Outside magazine, November 1995
"I have a social life," proclaims Matt Carpenter, king of the fledgling sport known as skymarathoning, which basically entails running 26.2-mile races in places better suited for mountaineers. "I really do." That may be so, but conversation must suffer when you spend as much time as Carpenter does with an air filter strapped to your face. The mask, which lends him the profile of a praying mantis and which he wears from the moment he leaves his house in Colorado Springs till he arrives at the starting line of the race he's traveling to, is Carpenter's quirky way of maintaining a competitive edge: While his opponents are inhaling secondhand cigarette smoke on international flights, Carpenter's lungs heave in a rarefied world of fresh-scrubbed oxygen. "It's a painter's mask," explains the 31-year-old graphic designer, who this month will try for his third consecutive win at the Everest Skymarathon, on the Tibetan flanks of the world's highest mountain. "It even filters out radionucleotides."
"Idiosyncratic" seems to describe both Carpenter and the sport of skymarathoning, which has been around since 1992 and whose small but devoted corps is composed mostly of current and former world-class marathoners from Europe, Kenya, and the United States. A variation on the Welsh pastime known as fell running, skymarathon follows a circuit that now includes stops on Italy's 15,217-foot Monte Rosa, France's 15,771-foot Mont Blanc, and Kenya's 17,157-foot Mount Kenya, with winners taking home $10,000. Except for the Everest event, which takes place on a relatively flat course at 17,000 feet, the general routine is the same: Scamper up a mountain (you choose your own route) and then get yourself back down as fast as possible--on foot, on your backside, or head over heels. Despite gravity's help, it's the downhill aspect of the sport that doesn't do much for Carpenter, a 2:19 marathoner and qualifier for the 1992 Olympic trials. "Some guys will literally throw themselves down a couloir," he says, sounding a tad puritanical.
Raised in Ohio, Carpenter wasn't particularly fond of altitude until after he left near-sea-level University of Southern Mississippi for Colorado. Now he trains on 14,110-foot Pikes Peak, occasionally experimenting with his own avant-garde style of descent, gliding down glaciers seated on a windbreaker. Thankfully, he says, he won't have to employ such tricks on Everest. "The running will be easy," he says nonchalantly. "It's convincing your body it doesn't need oxygen that's a bit harder."