Archived from the 8/7/1997 “Out There” section of the Colorado Springs Gazette

Scientists don’t know why Matt Carpenter runs like no other human; maybe it’s because he’s just a big kid at heart

By Scott Smith/The Gazette

They’ve poked, prodded and pricked him. They’ve tested his lungs and legs, heart and head. They’ve examined him at sea level and at 17,000 feet. They’ve scrutinized him the way a little boy studies a bug in a jar — with curiosity and wonder.

The world’s 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 planet’s best high-altitude trail runner.

Their conclusion: He’s a genetic aberration. A mountain-climbing, oxygen-gobbling mutant. He has a Porsche engine in a VW bug’s body, and his carburetor is tuned for timberline and beyond.

The data doesn’t lie: Carpenter’s 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 can’t gauge Carpenter’s essence.

Matt Carpenter runs on Ixtacihuatl, a 17,343-foot volcano in Mexico, while Popocatepetl erupts in the background. Carpenter runs on Ixtacihuatl, a 17,343-foot volcano in Mexico, while Popocatepetl erupts in the background. He will run here again during a SkyMarathon next November.
And mere numbers don’t fully explain his astonishing success, like why he has nine victories in 11 SkyMarathons (races that are 26.2 miles long, on courses 14,000 feet or higher), including four consecutive wins in the Fila Everest SkyMarathon. Or why he holds the records for the fastest ascent and round trip in the Pikes Peak Marathon (2 hours, 1 minute, 6 seconds on the climb; 3:16:39 for the up and down; both during the marathon in 1993).

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 it’s like Matt has kept that,” says Larry Miller, one of Carpenter’s training partners and president of the Pikes Peak Road Runners, a local running club. “He’s not afraid to challenge himself, to try things. And especially on trails, you’ve 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 doesn’t need to listen for exhortations from some stopwatch-wielding inner child. That’s because he is that inner child. He’s 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, Carpenter’s girlfriend and housemate.

Matt Carpenter uses 3-D glasses to view a photo from a Mars Probe Web site. Computers are one of his passions. Matt Carpenter uses 3-D glasses to view a photo from a Mars Probe Web site. Computers are one of his passions.
Yeah. Stuff like that, too.

Carpenter’s connection with kids is natural. He’s on their wavelength. He’s a built-in playmate for Archer’s 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. He’ll spray ’em with the garden hose. He’ll mediate conflicts in a mellow, relaxed way. He’s there for them — and they seem to intuitively know that he’s one of them.

“The household is full of laughter,” Archer says. “There’s 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 doesn’t 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 it’s been combed with a cherry bomb, a day or two’s growth of stubble, and a dazzling smile. A smile that is part magic, part mischief — sort of Peter Pan meets Dennis the Menace.

“Sometimes, I’ll be sitting there at the table with the kids and I’ll 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 I’ll say, ‘So you’ll 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 Carpenter’s visits. He’s a volunteer tutor during the school year — and he does more than help them with their classwork.

Matt Carpenter trains on one of the steepest stretches of the Manitou Incline — it has a 68 percent grade. Carpenter trains on one of the steepest stretches of the Manitou Incline — it has a 68 percent grade.
“Sometimes they say, ‘Are you a grown-up? How come you act like a little kid?’” he says. “The first time I climbed the jungle gym at the school, the kids looked at me like ‘What are you doing?’ I tend to do a lot of things grown-ups aren’t supposed to do, but maybe I spend a lot more time happier, too.”

Passion for perfection

Fittingly, 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, I’d take a tennis ball, throw it on the roof and try to catch it,” he says. “I’d be like, ‘I’m not going in the house until I’ve caught 12 in a row.’ Or I wouldn’t go in until I’d made 10 free throws in a row. I mean, I’d be out there for hours. I hate quitting.

“I’m still like that. When I get a drink of water, I don’t just drink it. I see how many gulps it takes — one, two, three. It’s crazy. It’s like, my Web page loads in 49 seconds — what piece of code can I change to get it down to 40? It’s 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 there’s 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 you’ve crossed it?”

His obsessive, competitive, fearless personality didn’t 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 wasn’t hugely successful in college. He remembers winning only one race — on a hilly cross-county course; it wasn’t mountain-climbing, but it stirred Carpenter’s soul.

Running also provided him with a real-world focus after his mother’s death. For many years, it had just been Matt and his mom, together, plowing through life. She died when he was 18.


Name: Matthew Edwin Carpenter
Height: 5 feet 7 inches
Weight: 122 pounds
Age: 33
Lung capacity: 90.2 VO2 rating, the highest ever recorded by a runner (average rate for non-athletes is 50-60; average for athletes is 60-80)
Pules rate: 36-38 beats per minute (resting)
Education: Bachelor of science in computer science from the University of Southern Mississippi
Favorite places to run: 1. Top three miles of Barr Trail on Pikes Peak; 2. Ute Valley Park; 3. Palmer Park
Favorite food: Spaghetti
Favorite TV show: Don’t watch
Favorite movie: Anything from the “Terminator” series
Favorite music: Pink Floyd, Michael Jackson
Favorite book: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
Favorite athlete: Carl Lewis
Hobbies: Computers, music
Greatest accomplishment: Finishing the Olympic Trials marathon in 1992
Employment: Part-time webmaster for the Colorado Springs Business Journal
“I was totally on my own. But in a way, I was lucky, because I had something to focus on,” he says. “She’s always been one of the reasons why I like to run to the top of things — in a sense, it makes me feel like I’m getting closer to her.”

Says Archer, “For a lot of years, it was just Matt surviving — he was literally living on cornflakes and spaghetti. He’s 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 that’s where he’s 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 he’s 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.”

“I’m looking at these neat clothes and I look a these little tags on them and whooaaaa, there’s 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 he’s 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 won’t last forever. Maybe another five years. But he’s 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 didn’t 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 don’t have that freedom.


These tips from Matt Carpenter are designed to help runners avoid training burnout. For more information on Pikes Peak, Carpenter, and running trails, check out his Web site:

– Run with somebody.

– Leave your watch at home or run a new route. Besides taking some of the pressure off, you just may come up with a new favorite route. Try running up a mountain, through a forest or in a creek. For the really adventurous, try doing all three in one run.

– End your run with some drills. Skipping, bounding and strides can leave you feeling fresh at the end of a workout, not to mention what they will do for your overall training program.

– Try something different during a run — climb some rocks, watch a deer, pick flowers or lie down and watch the clouds roll by.

– Run a race just for fun or as a workout. While this seems to work for some people, I always end up racing and being worse off than had I just gone out for an easy run.

– Run in the dark. If you go late enough, there will be nothing but you and the sound of your footsteps. It’s amazing how different running seems when you can hear more that you can see.

– Run in the rain — a nice, cool afternoon shower can do wonders. If you approach it with the right attitude, you can’t help but look up and try to catch raindrops with your tongue and simile at the whole scene.

“I’ve been to places where there’s no water you can drink, no food you can eat, and no place to put the results when you’re done. It’s bad, really bad. There are places where the air is so bad, I take my gas mask with me — and I still come close to spontaneous barfing when I breathe.”

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 race’s 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-buster

Being king of the hills does have its obligatory dragons, though. Some people don’t like winners — especially ones they don’t understand or can’t out run. And Carpenter is, well, unique.

He doesn’t own a car (“Don’t like ’em”). He doesn’t watch TV (“Some people talk about ‘Seinfeld’ like it is real”). He can be combative (“If you tell me I’m wrong, you better be able to show me I’m 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, “I’m going to win the race.” Or, “There’s nobody on the planet who can beat me on this course.” Or, “The definition of my occupation is to bust another guy’s lungs.”

Easy to see why some view him as an arrogant egomaniac. But that’s not what he is. He’s 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. He’s self-assured, analytical and relentlessly hard-working. But he’s not judgmental — unless he’s 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 person’s perspective. I set a certain level of expectations for myself and I sometimes unfairly cast those onto other people.”

He’s intense, happy and at peace.

“I believe in myself,” he says. “I know who I am and I know what I’m 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.

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