Adventurer of the Year
Pete Ripmaster (Asheville, N.C.)
In 2018, Pete Ripmaster won the Iditarod Trail Invitational on foot. Pulling a 40-pound sled behind him, Ripmaster covered 1,000 miles in 26 days, 13 hours, and 44 minutes. This was his third attempt to finish one of the toughest ultra-marathons on the planet.
“Winning the Iditarod will always be one of the coolest things that’s ever happened in my life, but I say with resolve that finishing was the most important thing to me after all these years and years of going back and getting close,” Ripmaster said. “I will never be able to explain the emotions. It wasn’t just all these great feelings, it was all those failures and all those times that I’ve made mistakes and all those times I had to clap for other people.”
Growing up, Ripmaster immersed himself in adventure books about mushers,
dreaming of running his own team of dogs in the Iditarod one day.
In 2001, a year after his mother died from cancer, Ripmaster moved to Alaska to train as a musher. It wasn’t long before he started to question his decision.
“I just found it overwhelming taking care of that many dogs and that many moving parts,” he said. “I’m just one of those people who can barely take care of themselves. So for me to have 16 beating hearts that were all needing my attention, it was too much for the way I’m wired.”
Knowing he wasn’t cut out for that kind of work, he left Alaska. “I moved back to the lower 48 and kind of decided that probably wasn’t going to be in the cards for me to do in my life, although I thought it was a huge dream of mine,” Ripmaster said. “I kind of gave up on that dream for a while.”
Fast forward a few years, Ripmaster started running marathons to raise money in memory of his mother. Over four and a half years, he completed a marathon in all 50 states and raised $62,000.
By the time he finished the fiftieth race, he found the marathons weren’t challenging enough. So he moved on to ultra marathons. It was then he learned about the Iditarod Trail Invitational.
From Anchorage to Nome, the race follows the famous dog sled trail over the difficult Alaskan terrain. Racers set off a week before the dogs, choosing between distances of 150 miles, 350 miles, and the full 1,000 miles.
Only a handful of participants are invited to compete each year on bikes, skis, and foot. Even fewer actually make it to the finish line. Since 2000, only 17 people have completed the full 1,000-mile race on foot.
The race directors make sure the participants know what they are getting themselves into before issuing invitations.
To gain the attention of the selection committee, Ripmaster said he wrote “the cheesiest and impassioned letter… it is so bad. It’s so romantic about how I was born to come up and do this race.” However cheesy it was, it worked. In 2014, he had his invitation to compete in the 350-mile race.
“I was in over my head when they invited me up,” Ripmaster said. He bought a fancy GPS to help him navigate but didn’t actually know how to use it. By the first night of the race, he was already 13 miles off course and had no idea how to get back to the trail.
“I was at a place that year where I was like should I just really be trying to find my way back to the start to fly my ass back to North Carolina?” Ripmaster said.
After he made it back onto the trail, things didn’t get much better.
“I blistered my feet from toe to heel, both feet, the second day,” Ripmaster said. “My snowshoes were so tight that it pushed all the spike pins through my insoles and into the bottom of my feet. I was walking on my heels for 300 miles because that was the only relief I had to not put pressure on my feet.”
He came in last that year, a full two days behind the previous finisher. “I brought 92 pounds of stuff in my sled,” Ripmaster said. “The guy that won that year, his sled weighed 16 pounds. They say you bring all of your insecurities with you your first year on the trail. It was an education for me.”
He took what he learned and applied it to his training. Ripmaster improved exponentially the next year, taking third place in the 350-mile foot category. He decided to take the next step and go for the full 1,000 miles in 2016.
Once again, things did not go exactly how Ripmaster planned. He came across the Tatina River about 197 miles into the race, considered by many to be one of the most dangerous stretches of the entire trail. Halfway across the river, the ice disappeared from under him.
“Next thing I knew, I was underwater. I had fallen in fully,” Ripmaster said. “I had gotten one last breath of air before I went under. And then I surfaced and there was all kinds of adrenaline going on. I started trying to swim out but every time I’d try to get out, I would fracture that ice and be back right where I was.”
Hypothermic, he finally pulled himself out of the water and made it another 300 miles before calling it quits.
“It was a close call and a near-death experience,” he said. “It made me question everything, especially since I am a husband and a father.”
But there was something about the trail that kept pulling at him.
In 2017, temperatures dipped to below -60 degrees on the trail. No one, including Ripmaster, made it more than 350 miles on foot that year.
“You’re staying warm while you’re running. It’s the second you stop that you find how cold it is,” he said. “There’s been a handful of times I’ve been on the trail when I’ve known that if I stop and try to sleep in the weather that I’m in, there’s a darn good chance I don’t wake up.”
Once again, Ripmaster returned home to North Carolina without accomplishing his goal.
But in his third attempt at 1,000-miles, 2018 would prove to be his year. Six competitors started the race on foot, only two would finish.
As he neared the end of the race on his way to winning, Ripmaster thought back to those stories that first set him on this long and humbling journey.
“My favorite part about all these Iditarod stories was when all these mushers get to this place about 990 miles into the race where they see the lights of Nome for the first time,” Ripmaster said. “They talk about how they feel about this. Some have said they wanted to turn back toward the trail because they had gotten to such a beautiful place in their mind. They’ve been really efficient with their gear and they’re confident with what they’re doing. And now, here it is, that this is going to end.”
Ripmaster pictured the emotional response he thought he would have finally making it across that finish line on his third attempt. But it was nothing like what he thought it would be.
“Honestly, I had nothing in me,” he said. “I had no emotion, I was so dead on my feet. If I cried, tears wouldn’t come out. It was this epic feeling of just like I couldn’t have given anything more to the race this year.”
He dropped 50 pounds during the three and a half weeks it took him to finish. But after years of dreaming and training and learning from his mistakes, Ripmaster left it all out on the trail.
Jo-Beth Stamm (Fayetteville, W. Va.)
Rick Dejarnette (Richmond, Va.)