Arkansas Takes Pikes Peak
Running the peak is a 30-year tradition
By Bill Coffelt / Photography: Bill Coffelt, Bill Winkleman and Marathon Foto
Zebulon Pike didn’t even climb the mountain—giving up on his November 1806 attempt to scale the peak that would end up bearing his name—saying his party was ill equipped. Silly boy, climb it in August—just as 786 Arkansans have done, reaching the summit in the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon.
My journey to the top of the famed mountain outside Colorado Springs that defeated Zebulon Pike began with a phone call from my running mentor Larry Mabry. He invited me to fill in for an injured friend to run the 1984 Pikes Peak Marathon, an event started by a man named Max Hooper in 1979 after he took a trip up and down the mountain. He recruited Larry and others to join him, sparking a chain of events that lead to an organized race.
It was on the van ride home after that 1984 race that the Arkansas Pikes Peak Marathon Society was born, and along with it a recruitment system that swelled to as many as 156 Arkansas finishers in 1993. That van from 1984 turned into three charter buses, team T-shirts, caps and gloves—and a standing tradition of someone always carrying the Arkansas flag to the top. It was all about the camaraderie, and the recruitment chain just kept expanding. We’ve had every corner of the state represented; 78 hometowns in all. Some ran once and never returned. Others brought family and friends the next year. We’ve had marriage ceremonies on the summit and Sweet 16 birthday parties on the bus ride out. Through it all, Silver Saddle Motel in Manitou Springs has been home base for the Society from the very beginning.
Over the years, I’ve recruited and trained family members, co-workers and friends to tackle the mountain. Most still speak to me. I’ve always tried to keep alive that spirit of camaraderie bestowed on me by Max and Larry, because it’s more fun to get someone to complete this race with you! Thanks to that last-minute invitation in 1984, I’ve come to know more really great running friends that I can count.
People ask me how long I’ll keep going back and I usually say, “As long as I’m healthy and having fun.” This past year has definitely been the toughest. Heart surgery in April limited my summer training miles. All through July, I kept thinking about my good friend John Woodruff, who passed away several years ago. He completed 10 Pikes Peak Marathons between 1987 and 2002—the last coming at age 61. His impressive finish times were magnified by the 12-inch scar down his chest from open-heart surgery! Just another Pikes Peak hero of mine, one of the friends for life made within this group.
The Pikes Peak Marathon is billed as America’s Ultimate Challenge, and only eight Arkansans have ever run the marathon in under five hours. Entry is now limited to qualified runners. We’ve had our share of award winners over the years. Eddie Mulkey holds the record for fastest Arkansan. He finished the marathon in 4:12:02 back in 1987—good enough for sixth place overall. Perhaps the most impressive finish was by Don Potter in 1989. He ran 5:01:26 at age 52, which is not bad for a “flatlander.”
The Arkansas women’s record is held by Ann Smith. She made the round trip in 5:41:23 in 1987, making her one of only six of our ladies who have broken six hours. We’ve had 295 multi-year finishers, with 22 of those having 10 or more finishes to brag about. We also average about a half-dozen Arkansans who “double” each year, completing both the Ascent and Marathon in the same weekend. When asked why I first tried the double, my reply was, “If I’m going to drive that far I might as well get two race shirts.”
I always look forward to my trip to Manitou Springs every August. It’s a reprieve from the heat and humidity of all Arkansas summers. Weather on race weekend is usually pretty awesome, although there have been some years to forget. During the 2005 Ascent, sleet closed the top of the mountain most of the afternoon, stranding a thousand runners and spectators. In the 2008 Ascent, we ran in cold rain all the way to the tree line, where it turned to sleet and ice on the exposed portion of the mountain. That year, only 761 runners made it past A-Frame before the course was closed. It was brutal. The last mile was totally ice covered. I had my first and only visit from hypothermia on the van ride down. And I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything.
I’m much older and slower now, but I’ll keep coming back. And I’ll bring someone new with me. Put it on your to-do list and give me a call. All you need is a little push, and you can do for yourself what Zebulon Pike could not.