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Endurance

Peter Ripmaster ’06 and His Dramatic Journey Through the Alaskan Winter

By Adam Caress

In March of 2018, Peter Ripmaster won the Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI) 1000, which organizers bill as “the world’s longest and toughest winter race.” Their claim is not an empty one. The Iditarod dog sled race may be more famous, but the ITI is more grueling. Competitors must travel 1,000 miles alone through the Alaskan wilderness, from Anchorage to Nome, pulling their gear behind them on a sled through the brutal Alaskan winter. There are two ITI 1000 competition categories, a bike race and a foot race, and Peter won the latter category this year, overcoming sub-zero temperatures, a daunting mountain course, and a field of seasoned competitors that included defending champion and course record-holder Tim Hewitt.

It was Peter’s third attempt at the ITI 1000, having failed to finish the previous two years, but this time he was on a mission. He was over 500 miles into the race when he got an unexpected call. “My friend and I were tied for second when we got the call that Tim . . . [Hewitt] had dropped out,” he recalls. “We looked at each other knowing this was a big opportunity for one of us. Tim dropped out, and we knew no one behind us was catching up. I didn’t want to talk about it too much because talk is cheap, but I thought to myself, ‘I’m not losing this. I’m going to win this Iditarod.’”

Over the last few hundred miles, Peter battled frigid temperatures that dipped to negative 35 degrees and a debilitating case of Giardia, a stomach parasite. “At that point I wasn’t letting anything stop me, and I wasn’t coming home again thinking that it’s going to be another year. I knew that if I came home without doing it this year I might never have another chance.”

Peter completed the race in 26 days, 13 hours, and 44 minutes, just over 12 hours ahead of his friend, Beat Jegerlehner. They were the only foot-racers to complete the 2018 ITI 1000 course.

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Ultra-marathoners are a rare breed, and the competitors who venture into the Alaskan winter to compete in the Iditarod Trail Invitational are rarer still. What is it that drives them to leave the comfort of their homes and their families to compete in a life-threatening race which offers no prize money, no expectant crowd of admirers awaiting them at the finish line? Their accomplishments are certainly heroic testaments to the human will, but who in their right mind would attempt such an endeavor in the first place?

Peter Ripmaster

Peter Ripmaster did not always dream of conquering the Alaskan wilderness. He had been a stand-out athlete in high school, but he was sidetracked by personal struggles that included depression and alcohol abuse. “I have always been an athlete, from the day I was born,” he says. “My dad was a quarterback at Michigan State, and my grandpa played football at Michigan State. I was a football, basketball, and baseball player. I made all-state teams. It just came naturally to me. But I wasted a lot of talent during some of those tough times.”

It wasn’t until he was in his mid-thirties that Peter decided to apply himself athletically again. “I wasn’t ready to be one of those guys who only talk about their high school days,” he resolved. “I felt I still had a lot more to give athletically. I still felt really strong and fit and in my prime, and I felt like I was wasting a lot.”

In 2007, Peter was working as a 6th Grade teacher at Asheville Christian Academy. Then one day, after dropping some family off at the airport, Peter turned to his wife Kristen, and said, out of the blue, “I’m going to run a marathon today.” It took some time to convince his wife he was serious, but she eventually agreed to drive him to the Blue Ridge Parkway. “It had mile markers, so I could track my distance,” he says. “That was the only thing I was thinking.”

"There were times when I would cry, tears just exploding out of myself, wanting to press the emergency button on my SAT phone and just be done."

“I had my wife drop me off on the parkway at a mile marker and then I started running towards Mt. Pisgah,” he recalls. “Little did I know that I was just going straight up a dang mountain. It was crazy. Who does that? My body didn’t know what I was doing to it. But I finished, right? I just about passed out. I fell on my back, and I was hot and cold and had chill bumps. I was feeling sick, but I loved it. And it really resonated with me because it’s all mental. You can do it if you’ve got a strong mind.”

Peter was back teaching 6th grade the next day, and he told his class about his impromptu marathon adventure. “There was a student that was in my class who came from a big running family,” he says. “So she comes in the next day and she says, ‘Hey Mr. Rip, my dad wants to know if you’ve ever heard of the 50 State Marathon Club?’ I hadn’t, of course, but it’s just what you’d think it is. You have to run in 10 different states before you are a member of the club, and then they support you through the rest of them. And I thought, ‘This is how I’m going to raise money for my mom.’ I had told her on her death bed that I was going to do something for her, raise money somehow to fight cancer, and here was my opportunity.”

And so he was off, running 10 or more marathons a year, flying to different states on the weekends and coming back in time to teach class on Monday morning. He finished all 50 states in less than five years, raising $62,000 for cancer research along the way. “It never mattered what my time was,” he says, laughing. “All that mattered was that I was active and outside and I was always doing something that affected other people in a positive way. It was also really good for my depression. It’s probably the best anti-depressant that you could ever come up with.”

Soon, Peter was looking for a new challenge. He had run over 100 marathons at this point and had finished all of them. “I was really determined to find something that would punch back, you know? I started trying these 50-mile races and did that. Then I thought, maybe a 100-mile race, so I did that and that went well. Then I got invited to the Tahoe 200, a 200-mile circumnavigation of Lake Tahoe which took me 86 hours, but I finished that, too. And then I’m thinking, ‘Okay, that’s 200 miles. What’s next?’”

.     .     .

At that point, it was only a matter of time before Peter found the Iditarod Trail Invitational. “I eventually heard about this 1000-mile race in Alaska where you pull all your gear behind you, and I was like, ‘What!?’ I wrote the ITI race director—like you’d write your local race director to see if you can sign up for the local 10k. But this was upper echelon, the who’s who of adventurers. I knew I was a little bit out of my league, but I said, ‘Hey, you’ve gotta have me up there because I’ve done all these other races and I’ve finished all of them.’”

Peter with 2018 Iditarod sled dog race champion Joar Leifseth Ulsom

Peter with 2018 Iditarod sled dog race champion Joar Leifseth Ulsom.

Due to the danger of the course, the ITI 1000 organizers screen their participants very carefully. And suddenly, all of Peter’s marathon and ultra-marathon experience didn’t look quite as impressive. “The funny thing about it is that they looked at my experience like, ‘Oh, you think that’s enough for you to come up to Alaska to run the Iditarod? All these little city marathons you’ve run with the aid stations and the people cheering for you and the shower waiting for you when you get done?’ It made me realize that this was a whole other thing that I was getting myself into.”

As a prerequisite for participating in the ITI 1000, competitors must first complete the ITI 350, a shorter event in the same conditions. In February of 2014, Peter Ripmaster headed north to compete in his first Iditarod. “A lot of times in my life I’ve felt like I wasted a lot of opportunities,” he says wistfully. “I truly feel like if I had stuck with baseball I would be playing major league baseball. I could have done a lot of things, but there I was at this middle-age point and those opportunities were gone. I wasn’t going to be the guy in the Disney movie that goes and tries out at age 36. I needed to find something that was a thing for me. And I saw this race as being the cornerstone of my athletic life. I wasn’t able to play in the World Series or catch a touchdown pass in the Super Bowl because I had made other decisions. But this was bigger than those would have ever been to me.”

The match between Peter and the Iditarod was a unique convergence. Yes, the course was the logical extension of the ultramarathons he’d been competing in, but it went beyond that. “I was a little kid reading Balto stories and reading Jack London,” he says, smiling. “And after I lost my mom, I moved up to Alaska and ran sled dogs for a couple of years. So I had been up there before. You know, no one will ever be able to know how comfortable I am in the wilderness, way out there with nobody else around. That’s where I find my strength. That’s where I feel the most comfortable in a lot of ways. So the Iditarod didn’t sound crazy to me. It was a natural progression.”

But Peter didn’t experience immediate success at the Iditarod. “I went up that first year and absolutely got my butt handed to me,” he says, laughing. “I finished in last place. But I was learning. The next year I finished third in the 350 and felt ready to go for the 1000.”

Peter Ripmaster wearing anti-frostbite tape on the Iditarod Trail

Anti-frostbite tape is essential on the Iditarod Trail.

In 2016, Peter was 200 miles into the ITI 1000 when disaster struck. While crossing a frozen river, the ice broke beneath him and suddenly he was plunged into the freezing arctic water. He managed to scramble to the shore, and he was determined not to quit. “I went 300 more miles after I fell through the ice. I was thinking, ‘I got through it. I’m gonna dry my gear. Nothing’s hurt and I can keep going.’ But mentally I was spent. I got to the Yukon River, which is the halfway point, and I knew I didn’t have what it takes to go another 500 miles. That year I just said, ‘I’m safe. I want to get home to my girls.’ So I quit. And, in case you can’t tell, with someone like me, quitting is the worst thing in the world, going back home and having to wait another year before you go up to try and redeem yourself.”

But Peter’s second attempt at the ITI 1000 also ended in disappointment. Temperatures plunged to 60 degrees below zero and only four of the 20 competitors who had started the race made it to the 350-mile checkpoint, and at that point, the remaining racers all decided to pack it in. “I had friends almost lose fingers and toes that year from frostbite, so it was a really challenging year,” he says. “But at the same time, I made it through okay. I took care of myself. Should I have tried to make it all the way? And then, after we quit, we saw that the weather broke and was beautiful. And all I can think is, ‘I made a terrible mistake.’” Yet again, he would have to wait until next year.

Peter came into the 2018 race determined to finish. “I was telling myself, ‘Now you’re gonna go back this year, and you’re going to finish this thing. You might fall through the river and have to crawl out. And you might deal with minus 60 on the trail, and you’re going to get through it and get to the next checkpoint and regroup and keep going.’ The only way I was going to quit was with a bone showing—if I broke my leg, I wasn’t going to drag it for 400 miles. But I knew that the only thing that was going to stop me was something really, really bad physically happening. Otherwise, I knew I had what it takes to get through it.”

There were no disasters in 2018, no falls through the ice, no prohibitive temperatures. There was just the slow, everyday grind. “There wasn’t any one moment I remember being the most difficult,” Peter says. “It was many moments, where it would be three in the morning and be minus 25. You have just climbed up a huge mountain and down a huge mountain and now you’re at the base of another mountain. And you look up that mountain and you look at the route that you’re supposed to take and you think, ‘I don’t think I can do this.’ There were times when I would cry, tears just exploding out of myself, wanting to press the emergency button on my SAT phone and just be done. But then something way down deep inside you says, ‘Nope, this is all part of it, and you have to get up this mountain if you’re gonna get to Nome.’ I got into this mode where all I was worried about was today. If you had asked me how far I had come on the overall route I wouldn’t have known. If you had asked me how much farther I had to go I wouldn’t have known. Each day I had a goal and that daily goal was my everything.”

Then came the call that leader Tim Hewitt had dropped out of the race, the final stretch battling Giardia and dehydration, collapsing at the finish line without any fanfare, the flight home, the reunion with his wife and two daughters. “I do wish that my parents were alive to see, to see what their boy…” he begins to tear up. “But they aren’t, and that’s okay with me. My wife and girls—they’re the ones I care about congratulating me. People interviewing me and stuff, that doesn’t matter. I am still the exact same person.”

"There were times when I would cry, tears just exploding out of myself, wanting to press the emergency button on my SAT phone and just be done."

.     .     .

The endurance that Peter exhibits out on the trail isn’t just his own. “Someone asked me, ‘How is it to be out on the Iditarod trail 30 miles from anyone else? How does it feel to be that alone out there?’ And I tell them that I wouldn’t know. I don’t know because I have never once felt alone out there. Some of my most intense spiritual moments have been out in the middle of nowhere, where I am literally talking to God. I’m having conversations with Him because He’s right there with me.”

Even in the midst of some of his most difficult moments, Peter feels that God has been with him. “When I got through that ice incident, I felt Him with me. If it was my time, He would have found a way for me to go under the water and not be able to get out and that’s that. But I crawled out and I was like, ‘Okay, here I am, God.’ I felt God so many times on the trail and it’s beautiful.”

Peter’s faith in God is something he first began to cultivate when he came to Montreat College as a 27-year-old freshman in 2003. He had never heard of Montreat, but he was looking for a smaller school with a Teacher Education program, and his wife’s former guidance counselor recommended Montreat College. “I really hit it off with Dr. Ward in the Elementary Education Department,” he says. “I had lost my mom at that point and my story resonated with her. She said, ‘You really need to come here. You were meant to come here. We really want you here.’ And so I came.”

“But I wasn’t a Christian,” he continues. “I would take New Testament classes and think, ‘Who is Matthew? And Mark and Luke? Who are these people?’ Everyone else in class would be answering questions and talking about all the understanding they have, but it was a new story to me. I was really intrigued by it, and after a while it just resonated with me that this is who I am. This is exactly how I feel. I can’t do it by myself down here. I had lost both parents, and I was just kind of fumbling through. I hadn’t had kids yet so I was just kind of selfish, but I knew there had to be more. And the teachers were great. I would go up and say ‘Hey, I don’t really have an understanding of this. I want to learn, but I need some more help.’ We’d go out for lunch and I’d get to know them, and they really helped me with the foundations of my faith. Without Montreat, I’m not sure that I’d be sitting here with the faith that I have.”

Peter’s faith has influenced his definition of endurance. “I don’t think of endurance as always going further and further and further. Endurance to me is confronting things, having things happen to you that would usually make most people quit, and finding a way to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Endurance is holding your mom’s hand when she passes away, or getting a phone call telling you that your dad has driven off a cliff. Those were more formational for me than the Iditarod experiences and the marathon experiences combined, because those things taught me to have the courage to keep going, especially with my faith.”

Is there another Iditarod in Peter Ripmaster’s future? “This was my last time going to Nome on foot without a doubt, because that is miserable,” he insists. “Nome was my goal, so for me to finish and win—finish and win!—there is nothing that tops what I just did. So I look at it as kind of the end to a long, long chapter in my life. I still want to get my fix, so I might do shorter races. But I miss my girls too much to be gone from them for a month again.”

Peter is ready for the next chapter in his life. “I want to share my story via public speaking,” he says. “I love sharing my story. I love when people come up to me after a talk and say, ‘I appreciate you talking about depression,’ or ‘I lost my mother, and your talk really connected with me.’ I want to be someone who connects people and inspires people, especially people who feel like they are too far past or too far gone from their dreams. When they’re thinking, ‘I can’t.’ I can say, ‘Yes, you can.’” ■

For more information about Peter Ripmaster, visit: peteripmaster.com.

Adam Caress is the director of communications for Montreat College.

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