Archived from a November 5th, 1998 Cool Running column

Meet Matt Carpenter: Superstar Skyrunner

by Don Allison

Photos by Mick van Houton

There are not too many runners around who can claim to be the best at what they do. Michael Johnson, Haile Gebrselhaisse, Catherina Mckiernan. Well, how about adding Matt Carpenter to that list. Matt is a proponent of “skyrunning” and just so happens to be the best at the world in that particular endeavor. And not just by a little. Recently Matt set an incredible marathon altitude world record of 2:52:57 in Tibet, running at 14, 350 feet altitude, beating his nearest competitor by more than a half-hour!

That is simply Matt’s latest achievement in a long line of running successes. Since 1987, he has been recognized as the premier mountain runner in the world. He is the course record holder at Pikes Peak, for both the Ascent and the Marathon a race which he has won seven times. His list of accomplishments is amazingly long. Suffice to say that imbedded in the list is a line item stating he is a “three-time winner of the Mt. Washington Road Race.” For most runners, a win at Mt. Washington would be a lifetime achievement. For Matt, simply another item on the list.

Matt Carpenter doing strides the day before the Fila Everest SkyMarathon. The snow-capped peak in the background is 29,028 foot Mount Everest.
Doing strides the day before the Fila Everest SkyMarathon. The snow-capped peak in the background is 29,028 foot Mount Everest.
In 1993, Matt signed on as one of the FILA Skyrunners, participating in this new sport of Skyrunning. He has won 11 of the 15 races he has entered, despite increasing competition from some of the top altitude runners from around the world. Matt lives in Manitou Springs Colorado, a short trot from Pikes Peak, which he calls his “home” course. When not scaling mountains at an alarming pace, Matt is a part-time webmaster for The Colorado Springs Business Journal. Cool Running’s Don Allison interviewed Matt, getting his thoughts and opinions on a variety of topics. For this great athlete, even the sky is not the limit!

Visit Matt’s Web Page at Skyrunner.

Matt Carpenter Interview

CR: How did you become involved with running marathons at high altitude?

MC: In the mid '80s I was attending college at the University of Southern Mississippi where a hill was going over rail-road-track crossings. I went to visit my aunt who was attending a convention in Vail, Colorado and entered in a race called the Piney Creek Half Marathon that goes up to almost 10,000'. To this day I remember starting up that first hill in Vail and thinking three things: 1) there was no air 2) no hill can last this long and 3) I was going to die. As it turns out I didn’t die but the air got even thinner and I got a new definition of what a hill was. I was hooked! I started living in Vail in the summers and moved there after college. I have pretty much been running in the mountains ever since. There is such a defined goal in mountain running: Start down here, run to up there and come back down. Most of the time you can see your goal (the top) the whole way.

CR: As you are the world record-holder, whom do you see as your primary competition in the sport? Is it popular around the world? In the USA?

MC: I think for any athlete at the top of a sport the competition is not as much of a factor as having to come up with the will and desire to fend off complacency. It is easy to not want to continue to work hard when you are doing so well. But someone is always waiting to take your spot so you must. The sport is growing rather fast. Whereas there used to be just 3 races worldwide now there are some countries that have an entire series of Skyraces. While in the US there are still only a couple of SkyMarathons there are about 10 events that are now qualifiers to those races. At all the races the competition is getting tougher especially at some of the events in Mexico. For many of the athletes this is the new “big ticket” to get sponsorship and earn a living.

CR: What is your typical training week like?

MC: Generally I try to get in at least 2 hours of running a day from January through August. This year I only had about 20 days less than that due mostly to tapers and recovery from races. I go by time and not distance because the combination of hills and altitude does not make for many miles covered.

  • Monday: 1h30 a.m., 30 min p.m. on trails
  • Tuesday: 30 min a.m., 1h30 p.m. with one of 2 workouts:
    1) 4-5 mile tempo run. Start of season @ 5:20 pace, end of season 4:50 pace
    2) 12 to 20 X 1/4 (depending on time of season) on 2 minutes in 68 seconds, meaning I get 52 seconds rest.
  • Wednesday: 1h30 a.m., 30 min p.m. on trails
  • Thursday: 30 min a.m., 1h30 p.m. with one of 3 workouts:
    1) 4 mile tempo run on a hill at approximately 12% grade
    2) 30 minutes of 1 minute hard, 1 minute easy on the same hill
    3) 20 minute time trial up the Incline. A 1 mile hill with an average grade of 45% and the steepest part at 68%. You can see me on the incline here.
  • Friday: 1h30 a.m., 30 min p.m. on trails
  • Saturday: 1h a.m., 1h p.m. on trails
  • Sunday: 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 hours running on Pikes Peak up to 14,110'

CR: Why are you so much better at mountain running than other athletes?

MC: I think I am one of the few mountain runners that comes to the sport with a good mix of speed and strength. While not blazing, my 2:19 marathon PR gives me an advantage over many “traditional” mountain runners. Many mountain runners run in the mountains because the enjoy it and that is all they do. I still go to the track and I still do the speed work which is not always so fun. Further in a sport where the common link to all the races is that you run where there is no air having the highest recorded VO2 (90.2) for a runner is a definite plus;-) Of course I would be remiss if I did not point out that genetics must play some roll, however I tend to get defensive and point out that the best genes in the world are worth squat to any athlete if you don’t train!

CR: What is Colorado Springs like for running?

MC: Colorado Springs and more specifically Manitou Springs, where I live, are ideal for mountain running! We have 14,110' Pikes Peak in our backyard and tons of other trails to train on for our more “sane” training days. We have a little club called the Incline Club where sometimes we will get as many as 25 people running up some really sick stuff in the middle of winter in 2 feet of snow. This kind of club makes it fun to go out and put in the time!

CR: Do you have a conventional job? Or are you a sponsored runner?

MC: Because of my running I do not have to work and because of my work I do not have to run. I do both because I like them. The most important thing for me is keeping things somewhat fun. I have a degree in computer science and I work part-time as a webmaster for the Colorado Springs Business Journal: Also, one wrong step and my running could be over so it is important to keep my fingers in the pie in case I can no longer run at a high level.

CR: Have you enjoyed your races at Mt. Washington? How would you rate that race in terms of difficulty?

MC: I try to avoid comparing one race to another especially when it comes to Mt. Washington and the race you mention in the next question. Bottom line Pikes is 26.3 miles, starts at 6,200', goes up to 14,110' and back down on a rocky twisting trail whereas Mt. Washington is an up-only 7.6 mile run on mostly asphalt and it finishes at only 6,288'. That should be enough to draw your own conclusions. Having said that, Mt. Washington is a very intense and high pressure race for me. They put a lot of emphasis on the whole East vs. West thing and the press is always ranting an raving about records. Still, I have enjoyed all three of my races on the “Beast from the East” — the race and its organization are among the best in the world.

CR: Same question with Pikes Peak. Also, do you consider that your “home” race?

MC: Pikes is definitely my home-town race — it takes me only 8 minutes to run to the starting line and the mountain is a large part of the view from my living-room window. It is also my favorite race to run. While I have certainly done far harder courses I rate this as the perfect mountain race. It just has so many variables to it that it is really a challenge to get everything just right for that one certain day. However, it is not so insanely hard that you end up doing a hike-a-thon for hours on end unless you are just totally unprepared.

CR: Have you considered running any of the trail 100-milers, such as Western States, Leadville, Hardrock? It seems you would be well suited to wining a race such as one of those.

MC: I have heard many ultra runners claim that you do not know who you are until you run 100 miles and I will be darned if I am going to die and not know who I am. I have been pacing runners at Leadville for many years now. Each time I learn more about the course and more about what it takes to do a race of this nature. I plan on doing Leadville in 2002 when I will be 39.

CR: Rick Trujillo and Ricky Denisick set a record for climbing the “fourteeners” peaks in Colorado? Is that something you have ever thought of doing?

MC: Rick and Ricky were kind enough to give me the diaries from when Ricky set the current record of doing all 54 14ers in 14 days and 16 minutes. The task ads up to 314 miles and 153,215 feet of vertical gain!!! So much of it depends on knowing the routes and these guys know them all. I have only done 14 or so of the 14ers but yes, it is something I think about doing — often — but then I wake up;-)

Matt Carpenter approaching the finish area of the first official world altitude marathon record (2:52:57) recognized by the Association of International Marathons (AIMS). The mountain in the background is Cho Oyu — the 6th highest in the world at 26,906 feet.
Approaching the finish area of the first official world altitude marathon record (2:52:57) recognized by the Association of International Marathons (AIMS). The mountain in the background is Cho Oyu — the 6th highest in the world at 26,906 feet.
CR: What exactly is “Skyrunning” and how is being promoted around the world?

MC:Skyrunning races are divided into several categories. The SkyMarathon covers the full marathon distance with elevations reaching 14,000 feet. The SkyRace covers shorter distances at lower elevations. The Vertical Kilometer event gains 3,280 feet at altitudes starting above 6,500 feet. In the USA many of the more popular mountain and trail races now serve as qualifiers for SkyMarathons.

CR: Is the sport inherently dangerous? I know Colorado runner, Lyndon Ellefson, was killed in an accident a few months ago. Were you close to him? Did his death affect you personally? Did it affect your approach to the sport?

MC: Lyndon and I had spoken and run together on many occasions and in fact he was in my room until 1 a.m. talking about running the night before he died. However Lyndon’s death, tragic as it was, is no more related to the sport of Skyrunning than if you were on your way to work and got killed in a car accident. Getting killed in that accident does not make your work dangerous! Lyndon and a small group of people were *hiking out of bounds in a ski area* 2 days before the race. They had crossed the ski patrol’s ropes and signs to get into a known crevasse area — an area that had already claimed the lives of 8 other people in 1998 and 62 people since 1992. An area that was also NOT a part of our race! Bottom line: They had no business being where they were but that does not make the accident any less tragic. While it did not affect my approach to my sport it does make me stop and look at perhaps all of our approaches to life. It can be taken away so very fast. He left a wife and 2 kids behind and that is what hurts the most. But remember, Lyndon was in Italy because he loved to run and more specifically because he loved the sport of Skyrunning! As far as the sport of Skyrunning goes, I believe the worst injury suffered was by an athlete who broke his wrist — he tripped while stepping off the trail up onto the road we had to run on for about 1/2 mile:-)

CR: What are some of the most spectacular venues in which you have raced?

MC: Without a doubt the 3 weeks training in Nepal leading up to the world’s highest marathon at 17,070 feet was the most incredible trip of my life. I got to do training runs to Everest Base Camp and just do what I love to do in one of the most incredible places on earth. Kenya was also very beautiful and it was neat to see first hand all those kids running to school just as we are all told they do. On that note, I have trained with several of the best Kenyans on the FILA team — or in the world for that matter — and for all the whiners out there the secret is simple: Eat, sleep and run, over and over and over. They train their guts out and I have seen it with my own eyes!

CR: What tips would you have for someone looking to get into mountain running?

MC: Keep your eyes on the ground. If you want to look at the view then stop to do so:-)

CR: Is running a practical way to cover some of the interesting mountain areas in the USA and other place such as the Grand Canyon, etc.? Is it better than hiking? Can you do it in National Park areas without being hassled?

MC: Practicality is such a relative term. I do not have a car so for me running is the only way to see places. However to get to the places you have to have a car — catch 22. I went on a mountain bike trip to Moab and although the biking was awesome one of my most memorable experiences was running with several friends in Arch’s National park — where nobody hassled us — to Delicate Arch. In my mind when you run to places instead of hiking or biking to them there are so many advantages: You get to sleep in longer, you get there faster, you can stay there longer, you still get home faster and there are no flat tires. I would not have it any other way!

CR: Do you think there will be a “boom” in off-road running in the next few years?

MC: I think it is already happening. Since I have been doing this for so many years I can remember when the races were never filled up. Now they are filled up 4-6 months in advance! The All American Trail Running Association says in 1994 there were approximately 400 organized trail races. In 1998 there were more than 800 with over 100,000 active trail racers. Also just look at the ads in most running and sports publications — so many of them are of people running on trails and mountains not roads:-)

CR: Should off-road runners invest in specialized trail shoes?

MC: This is one of the more popular questions I get from my www site Skyrunner and I always answer it like this: “If the shoe fits...
Some people like shoes with a lot of cushion. I wear very light racing flats because trails are already soft. Some swear by big treads for more traction. I think the treads just leave sexier marks in the mud and the rest of the time you just make the shoe heavier. Some think supportive “trail” shoes will save their ankles. A “trail” shoe “may” save a few small ankle turns but when you have a big turn I think that you will get hurt a lot worse in this type of shoe! I know, I broke an ankle wearing a “trail” shoe. With a light and flexible shoe, the shoe conforms to the surface and takes most of the hit before it gets to your ankle. I also find that since the shoe is fairly thin I can “feel” the ground and I can adjust before all my weight goes on that foot. Most importantly, however, with a thin shoe I tend to watch where I am stepping:-)
... wear it"

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