Rest in Power: Arlene Pieper, Marathon Trailblazer

Arlene Pieper—who in 1959 became the first woman to run a sanctioned marathon—died on February 11, 2021. Pieper spent five decades not knowing she deserved a spot in sports history and women’s history. Rather than run a flat road course, she took on the Pikes Peak Marathon—a grueling ascent and descent of a 14,000 foot peak in Colorado.

Kathrine Switzer was long understood to be the first woman to complete a sanctioned marathon. She infamously used her first initial to enter the 1967 Boston Marathon so that race organizers would not know her gender. (Bobbi Gibb ran the course in 1966, but was not on the official race roster due to Boston’s no-women rule.) The race director spotted Switzer running and violently attempted to remove her bib, but she continued. Switzer went on to become the first woman to complete the Boston Marathon as a registered runner.

Arlene Pieper
Kathrine Switzer at the 2011 Berlin Marathon Expo, holding her autobiography, Marathon Woman. (Wikimedia Commons)

Pieper was born in California in 1930. She ended up in Colorado Springs and opened Arlene’s Health Studio, a women’s fitness studio, with her husband. In 1958, they decided it would be good publicity for Pieper to complete the infamous local marathon.

She ran the ascent, but stopped there. The following year, clearly undeterred by her initial shortcomings, she returned and completed the course, which boasts over 8,000 feet of ascent and descent, in nine hours and 16 minutes. If that’s not impressive enough, Pieper completed the ascent portion of the race with her 9 year-old daughter, Kathie. At the time, onlookers were more impressed by Kathie’s ascent than Pieper’s, so much so that the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph wrote about the girl’s accomplishment.

The Pikes Peak Marathon knew Pieper was the first woman to run a sanctioned marathon, not Switzer. Unlike Boston, they never held any gender requirements to enter the race. They attempted to find Pieper for years. Eventually, they put an advertisement in the newspaper offering $250 to anyone who could find her.

Trail-blazing Pieper had no inkling of the magnitude of her accomplishment until 2009, when the Pikes Peak Marathon finally made contact with her through a genealogist who saw their ad in the paper. Days later, she flew to Colorado to be at the 50th anniversary of her 1959 race. After that, Pieper was a regular at the annual event and became famous throughout the marathon and trail running worlds.

In 2019, 30 women donned Pieper-inspired white to celebrate their hero in the She Moves Mountain Run. Pieper attended the event, which was scheduled to celebrate the 60th anniversary of her groundbreaking ascent and descent of Pikes Peak.

Despite her death, Pieper will undoubtedly remain an inspiration to runners and women athletes across the world. She will be especially missed at the start line of the Pikes Peak Marathon, where her kindness and encouragement is fondly remembered.

When Pieper was asked if she’d ever run another marathon, she said, “Never, never, never. One was enough. Thank you.”

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Audrey Andrews is a Ph.D. student in anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno. She is an archaeologist, runner and feminist. Audrey graduated from Columbia University.