Mixing Sports with a Pioneering Spirit

Pike's Peak keeps them coming and racing for over 100 years


Ernest Hemingway once said, “There are only 3 sports- bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering. All the rest are merely games.”

What he meant in his own peculiar definition of sport is that if it can’t kill you, then it’s only a game.

But when it comes to the mountain course at Pike’s Peak, the celebrated American writer got 2 out of 3: high-altitude running and motor racing.

If chasing hills at the Boston Marathon is challenging enough, try pounding a gravel path up a 14,115-foot mountain, navigating rocks and switchbacks for 13.1 miles, before running back down to complete the grueling 26.2-mile race.

Never mind the oxygen depletion on the ascent, or the occasional blizzard, or the risk of braking ankles and shins on slippery slopes. This is the marathon at Pike’s Peak, a trail competition that takes off at a little over 6,000 feet and winds its way to the sky on surface gradients averaging 11%.

The race is not for the faint of heart, literally.

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Matt Carpenter, all-time leading champion who conquered 12 of the mountain marathons and still holds the record at 3:16:39 (1993), registered an oxygen intake rate, or lung capacity, of 90.2, the highest recorded for a runner at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado. The average athlete measures 60-84 and non-athletes are at 44-51.

“There is a pioneering spirit here”, says Ron Ilgen, President of the organization that manages the sky-bound race. Named after Zebulon Pike, a U.S. Army Officer who led an expedition out west in 1806, the peak that bears his name is situated 12 miles west of Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Climbing towards the summit with the goal of crossing the Rocky Mountains, Pike’s entourage was waist-deep in snow when they decided to turn back.

They never made it to the top, but their valiant effort was commemorated 150 years later with the launch of a marathon.

The foot chase to the summit began in 1956 after a certain Dr. Arne Suominen challenged smokers and non-smokers for a race. The Finnish physician, a marathoner himself, wanted to prove that smoking is harmful to a person’s physical endurance. Fourteen runners accepted the challenge  with none of the 3 smokers completing the round-trip.

Unlike the flatland New York Marathon, which draws over 50,000 participants from around the world, the event in Colorado is limited to 800 runners since the land is owned by the U.S. Forestry Service, which manages and regulates the environmental impact on the trail.

And unlike the older Boston Marathon, which shut out female runners until 1967 when Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to run the streets as an official registered competitor, the Pike’s Peak Marathon saw its first ‘Queen of the Mountain’ in 1959.

In the spirit of a hardy western pioneer, Arlene Pieper was the first female to finish a marathon on August 7, 1959 when she reached the top of Pike’s Peak and then made her way back down, clocking a total of 9 hours and 16 minutes.

At the time, there were no water stations, rail guards, or first aid responders in case of an emergency.

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Pieper’s success went unheralded for decades until officials decided to honor her in 2009 at the 50th anniversary of her achievement. But the female trailblazer- figurative and literal- moved out of state and couldn’t be located.

“We couldn’t find her, so we placed an ad in the newspaper with a $200 reward”, recalls Ilgen in an interview with Sports History Weekly.

After finally tracking her down with the help of a genealogist, Pieper wasn’t even aware of her distinction as the first woman who completed a sanctioned marathon in the U.S.

For the next decade, Pieper enjoyed her newly-discovered status, showing up at events, mingling with the crowd, and signing autographs. She died in February of 2021 at the age of 90.

It’s not just foot racers who became enamored with Pike’s Peak.

America’s mountain is home to an older competition, the Broadmoor Pike’s Peak International Hill Climb. Following the Indianapolis 500, the Hill Climb is the second oldest motor race in the U.S.

With over 156 turns, the 12.4-mile road snakes its way to the clouds through hairpin corners and unguarded cliffs.

As the air thins out and temperatures drop sharply, the strain on engine performance and driver focus leaves no margin for errors.

Cars and motorcycles have been speeding up the mountain since 1916 when it was still a dirt wagon trail. The first motor ‘King of the Mountain’ was Rea Lentz, who made it to the top in 20 minutes, 56 seconds in his Romano Special.

Starting above 9,000 feet and ending at the summit, vehicles roar up the mountain on an average gradient of 7%. It wasn’t until 2011 when the road was fully paved, not necessarily a celebratory event among old-timers who enjoyed kicking up dust on a gravel surface.

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Surprisingly, Pike’s Peak has seen a relatively small number of deaths in its racing history, numbering less than 7 over the past 100 years.

The last to be killed was two-wheel racer Carlin Dunne, who crashed his Ducati Streetfighter prototype just 20 yards from the finish line in 2019.

“During the 1950s and 1960s, the Hill Climb was part of the USAC point system”, remarks Don Sanborn, President of the Pike’s Peak Hill Climb Historical Association and whose own father and uncle raced the Peak in the stock car division.

“The Unsers got their start here”, says Sanborn, referring to the illustrious racing family that won the Indianapolis 500 a record 9 times.

Louis Unser ruled the mountain in the 1930s-40s, followed by his nephew, Bobby Unser in the 1950s-60s.

Bobby, who died on May 2nd, 2021 at the age of 87, conquered the summit 10 times and also set 8 course records; his best was 11 minutes, 55 seconds driving a Rislone Special (1968).

Other famous 4-wheel pilots who won the title included Mario Andretti in a Chevrolet STP Special (1969) and Rick Mears in a Porsche 2386 (1976).

Similar to the mountain marathon, the Race to the Clouds has its own unique spirit when compared to other motor speed events.

Multiple racing divisions and loose rules around engines and designs have played a role in testing and marketing new technology.

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In 1966, Pike’s Peak became part of Oldsmobile’s marketing campaign when the company introduced the Toronado, the first American front-wheel drive to roll out since the 1930s.

Driven by Nick Sanborn, the Toronado took the top in 14 minutes, 37 seconds to win its class.

In the 1980s, the Europeans arrived to showcase their own drivers and cars. French female rally champion, Michel Mouton, won in 1985 with her Audi Sport Quatro, clocking 11 minutes, 25 seconds.

Three years later, Finnish driver, Ari Vatanen, made it to the finish line in 10 minutes, 47 seconds in his Peugeot 405 Turbo.

The current record of 7 minutes, 57 seconds was set in 2018 by Le Mans champion, Romain Dumas, who raced a Volkswagen IDR, an electric vehicle prototype.

Offering more than just a race, the pioneering spirit of Pike’s Peak keeps marathoners and motor racers returning year after year.

To those people, Hemingway must have struck a chord when he said that it isn’t a sport unless it's close to the edge.



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