Mountain Matt

Matt Carpenter reaches new peaks in high-altitude running

From the March 1998 edition of Rocky Mountain Sports

By Darrin Eisman

Some athletes are born, and some are made. In Matt Carpenter’s case, it’s a matter of whom you ask. Matt will tell you his success comes from hard work and dedication to training. The handful of scientists at Peak Performance Project attribute it to genetics. The answer likely lies somewhere in the middle of the two extremes.

Matt Carpenter is arguably the world’s best mountain runner. His path to the top of a sport that receives far less glory than its pavement-bound cousin is a testament to his passion for the sheer joy of running.

Sure he likes to win — what world class athlete doesn’t? But he has chosen to run on his own terms. It’s not all about glory.

“I like to think I can hold my own on the road, but there are too many runners putting in too many road miles,” he says. “On the trails, I run with deer and elk instead of cars. I can still remember the first time I saw a porcupine.”

What Carpenter takes with him on those trail runs is a set of lungs that are the envy of the running world. His VO2 Max is the highest ever recorded in a runner, and amazingly, it was measured at an altitude of more than 6,000 feet. When scaled to sea-level values it would vie for the absolute record, now owned by a Nordic skier.

Late bloomer

Carpenter started running during his senior year of high school.

“I only ran for one year in high school, so I never really got that good,” he says.

He did, however, break the five-minute mile barrier.

“It was an indoor track meet,” he recalls. “Three of us were sprinting for the finish. I think I took third, but we all broke five minutes. The clock read 4:59.8 and I still have the picture from that photo finish.”

That feat remains one of his most cherished accomplishments.

When Carpenter started his collegiate career at the University of Southern Mississippi, he began to feel the effects of his late entry to the running scene.

“I always felt like I was a little behind,” he explains. “By my second year, I felt like I could have been a good high school runner.”

The turning point, at least mentally, came during his junior year.

“I was spending the summer with an aunt in Vail, and decided to enter a half-marathon: the Piney Creek Half. We began climbing, and I thought the top of the hill would be just around the corner. We rounded the corner and it kept going up. Never in my wildest dreams did I believe you could run on an uphill that was that big!”

He was hooked.

“I felt like this was a different kind of race. Not only the climb, but you’re working hard, and the altitude makes you slow. I found this challenge very appealing to me.”

Heading to the Hills

Carpenter earned his bachelor’s degree in computer science, but skipped graduation to return to Vail. The mountains were calling. He spent six years there, running the trails that led out of the valley and into the hills.

“The paved roads in Vail aren’t much more than a frontage road along I-70. I love to run hard uphill. You breathe hard, but you don’t do the damage to your legs. Vail is the perfect place. In college, I had a VO2 Max of 57 — after six years in Vail, I was tested at 90.2. They say you can’t train VO2 Max, but I proved them wrong.”

While mountain running is great for the cardiovascular system, it doesn’t do wonders for your leg speed, and winters in Vail aren’t conducive to fast running either. For Carpenter, the lure of competing in the Olympic Trials was enough to draw him out of the mountains.

He moved to Colorado Springs for winter training, and ran a 2:19:46 in January to qualify for the Trials in Columbus in April.

Of 180 starters and 54 finishers, Carpenter placed 51st in 2:32. He ranks this, however, as his biggest personal accomplishment.

“As bad as I finished, making the Olympic Trials was a big thing for me. I set a goal and barely achieved it [you must run under 2:20 to qualify]. What I couldn’t believe was the number of runners who were dropping out. I knew I wasn’t going to make the team, but it was very important for me to finish.”

Later that year, Carpenter set the course record for the Pikes Peak Marathon.

“After seven years of trying, I got it, and it wasn’t by coincidence that it happened after the trials.”

He had brought the element of speed to mountain running.

Top of the World

Carpenter has now nearly reached the pinnacle of his sport, winning mountain races around the globe and earning a spot at the Fila SkyRunners SkyRunning team. In addition to racing on many of the world’s most formidable mountains, the SkyRunners work closely with Peak Performance Project to learn more about the human body’s ability to perform at altitude.

In 1995, Carpenter accompanied a group of SkyRunners and several top Kenyan road runners to the Italian Research Pyramid in Nepal on the flanks of Everest, at an elevation of 16,410 feet. During their stay, they were constantly poked and prodded by researchers — subjected to regular submax and Max VO2 tests, coordination and reflex tests, blood tests, urine tests, you-name-it tests.

“The adjustments my body made in two days were the same as what the other athletes saw in two weeks,” Carpenter says. He attributes this to clean living; the scientists chalk it up to genetics.

Two weeks later, the group hiked up to 17,200 feet for the highest marathon in history, where the Kenyan coach expected his athletes — including the world’s third-ranked half-marathoner — to soundly defeat the mountain runners. Carpenter won in 3:22, 12 minutes ahead of his nearest rival.

While Carpenter’s running has taken him to exotic locations around the world, his local mountain, Pikes Peak, remains his playground. It is also destined to be his legacy. He already holds the records for the ascent (2:01:06), and the round trip (3:16:39), which he set during the same run in 1993.

His personal Web site is not only a tribute to running in general and mountain running in specific, it is also the most comprehensive Internet guide to running Pikes Peak. He trains on the mountain every Sunday he’s in town, accompanied by a group called The Incline Club, and his long-term goals reflect his ties to the mountain.

“I still think a sub-two-hour ascent is possible, and I’d like to do it during the round trip,” he says.

He also has his eye on winning the double, which is a Saturday ascent followed by a victory in Sunday’s round trip.

So, what’s left for Carpenter when his glory days are over? He’s not one to retire and rest on his laurels.

“I’d like to take (age group) records out (on Pikes Peak) until I’m 80,” he says.

Running itself is the icing on Carpenter’s cake; victories just make it sweeter.

Look for Matt Carpenter’s Web page at

©Copyright 1998 Rocky Mountain Sports
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