Scientists dont know why Matt Carpenter runs like no other human; maybe its because hes just a big kid at heart
By Scott Smith/The Gazette
Theyve poked, prodded and pricked him. Theyve tested his lungs and legs, heart and head. Theyve examined him at sea level and at 17,000 feet. Theyve scrutinized him the way a little boy studies a bug in a jar with curiosity and wonder.
The worlds exercise physiologists have done everything but dissect Matt Carpenter in their quest to determine why the carefree 33-year-old from Colorado Springs is the planets best high-altitude trail runner.
Their conclusion: Hes a genetic aberration. A mountain-climbing, oxygen-gobbling mutant. He has a Porsche engine in a VW bugs body, and his carburetor is tuned for timberline and beyond.
The data doesnt lie: Carpenters cardiovascular system allows him to acclimate to high altitude faster and better than most mortals. But heart-rate monitors, endurance runs and red blood-cell counts cant gauge Carpenters essence.
What makes Matt run? And what makes him worthy of being a Fila Skyrunner, one of a handful of elite international athletes who have spent the last four years running marathons in places like Kenya, Nepal and Tibet? What makes him the ideal guinea pig for researchers from the Italy-based Peak Performance Project, who keep track of how humans function in the outer limits?
For answers, look at the real Matt. The Matt who runs for fun and just happens to be a big ol kid at heart.
Kids are pretty reckless, daring and its like Matt has kept that, says Larry Miller, one of Carpenters training partners and president of the Pikes Peak Road Runners, a local running club. Hes not afraid to challenge himself, to try things. And especially on trails, youve got to have a little daring in you, a little kid in you saying, I can do it faster, I can do it faster.
Actually, Carpenter doesnt need to listen for exhortations from some stopwatch-wielding inner child. Thats because he is that inner child. Hes that kid down the block we all know the one who runs and jumps and giggles and hollers and rides his bike too fast and always has scabs on his knees and likes to climb trees and catch snakes and wear his baseball cap sideways.
Did you know he can hold his breath all the way through the Eisenhower Tunnel? says Terrie Archer, Carpenters girlfriend and housemate.
Carpenters connection with kids is natural. Hes on their wavelength. Hes a built-in playmate for Archers three children 6-year-old twins Emily and Sarah and 8-year-old Danny and their friends, and the household often is decorated with wall-to wall kids. Carpenter will have pillow fights with em. Hell spray em with the garden hose. Hell mediate conflicts in a mellow, relaxed way. Hes there for them and they seem to intuitively know that hes one of them.
The household is full of laughter, Archer says. Theres always funny stuff going on. He has a zest for life, a passion, and the kids really pick up on it.
On this sweltering summer afternoon, Carpenter is dressed for comfort. A slightly rumpled T-shirt (He doesnt fold his laundry he just keeps it in a pile in his closet, Archer says), running shorts, Fila shoes (one of about three-dozen pair made especially for him each year), tousled brown hair that looks like its been combed with a cherry bomb, a day or twos growth of stubble, and a dazzling smile. A smile that is part magic, part mischief sort of Peter Pan meets Dennis the Menace.
Sometimes, Ill be sitting there at the table with the kids and Ill go like this, he says, using both hands to mess up his already messed-up hair. The kids will ask, Why do you do that? And Ill say, So youll ask me why. My hair is done by Chinook. Chinook winds.
He laughs a laugh devoid of self-consciousness. Little wonder that the students at nearby Jackson Elementary School look forward to Carpenters visits. Hes a volunteer tutor during the school year and he does more than help them with their classwork.
Passion for perfectionFittingly, Carpenter was a breech baby. He came out of the womb feet first, ready to run. He also was born with a predilection for keeping score, and for winning.
When I was a kid, Id take a tennis ball, throw it on the roof and try to catch it, he says. Id be like, Im not going in the house until Ive caught 12 in a row. Or I wouldnt go in until Id made 10 free throws in a row. I mean, Id be out there for hours. I hate quitting.
Im still like that. When I get a drink of water, I dont just drink it. I see how many gulps it takes one, two, three. Its crazy. Its like, my Web page loads in 49 seconds what piece of code can I change to get it down to 40? Its all kinds of things.
When he was growing up in Ohio, Carpenter routinely set records for swimming the most underwater laps in the apartment-complex pool where he and his divorced mom lived.
It was an indicator of my potential for oxygen utilization, Carpenter says. But I also learned that I have a pretty unique ability to go too far. I actually almost drowned once they had to pull me out by my hair. I held my breath until I passed out I was just going for the record. That told me theres a competitive thing in there that enables me to go past the fun point, right into the stupid zone. But how do you know where that line is until youve crossed it?
His obsessive, competitive, fearless personality didnt find true expression until his senior year of high school, in Mississippi, when he discovered cross-country and track. He liked running. He liked the individual aspect, the feelings of control and gratification.
And he was pretty good good enough to earn an athletic scholarship to the University of Southern Mississippi, where he earned a degree in computer science.
Carpenter wasnt hugely successful in college. He remembers winning only one race on a hilly cross-county course; it wasnt mountain-climbing, but it stirred Carpenters soul.
Running also provided him with a real-world focus after his mothers death. For many years, it had just been Matt and his mom, together, plowing through life. She died when he was 18.
Says Archer, For a lot of years, it was just Matt surviving he was literally living on cornflakes and spaghetti. Hes an amazing example of a truly independent person.
Carpenter moved to Vail after college and began high-altitude running in earnest. He won a few local races, moved to Colorado Springs in the 1991 and became a perennial Triple Crown of running champion (a series of three local races). He was happily at home on the forested flanks of Pikes Peak.
He has run his share of traditional flat-land marathons, too, including the 1992 Olympic Trials (he finished 50th out of 102). But he wins in the mountains, not on the plains. And thats where hes happiest.
I really enjoy it up there, he says. There are elk and porcupines and rocks and everything.
Two days after his record-setting day on the Peak in 1993, Fila, a Sportswear company, called Carpenter and pitched the skyrunning idea to him.
Perfect. A new challenge. He signed a contract to run SkyMarathons and hes been huffing and puffing and jetting around the would for the last four years. He usually runs three SkyMarathons a year, and Fila pays him enough that he can spend most of his time training (two hours a day, usually), playing with his home computer (my addiction) and working as a part-time webmaster for the Colorado Springs Business Journal.
Carpenter is at the top of his sport but remains bemused by what has happened. He laughs and shakes his head when he describes receiving a shipment of Fila clothing the Skyrunner line, tested by skyrunners at 14,000 feet.
Im looking at these neat clothes and I look a these little tags on them and whooaaaa, theres my picture, he says. Man.
Next on the SkyMarathon circuit: A climb of Ixtacihuatl, a 17,343-foot volcano in Mexico in November. No trip to Everest this year; Carpenter says hes tired of winning the same races. He wants to try something new, something that will jump-start his adrenaline and test his awesome lungs.
Carpenter knows the skyrunning gig wont last forever. Maybe another five years. But hes already learned enough from his travels both internal and external to have irrevocably altered his life. The main catalyst: his first trip to Tibet.
I didnt become a monk or anything, but I became a person who is much more appreciative of the things we have in the United States, he says. Here, I can run because I want to run. There are plenty of places where you dont have that freedom.
Carpenter calls the races an exercise in hypoxia three hours filled with queasiness, dizziness, blue fingernails and tingling fingers. He has scrambled down scree slopes, leaped over crevasses and crunched across snowfields. One races low point was 17,000 feet.
You know, I think each time I do it, I lose a few brain cells, he says.
His endeavor next weekend is relatively tame: 13 miles, straight up. After a two-year hiatus from the race, Carpenter plans to run the Pikes Peak Ascent on Aug. 16 in hopes of breaking the two-hour mark and his own record.
A confident lung-busterBeing king of the hills does have its obligatory dragons, though. Some people dont like winners especially ones they dont understand or cant out run. And Carpenter is, well, unique.
He doesnt own a car (Dont like em). He doesnt watch TV (Some people talk about Seinfeld like it is real). He can be combative (If you tell me Im wrong, you better be able to show me Im wrong). He eats spaghetti for breakfast (or sometimes Cheerios with Cocoa Puffs sprinkled on them). And he can be agonizingly honest.
Sometimes, that candor gets him in trouble. Like when he says, Im going to win the race. Or, Theres nobody on the planet who can beat me on this course. Or, The definition of my occupation is to bust another guys lungs.
Easy to see why some view him as an arrogant egomaniac. But thats not what he is. Hes just Matt, take him or leave him.
Carpenter works every day to improve and update his Web site which is more a how-to guide to the Pikes Peak Marathon and Barr Trail than a shrine to Matt. Hes self-assured, analytical and relentlessly hard-working. But hes not judgmental unless hes analyzing himself.
I say what I feel and know what I mean, but people sometimes take it wrong, he says. The biggest criticism of myself is that sometimes I get wrapped up in myself and forget to look at it from another persons perspective. I set a certain level of expectations for myself and I sometimes unfairly cast those onto other people.
Hes intense, happy and at peace.
I believe in myself, he says. I know who I am and I know what Im trying to do. To me, the ultimate way to live is finding out how far you can go.
And whether you can stay forever young.