The power to vanish

High-altitude runner Matt Carpenter leaves foes gasping for breath

By Brian Metzler, Special To The Rocky
May 29, 2007

Put Matt Carpenter at a sea-level running race and he’ll probably finish near the leaders. But give him the chance to race in the rarefied air of high altitude and he’ll leave everyone in the dust.

Carpenter has been the most dominant trail runner in the United States for the past 15 years, virtually unbeatable in races that start at high elevation and go up. He holds numerous course records in Colorado and has run the world’s fastest marathons above 14,000 feet and 17,000 feet.

What’s the secret to his success? Tests at the U.S. Olympic Training Center determined that Carpenter had an astronomical VO2 max of 90.2 milliliters of oxygen burned per kilogram of body weight per minute, which mean his 5-foot-7 1/2, 122-pound frame is ultraefficient when it comes to burning

oxygen. His score is the highest mark ever recorded at the center, eclipsing even Lance Armstrong’s 85.

Secondly, he trains like a fiend, mixing high mileage with mountain runs and speed workouts. He hasn’t had a day with fewer than two hours of running since Sept. 13. His longest running streak without missing a day is five years, 57 days. (It ended July 9, 2002, the day his daughter was born.)

“It’s kind of old school,” he said. “I believe there are a lot of ways to train. I’ve gotten to a good level with a lot of different ways. But the key is, whatever way you’re going with, you have to be consistent with it.”

Yet he also has refused to run a race or avoided being eligible for taking prize money when he has had philosophical differen- ces with a race director or organizing body.

“He’s got the most stringent set standards of just about any runner,” said Boulder’s Adam Chase, president of the All- American Trail Running Association.

“He’s absolutely pure in sticking to what he believes in and his approach to training. And that’s what makes him the runner he is.”In a nutshell

• Name: Matt Carpenter.

• Age: 42.

• Primary sport: Trail running.

• Home: Manitou Springs.

• Originally from: Hattiesburg, Miss.

• Family: Married to Yvonne; has 4-year-old daughter, Kyla.

• Amazing feats: Has won virtually every high-altitude trail race in Colorado at least once and is the course record-holder for more than a dozen events across the state.

Most prolific success has come at the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon, where he has recorded 12 victories (five in the ascent, seven in the marathon) and owns both course records (2:01:06 in the ascent; 3:16:39 for the marathon).

In 2001, became the only person to win the ascent and marathon in the same year. Last year, won the marathon when it doubled as the World Mountain Running Association Long Course Championship.

Has the world’s fastest recorded times for a flat marathon held at altitude (2:52:57 at 14,350 feet and 3:22:25 at 17,060 feet).

Made brief foray into ultrarunning in 2004-05 and set course records for San Juan Solstice 50-mile race in Lake City (7:59:44) and the Leadville Trail 100 (15:42:59).

In the past two years, has won the 10-kilometer trail-running championships at the Teva Mountain Games in Vail and should be the favorite for the race Friday.

In total, has won more than 110 races from two to 100 miles since moving to Colorado in the mid-1980s.

Co-founder of Incline Club running group and the 12-mile Barr Trail Mountain Race staged in mid-July on the lower half of Pikes Peak.

In his own words

• On heading west: I grew up in Hattiesburg, Miss., and I first came to Colorado in the summer of 1984 because my aunt invited me out for a nursing convention she was attending. I ran the Piney Lake Half-Marathon in Vail, and I just fell in love with the place after that run. In fact, I had a picture taken after that race, and I took it back to Mississippi and stuck it on my cork board and said, “I’m going to move to Vail.” So I spent the summers in Vail while I finished out college. I got my credits to graduate (with a degree in computer science from the University of Southern Mississippi) but I skipped graduation just so I could get to Vail quicker.

• On making the move: I moved from Vail to Colorado Springs in 1991 to train for the 1992 Olympic trials in the marathon. There was not enough flat running in Vail, and more importantly, the trials were at the beginning of the year, and there’s almost no good running in Vail in the winter. The plan was to come and work with the Olympic Training Center because I had some testing done there with my VO2 (oxygen utilization) the year before. I was going to work with Dr. Peter Van Handel, but he died in a plane crash in Colorado Springs. I ran 2:19 and ran in the Olympic trials, but at the same time I was a little aimless.

• On marathon running: I ran a 1:05 half-marathon during one of my marathons, and to me, that shows more of my potential than my actual marathon time. I did a handful of marathons but I never got to focus completely on one, and I still have regrets about that in a strange way.

• On running with family: I run 13 times a week, and probably 10 of them are with the “Kyla jogger.” We don’t call it a Baby Jogger anymore, because Kyla is 4. We use the jogger for what we call the park circuit. I’ll run for a half-hour, and then we’ll wind up at a park. I’ve done up to 200 laps around parks when she plays for however long, and then we’ll go to another one. Kyla loves to go to the parks, so we can combine the two.

• On being a lab rat: My high VO2 max score means I have a good capacity to utilize oxygen, but when I did that test I had a very poor economy. I had a Porsche engine, but I had the poor gas mileage to go with it, so I had to work on fixing that with some specific workouts.

• On staying young: I’ll be 43 in July. That’s a real concession, but I’ve found and proven to myself that I can be just about as fast as I was when I was younger. The difference is that I have to be a lot more careful and treat nagging soreness or injuries. I’ve always treated nags like cancer, but now it’s even harder to heal the nags. The big change for me was after running the Leadville 100 in 2004, I went and bought a quality weight machine. It hasn’t made me any faster, but it’s made me stronger, and that helps with my recovery.

• On the Incline Club: Every Sunday morning, that gets me out the door. And to see 60 to 70 people taking off into the mountains, that’s a charge. We do a lot of running, and there is a lot of passion there. We have 60 training runs a year, and about 40 are up on Barr Trail. We have slow people and fast people, but most of them are dedicated. I’ll take someone who is slow and dedicated over someone who is fast and not dedicated any day.

• On eating: I’ve never had any alcohol or coffee. I try to avoid a lot of junk food, but the occasional doughnut or ice cream is not a problem with the amount of mileage I put in. Sometimes my problem has actually been not being able to gain weight. I actually get benign exercise-induced hematuria (blood in the urine) if I cut out too much fat, so I live on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches during the day just to get a little fat in me.

• On his favorite trails: I love the top three miles of Pikes Peak. They’re not too steep, but they take you right to the edge, and you have that fight, if you’re tired, of whether you’re going to bonk or not. I’ve been fortunate to run in a lot of places all over the world and I just always pine for Colorado. We live in an awesome place, and there is so much variety and great weather.

Tips from a pro

Matt Carpenter has won dozens of high-altitude races in Colorado and around the world. Here’s some of his advice for high-altitude mountain running.

1 Don’t focus too much on mileage at first

If you’re just getting into it, I would recommend throwing away your mileage log and just running by time. I find up here that it can be really frustrating if you do something really rough and you can only write down a few miles. That can mentally mess with you. And if you’re used to running by distance, then you can run too far or too short. I find that if you go by time, the distance you need kind of takes care of itself. For example, I run up the old incline railway grade and I would have to write down 1 mile for that, even though it’s 25 miles of death.

2 Take it steady when it comes to the mountains

You’ve just got to focus on your cadence. I think a lot of people really try to grind it up hills. Let the terrain dictate your pace, but if you can keep the same cadence overall, it should take care of itself. If the terrain gets too steep, by all means, walk. The key is, don’t go into it with a hardheaded attitude. Even I have races where I have to walk. If you can just relax and do it, that’s OK. You’re going to do a lot better than the guy next you who’s fighting and trying to run when walking would be better.

3 Learn to deal with high altitude

If you can, take a vacation at altitude to learn what hypoxia feels like. That’s 90 percent of the battle, because there’s really nothing you can do. If you don’t live at high altitude, your best defense is to get in the best shape that you can. The first time every season, you’re just buzzy and you’re dizzy and you can’t even remember your own name. But if you know that’s going to happen, that helps.

You can do it

Want to run in a trail race close to the metro area? The La Sportiva Front Range Frenzy series has races (June 23, July 21 and Aug. 12) from 4.5 to 12.7 miles on challenging courses in Golden. The July 4 Scar Top Mountain Run 12-kilometer and Spruce Canyon 5K are run on up-and-down dirt road courses in Coal Creek Canyon. The Indian Peaks 10K on Aug. 4 follows a mix of dirt roads and singletrack routes at the Eldora Nordic Center. Visit runuphillracing.com and racingunderground.com for more details.

Mark your calendar

Who are the best trail runners in the country? That will be determined on June 30 at the USA 10-kilometer Trail Running Championships in Steamboat Springs.

• The race will start and finish from the gondola base station at Steamboat ski area, sending runners on a loop that varies in elevation from 6,900 to 8,000 feet.

• At stake is a $5,000 purse and an opportunity at representing the United States in the world championships in September in Ovronnaz, Switzerland.

• For information, visit runningseries.com.

Our top 10 so far

• Chris Davenport, alpine skiing.

• Mike Kloser, multisport.

• Gretchen Bleiler, snowboarding.

• Ian Adamson, adventure racing/paddling/orienteering.

• Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski, mountain biking.

• Seth Wealing, Xterra off-road triathlete.

• Brad Ludden, white-water paddling.

• Matt Carpenter, trail runner.

To read about our previous featured athletes, visit RockyMountainNews.com/adventure.

Copyright 2007, Rocky Mountain News. All Rights Reserved.

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