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Early Pikes Peak Marathons Smokers vs Vegetarians

Staff Reports

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from Harald Fricker’s upcoming book, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Pikes Peak Marathon entitled “America’s Ultimate Challenge The Pikes Peak Marathon”On Aug. 10, 1956, Dr. Arne Suominen of Del Ray Beach, Fla., challenged smokers and nonsmokers to race up and down Pikes Peak in conjunction with the 150th anniversary of the discovery of America’s most famous mountain by Zebulon Montgomery Pike. He enlisted 58-year-old real-estate salesman and holistic-lifestyle practitioner Rudy Fahl as the race director. The 56-year-old Suominen, a former Finnish marathon champion and outspoken critic of tobacco, wanted to prove that smoking diminished one’s physical endurance. Of the 13 runners that accepted the challenge, only three were smokers. Lou Wille, champion of two Pikes Peak races in the late 1930s and a two-pack-a-day smoker, was likely to be the biggest threat to Suominen’s hypothesis.The race, which had an entry fee of $2, began in front of an estimated 400 spectators at the Manitou Springs Cog Railway. Twenty-five-year-old nonsmoker Robert Johnson of Manitou Springs jumped into the lead. Minutes later, 28-year-old Monte Wolford, a vegetarian bodybuilder and Mr. America competitor, overtook Johnson and held the lead for good, reaching the summit in 3 hours, 44 minutes, 2 seconds, followed closely by 17-year-old high school runner Tom Brewster of Colorado Springs, who arrived in 3:45:18. Lou Wille arrived at the top in third place, but opted for a cigarette and a ride back down the mountain, rather than completing the round trip. Although he had beaten Suominen to the summit, Wille was disqualified for not finishing the race. In fact none of the smokers completed the round trip. “I think I’ve proven my point,” Suominen said afterwards. “I finished the race and none of the smokers did.”Wolford proved to be unstoppable as he cruised seemingly without effort through the finish line to collect his championship trophy with a time of 5:39:58. Brewster lost considerable ground on the downhill, finishing second in 6:21:51. He was awarded a wood carving for his effort. Suominen, nearly 40 years Brewster’s senior, arrived less than five minutes later to claim his prize, an Amazonite award. Initial leader, Johnson, finished fourth.Wolford’s victory was another in a series that marked his recovery from a devastating childhood school bus accident that nearly crippled him for life. “I would have ended up in a wheelchair if I hadn’t been properly diagnosed by a chiropractor,” Wolford said. As a skinny 108-pound teenager living in Leila Lake, Texas, Wolford decided that one day he’d like to be Mr. America. After years of dedicated training, he eventually built a physique worthy of two top-10 finishes in Mr. America competitions.After spending 1949 at the University of Miami on a track scholarship, (where he ran the 440 in 48.5), Wolford returned to Texas to attend Abilene Christian University before training to be a physical therapist. He changed his mind about his career pursuit. He started to work in different gyms which eventually inspired Wolford to open his own gym in Colorado Springs. At Monte’s Studio of Physical Culture, Wolford helped many people come back from their own crippling injuries and inspired others to achieve their potential in running, bodybuilding and other athletic endeavors.Fifteen men started the race, nine completed the round trip, with Wolford once again victorious, breaking his own course record by nearly 25 minutes with a time of 5:15:53. Jon Jecker, 21, of Colorado Springs, came across the finish line less than three minutes later for second place honors. Jecker, was to Suominen’s and Fahl’s great dismay a smoker, but considered enough of a threat to warrant a publicity photo with Wolford at the prerace dinner, where he blew smoke in Wolford’s face. It was widely rumored that Jecker’s motivation came from an American Tobacco Association offer to reward a victorious smoker with a tidy sum of $20,000. Oil paintings donated by local artists were presented to the top three finishers in the race.On Aug. 8, 1958, Calvin Hansen of Pueblo broke Wolford’s record by more than 45 minutes en route to his first win of a four-year streak. Hansen’s victory was especially impressive in light of the fact that he had taken up running as therapy for his severe asthma. Leland Tigges, 21, of Fort Collins, Colo., was the second of eight finishers that year. Wolford had moved out of the area and didn’t compete again until 1971.A milestone for the race was established in 1959 when it became the first marathon to feature female competitors. Fahl and Suominen had opened the first race in 1956 to women, but none answered the call. (Arlene Pieper actually entered and started the Marathon in 1958, but chose to stop at the top, which she reached in 5:59:18. This caused her to be disqualified due to a then-mandatory round-trip rule.) Katherine Heard (who married race founder Rudy Fahl in the ’70s), 59, and 29-year-old Arlene Pieper of Colorado Springs, along with Pieper’s 10-year-old daughter entered the race in 1959. The women were given a choice of a race to the summit only, or to complete the round trip. Each race would have individual awards. The older Heard actually beat Pieper to the top in 5:17:52 and decided to call it a day. When Pieper arrived exactly four minutes later, she opted to run back down. With her 9:16 round-trip effort, she became the first woman on record to officially finish a marathon in the United States. However, Pieper’s daughter garnered the most attention atop the peak, posting an amazing ascent time of 5:44:52 and becoming the youngest competitor thus far to finish the race to the summit. (In 1977, 7-year-old Lori Messenger participated in the ascent running 5:38:56. She is the youngest female to have participated in the race.) No other women officially attempted the full Pikes Peak Marathon again until 1971.The 1959 men’s race saw a long-awaited rematch between Suominen and Wille. Long after Calvin Hansen had racked up his second victory setting a new record of 4:20:18, the two adversaries were still battling each other down Barr Trail. They exchanged the lead repeatedly, but in the end, and much to Suominen’s embarrassment, he had finally been beaten by a smoker. Wille and Suominen finished ninth and 10th respectively. Wille, whose 6:30:50 was only 20 seconds faster than Suominen’s, boasted loudly of his victory over the nonsmoking doctor. Suominen responded only by saying “Just think how good he could be if he didn’t smoke.”The race, which celebrates its 50th anniversary in Aug. 2005, now has a rich history of stories, incredible course records and great memories for the tens of thousands that have conquered the marathon on the mountain. If you’re interested in participating, register as soon as possible after March 1, 2005, when applications become available at pikespeakmarathon.org. VTHarald Fricker writes about athletes and the outdoor lifestyle for the Vail Trail. He can be contacted at harald@fricker.com. His book will be available in the early summer of 2005.


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