Mystery Of First Woman To Complete Marathon

A onetime Colorado Springs resident and the first ever woman to run a sanctioned marathon did not know she had made sports history for 50 years.

By Simon Crittle

Even a private detective hired by the Pikes Peak Marathon failed to find the runner – who had remarried several times, changed her name and gone to live in California.

But in 2009 Arlene Pieper – more recently known as Arlene Pieper Stine – got a phone call that changed her life.

“It just — just blew me away,” Pieper told Boston radio station, WBUR. “I said, ‘I’m the first?’”

The call was from a genealogist who had become interested in the case — of an unknown woman who had run the first marathon — after reading a newspaper ad offering a reward to anyone who could identify her.

Pieper died on February 11, 2021, aged 90. But in a strange twist a dozen years earlier, her amazing story, which, at the time, even she didn’t fully comprehend, finally came to light and made her a Colorado celebrity.

Arlene Val Richter was born on March 18, 1930, in Studio City, California. Arlene met her first husband in high school. They were still in their teens when they married.

The couple moved to Colorado Springs in 1957 and opened Arlene’s Health Studio. Mr. Pieper thought his wife could promote the studio by competing in the Pikes Peak run, a grueling mountain course in Manitou Springs that no other woman had finished in its brief history.

She entered in 1958. But she stopped after reaching the summit – runners were meant to run back down – and was disqualified. In 1959, after training most of the year, she entered the race again.

“I had my short shorts on that we used to wear back then and a white blouse tied in a knot — that’s how we did things back in the ’50s,” Ms. Pieper told WBUR. “And my tennis shoes from the dime store, and off I went.”

She ascended 8,000 feet to the 14,000-foot summit and descended the same way in 9 hours and 16 minutes.

“At the finish line, I felt pretty good. I’m sure I was a little tired, but I wasn’t completely exhausted. I lost all my toenails a few days later.”

But her feat didn’t register in the sports world at the time and was little-known for decades as women competing on more prominent stages achieved marathon milestones.

Roberta Gibb became the first woman to run in and complete the Boston Marathon in 1966, and Joan Benoit won the first women’s Olympic marathon in Los Angeles in 1984.

In the meantime, Pieper and her husband returned to California in 1961 and eventually divorced.

As the years past, she remarried twice, lived in Fresno and worked in fitness studios and sales. But her trailblazing run on Pikes Peak was all but forgotten.

“It’s like she ran into obscurity,” said Ron Ilgen, the president of the Pikes Peak Marathon, who began to search for her in the early 2000s.

Ilgen was aware someone named Arlene Pieper had been the first women to run a marathon, but had no idea if she remained alive or where she was.

Her relocation and various name changes had made it almost impossible to find. A private detective was unable to turn her up. Then, in 2009, as an event to honor the 50th anniversary of her achievement approached, Ilgen tried a different way.

“I ran an ad in the local newspaper: ‘Find Arlene Pieper,’ with a $200 or $300 reward,” Ilgen told the New York Times. “We were getting desperate. And a genealogist took hold of it like a bulldog.”

Fifty years after the marathon, the genealogist, Linda Vixie, tracked down Pieper and made the phone call to inform the runner she held the distinction of being the first woman to have ever completed an authorized marathon.

For the next decade, Pieper enjoyed newfound status in Manitou Springs as a pioneer on several marathon weekends. She signed autographs. Runners asked to touch her for good luck. And she was the official starter of each race she returned to.

“That first year we got there, 2009, people were lined up on the street,” said Kathie Pieper, Arlene’s daughter. “We were in a car and she was waving like the queen.”

She was also named one of Runner’s World’s “Heroes of Running” in 2014 and inducted into the Colorado Springs Sports Hall of Fame in 2016.

In addition to Kathie, Pieper is survived by two other daughters, a son, four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.