Nestled in the Colorado Rockies, Pikes Peak stands as an iconic front range 14er, with a towering summit reaching an elevation of 14,115 feet above sea level (4302 m). It stands as one of the 58 peaks that rises above 14,000 feet in the Centennial state. It's a majestic peak, and for over half a century, it has served as the backdrop for one of the most challenging and storied mountain running events in the United States, and even the world – the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon.
The Early Years: Inception and InspirationThe history of the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon dates back to the early 1950s when a group of local runners, inspired by the grandeur of Pikes Peak, envisioned a race that would test not only their physical endurance but also their mental fortitude. On August 10, 1956, Dr. Arne Suominen, challenged smokers and nonsmokers to race up and down Pikes Peak, a 26-mile (42 km) race, in conjunction with the 150th anniversary of the discovery of America's most famous mountain by Zebulon Pike.
Historical Progress on the Peak
The Pikes Peak Marathon carries a very special place in American sports history. It is the first major sporting event that allowed women to compete at the marathon distance; this is significant considering the history of the Boston Marathon in American long distance running lore.
In the third year of the race, 1958, women were allowed to participate. Arlene Peiper-Stein was the only woman who chose to do so. She made it to the top of Pikes Peak and decided to end her race there which disqualified her since she did not finish the full marathon. The next year Peiper-Stein decided to run the marathon again. She trained diligently and lined up at the starting line again, this time with 59-year-old Katherine Heard as well as her 9-year-old daughter Cathy and 16 men. Peiper-Stein completed the race in about 9 hours which gave her a place in history as the first woman to complete a marathon in the United States.
A New Challenge: The Ascent Emerges
Three years later in 1959, the Pikes Peak Ascent was born, for those uphill enthusiasts amongst the mountain running community. This uphill-only footrace covered the 13.1 miles (21 KM), from Manitou Springs to the summit, and quickly became a sought-after challenge for runners and adventurers alike. With a significant elevation gain (7,800') and ever-changing terrain, the Ascent provided a thrilling and demanding test of high altitude aerobic engine adaptation. Once those trees disappear on the mountain (tree line), that's when the Pikes Peak Ascent race truly begins (3 miles to go).
Record-Breaking Feats and Iconic Mountain Runners
Over the decades, the Pikes Peak races have witnessed numerous mountain running achievements that sometimes appears other-worldly. Legendary runners such as Matt Carpenter of Manitou Springs, who holds the Pikes Peak Marathon record and Ascent record for 30 years (until 2023). Carpenter's breathtaking uphill and downhill running speed set the bar high for future generations of participants to chase over the years. A new generation of mountain runners are emerging in the pursuit of Carpenter's and Kim Dobson's records. Runners such as Joe Gray, Rémi Bonnet, Ali McLaughlin, and Kristina Mascarenas, are just a few of the prestigious mountain runners who continue to leave their mark on the mountain's records and races. Which record(s) will fall next?
Community and Support up the Peak
The Pikes Peak races are more than just athletic competitions; they are community events that celebrate the spirit of mountain running. Volunteers, supporters, and fellow runners come together to create an atmosphere of camaraderie and mutual support in the pursuit of personal challenges. The sense of accomplishment and pride in conquering this monumental peak binds participants in a unique way from year to year. Yes, the Pikes Peak marathon is the longest continuous running marathon in the United States, with no interruptions or cancellations since 1956, in large part due to the incredible volunteer support system from Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs.
Looking Forward: A Legacy Continues
As mountain runners look ahead to future mountain races, the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon continues to draw them into the ultimate uphill challenge. Ascending 7,800' against the backdrop of one of Colorado's greatest mountain wonders is simply too enticing to ignore. With each passing year, new mountain runners join the finisher's ranks, volunteers pour out their hearts, and the locals come out of their Manitou bungalows to cheer on the racers. In addition, the support of Salomon and the Golden Trail World Series on the elite racing side will surely push Pikes Peak to new heights as a premiere race for future mountain running generations to tackle.
Start Line: The race begins in the picturesque town of Manitou Springs, situated at an elevation of 6,412 feet (1,920 meters) above sea level. Runners gather in the heart of this charming mountain town at 7 am sharp Saturday (Ascent) and Sunday (Marathon) for the starts, looking directly down Manitou Avenue into the heart of Pikes Peak.
Initial Ascent: From the start line, participants immediately face a gradual road climb up Ruxton Avenue, where they pass the iconic Pikes Peak Cog Railway; yes you can take a train to the top of the mountain! This initial section of the race is on paved roads, which wind their way through Manitou's quaint streets. As runners leave the town behind, they begin to feel the effects of the altitude and the vertical gain with every passing stride.
Barr Trail: After leaving the pavement behind at 1.5 miles, runners transition onto the Barr Trail, a well-maintained and switchback-laden trail (the Ws) that stretches over the next 2 miles. The course then weaves for the next 6 miles (10 km) through dense forests of beautiful pine and aspen trees, offering occasional glimpses of spectacular mountain vistas.
America the Beautiful
Pikes Peak is named after Zebulon Pike, an American explorer who led an expedition to the area in the early 19th century. In 1806, Pike and his team were tasked with exploring the western portion of the Louisiana Purchase, which included what is now the southwestern United States. During this expedition, Pike and his group attempted to climb what is now known as Pikes Peak but were unable to reach the summit due to harsh winter conditions.
Despite not reaching the summit himself, Pike's accounts of the mountain and his exploratory efforts contributed to the mapmaking and knowledge of the American West. As a result, the mountain was named in his honor. It's worth noting that Pike never claimed the peak as his own; rather, it was named after him as a way of recognizing his role in the early exploration of the region.
The patriotic song, "America the Beautiful," lives on through the iconic Colorado 14er. In 1893, Katharine Lee Bates, a college professor and poet, visited Pikes Peak and was inspired by its beauty. She wrote the poem "Pikes Peak" while standing atop the mountain, which later became the lyrics for the patriotic song "America the Beautiful." This further cemented the mountain's status as a symbol of American natural beauty.