How to Tap Into What Made Ultrarunner Matt Carpenter So Fast


By Jason Koop,
Head Coach of CTS Ultrarunning

With this year’s Pikes Peak Marathon in the rear-view mirror, and Matt Carpenter’s 1993 course record once again untouched, it gave me a bit of pause as to what made Matt so great in his prime. I’ve long admired Matt’s has accomplishments as an athlete and been fortunate to observe much of his career (albeit from very far behind in the pack). He has had a multi decade, decorated and storied career that, sadly, most people will under-appreciate simply because of the time period he dominated. During Matt’s trail running reign in the 80’s, 90’s and early 2000’s, he won races ranging from 10k to 100 miles. His career is most renowned for the 12 wins at the Pikes Peak Marathon and many feel (including myself) Matt’s aforementioned 1993 record on that course will stand the test of time. But Matt is not an alien or superhuman, far from it. He’s a runner with rather humble beginnings, a workhorse-like mentality and someone we can all learn from.

Uncanny adaptive physiology

Matt’s VO2max (the maximum amount of oxygen your body can utilize per minute) was an astounding 90.2 as tested at the US Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs in 1990. While we can debate endlessly about how important VO2max is or is not, the fact of the matter is that Matt’s ability to utilize oxygen is one of the highest ever recorded. So high that whenever you do a simple Google search for ‘Highest VO2max recorded’ or something similar, you are bound to find references to that particular test. One of my early coaching mentors, Jay T. Kearney, was part of that testing team. During one of our mentoring sessions, I remember discussing the test and the subsequent practical applications of that data. As we were poring through the information, he paused and said, “Now, when we (the people conducting the test) got to this point, we started to think something was wrong, like we had mis-calibrated the machine or something.” The physiologists testing Matt, who were at the top of their field and had conducted hundreds of tests with the best equipment available, thought they had screwed something up. All of the fuss was because Matt’s measured aerobic capabilities were so unheard of at the time (remember this test was performed in 1990). Turns out the machines were fine, and his reading 90.2 ml/kg/min of oxygen consumption still stands as one of highest ever recorded (author’s note- Matt’s VO2max was also tested at 94 ml/kg/min in a lab in Italy at sea level. This test is not widely reported for unknown reasons).

However, while Matt’s VO2max was astounding, what’s more astounding is that his aerobic system was not born that way. Yes, Matt likely has great genetics, but his aerobic prowess didn’t show up right out of the gate. I remember Matt telling me that his VO2 max in college was a paltry (by comparison) 57 ml/kg/min. When I heard this, I almost laughed at the proposition. In my coaching brain it seemed illogical that a trained runner (Matt ran collegiately at the University of Southern Mississippi) could improve his VO2max by 58%. I figured, there must have been something wrong with that test, or Matt had a bad day or some other combination of testing faults resulting in a underreporting of his VO2max value. But, even if Matt’s collegiate test was 20% below his actual VO2max (which is an obscene amount of testing error), between college and professional running he still made a marked leap into the aerobic stratosphere.

No matter how you measure or observe it, Matt has incredible adaptive physiology. His VO2max improvement from college to the professional ranks is only one metric we can look at. During his professional running career, Matt would always be the first to adapt to high altitude. Whether he was at a training camp, or going to Nepal to race at over 17,000 feet, Matt needed less time for his body to adapt more compared to his peers. The real wonderment, however, is not what, but how. How did he obtain or create this level of adaptive physiology? Turns out, he trained.

Train Hard

Matt trained hard. A quick peruse through his book ‘Training for the Ascent and Marathon on Pikes Peak’ will reveal a litany of high intensity workouts of varying flavors. In it, he outlines the training methodology that he specifically adapted for Pikes Peak. Long before other high intensity focused endurance methodologies like 80/20 (popularized my Matt Fitzgerald, where 80% of your workouts are ‘easy’ and 20% are hard) or polarized training became prevalent, Carpenter would routinely do high intensity workouts like:

  • 30 minutes of alternating 1 minute hard, 1 minute easy
  • 20 X 400-meter repeats
  • and hammering up the notorious Manitou Incline in a scant 20 minutes.

While I don’t agree with all of Matt’s training strategies, the results speak for themselves.

The takeaway for all runners is that even for mountain running events, you shouldn’t be afraid to train at high intensities. Instead, you should relish it.

Meticulous Preparation

Of all the things Matt is known for, his meticulous preparation, specifically for the Pike’s Peak marathon, might be the most legendary. Matt was known to spend nearly all of his training time on the Barr Trail (the Pikes Peak marathon is run nearly entirely on the Barr Trail). He knew every rock, root, turn, nook and cranny. Having done the Pikes Peak Marathon and Ascent a few times, and having logged many training miles on the trail, I feel I have good familiarity with the terrain. But, every time I see Matt and talk about the trail, he takes it to a new level. He knows where the size of the scree changes from being slippery to tacky, how many strides it takes to get from one switchback to another and precisely what rocks he should step on and which ones to step over in order to save a few meters of distance (akin to taking a tangent on the road).

Matt’s meticulous preparation extended beyond simply knowing Barr Trail. When he set the record for the Leadville Trail Marathon, he laid out his hydration plan so precisely, knew exactly how many sips his hydration pack contained and how many sips he would take per hour for each section of the course. As he recounts in a post-race article:

‘I practiced my fuel regime about five times a week almost year round right down to the number of sips I take per hour. Yes—18 sips an hour is what I need to stay hydrated. More if it is hot, less if it is cool. I get those 18 sips by taking 3 sips every 10 minutes. Further, I dump Carb-BOOM energy gel and Gatorade Endurance Formula right into my bottle or CamelBak so that I get about 50 calories every 10 minutes. As an added bonus, I can minimize the weight I carry based on the time it takes to get from one aid station to the next. Fish Hatchery to May Queen? 24 sips…

To come up with these numbers I had to experiment with what works for me. If I lost weight, I added sips. If I peed too much, less sips. Etc.’

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With my athletes, I hammer home the concept of practicing your race day nutrition strategy in training. But Matt took it to a new level, measuring his plan down to the very sip. Perhaps even more important, all that practice also taught him how and when to make adjustments.

More Than a Race

The Pikes Peak Marathon was more than just a race to Matt. It was Matt’s home, church, garden and place of solitude. The visceral and emotional connection to the Pikes Peak Massif was also part of Matt’s winning success. When the race is more than a start and a finish line, you train harder, with a bigger purpose, and push yourself to greater extents than you would otherwise. In more recent years, this connection was further reinforced as Matt ran for, and won, a seat on Manitou’s City Council, running on a platform to officially legalize access to one of his primary training venues, the Manitou Incline. Until 2013, hiking the Manitou Incline was technically trespassing, punishable by a Class 3 misdemeanor. As he (and thousands of others, including myself) illegally and regularly used the Incline as a training tool, he made it his mission to be a steward of that trail for future users. How many champions have we seen do this? Athletes from all walks of sporting life from Tim Twietmeyer, Haile Gebrselassie, Serena Williams and Magic Johnson have given back and become stewards of their sport for future generations. This all speaks to a bigger connection they had to a race or sport and they were the better for it.

We can all learn from Pikes Peak champion Matt Carpenter. Yes, he is a talented runner. But he also trained ridiculously hard, prepared methodically, and was deeply connected to the race. Even without his level of talent, any runner can leverage those attributes for success.

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Matt now owns a custard shop in downtown Manitou Springs, a mere half mile from the start of the Pikes Peak marathon. Like his running career, his custard is similarly brilliant, and his indulgent menu is like the man himself. The base custard and accompaniments have been carefully selected, meticulously prepared, contain a connection to the area (the Incline is concoction of chocolate custard, peanut butter and bananas), and delivered with one of the biggest smiles you will ever see.

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Comments 2

  1. That is really interesting that his V02 changed so much and to know what helped him. What’s most surprising to me, though, is that those workouts are not that extreme and imagine are par for the course for many elite athletes (then and now). I have to think the “secret” so to speak of phenoms like Carpenter and Killian lies in their durability to withstand high training loads (density and volume) over a long period of time. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the black box of durability!

  2. Matt’s time is pretty amazing. Followed Sunday’s race via the summit and finish line cam. Seth had a great day but still a ways from Matt’s mark.

    Would be interested to see a similar analysis of Jim O’Brien’s training leading up to his amazing performance at AC 100.

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