As Marcia Hannig trudged toward the top of Pikes Peak with a minuscule but motivated group of women, some fans cheered in excitement while others stared in amazement.
“Everybody always thought you were trying out for the Olympics,” she said. “It was that unusual if they saw women running.”
Before the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon became popular, when the loosely organized event was a blip on the radar in the shadow of World War II, men dominated America’s mountain, heavily outnumbering women and leaving them scrambling for respect.
Only a dozen women finished in the first 16 years of the races. The first to complete the Marathon was former Colorado Springs resident Arlene Pieper, now Arlene Stine, whose 1959 accomplishment is being celebrated in this weekend’s journeys to 14,115 feet.
Women represent 28 percent of the 2,807-person field, with 587 registered for Saturday’s 13.32-mile Ascent and 207 signed up for Sunday’s 26.21-mile Marathon. If those figures hold — and if nearly all female runners who start reach the finish — it would become the second highest turnout by women in the 55-year history of the event.
When Hannig, a 62-year-old retired schoolteacher in Colorado Springs, ran up Pikes Peak in the mid-1970s, women had inched closer to equality in athletics, armed with the 1972 passing of Title IX. Still, programs for women were limited in high schools and colleges. Coaches didn’t preach training regimens, and grocery stores never sold health magazines.
“Now, there are shows devoted to being healthy and being active and exercising,” Hannig said. “Back then, there wasn’t any of it. … You knew you had to run longer distances, and that was pretty much it.”
May Wichers, the 1975 Ascent runner-up, started cross-country training as a teenager in Littleton. In the spring, baseball players teased her as they passed the track, and she faced the same from football players in the fall. All year long, her mother warned her, “You’re never going to get a man because you’re too muscular.”
Most marathons lacked women’s divisions, so Wichers, 58, of Sheridan, Wyo., took the lead of Kathrine Switzer, who made worldwide headlines by darting past infuriated race organizers at the 1967 Boston Marathon.
“They used to think reproductive parts would fall out,” Wichers said. “The men believed that. We were in the dark ages. … Some of it was sexism — blatant sexism.”
Jean Bryant, 64, of Cimarron, Kan., maintains race organizers “were humoring you by letting you run, that you ought to be doing something else.”
Joan Ullyot, 69, of Snowmass Village, wore a swimsuit in winning the Marathon in 1973 and 1975 because women’s racing attire wasn’t manufactured. Donna Messenger, 66, of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, a two-time Marathon champion and four-time Ascent winner, got accustomed to claiming trophies with figures of men.
“They overlooked us,” Ullyot said. “They wanted to keep sport men only. Until Title IX, you found that discrimination in all sports.”
Added Messenger, “It didn’t take very many (women) to be running for others to see, ‘I can do that, too.’ If men loved to do it, why wouldn’t women?”
WOMEN OUTNUMBERED ON PIKES PEAK
Since the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon started in 1936, there have been 15,001 female finishers — 11,410 in the Ascent and 3,591 in the Marathon. There have been 45,705 male finishers — 30,199 in the Ascent and 15,506 in the Marathon.