Running Pikes Peak, Part II: The Pioneers

*Note: This audio essay first aired on KRCC (Colorado Springs’ NPR affiliate, 91.5 FM) on August 12, 2021. The link to the program is here; the audio file and the text from the essay are below.

[Audio forthcoming]

The first official race to the top of Pikes Peak was on June 28, 1936. 27 started the nearly 13 mile-race up the Barr Trail, and just over two-thirds finished, including one woman. 

Twenty years later, a Finnish-born doctor from Florida named Arne Suominen took the idea a bit further. He wanted to show that smoking hurt endurance as well as to celebrate Zebulon Pike’s first attempt to climb the peak 150 years before. 

Suominen called it the “Pikes Peak Sesquicentennial Marathon.” 

In August 1956, 10 non-smokers and 3 smokers started the race. 

None of the smokers finished. But Monte Wolford, a 28-year-old vegetarian-Mr. America-competitor, who had nearly been crippled in a farm accident as a child, won the race in 5:39. 

But I want to tell you about someone else – Inestine Roberts.

She lived on Pikes Peak Avenue near the border between Manitou and Colorado Springs. She was five feet tall, weighed under a hundred pounds, an amateur botanist and Colorado Mountain Club member. 

She’d climbed Pikes Peak over a dozen times. 

But on August 4, 1957, something went wrong. 

While hiking the peak above timberline, 87-year-old Inestine went missing. A search party went out and continued through the week. Searchers found Roberts ten days later.

Her body was off the trail, but it was exposure that took her, with no cover, a couple inches of rain and snow in those first few days, and nights in the low-40s. 

But inside her pack, they found a small container of beautiful Alpine flowers. 

There’s a plaque to Inestine’s memory on the Barr Trail today. 

The next year, another remarkable woman named Arlene Pieper went to the peak’s top, and then in 1959 she ran the entire race, the first American woman to finish an officially-sanctioned marathon. She even brought her 9-year-old daughter for the first-half run to the summit. 

Somehow, I think, Inestine Roberts was watching them both and smiling. 

Until our next mountainside chat—be good, be well, and no matter what, climb on.

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