executive Producer/Interim Host, Only A Game
Karen is the executive producer for WBUR's Only A Game.



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