As he sat in a French class during his junior year in high school, Matt Carpenter’s life changed – the result of a sweetly naïve misunderstanding.
A loudspeaker announcement trumpeted sign-ups for the cross country team. Assuming, A) This meant he would literally run across the country and, B) This would get him out of a lot of school, Carpenter signed up.
While he was disappointed to learn that running cross country actually entailed only circling local golf courses, his love of trail running sprouted and hasn’t stopped. It did, in fact, take him all over the country – all over the world – and now he runs into the Colorado Springs Sports Hall of Fame as the first distance runner inducted and as a headliner of a high-profile class that includes speedskating gold medalist Bonnie Blair.
“It’s been an incredible ride and this is another neat part of it,” said Carpenter, part of a class of six individuals and one team who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame in October.
That Carpenter wasn’t already on the list is a bit surprising, considering his almost mythic stature in a local running community he helped to build. He has won the Pikes Peak Marathon 12 times, the Pikes Peak Ascent six times and holds records for both. He won the marathon six consecutive years and has twice won both races, which are run on consecutive days.
And it’s not just the official races that have cemented his legacy. His time of 18 minutes, 31 seconds up the Incline has never been matched
All of this started by accident when Carpenter signed up for a sport he knew nothing about. He ended up running in college in Mississippi – the sport was supposed to take him out of class, remember – and it was during that time, in the 1980s, that he first visited Colorado and fell in love with the mountains that his body was genetically engineered to conquer.
The Olympic Training Center tested Carpenter’s V02, the body’s ability to deliver oxygen to the muscles, and he registered a 90.1. This place that houses those in the country who go higher, faster and stronger than anyone else had never tested an American with a higher capacity. (The New York Times has reported that only Bjorn Daehlie, a Norwegian cross-country skier, has scored higher. Lance Armstrong, by comparison, recorded an 81.)
For several years Carpenter traveled internationally for a running group sponsored by Fila. He has run in the Himalayas and holds 17 course records at some world’s most grueling events (including the 100-mile Leadville 100).
His 12th – and, for now, final – victory in the Pikes Peak Marathon came at age 47 in 2011 when he went up and down the mountain in 3 hours, 48 minutes.
Traditional road races never much appealed to Carpenter, and didn’t bring him the success of the high-altitude challenges he dominated. He did, however, finish 42nd in the Boston Marathon in 1995.
“With Pikes Peak, I’ve always looked at that as the ultimate challenge,” Carpenter said. “You can stand down at the bottom of the city and look at the top to see where you’re going. For me that’s a lot more defined than an arbitrary road race where you’re running from Point A to Point B to come back to wherever.”
Carpenter believes trail racing, where every step is a bit different from the previous, has helped him avoid the sort of repetitive injuries that plague road runners.
“I tend to be a bit of hypochondriac when it comes to injuries or stuff,” he said. “I get a little nag and I treat it like cancer and I try to get rid of it early and not let it become a major issue.”
Still, time and the pressure of maintaining his own impossible standards have taken a toll. Carpenter didn’t run competitively last year and may stay away this year.
The Manitou Springs resident instead helps others find the same passion he stumbled upon so long ago. He started the Incline Club running group and Barr Trail Mountain Race and is a member of the Triple Crown of Running board of directors. He has raised thousands of dollars for area high school running programs.
“Trail races are getting bigger, there are more of them, they fill faster and there’s just an excitement of getting off the roads and getting out with nature and challenging yourself,” Carpenter said.
Carpenter’s superhuman lung capacity has always been matched by an equally unfathomable capacity for training (his “off-day” routine while training involves a 90-minute run). But in the process, some of that joy he found as a teenager had waned.
In backing off a little, he’s recaptured some of the enjoyment. So, will he return? He never would have guessed he’d have found the sport to begin with, so he’s not about to rule anything out.
“If the fun factor can come back and I can keep it enjoyable,” he said. “Then I’ll never say never to anything.”