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Monday, August 18, 2003

Finishing first isn’t as easy as it once was for Carpenter


RECORD PACE: Matt Carpenter, 39, crosses the finish line of the Pikes Peak Marathon in Manitou Springs on Sunday. His time of 3:43:46 set an age-group course record.

Gazette Sports columnist

Matt Carpenter could be seen ripping down Ruxton Avenue in Manitou Springs at 10:43 a.m., looking as if he had just gone for a nice morning run.

With his shoulders square, his head high, his face looking faintly bored, Carpenter turned the corner at Manitou Avenue and crossed the finish line for the Pikes Peak Marathon.

He was, as usual, first, finishing in 3 hours, 46 minutes and winning by more than 20 minutes. He made his sixth marathon victory look easy.

It wasn’t.

In 1993, when Carpenter set the marathon record at 3 hours, 16 minutes, he crossed the finish line and then turned around and ran nearly a mile back up the course so he could shout encouragement to friends.

Sunday, he retired to the shade of a tent, placed his finisher medal on the neck of his happy 1-year-old daughter Kyla and barely moved for 45 minutes.

His impressive finish, which seemed nonchalant, was filled with deception.

He was exhausted.

“I wasn’t thinking about anything but stopping,” he said a few minutes after the race.

He sat on a folding chair. He looked at Kyla and his wife, Yvonne.

A sweet moment of victory, but at a price.

“Right now, I can barely stand,” Carpenter said, shaking his head.

Carpenter, 39, can see the end of his dominating performances, but can’t see the day he won’t be thrilled by the chance to run up and down the mountain.

He adores Pikes Peak with the dazzled devotion of a man who grew up in the flatlands of the Midwest. When he needs a break from civilization, he departs his home on El Paso Boulevard in Manitou Springs, sprints up the trail and in 15 minutes encounters an empty, peaceful landscape.

“It’s like an awesome playground,” he said.

He runs to the summit 30 times a year, rests for a few minutes and then bums a ride back to town. This used to be easy, back in the more trusting days before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Now, he has to work for several minutes, but he’s never been denied a ride.

He feels a connection with the mountain, and there once were days when he could sprint down the trail, which is treacherous, with barely a worry.

“I could almost close my eyes and run that trail,” he said. “I didn’t even think about taking a wrong step. I didn’t even need to look.”

Carpenter understands his best days are behind him, but other runners see him as a powerful, virtually unbeatable presence.

Paul Koch of Colorado Springs finished second at 4 hours, 8 minutes. He was pleased with his time, pleased with his finish.

He had no illusions at 7 a.m., when the race started. He looked over, saw Carpenter and began plotting to finish second.

“You see him and you pretty much know it’s not going to happen for you,” Koch said, chuckling as he thought back to his early-morning glimpse of Carpenter.

“I’m impressed by his longevity, the way he’s been doing it for so long, the way he’s been staying on top for all these years.”

Carpenter sat on his folding chair, rubbing his knees, thinking about his early-morning jaunt up and down America’s Mountain.

He moved to Colorado to be close to Pikes Peak. He never grows tired of looking at the mountain, seeing it in bright sunlight, seeing it peeking out during a ferocious thunderstorm.

And he never tires of leading a few hundred runners down the summit, crossing the finish line first and then quietly celebrating.

But he was weary. Years ago, it wasn’t this way. He could run to the top of the mountain, run right back down and still be ready to run some more.

That was yesterday.

Sunday’s victor smiled faintly.

“Nobody,” he said, “wins it forever.”

Copyright 2003, The Gazette, a division of Freedom Colorado Information. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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