Archived from the Denver Post Online - 6/17/1998

Runner’s High
running in the sky

Athletes find new challenges
in high-altitude competition

Matt Carpenter running at 17,350' on the volcano Iztaccihuatl in Mexico

By Cate Terwilliger
Denver Post Staff Writer

June 17 — You might say that Piney kicked his hiney.

Matt Carpenter was a University of Southern Mississippi junior visiting relatives when he signed up for the Vail Half-Marathon to Piney River Ranch, which tops out at about 9,800 feet.

“It just waxed me,” recalls Carpenter, now 33 and living in Manitou Springs. “Going uphill for that long just beat me down until I felt I wasn’t even a runner. To beat me up that much — I didn’t like it. I wanted to get better at it.”

A lesser person might have decided to lie down until that impulse passed, but that’s the difference between mountain runners like Carpenter and most of the rest of us: We recline. They incline.

Carpenter is America’s poster child of skyrunning, events run at nosebleed elevations and leg-leadening lengths. “Athletics is one of the few things in life where you get to press both your mind and your body,” says Carpenter, a wisp of a man with majestic lungs. “Mountain running is a combination of both. To me, it’s like a giant chess game getting up Pikes Peak.”

The undisputed king of American skyrunners, Carpenter has been remarkably successful. He set course records for the Pikes Peak Ascent (2:01:06) and Marathon (3:16:39) in 1993. He’s won nine of the 12 SkyMarathons he’s entered, including four consecutive victories in a Mount Everest race run over 26.2 miles of dirt road higher than the 14,110-foot summit of Pikes Peak.

But the sport appeals to thousands of other runners who lack the heroic genes and discipline of Carpenter, whose max VO2 uptake — a measure of the body’s ability to deliver oxygen to the muscles — is the highest ever recorded in a runner and roughly twice that of the average recreational athlete.

Physiologically speaking, low max V02 uptake can make a mountain out of a molehill.

“At altitude, you have a decrease in atmospheric pressure,” explains Diann Sweeney, a physical therapist at the University of Colorado Sports Medicine Clinic. “The body has more difficulty extracting oxygen from the red blood cells.”

14,000 feet just a start

Skyraces are held in Colorado, the European Alps, Tibet, Nepal, Kenya, Mexico and other locations — “wherever the sky and mountains meet,” according to the Federation for Sport at Altitude, which sanctions skyrunning and other high-elevation sports. Courses are chosen for geographic and logistic reasons, says FSA co-founder Lauri van Houten.

“Ski resorts are a good choice because our first criterion is altitude, secondly, access and accommodation,” she said.

“As the concept of running a marathon at altitude or short, steep race is difficult to understand, a parameter such as a ski lift and descent, or the time it “normally” takes for a famous ascent, helps to convey the incredible speed the skyrunners attain to the normal couch potato. The list of records says a lot about what’s been achieved.”

The current men’s world record for an ordinary road marathon (26.2 miles) is 2:06:50. The fastest woman’s time on asphalt is 2:20:47. Hold those up against skyrunning records at:

Fila Everest SkyMarathon: 26.2 miles at 14,447 feet in 2:56:08

Fila Kenya SkyMarathon: 26.2 miles to 16,367 feet in 5:03:22

Mont Blanc: 33.5 miles to 15,793 feet and back in 6:45:24

The World’s Highest Marathon (in Tibet): 26.2 miles at 17,060 feet in 3:22:25

Athletes who train at altitude adjust over time, Sweeney says. “When you’re acclimated, your body is diffusing oxygen more readily from the lungs to the muscles, so your transport system becomes more efficient.”

That means even middle-of-the-pack skyrunners can train themselves to breathe easier.

“It’s not an elite thing,” Carpenter says. “Anybody can come out and do these runs.”

“Anybody” might be a stretch, but he’s not far off. Many skyrunners are simply former road runners looking for a little adventure; Carpenter leads a training group on and around Pikes Peak with some of them.

“People don’t have to be the same speed, but we all push each other in different ways,” he explains. “Each of us at our own level hopefully wants to push themselves a little bit farther. . . .

“A lot of life is people telling us we can’t do certain things, and I like to find out from myself what I can and can’t do.”

According to the Italy-based Federation for Sport at Altitude, founded in 1995 to govern several high-altitude sports, skyrunners come from different nations and athletic backgrounds.

“One element unites them,” the FSA says — “their love of the mountains and running.” High-altitude running has been around for years, but has only recently developed a formal name and structure. Skyrunning was “invented” by Italian outdoorsman Marino Giacometti in 1992; this year, a half-dozen countries will host more than a dozen FSA-sanctioned races, all offering prize money and underwritten by sports apparel sponsor Fila. Runners who participate in this upper-tier circuit generally must qualify, usually with a previous skyrunning event, mountaineering experience and/or a marathon personal record of 3 hours or less for men, 3:30 or less for women.

At least 20 nations are expected to compete in the first Skyrunning World Championships in Cervinia, Italy, on July 12. Of the 80 runners vying for $20,000 in prize money, 15 — including Carpenter and top United States woman Danelle Ballengee of Dillon — are Americans.

This year marks another first for domestic skyrunners: a national race circuit. The Fila SkyMarathon in Aspen (June 28) is both this year’s national championship and a qualifier for the 1999 world championships; a SkyHalfmarathon also will be run. Ten other American races — most in Colorado and open to all abilities — will serve as qualifiers for next year’s national championships. Many other races, including the Pikes Peak Marathon and Ascent, qualify as skyrunning, but are not part of the official circuit.

As defined by the FSA, the sport includes three categories. SkyMarathons come in two forms: The classic covers a half-marathon (13.1 miles) to marathon (26.2 miles), includes an elevation gain of more than 6,500 feet and tops out at least 4,000 meters (13,133 feet). A regular SkyMarathon covers the full marathon distance over a relatively level course entirely above 4,000 meters.

The sport also includes Skyraces at elevations between 2,000 meters (6,566 feet) and 4,000 meters and, for the littler of lung, the Vertical Kilometer, featuring 1,000 meters of elevation gain over a course not longer than 3.1 miles. Tough to imagine? Envision running from the base to the summit of Vail Mountain, the course for Sunday’s U.S. Vertical K.

Actually, “running” is a misnomer for all but the sport’s best; most are eventually reduced to power-hiking the steep grades. All the better to take in the view.

“Being high is really fun,” says Kari Distefano of Telluride, a 39 year-old multisport athlete who has won the 18-mile Imogene Pass Run four times. “It’s aesthetic. You can see the white mountains and you’re way up there. . . . You look down and it’s just really beautiful.”

Being out in nature, with all its vicissitudes, is one reason many runners eventually turn from asphalt to trails. “To me, it feels a little bit more natural than dealing with pavement and cars,” says Carpenter.

In Colorado, running trails is usually synonymous with running uphill, and that means factoring in not only the terrain, but rapidly changing weather.

“It can be 60 degrees at the start and 20 degrees and windy as all get out and snowing by the time you’re finished,” says Nancy Hobbs, who coordinates U.S. Skyrunning from Colorado Springs. “With trail and mountain running, you think about some additional things you wouldn’t think about as a road runner.”

Hobbs, 37, founded the All-American Trail Running Association in 1996 and is writing a book about the sport. Her own experiences include a close brush with a mountain lion several years ago on the lower reaches of Barr Trail, which scales Pikes Peak.

“It was 10 minutes up the trail from the parking lot, in July . . . and this big fella jumped right out in front of me, within 40 feet,” says Hobbs. She screamed three times “really loud,” less from knowledge of proper wildlife protocol — confrontation, in this instance — than from a less sophisticated impulse: fear.

But she kept climbing, true to the skyrunning spirit. “The thing just ran up the trail, and I kept running, right after this mountain lion.”

Despite such natural hazards, trail-running is safer in some regards than its blacktop cousin, which is notorious for pounding many a joint to the point of injury.

“A lot of the people who have been injured on the roads turn over to trails,” Hobbs explains. “The injury potential is there in trail-running, but it’s there at a different degree. . . .

“It’s mostly because you’re not looking where you’re going: ‘Gee, it’s pretty up here’ — boom.”

Mostly. For elite runners like Carpenter, other hazards threaten.

He settled for third in a 20-mile SkyMarathon on a volcano near Iztaccihuatl, Mexico, after he fell while glissading a snowfield and cracked his tailbone — 7 miles from the finish.

Toughest challenge

That hurt plenty, but Carpenter believes the toughest day-to-day challenge comes from within: The trail keeps climbing, the air gets thinner, the body coughs and sputters.

“It’s a certain pressure, a pressure building, and the battle between your mind and this pressure:

Can you take more? Can you take more? Can you take more? The only variable that seems to be different for all of us is the actual speed at which you’re traveling. . . .

“You finish and you feel alive,” Carpenter says. “That’s what skyrunning is about, from the middle of the pack on back — why a person would want to do any of these things where you’ve got more thrown at you than just getting from Point A to Point B.”

For more information on Skyrunning, contact Nancy Hobbs at trlrrunner @ aol . com.

Back to Bio