This story has been archived from the Saturday, August 27, 2005

Leadville Trail 100 mile course map.

The Hammer: Matt Carpenter

Carpenter nails Leadville 100 – what’s next?


At mile 86 of the Leadville Trail 100 race, Matt Carpenter didn’t dare crack a smile.

He was not just leading the pack in the 100-mile mountain race last weekend. He was so far ahead that race officials had to scramble to open aid stations for him and get the finish line ready in time.

Carpenter, the legendary Manitou Springs mountain runner who holds most of the state’s trail-race records, felt like smiling. He felt awesome. This run could be another record. But he also remembered what had happened to him last year in the same race.

In 2004, he led the pack at a record pace for 67 miles. Then came the meltdown. His legs stopped working. Pain tore at his quadriceps like pliers. The only way to keep going was to totter on straight legs like the tin man in “The Wizard of Oz.”

Other runners whipped past. He lost several places but vowed to finish what he started. As darkness set in, Carpenter hobbled stiff-legged for 33 miles. It took him five hours to finish the last 13 miles of the race.

“I cried a lot. I’m not going to lie. I was so slow at the end that when I got close to the finish line, (the announcer) called my name, and then called it again and again as I slowly got closer. I was so embarrassed I tried to hide in the shadows as I headed toward the finish line,” Carpenter said with a humble grin as he flopped into a chair at his house on the edge of Garden of the Gods this week.

Last weekend, the meltdown he feared never came.

He crossed the finish line in daylight, escorted by police cars and bolstered by the knowledge that his finishing time — 15 hours, 42 minutes, 59 seconds — smashed the old record by 1 hour, 33 minutes.

“It was probably the most impressive ultra run win ever,” said Derek Griffiths, publisher of Colorado Runner magazine. “It was a perfect race for him. He finished in daylight for crying out loud — no one has ever done that before. I think he has just raised the bar of ultra racing to a whole new level.”

Matt Carpenter completed the Leadville 100 in 15 hours, 42 minutes - smashing the old record by 1 hour, 33 minutes.
Last weekend, elite runner Matt Carpenter completed the Leadville 100 in 15 hours, 42 minutes — smashing the old record by 1 hour, 33 minutes. “It was probably the most impressive ultra run win ever,” said Derek Griffiths, publisher of Colorado Runner magazine.

Carpenter’s return to Leadville and his ultimate triumph is a testament to the obsessive determination that drives him to capture records again and again and again.

“When I race, I put all my eggs in one basket. Now the basket is empty. I’m still living on the euphoria of Leadville,” he said.

“But in a couple weeks it will wear off and the crash will come. I get really depressed after a big race. Then I have to ask myself, ‘What’s the next basket?’ That’s always the burning question for me. What else is there?”

Leadville Trail 100 mile course profile.


For years, there was Pikes Peak. Carpenter has won the Pikes Peak Marathon six times and the Pikes Peak Ascent five times.

He holds the record in both. In 2001, he won the Ascent, then won the Marathon the next day.

“I’ve won it every way I can win it. It’s lost the spark for me,” Carpenter said.

Leadville was a new spark.

The race winds through the Rockies for 50 miles, starting at 10,200 feet and climbing over 12,600-foot Hope Pass. After running down the pass, racers turn around and run 50 miles back to the start. The cutoff time is 30 hours. About half the runners make it.

“I’ve seen what runners look like after that race and I was afraid of it,” Carpenter said. “In a warped way, the fear was what made it fun again, the fear was the spark.”

When he signed up for his first Leadville 100 in 2004, he had never run a race longer than 30 miles. He switched his training goal from running a marathon to running four marathons in a row. That meant two hours of running a day, no matter what.

Matt Carpenter avoided a pre-race warm-up before the Leadville Trail 100 on Aug. 20, 2005
Matt Carpenter avoided a pre-race warm-up before the Leadville Trail 100 on Aug. 20. “I sat on a curb and ate a PowerBar with (3-year-old daughter) Kyla and she played with my flashlight. My theory in these ultras is every step I take in a warm-up might be one I might not be able to take in the race,” Carpenter said.

Most ultramarathon runners focus on endurance by running as much as 50 miles on weekends. Carpenter chose to focus on speed. He never ran farther than 25 miles a day but did plenty of short, fast workouts. The training paid off.

In late June 2004, Carpenter ran the San Juan Solstice 50, a 50-mile race in the mountains around Lake City, as a test run for Leadville. He came in almost two hours ahead of the second-place runner and destroyed the record by 43 minutes.

“I smashed the record, but I also smashed my legs,” Carpenter said. “I thought I would be recovered for Leadville, but I knew within the first 13 miles that I wasn’t.”

He had set a series of goals for himself going into Leadville. First, try to break 16 hours. If not, break 17 hours. If that fails, try to break the record or at least win. Far down the list were “do not walk” and “finish.”

When Carpenter’s legs gave out at mile 67, he saw all but the last goal dissolve. He kept stumbling on, reminding himself that “sometimes, no matter how painful, you have to finish what you started.”

For two weeks after, he could barely walk. Some people in the ultramarathon community dismissed him as not up for such a long run.

He shrugs off the loss.

“If you always achieve all your goals, you’re setting you’re goals too low,” he said. “This year I added a new goal: redemption.”

When he decided to do Leadville again, the fear of running 100 miles was joined by a new fear of suffering through a replay of last year.

On his training runs he had plenty of time to think about fixing what went wrong.

He tried to simplify. He wouldn’t eat food other than energy gels dissolved in water and a few high-energy shakes. That would guard against cramps and save time at aid stations, where he planned to spend no more than 30 seconds.

He wouldn’t use escort runners, known as pacers, to keep him at the right speed. They had slowed him down last year. He wouldn’t walk at all. And he wouldn’t do a race like the San Juan Solstice 50 beforehand.

He obsessed over the smallest details. He learned, for example, that he gets 33 sips from his Camelbak water backpack and he should take three sips every 10 minutes to stay hydrated. He memorized how many minutes it took the record holder to reach a dozen landmarks along the trail.

“The thing about Matt is that he will do a race again and again until he does it right,” said longtime friend Larry Miller. “He did it on Pikes Peak. We knew he could do it in Leadville.”

Matt Carpenter coming down from the Hope Pass summit, at mile 48 in the Leadville Trail 100 race
Matt Carpenter coming down from the Hope Pass summit, at mile 48 in the Leadville Trail 100 race. At mile 50, Carpenter turned around and headed back up Hope Pass and on to the finish in Leadville.

The night before the race, Carpenter didn’t sleep at all. He kept going over the details. At 3 a.m., he finally got up in a nervous sweat.

At 4 a.m., the race started under a near-full moon.

The record holder, Paul DeWitt of Monument, wasn’t racing, but a lot of other top-tier ultra runners, including Colorado Springs runner Dan Vega, were.

Immediately, Carpenter started flying at a near-record pace of just more than 6.5 miles per hour — a pace faster than most people can sustain for a few miles. He could imagine what the others were thinking: There goes Carpenter. Maybe he’ll destroy himself again.

Carpenter couldn’t let that happen. He had diplomatically bowed out of running the 50th anniversary of the Pikes Peak Marathon on the same weekend to run this race. If he blew it, folks at home might not forgive him.

“That was the hardest part of the whole year,” he said, “having the confidence to go out fast after last year.”

Within a few minutes, he was leading. By 10 miles, he was out of sight. By the turnaround, 50 miles down the trail, he was an hour ahead of the closest runner.

“I was feeling awesome at mile 60, but I never smiled on the outside. I was just so afraid it could go bad,” he said.

For the first time in his life, he put on headphones in a race and cranked up Eminem. He needed the hard-edged rap to keep him going.

Finally, the finish came into view. He didn’t hide in the shadows. He shot across the line.

“There, I’m done,” he said he thought. “The fear is gone. I can relax.”

He finally cracked a smile.

The next runner didn’t cross the finish line for more than three hours.


Carpenter doesn’t know what race is next, but he knows there will be one.

“There is no point in going back to Leadville again,” he said. “But will I do more ultras? I’m not sure.”

If he does, the ultramarathon community will have to be on guard, Griffiths said, pointing out that Carpenter has torn up two records in the two ultramarathons he has run.

“All the sudden here is a guy that has raised the sport to a new level. If the other guys want to compete, they will have to say, ‘OK, what are we going to do to get to that level.’ It will be interesting to see who can make it.”

Age: 41
Height: 5'7"
Weight: 123
Resting heart rate: 38 beats per minute
Favorite trail: Barr Trail
Number of races 50 miles or longer: 3
Number of them won: 2
Average hours spent running per week: 14
Longest training run: 25 miles
Favorite pre-race food: spaghetti
Favorite post-race food: spaghetti
Favorite junk food: ice cream
Calories consumed while running Leadville race: 5,040 (320 calories an hour)
Day job: dad
E-mail closer: “Go out hard, when it hurts speed up...”
Records held in Colorado: Pikes Peak Ascent, Pikes Peak Marathon, Imogene Pass Run, Aspen SkyMarathon, Vail Hill Climb, San Juan Solstice 50, Leadville Trail 100, Aspen America’s Uphill Snowshoe Race, Barr Trail Mountain Race, Turquoise Lake 20K

Link to Matt Carpenter’s Race Report

Copyright 2005, The Gazette, a division of Freedom Colorado Information. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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