What Pete Ripmaster remembers most aboutthe moment that irrevocably changed his life was the loneliness.
It was 2014, and the Asheville-based runner was in the vast Alaskan wilderness, somewhere between Knik and McGrath. Days prior, he had set out to complete the Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI) 350, a grueling marathon in which participants must endure sub-zero temperatures, gale-force winds, and waist-deep snow as they navigate the historic Iditarod Trail.
Ripmaster knew finishing the ITI 350 was not optional. He had to finish to be eligible for the ITI 1000—one of the toughest winter footraces on the planet.
And yet, as he stared out into the blinding white expanse before him, all he could think about was his isolation. It sank into the marrow of his bones like a disease, feasting on scraps of ambition and will. He was left wondering, “How can I move forward when I feel so alone?”
That’s when a snowy owl appeared. Silently, the bird flew to the crown of a tree and looked down at Ripmaster, its feathers the color of milk. For a few minutes, maybe more—Ripmaster stared back into the owl’s piercing, titanium-yellow eyes and was overwhelmed with a wave of emotion.
He knew then that the creature was not a bird. It was his late mother, sent to soften the loneliness of his journey ahead.
“Her spirit had come to remind me that I wasn’t alone,” says Ripmaster. “The experience changed my whole outlook. All of a sudden, I was an entirely different person.”
Enlivened by the presence of his mother, Ripmaster went on to finish the race, placing last. The next year, he returned to place third. Then, after two failed attempts, the runner emerged as the champion of the ITI 1000, finishing the course in 26 days, 13 hours, and 44 minutes.
Now, the 46-year-old has set his sights on a different challenge: being the first person to run 100 miles in all 50 states. Through what he calls the Owl Run Hundreds project, Ripmaster hopes to raise $50,000 for the Owl Research Institute, a Montana-based nonprofit that works to protect vulnerable species like the bird he saw in Alaska.
“That snowy owl really resonated with me,” the runner says. “Even after I finished the race in 2014, that story stayed in the back of my head for a long time.”
Owl Run Hundreds will be Ripmaster’s second major philanthropic endeavor. From 2008 to 2013, he completed a marathon in every state, raising more than $60,000 for breast cancer research. The project was a way of honoring his mother, Hillary, who died of breast cancer in 2000.
Hillary had always been the “family glue,” says Ripmaster. She was smart, honest, and even-keeled—a counterbalance to Ripmaster’s father, Chris, who struggled with alcoholism and depression.
“My mom was my sounding board for life,” says Ripmaster. “I opened up to her about everything.”
When Hillary was diagnosed in 1996, Ripmaster was floundering. A year prior, he had left home for the University of Kansas, where he began rushing a fraternity. But after two semesters, he left to follow Widespread Panic around in his truck.
“I was living a hollow existence,” Ripmaster remembers. “I was pushing the boundaries, going down paths that would either lead me to jail or death.”
Hillary worried for her son. “She thought I was following in the footsteps of my dad,” says Ripmaster. “I was so immature, entitled, and selfish. I felt like the world revolved around me.”
Two days before Hillary’s death, Ripmaster promised her he would straighten up and make something of himself. He has spent the past 22 years trying to keep that promise.
In 2007, after a few collective miles of trail running, Ripmaster decided he would run a marathon. It was all on a whim. He had his wife, Kristen, drop him off at the Blue Ridge Parkway and he just started running toward Mount Pisgah. After 13.1 miles, he turned around.
“That’s what got me started,” he says.
Since then, Ripmaster has made running his life’s purpose. Already, he has tackled more than 20 states as part of his Owl Run Hundreds project, raising nearly $30,000.
Some of his runs have been official races, like the Pinhoti 100 in Alabama. But most have been what Ripmaster calls a “homemade hundred.” In South Dakota, for instance, Ripmaster started and finished his 100-mile slog at Saloon No. 10 in Deadwood, the place where vigilante Wild Bill Hickok was murdered in 1876.
In other states, he has simply repeated a 10-mile loop 10 times. It’s not all that exciting, Ripmaster admits. But with thousands of miles under his belt, the runner knows he has already impressed the people who matter most: his wife, his two daughters, and his mother.
“I know my mom would be amazed,” Ripmaster says, his voice cracking with emotion. “She would be proud that I found something that’s not easy—something that fights back.”
To learn more about Pete Ripmaster’s Owl Run Hundreds project, visit peteripmaster.com. You can also follow him on Instagram @owl_run_hundreds.
When Ripmaster isn’t traipsing through the Alaskan wilderness, he’s running near his Asheville home. Here are three of his favorite winter trails in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
#1 Kitsuma and Point
Length: 9.7 miles round-trip
If you want to gobble up some vertical gains, Kitsuma and Point Lookout Loop in Old Fort is a tasty option. Running along I-40, the trail greets you with 14 thigh-busting switchbacks and then a second steep, but brief, climb. From there, you’ll follow a ridge before descending to the Old Fort Picnic Area.
Length: 67 miles point-to-point
Few runs compare to the epicness of Pitchell: a 67-mile route following the Mountains-to-Sea Trail from Mount Pisgah to Mount Mitchell. Dishing up 16,000 feet of elevation gain and a hearty dose of gnar, “Pitchell is just awesome,” says Ripmaster.
#3 Warren Wilson College Trail System
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Length: 25 miles total
Believe it or not, Ripmaster isn’t one for brutal training plans. “All too often, runners show up to the starting line already tired,” he says. With this in mind, Ripmaster frequents Warren Wilson College, where he can piecemeal a mellow afternoon run using the school’s 25-mile trail system.
Cover Photo: Ripmaster trains in the mountains near his Asheville home. All photos courtesy of Ripmaster