The Pikes Peak Marathon began as a challenge issued by Florida doctor Arne Suominen, a nonsmoker, to any smoker who wanted to prove he could beat Suominen to the top of Pikes Peak and back down.
Suominen was a marathoner from Finland and a candid critic of smoking. He wanted to prove that smoking weakened a runner’s cardiovascular endurance. The event, which took place Aug. 10, 1956, wasn’t a marathon; it was merely a challenge, a race up to the summit of Pikes Peak and back down. Thirteen runners, including three smokers, accepted the challenge. Monte Wolford, then 28, was a vegetarian and a bodybuilder. He won the race in 5 hours, 39 minutes, 58 seconds. Tom Brewster, a high school runner, placed second in 6:21:51, and the 56-year old Suominen was third, finishing about 15 minutes behind Brewster. The smokers were disqualified because none of them finished the race. Lou Wille, a smoker who won a Pikes Peak race in 1936, beat Suominen to the summit, but opted to smoke a cigarette instead of returning to the bottom. The smokers’ failure to finish prompted Suominen to say, “I think I’ve proven my point. I finished the race and none of the smokers did,” according to the book “America’s Ultimate Challenge: The Pikes Peak Marathon.” Suominen might not have had the technology that is available today, but he was on to something. Science has proven the problems generated by chronic cigarette smoking. There is a direct link between smoking and cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure and emphysema as well as several other potentially fatal diseases. “I would think that (smokers) wouldn’t think (smoking) is a real problem,” Pikes Peak Marathon participant and historian Joyce McKelvey said. “I don’t see how. But I guess that’s what made those first years kind of interesting. “I’ve read about people who fast days before (a marathon), and I can’t see doing that either. There are a lot of different theories, and a lot of people perform well under things that I would not agree with.” When a person breathes, the respiratory system supplies oxygen to red blood cells. Then the oxygenrich blood feeds the organs and muscles. Meanwhile, waste blood — blood containing carbon dioxide — takes the opposite path. When smoking is involved, carbon monoxide from the cigarette mixes with hemoglobin, the substance that allows the red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout the body. This mixture of carbon monoxide and hemoglobin prevents the mixture of oxygen and hemoglobin. Therefore less oxygen can be carried throughout the body, resulting in a decrease in physical endurance. Peter D. Wood, professor emeritus of biochemistry at the Stanford School of Medicine’s Prevention and Research Center, is a veteran of two Pikes Peak Marathons (1963, 1999). Wood, who said he has run more than 100 marathons, has written numerous fitness-themed scientific articles. Wood said that the casual smoker, a person who might smoke once a week, would show less than a 1 percent reduction in the amount of oxygen carried through the body. “A lighted cigarette is an amazing chemical factory,” he said. “The smoke, when looked at with sensitive instruments, contains so many things you wouldn’t believe. A number of those are definitely carcinogenic, no question at all. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it would slow you up in terms of your performance. That happens after a very long stage.” As in after the smoker has developed one of the myriad diseases associated with smoking. Still, there is a possibility that performance can be affected immediately, too. “If you get someone who is smoking regularly, they get such an increased amount of carbon monoxide in their lungs that the number goes up to several percent,” Wood said. “When you’re running a marathon you need all the oxygen you can possibly get.” Judy Bauermeister, a veteran of five Pikes Peak Marathons, is an emergency room nurse at Memorial Hospital and is also the medical director for the Pikes Peak Marathon. Bauermeister, who said she never has smoked, sees the effects smoking has on fitness on a daily basis. “The shortness of breath I see smokers have just getting in bed or moving about the room or crossing the room — I can’t see them exercising,” Bauermeister said. “You put out so much effort that I just can’t see how (running and smoking) can coexist.” If, however, the two didn’t coexist at one point, the Pikes Peak Marathon might not be celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0252 or firstname.lastname@example.org