With one mile to go in the 2009 Pikes Peak Ascent, Gatorade sloshed in my stomach and I focused on the trail before me. I had become a little hypoxic as the 14,000-foot altitude eroded my cognitive abilities.
I could hear the finish line announcer welcoming runners to the top of Pikes Peak. I wanted to look up, but when I did I became dizzy and nauseated, and I had no intentions of vomiting on America's Mountain. But I could see far below to Colorado Springs and farther east to the high plains where I grew up in a tiny house alongside a gravel road. I could look down and see home.
My friend Brian McCarrie and I had trained for months, running along together, discussing sports, work and family matters, telling jokes and celebrating the freedom of the trail. Good company is — and should be — a part of the Pikes Peak experience.
I had turned 50 years old that year and needed a goal. Something to get me moving. Arctic exploration and an African safari were out of the question. I chose to run in the Triple Crown of Running, a three-race series culminating with the Ascent.
The pain in my legs and spacey feeling gave way to excitement as I realized my accomplishment. That last mile of Pikes Peak was the best mile of my life. I had climbed Pikes Peak many times, but as I ascended the iconic switchbacks up Barr Trail's "16 Golden Stairs" to the summit finish, I realized I'd done something greater. I had etched my name into the peak's history, if only in a very small way. One name among thousands of runners who have pushed until there was no more mountain to climb. One story — my story — among many.
And isn't that the very bedrock of our history here beneath our purple mountain? Our stories? From Native Americans to the Spanish explorers. From trail builder Fred Barr to race car driver Bobby Unser. From Katharine Lee Bates, author of the lyrics of "America the Beautiful," to our great mountain runner Matt Carpenter.
They are the story of Pikes Peak. Our stories.
The Pioneers Museum has captured pieces of our history with a new Pikes Peak Marathon and Ascent exhibit that opened on Saturday. The museum's curator of history, Leah Davis Witherow, talked about the historic significance of the races, which will run this weekend for the 61st time. The 13.32-mile Ascent will go on Saturday, Aug. 20. The grueling marathon to Pikes Peak's summit and back is set for Sunday. Both races start at 7 a.m. in Manitou Springs (full disclosure, I am the media coordinator for the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon).
"The marathon is one of the events that makes our community unique," Witherow says. "It lends itself to our reputation as a beautiful and healthful place to live. And it's a great story, or many stories. From the elite runners down to the amateurs — even though they're really not amateurs. Everybody has a reason for running; everybody has a story about the mountain."
Visitors to the exhibit will be treated to the story of Arlene Pieper, the trailblazing pioneer who in 1959 became the first woman in the U.S. — and perhaps the world — to officially finish a marathon. Her story says as much about our community as it does about her.
"That there were no restrictions on a woman's participation (in the Pikes Peak Marathon) in an era when there was great discrimination, that's extraordinary," Witherow says. "And it's a story that not many people know. They always think of other prominent female marathon runners. But it happened right here at the foot of Pikes Peak."
In 1956, Dr. Arne Suominen of Florida was concerned about the dangers of smoking. He had the idea to challenge smokers to a race to the summit of Pikes Peak and back. On Aug. 10 of that year, 13 runners, three of them smokers, lined up next to the Pikes Peak Cog Railway Station for the start of the first Pikes Peak Marathon. That race was won by bodybuilder Monte Wolford, and it launched an event that is now known around the world.
Pikes Peak's history includes innovation and change. Great runners such as Steve Gachupin and Rick Trujillo — with 11 marathon victories between them — showed the world that running wasn't just for the streets of Boston or an Olympic track. Carpenter followed with an amazing 12 marathon wins, setting records in the Ascent at 2 hours, 1 minute, 6 seconds, and Marathon, 3:16:39. Runners such as Lynn Bjorklund, the women's Pikes Peak Marathon record holder (4:15:18, which has stood since 1981), and Kim Dobson, who shocked the mountain-running world in 2012 with an ascent record time of 2:24:58, have cleared the trail and inspired other female runners to follow.
It all happened on Pikes Peak. And the event is still making history.
In a move applauded by runners, the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon in 2013 became the first mountain-trail event to test for the illegal use of performance-enhancing drugs. The race also launched the Pikes Peak Ascent Bounty prize-money structure in 2012, offering incentive for runners to beat specific times. Dobson won the bounty money in 2012, an additional $5,000. This year, the bounty money is $8,000 for any male runner who can ascend the peak in under two hours. Any woman who beats 2:21 will win $7,000.
On Thursday, Aug. 18, the Pikes Peak Marathon will host the second Run Fest, a celebration of the area's rich running culture and the 60-year history of these famous races. The fun starts at 5 p.m. at Alamo Square Park, 215 S. Tejon St. (the Pioneers Museum). There will be great music, beer, good food, plus exhibits by running organizations, companies and stores. The event is free and everyone is invited. The museum will be open until 7 p.m.
The story of the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon is a culmination of our experiences.
I have my story, and you can create yours on our beautiful mountain beneath spacious skies.